Published by EH.Net (March 2020)

Niv Horesh and Kean Fan Lim, An East Asian Challenge to Western Neoliberalism: Critical Perspectives on the ‘China Model.’ New York: Routledge, 2018. viii + 171 pp. $165 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-138-92674-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Thomas G. Rawski, Department of Economics, University of Pittsburgh.

China’s remarkable growth spurt, now somewhat diminished as it navigates its fifth decade, has added a new chapter to long-standing international debates about the efficacy of industrial policy. A rising school of Chinese analysts, many with extensive experience in Western societies, has extended the scope of discussion by arguing that a “China model” may deliver better outcomes than the long-standing ideal of democratic politics and laissez-faire economics.

Niv Horesh and Kean Fan Lim cite “deep-seated suspicion” on the part of elites not just in China, but across East Asia, in the capacity “of free markets, or representative democracy … to pre-empt resource misallocation” (p. 3). They set out to “examine the historical framing of the China Model discourse, compared with perceptions of the broader East Asian and Western trajectories” (p. 2). Their broader objective is to investigate the extent to which postwar economic advances in East Asia, especially post-Mao China, have undermined worldwide adherence to the ideal of open markets and democratic politics.

The authors are well qualified to address these matters. Horesh, a professorial fellow at Durham University, has written several books and numerous articles; his work centers on Chinese economic history, but ranges widely across both time and space. Lim, an economic geographer based at Newcastle University, has produced a book and numerous articles focused mainly on contemporary China, but also encompassing regional and global issues.

Aside from brief introductory and concluding chapters, the book contains five loosely connected essays, three of which offer revised versions of previously published articles.

Chapter 2, “Restoring Tang Splendour?” offers a rambling account of “China’s new aspirational narrative of global leadership” (p. 12). The authors highlight the rhetorical U-turn that has transformed Confucius and his doctrines from Mao-era degradation into symbols of cultural continuity and historical exceptionalism.

Chapter 3, “CPC [Communist Party of China] Elite Perception of the US since the Early 1990s,” analyzes the writings of prominent “America watchers,” among them Wang Huning, a former college professor who has risen to the topmost echelon of China’s party hierarchy. The authors show how “a variety of voices compete for influence” within foreign policy circles, offering “divergent perceptions of the US” (p. 52), with younger, better-informed writers often adopting more critical perspectives on U.S. society than their older colleagues.

Chapter 4, “The Singapore Fever’ in China,” analyzes the People’s Republic’s “second overt attempt [following engagement with the Soviet Union during the 1950s] to learn from a particular country” (p. 59), which emerged from Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 visit to the island city-state. Engagement was intense: a 2014 essay noted that “More than 50,000 [Chinese] government officials” had received training in Singapore over the prior 20 years (p. 66). Nonetheless, Suzhou’s China-Singapore Industrial Park, the flagship bilateral cooperation project, faded into obscurity. This and other failed joint efforts reflect the complexity of China’s political economy, in which high-level endorsement of policy innovation may not suffice to ensure ground-level implementation unless reform initiatives are “aligned to local officials’ agendas” (p. 75).

Chapter 5, “The Chongqing vs. Guangdong ‘Models’ of Economic Development,” describes the very different strategies and policy mixes used to promote rapid growth in Guangdong, China’s most market-oriented region, and in Chongqing, the former wartime capital recognized as a province-level municipality (parallel to Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai) in 1997, which relies on state-owned enterprises to drive development. The comparison highlights the difficulty of imposing uniform policies on a sprawling economy with wide regional variations in geography, incomes and production structures — features emphasized in recent historical work by National University of Singapore economist Tuan-hwee Sng.

Chapter 6, “China: An East Asian Alternative to Neoliberalism,” aims to consolidate and unify material from the earlier chapters. Here the authors’ failure to attach exact meaning to either “neoliberalism” or the “East Asian alternative,” coupled with their prolix style and propensity to digress, blurs their response to the sweeping issues with which they engage.

Despite these shortcomings, the authors’ wide knowledge of past and present East Asian economies and their fluent injection of historical as well as Japanese, Korean and Singaporean sidelights makes this volume a welcome addition to a literature that often portrays China’s contemporary economy as an autonomous entity whose past originates no earlier than 1949 or even 1976.

Thomas G. Rawski is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of Pittsburgh. Recent publications include Loren Brandt and Thomas G. Rawski, editors, Policy, Regulation and Innovation in China’s Electricity and Telecom Industries (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

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