East Asian Politics Research Paper

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‘East Asia’ in this research paper refers to the northeastern section of Asia, known also as ‘Northeast Asia,’ that embraced the five polities of China, Taiwan, North Korea, South Korea, and Japan in early 2000. For the sake of economy, this research paper discusses the study of politics in Taiwan as part of Chinese studies and that of North Korea as part of Korean studies. ‘Politics’ is a category of human activities concerned with the determination and enforcement of rules governing the assignment of rights and duties to variously classified members of an organization, such as the state. The paper discusses, on the basis of a survey of scholarly works published mainly in English, how specialists studied post-World War II politics in the abovementioned five countries.

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1. The Evolution Of The Studies Of Politics During The Cold War Period (1945–89)

Several patterns and tendencies, four of which in particular stand out, have characterized the studies of politics in postwar East Asia. First, they have been led by landmark political events and developments, especially in Chinese and Korean studies. Second, American scholars and their scholarship have dominated the field. Third, the majority of the studies have been descriptive rather than theoretical. Moreover, even the few theoretical works have tended to place greater emphasis upon empirical accuracy than theoretical relevance. Fourth and last, studies of politics in one East Asian country have tended to be undertaken without much attention to studies of politics in another country, especially until the mid-1980s. These characteristics are particularly conspicuous in the works published during the Cold War period.

1.1 The Evolution Of Chinese Studies

For a decade following the end of World War II, there were few social scientists anywhere in the world who were seriously interested in, much less knowledgeable about, modern Chinese politics. In Europe, scholarly interest in China was limited largely to a few British and Dutch philologists and historians, commonly known as ‘sinologists.’ Chinese politics was a serious concern only to a very small number of social scientists in Japan and the United States.

Japan did have a tradition of social science work on aspects of contemporary Chinese society, including surveys of rural society and economy dating back to the 1930s. The bulk of such work was, however, economic studies by economists in government and academia with only limited and indirect relevance to the study of contemporary Chinese politics. Even in the United States, the amount of scholarly work produced in the early postwar years was quite meager and owed mainly to sinologists and historians, such as John King Fairbank and Karl A. Wittfogel.

Interest in and research on Chinese politics grew rapidly in the subsequent years, propelled by a series of headline-catching events and developments: the unfolding Cold War (1947–89), the Cultural Revolution (1966–9), the emergence and evolution of the Reform regime (1978–present), and the Tiananmen Square incident (1989). These events, especially the Cold War and the Cultural Revolution, gave rise to as highly ideological, and often explicitly partisan, discussions of Chinese politics among social scientists as among policymakers.

In the United States, the Cold War inspired studies with ideological overtones of the doctrinal basis, organizational forms, and political and economic impacts of Chinese communism under Mao Zedong’s leadership, often in comparison to Soviet communism. In Japan, ideological concerns divided nearly all China specialists into friends and enemies of the Maoist regime and its policies. In Europe, where the traditional sinological approach was stronger, and in Australia where there was no tradition of East Asian studies, ideological divisions among China specialists were neither as evident nor as serious.

The Cultural Revolution, however, introduced as sharp, or even sharper, ideological divisions among European, especially French, China specialists as among their American and Japanese counterparts. A good portion of American scholarship on the Revolution and related topics was, in fact, deliberately nonideological and analytical. Some works applied concepts associated with modernization theory or elite and faction politics models. These works helped to lay conceptual foundations for future studies of Chinese politics to build on.

The reforms undertaken by the Deng Xiaoping regime in the late 1970s and 1980s led to the ‘opening’ of China to investigations by foreign scholars, encouraging less ideological and more analytical studies of Chinese politics. This was true for works by European as well as American and Japanese scholars. Changes in American scholarship were particularly notable. First, the range of topics chosen for investigation vastly expanded. Elite and faction politics continued to attract scholars’ attention, and so did work on political culture in the tradition of modernization theory (e.g., Pye and Pye 1985). Such studies, however, were no longer the mainstream of American scholars’ work on Chinese politics but were increasingly overshadowed by works on the Chinese bureaucracy and policy making (e.g., Lieberthal and Oksenberg 1988), local politics, rural industrialization, special economic zones, and the military.

Some scholars borrowed terms and concepts from works on Eastern European politics of the period, such as civil society, public sphere, and the state. This practice paved the way for more explicit and systematic comparisons of political and economic reforms in China and Eastern Europe to be undertaken in the 1990s. Also worth noting are the several revisionist studies of Chinese–United States relations in the early phases of the Cold War that relied on newly available archival and biographical sources.

Many of the changes in American scholars’ work noted above were replicated in those of Japanese scholars. Above all, the heavily ideological and partisan overtones that had characterized much of the work done in the heyday of the Cold War dissipated, as more and more Japanese social scientists began not only to visit China for fieldwork but also to collaborate with Chinese scholars.

Even more dramatic and significant was the change in the way Chinese intellectuals thought about and discussed Chinese politics. This was an integral part of the sweeping transformation of the intellectual environment of Chinese society, especially in Beijing and other large cities. Pro-reform, pro-democracy scholars, writers, and journalists set up clubs, salons, and seminars some of which began to publish journals and books, such as the Journal of Dialectics of Nature and Towards the Future book series, both edited by Jin Guantao and his colleagues (Gu 1999). The book series featured translations of Western social science works by, for example, Max Weber, Robert Merton, Kenneth Arrow, Cyril Black, and Alex Inkeles. The activities of these groups presaged the emergence in the 1990s of a new generation of Chinese students of Chinese politics who were mentored in Western-style social science theories and methodologies.

The process of the democratic transition in China, however, was abruptly interrupted in 1989 by the Tiananmen Square incident. The sensational event generated a spate of studies of the nature and problems of the democratic polity and civil society that had emerged under the Reform regime. In the United States alone, some two dozen books on the subject were published in the decade immediately following the event.

The glare on goings-on in mainland China had left ‘the other China,’ or Taiwan, nearly totally in the shadow throughout the Cold War period. The only notable exception was a modest amount of work on Taiwan’s ‘economic miracle.’ It was not until the mid- 1990s that serious scholarly work on the reform and democratization of Taiwan (which lagged behind mainland China studies by nearly a decade) began to appear in print in the United States and elsewhere.

1.2 The Evolution Of Korean Studies

Having been under Japanese colonial rule since 1910, Korea had no viable native academic community at the end of World War II. Moreover, the peninsular state was immediately divided into antagonistic halves amidst the rising tide of the Cold War, each governed by a highly authoritarian government. While a Korean Political Science Association and a Korean Association of International Studies were founded in South Korea in the mid-1950s, it was mainly United Statesbased scholars who pioneered studies of South Korean politics until the early 1980s.

Most of these scholars focused on topics related to one of three broad subjects: the Korean War and South Korea–United States relations, the authoritarian regime and the democratization movement, and the rapid development of the South Korean economy. The first type of work is represented by Cumings’ two-volume study (1981, 1990) of the origins of the war, the second type by Henderson’s work (1968), and the third type by Amsden’s (1989).

In the 1980s, studies of Korean politics by Korean scholars began to be published in South Korea. Most were historical and normative accounts of Japanese colonial rule and post-independence politics under military rule. The historical and normative emphasis in the studies of politics in the post-independence period reflected the frequent, and almost wanton, amendments of South Korea’s constitution and electoral laws. Apparently for similar reasons, Marxist and other radical theories, such as dependency theory, were popular among Korean scholars.

Little was done on politics in North Korea, obviously due to the nearly total absence of reliable information on the subject. Suh’s study (1988) of the lifelong leader, Kim Il Sung, was one of the few valiant attempts to understand and explain the politics of the ‘hermit kingdom’ of this period.

1.3 The Evolution Of Japanese Studies

Unlike either China or Korea, Japan entered the post-World War world with a substantial community of social scientists with its origins dating back to the late nineteenth century. The Japanese Political Science Association (JPSA) was founded as early as in 1948. The best known among its early members turned their attention to the causes and consequences of prewar and wartime Japanese ‘fascism.’ Maruyama’s work (1963) exemplifies this line of investigation.

By the mid-1950s, some Japanese political scientists began to study Japanese politics during the Allied Occupation (1945–52) and early post-Occupation periods. The subjects of these studies included the evolution of the Occupation authorities’ policies, the Japanese government bureaucracy, parliamentary and local elections, public opinion, and social movements. The first major fruit of these efforts was a symposium published in 1958 under the title Gendai nihon no seiji katei (Political Processes in Contemporary Japan).

By comparison, studies of Japanese politics in the early postwar period by American and other foreign scholars were more narrowly focused on particular Occupation policies, such as the revision of the Meiji constitution, the purge of war criminals, and the land reform. By the early 1960s, however, the field of Japanese studies had come to be dominated by works based on and espousing modernization theory, as exemplified by the half-dozen edited volumes published by Princeton University Press in the mid-1960s to the early 1970s under the rubric of the theory. From this point onward, American scholars and their works inspired and guided studies of Japanese politics by Japanese scholars.

Research on Japanese voting behavior, for example, relied largely on theories and methods developed by American political scientists, notably by the so-called Michigan school. The Japan Election Studies Association, founded in 1981, inherited and perpetuated this tradition. The dominant influence of American scholarship was also evident in the study of the Japanese bureaucracy and policy making that gained great popularity following the publication of an edited volume on the subject in the United States in the late 1970s (Pempel 1977).

A major landmark in this line of work was the publication of Johnson’s (1982) detailed study of the Japanese industrial and trade policy bureaucracy. This work triggered an international controversy on the nature and role of ‘industrial policy’ and the ‘developmental state,’ and inspired a series of case studies on related subjects. These included works on the relevant experiences of other East Asian countries, looked at deliberately and systematically in comparative perspective, thus giving rise to a new field of ‘East Asian’ studies (e.g., Haggard 1990, Wade 1990).

2. Studies Of East Asian Politics In The First Post-Cold War Decade

The four tendencies or patterns that characterized studies of politics in East Asian countries during the Cold War period generally continued into the last decade of the twentieth century. The descriptive and interpretive emphasis, however, somewhat diminished and gradually began to yield to a more analytical and theoretical concern, consistent with a trend in American political science in general.

2.1 The State Of Chinese Studies

There was a global shift in the study of Chinese politics in the post-Cold War decade from ideological and normative to empirical and theoretical interest and concerns. Foreign scholars now had and availed themselves of opportunities to visit and engage in fieldwork in China. Even Russian scholars began to study and write about aspects of Chinese domestic politics and foreign policy, although much of their work remained historical and philological rather than analytical and theoretical. Nonetheless, American scholars and their work not only continued to dominate the field but to do so more thoroughly than before.

American scholars’ interest in elite and faction politics at the top of the Chinese political hierarchy held up during the 1990s (e.g., Baum 1994). So did their interest in Chinese-style bureaucratic politics that had emerged in the 1980s. The scope of their interest, however, substantially widened in the 1990s. Detailed and systematic investigations began to touch the politics of economic development and industrialization, the environmental crisis, and the military establishment and security policy.

Particularly noteworthy was the rapid growth of a theoretically informed empirical literature on regional and local politics and political economy. In addition to a number of detailed case studies undertaken by independent scholars, collaborative research projects jointly sponsored by Chinese and American organizations began to appear by the early 1990s. The Shandong Field Research Project of the Shandong Academy of Social Sciences and the Committee on Scholarly Communications with China is a good example. The University of Michigan–Peking University project is another.

The use of large-scale surveys to collect sets of data amenable to systematic statistical analysis was another new and significant development in Chinese studies of the 1990s. The Michigan–Peking joint project mentioned above, for example, involved such a survey and generated such a data set (Jennings 1997, Manion 1996). Moreover, Chinese scholars participated increasingly in the design, as well as the implementation, of a survey project and the analysis, as well as the collection, of the data.

More often than not, ‘collaboration’ between American and Chinese scholars was apprenticeship of the latter to the former in practice. It occurred in the context of a rapid increase in the number of Chinese scholars and students at American universities and in that of publications co-authored by ‘senior non-Chinese and junior Chinese scholars’ (Unger 1994, p. 181). By the end of the decade, however, some of these Chinese scholars began to engage in independent research and publish its results in sole-authored works, often in English.

Consistent with one of the four tendencies of East Asian studies in general noted earlier, the reversion of Hong Kong to China in 1997 spawned a spate of works on the event by both Chinese and foreign scholars. Most works predicted a gloomy future for the economy and, especially, politics of the island after the reversion, some based on elaborate theoretical models (e.g., de Mesquita et al. 1996). The reality, however, turned out to be more complex and mysterious than could be predicted by currently available social science models.

Studies of Taiwan politics in the 1990s were also characterized by increasing numbers of native scholars apprenticed to American scholars. Both the mentors and students tended to focus on the marketization of the island’s economy and the democratization of its politics and publish increasingly sophisticated studies of the subjects.

2.2 The State Of Korean Studies

American and other foreign scholars’ interest in the Korean War, democratic reform, and economic development in South Korea continued well into the 1990s. In addition, North–South relations and the prospects of reunification became subjects of serious academic interest following Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994 and, especially, the election of Kim Daejung as the South Korean president in 1997.

By far the most remarkable development in Korean studies in the 1990s was, however, the emergence of a substantial number of Korean specialists of Korean politics. Even more than its Chinese counterpart, this new generation of Korean political scientists was under the powerful influence of American political science. A 1995 survey of the Korean Association of International Studies’ 1300 or so members revealed that nearly half had earned their doctoral degree at North American universities, as compared to about one-third who had done so at Korean universities. By the late 1990s, American-trained scholars had come to dominate Korean political science, including the field of Korean politics, not only numerically but also in setting research agendas and defining what was good research. The American influence was especially great in works with a strong theoretical and/or methodological bent.

North Korea remained as closed to and hidden from scholars’ scrutiny even after Kim Jong Ill took over the country’s political leadership as it had been under his father’s iron-fisted rule. There was no genuinely academic research on its politics, or even its economy and society, inside North Korea itself. There was some outside, especially in Japan and the United States, but it remained, as the reviewer of an edited collection of research papers (Suh and Lee 1998) commented, a practice ‘reminiscent of medieval scholasticism or ancient Chinese oracle-bone divining’ (C. K. Armstrong 1999 in The Journal of Asian Studies 58: 224). North Korean politics in the last decade of the twentieth century thus remained as inaccessible as before to scholars either inside or outside the country.

2.3 The State Of Japanese Studies

Research on the Japanese national bureaucracy and policy making that began to attract concentrated academic attention in the 1980s continued to expand in the 1990s. The objects of detailed investigations were no longer limited to industrial policy, as in Johnson’s (1982) study, but expanded to include many others, such as fiscal, construction, telecommunications, health, welfare, science and technology, environment, and defense policies. Attention expanded also to include, in addition to the role of the central and local government, those of labor, the mass media, and ethnic minorities.

Moreover, work by Japanese and foreign scholars became increasingly theory-conscious and methodologically sophisticated. Nearly all such work, however, relied on theories, models, or methods developed by American scholars, such as rational choice, new institutionalism, agency, and path dependence. Among those studying Japanese electoral politics and voting behavior, for example, the use of not only the least squares and maximum likelihood methods but multinominal probit and logit models became increasingly commonplace.

Some American comparative politics scholars with expertise in the field of American or European politics undertook research and published results on one aspect of Japanese politics or another (e.g., Katzenstein 1996). Theoretical and methodological Americanization was thus well advanced even among Japanese political scientists, the overwhelming majority of whom, unlike their South Korean counterparts, not only did not hold a doctoral degree from an American university but, in fact, did not hold one from any university.

2.4 The State Of Comparative Studies Of East Asian Politics

During the 1990s, the economic and political reforms and transitions in China began to be systematically compared to those in Eastern Europe. Hungary in particular was chosen as China’s European counterpart. Some studies attempted also to compare transition processes in Eastern Europe on the one hand and East and Southeast Asia on the other. Yet others compared reforms in mainland China with those in Taiwan and Russia or those in Taiwan and South Korea. One study compared the relationship between mainland China and Taiwan with that between North and South Korea.

Aspects of Japanese politics were often compared to those of American politics. For example, one edited book compared policy processes in the two countries from a rational choice theoretical perspective, while another compared the parallel processes of globalization and decentralization in them. More commonly, however, Japan was subject to multilateral, rather than bilateral, comparisons, especially with other advanced industrial countries. For example, the causes, processes, and consequences of market liberalization and deregulation in Japan were compared in one study with those in the United States and Western European countries and, in another, with those in France, Spain, South Korea, and Mexico. Likewise, Japanese environmental policy, labor politics, and judicial system were compared with those in North America and Western Europe.

Studies of international relations in East Asia became theory and methodology-conscious more slowly than comparative studies of domestic politics. By the late 1990s, however, there had appeared some work that applied a sociological evolutionary model to Chinese foreign policy, a model of linked international–domestic negotiations, known as two-level games, to Japanese–United States trade negotiations, network analysis to Japanese relations with its Asian neighbors, and so on. Some work on security relations among East Asian and, more broadly, among Pacific Rim nations used the international regime model that had gained considerable popularity among American international relations scholars in the mid-1980s.

At the turn of the millennium, the impacts of unexpected events on the study of politics in East Asia did not appear to have diminished or to do so in the foreseeable future. Nor did the pace-setting role of American scholars, especially in theoretical and methodological innovations. On the other hand, the pull of the empirical in studies concerned with the development of empirical theory of politics did seem to have diminished somewhat, while the pull of the theoretical had become somewhat stronger, in large measure as a result of the powerful influence of American political science. There was also growing interest in comparative studies of selected aspects of politics in two or more East Asian countries or those in them and in other areas of the world. These features of the field are likely to persist into the first decade of the new millennium.


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