'Orientalism', the Evolution of a Concept

In his much visited web site devoted to the Asian financial panic, economist Paul Krugman has said, "Anyone who claims to fully understand the economic disaster that has overtaken Asia proves, by that very certainty, that he does not know what he is talking about." And he adds the warning, "Nobody really knows what comes next."

Even if it is too early to be certain about the causes and the course of these momentous events, it is time enough to reconsider some of the things that were being said about the Asian economies when they were still flourishing. More particularly, it is already profitable to reconsider things that were being said, in the light of Asia's booming prosperity before July 1997, about Western economies, politics, values, and sciences. It is not just that so many people extrapolated adventurously and predicted that Asia, led by China or Japan, would soon eclipse the economies of America and Europe; people extrapolate wildly all the time. It is that so many drew the conclusions that Asia's prosperity disproved economic science, impugned Western democracy, cast doubt on rational policy-making and even on reason itself, and turned probity into a quaint curio.

These bold conclusions might have been drawn less readily if the ground had not been prepared by the academic doctrine, taught in all our universities for twenty years, that the West has always been wrong about Asia anyway. Its supposed knowledge of Asia, this doctrine maintained, was trumpery called "Orientalism", which was not, as it pretended, a body of objective learning but (in the words of Edward Said) "the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient . . . a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient. . . . European culture was able to manage--and even produce--the Orient."

Naturally, if our knowledge of Asia was really only a partisan delusion, a way of demeaning Asians' affairs to the level of a Chu Chin Chow pantomime, then we must fail to understand what was happening in their economies. If Asians were prospering mightily using methods all of their own devising, while Westerners wallowed in smug superiority, then it was inevitable that our students of Asia would find much to criticize at home. Even if they held no brief for Asian values, they were bound to take a swipe at Western values. They laid on with a will, as a few select quotations will illustrate.

Thus James Fallows in Looking at the Sun: The Rise of the New East Asian Economic and Political System (1994) drew from the study of Asia the moral, "Western societies should concentrate on whether and how to remake themselves." They should start by remaking economic science: "The powers of 'quantitative analysis', as used by modern economists and managers, are enormous but nonetheless limited. . . . The economists of the 1990s cannot honestly fit the rise of Japan, Korea and Taiwan into their models of how economies should grow. . . . Economics gives us clear logical 'models' that are supposed to explain dealings among nations. History gives us different, more complicated lessons, which are more useful for understanding what is going on in Asia now."

What would replace Western economics was "a new paradigm", said John Naisbitt in Megatrends Asia: The Eight Asian Megatrends that are Reshaping Our World (1996). It consisted of the network of networks set up by the overseas Chinese, which constituted "the third largest economy in the world." Speaking of the businessmen who were later driven into exile from Indonesia after their homes were burned down, their wives and daughters raped, and their supermarkets looted, Naisbitt said a knowledge of their methods would be more useful than economic theory. Sterling Seagrove emphatically agreed in his Lords of the Rim: The Invisible Empire of the Overseas Chinese (1995). It was "the Chinese, their management savvy and their international connections" that explained how the armed forces of Thailand and Indonesia had become "fabulously rich."

Such arrangements, which were baptized "network capitalism", were not peculiarly Chinese. R. Taggart Murphy, in The Weight of the Yen (1996), said they were also the basis of the Japanese economy: "What really matters for a Japanese company are the strength and credibility of its network. Its 'capital' consists less of yen than the number and quality of its relationships." Jim Rohwer's Asia Rising: How History's Biggest Middle Class Will Change the World (1996) averred that Asia's economies would dominate the world, but it was one of the few books that had reservations about Asia's "failure to move beyond the informal and the personal in its way of doing business." That was a discreet reference to what is nowadays openly deplored as the nepotism and crony capitalism that characterize the "networks."

Having dumped economic science for the study of the networks, many Asian specialists went on to express doubts about Western political systems. Eamonn Fingleton in Blindside: Why Japan is Still on Track to Overtake the U.S. by 2000 (1995) found the source of America's supposed inferiority in Congress and the U.S. bureaucracy, along with excessive American individualism. "In truth, the United States is, unbeknownst to itself, in the throes of a constitutional crisis", he said. He had only praise for Japanese institutions that are, for their part, now in the throes of prosecutions, forced resignations, and suicides.