Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Chinese Social Policy in a Time of Transition

Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Chinese Social Policy in a Time of Transition

Article excerpt

Chinese Social Policy in a Time of Transition. Edited by Douglas J. Besharov and Karen Baehler. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 314 pp. $74.00 (cloth).

Welfare Through Work: Conservative Ideas, Partisan Dynamics, and Social Protection in Japan. By Mari Miura. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012. 224 pp. $39.95 (cloth).

The Korean State and Social Policy: How South Korea Lifted Itself from Poverty and Dictatorship to Affluence and Democracy. By Stein Ringen, Huck-Ju Kwon, Ilcheong Yi, Taekyoon Kim, and Jooha Lee. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 146 pp. $58.00 (cloth).

What lessons, if any, do the strategies for economic development in Japan and South Korea hold for China? Although differences are stark between the regional, ethnic, and cultural complexity of the continent-sized China and the quasi-homogeneous cultural makeup of the Japanese archipelago and the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, similarities in the state's role in directly encouraging the development of infrastructure and promoting exports certainly invite comparisons. Japan and South Korea pioneered the state-directed approach to development that China has adopted and that has served it so well. The three countries also face the same problem of responding to mounting pressure from a rapidly aging population to address social services and health care. But two kinds of differences in conditions weigh enormously. First, China has to cope with a much heavier pension burden on public finances than its neighbors because of previous commitments inherited from the People's communes and the reliance on state-owned enterprises for key industries. Moreover, the Chinese government can face this issue, and other aspects of social policies, without giving much concern to pressure from their electorates, unlike their counterparts in Japan and South Korea.

As China emerges as the largest economic powerhouse in the global economy, it makes sense to consider the challenges its leaders confront in light of the approaches adopted by their Japanese and South Korean counterparts, whose citizens have reached high standards of living much earlier than China's. How much Chinese leaders are likely to learn from these two neighbors and whether it will adopt similar social policies remain to be seen: after all, China's earlier approaches to social policies were radically different five decades ago from those of Japan and Korea at similar levels of development. The Communist Party then promoted universalistic values premised on redistributive justice that its population still takes for granted, despite decades of growing inequalities--values that still shape the expectations of many with regard to social policies from the cradle to the grave. In the case of Japan and South Korea, on the other hand, conservative governments, whether democratically elected or imposed by military juntas, have based their legitimacy on their ability to develop strong economies before considering redistributive policies. It is tempting to see a convergence in East Asian national political economies, with China putting more emphasis on the development of productive forces, and the Japanese and South Korean governments having to respond to electorates to reap the rewards of decades of sacrifice. Certainly, the volume edited by Douglas Besharov and Karen Baehler as well as the monographs of Mari Miura on Japan and Stein Ringen, Huck-Ju Kwon, Ilcheong Yi, Taekyoon Kim, and Jooha Lee on South Korea, when read together, suggest that China can learn from observing the travails of social policies in the Japanese and South Korean societies, which have reached levels of affluence for most of their citizens that a majority of the Chinese population has yet to reach. The fact that lessons can be learned, however, does not mean that China will follow in the steps of Japan and South Korea: the specificities of historical trajectories will make that very difficult. …

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