Cornell University Press Authors' blogs

Campaign Politics: A Different View of the East Asian Model

Return to Home

In 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a new “rural revitalization strategy” and pledged to eradicate extreme poverty by 2020. While the intention of the policy is laudable, for tens of millions of families, it has meant giving up their homes, farmland, and village communities, and moving into mass housing complexes built on the outskirts of unfamiliar cities and towns. It has also meant ceding control over agricultural production to large-scale “dragon head enterprises” and adapting to new forms of employment and welfare.

China’s latest drive to modernize the countryside has been top-down, state-led, and implemented at a dizzying pace, qualities which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Chinese Communist Party. Since the 1920s, the CCP has launched hundreds of mobilization campaigns to transform society and accomplish state goals, usually with mixed but dramatic results. The recent “war on poverty” reflects that historical legacy. But it is also part of something bigger: a long tradition in the region of state-sponsored development campaigns, dating back to Meiji-era Japan.

China’s latest drive to modernize the countryside has been top-down, state-led, and implemented at a dizzying pace, qualities which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Chinese Communist Party.

China and the East Asian Model

When I started researching my book ten years ago, China was in the midst of another development campaign to “build a new socialist countryside.” The Hu Jintao administration’s resurrection of that slogan, which first gained prominence in the 1950s, imbued the campaign with a revolutionary quality. The shadow of Maoism could also be seen in the use of propaganda, cadre works teams, and villager mobilization. Yet, for most local officials charged with implementation, their key frame of reference was not Maoist China, but Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea.

Despite increased rhetoric about a Chinese development model or “Beijing Consensus,” China still sees itself as a developing country faced with enormous socioeconomic challenges: a huge rural-urban wealth gap, equally significant intra-rural disparities, and poverty linked to subsistence agriculture. And just as early reformers looked to China’s neighbors for clues about how to introduce markets and build institutions, the “East Asian model” continues to inform Chinese leaders’ views of development and of the countryside in particular.

Campaigns and Agrarian Change

In Mobilizing for Development, I argue that campaigns—defined as policies demanding high levels of mobilization to effect dramatic change—have played a central role in East Asia’s rural transformation. Through a structured comparison of cases, I further show that divergent development outcomes can be attributed to the interplay between campaigns and institutions.

Campaigns—defined as policies demanding high levels of mobilization to effect dramatic change—have played a central role in East Asia’s rural transformation.

Many of the region’s campaigns occurred at the later stages of industrialization in order to remedy the problems of inequality, poverty, and agriculture’s relative decline. They were carried out under the banners of “local improvement” and “rural revitalization” in Japan, “community development” in Taiwan, and building “new villages” in South Korea.

Similar to China, these countries’ campaigns had a profound impact on rural life. However, Western scholarship on the region’s political economy has overlooked them almost entirely. Instead, it has focused on explaining industrial development and bureaucratic capacity. Campaigns, with their disruptive and ideological tendencies, simply do not accord with the image of skilled technocrats making smart economic policy decisions.

The fact that campaigns often fail is another reason they have been ignored, although in East Asia they have sometimes contributed positively to development, bringing paved roads, electricity, clean water, and safe housing to poor and isolated communities. My research challenges extreme views of campaigns (as inherently disastrous) and invites readers to consider how their outcomes are shaped by different political-institutional contexts.

My research challenges extreme views of campaigns (as inherently disastrous) and invites readers to consider how their outcomes are shaped by different political-institutional contexts.

Mobilizational Politics

Mobilized participation, though contrary to liberal democratic principles, is fundamental to politics and policy implementation in much of the world. Fifty years ago, South Korea launched its own “great leap forward,” as Park Chung-hee so called the New Village Movement. That campaign is still widely regarded as a major national achievement. In China, the tradition of rural modernization campaigns lives on, as does the use of campaigns for policy enforcement, ideological work, anti-corruption, and crisis management.

In China, the tradition of rural modernization campaigns lives on, as does the use of campaigns for policy enforcement, ideological work, anti-corruption, and crisis management.

East Asian states’ propensity for mobilization can even be seen in recent efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Whereas news reports tend to present China’s more authoritarian approach as different from its democratic neighbors, one implication of my research is that the similarities may in fact outweigh the differences.


Kristen Looney is a comparative political scientist and Assistant Professor of Asian Studies and Government at Georgetown University. Follow on Twitter @kristenelooney.


Also of interest:

Book Finder