Illustration: Craig Stephens
Zhengxu Wang
Zhengxu Wang

How Asian societies’ premodern traits explain region’s success stories

  • Asian societies differ from the West in their commitment to academic excellence and social solidarity as well as synergy between state and society
  • A meritocratic system informed by Confucianism and Legalism is highly effective at regulating political order, socioeconomic affairs and interstate relations

Interest in the re-emergence of Asia has grown strong of late. It is important to remember that many elements that are seen as strengths of Asian governments and Asian society have historical origins.

The economic success stories of Japan and the East Asian tigers led scholars to point to the special roles the state played in Asian societies. The purposes and visions of these states appeared to be different from those that are familiar in the West.
Furthermore, Asian states’ competence in promoting economic development and improving people’s living standards in areas such as public health, among others, turned out to be significant. Asian society also appears to be different from Western societies in important ways. The high commitment to academic excellence and social solidarity quickly come to mind.
A strong synergy exists between the state and society, too. The willingness for members of society to work with government in implementing epidemic-fighting measures – such as social distancing and wearing masks, for example – was crucial in several Asian societies’ effective response to the Covid-19 outbreak.


Guangzhou tightens Covid-19 controls as mass tests expose more cases in Chinese city

Guangzhou tightens Covid-19 controls as mass tests expose more cases in Chinese city

Some of these strengths of the Asian state and society have historical origins. The Zhou dynasty was one defining period in Asian history. According to a recent study by sociologist Zhao Dingxin of the University of Chicago and Zhejiang University, some of the most essential characteristics of the Asian state and society were formed during this period.

Two important schools of political thinking made the traditional Asian state possible. Confucianism is an ethic of moral uprightness, social order and individuals’ social responsibilities. It helped to shape the belief that good society, good government and good life are made possible through morality – that is, the moral virtue of societal members, government officials, and the ruler and the ruling elite alike.

This puts strong moral demands on the state, which exists only for the purpose of bringing a better life to the people and caring for them. The “mandate of heaven” comes with the moral requirement to care for the people and will be taken away if the state fails to be upright.

Call it minben-ism – people as the base, or foundation, compared to the state and the ruler. Asian states therefore assume the heavy responsibility to be morally impeccable. It is a kind of Confucian perfectionism, as argued by Hong Kong-based scholar Joseph C.W. Chan.

A statue of Confucius greets visitors to the Confucius Temple in Beijing in May 2019. Photo: AP
Another school, called Legalism, also emerged. This is the school of rational state origination, seeking government effectiveness and efficiency through carefully designed institutions to incentivise and regulate citizens’ behaviour, with harsh enforcement of rules if necessary.

Adopting the institutional building proposals of the Legalist school, the Qin dynasty was able to eliminate all other states on the East Asian mainland by 221BC.

In a perfect world, the two schools should work together. Confucianism requires a benevolent, people-serving state and the people to be good citizens, while Legalism gives practical ways – organisational and institutional – that made it possible to realise these ideals.

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During the Han dynasty, the state that was organised along the Legalist way was integrated with Confucianism as its ideological component. An efficient state organisation acquired a soul, with the latter implanting its minben virtue on the former.

This meritocratic system, which Zhao calls the “Confucian-Legalist state” and Daniel Bell and Wang Pei call “just hierarchy”, proved highly effective at producing political order, managing socioeconomic affairs and regulating interstate relations.

A society of states formed in East Asia. It was rarely a system of military competition and dominance, but rather a kind of ordering according to the virtue of the member states in system, i.e. states competed in their ability to provide good and prosperous life to their people, and the less able units submitted their status to the more able ones.

As noted by University of Southern California academic David Kang, the Asian society of states enjoyed long periods of peace and interstate commercial and cultural exchanges. The five hundred years between the founding of the Ming dynasty in 1368 and the outbreak of the first opium war was such a period. It was a system of peace and trade until it was upset by Western colonial powers.

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This tradition of a competent, benevolent state has played a significant role in modern times. The Japanese developmental state, typified by its Ministry of International Trade and Industry, is a famous example.

The competent governments of South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong also succeeded in driving their economic development in the latter half of the 20th century. For the last 70 years, the Chinese government led by the Communist Party presented another example of this Asian story of strong state and society.

Comparing the last half-century in Asia with the Qin and Han periods, one can see a few shared characteristics. Asian states have taken these characteristics with them in their interactions with other countries around the world. In working with developing countries in other parts of the world, East Asian countries’ development aid or development collaboration model appears different from those of the West.

Asian countries aim to improve people’s welfare through state-led development efforts, such as industrialisation, providing infrastructure, policy coordination and government guidance of the business sector. The Japanese and Korean governments have done this, but of course China’s Belt and Road Initiative is much more eye-catching.

It is therefore essential we try to understand contemporary Asia by going back to its premodern traits. Exploring how Asian societies and states conceptualised and practised important ideas such as political power, good government, peace and harmony, among others, will be highly profitable for the modern world.

Dr Zhengxu Wang is distinguished professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs (SIRPA), Fudan University