mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
The Giant of The 21st Century Begins To Awake

The Asian unrest, a much bigger deal long term than the over hyped Arab Spring or even the crisis of the euro, is spreading from China to Indonesia, as strikes pop up across the fourth most populous country in the world.

The Asian industrial revolution is the single most transformative social event on our planet today.  Hundreds of millions of people are moving from agricultural jobs to urban life, and from farming to manufacturing.  They are doing it faster than Europeans and North Americans did during the western industrial revolution, and they are doing it in much larger numbers.

In the first stages of this movement, labor has been relatively docile.  As the peasants come out of the rice paddies, they are bewildered by urban life and are struggling to gain a toehold.  They still have the deferential social habits and strong moral values of the villages from which they come.  They are used to hard work and low pay and they are often grateful for poorly paid, dangerous and hard labor.

But this changes over time.  They learn more about how the city works.  They lose the social habits and discipline of the countryside.  Seeing how the rich live in their urban environment, and living in the media saturated environment of the modern world, they begin to grasp the immense distance between their lives and those of the rich and the middle class.  Their ambitions — for themselves and for their children — rise and their expectations grow.

They also become aware that as industrial workers they have more group power than they did as peasants.  They can organize into trade unions.  They can strike.  They can demonstrate.  They start to build that power and try it out: this is happening today all over China and it is happening in Indonesia too.

There will be much, much more of this: in India, Vietnam, Thailand and in many other places across Asia.  Corporations and governments are going to have a very hard time figuring out how to respond.  For one thing, the market is not going to be particularly forgiving.  Wages in manufacturing are going to be squeezed.  There are still many countries ready to welcome textile and other factories where workers are ready to work hard for less.  The industrial revolution is still spreading through the world and there is lots more virgin territory where the peasants will gladly take factory jobs, asking very little in return.

At the high end, technological progress makes automation a real option for more and more industries as wages rise.  Robots don’t go on strike, and it is very easy for companies to switch from labor intensive to capital and technology intensive manufacturing processes as wages rise.

On the demand side, the vast expansion of manufacturing capacity in the last twenty years is putting pressure on profits.  With slow growth in the rich countries, manufacturers cannot easily pass higher labor costs to consumers by jacking up prices.

Japan, Korea and Taiwan were lucky; those places adopted the export-driven manufacturing growth strategy at a time when they had few competitors; they grew so quickly for so long that they were able to boost the workers into something like middle class status without too much stress.  The countries coming later to the game like China, India and Vietnam, won’t have such an easy time.  The competition is much tougher today.

The mix of rising expectations and limited means for satisfying them  is a recipe for social explosions and social explosions we are likely to have.  Europe and North America were tumultuous places during their industrial revolutions; Asia is unlikely to have a much smoother path. Geopoliticians, corporate risk managers and investors and financial strategists are going to have to wrap their heads around a large and growing set of risks.  Politicians in Asian countries have their work cut out for them; maintaining stability in the face of this kind of change requires strong and responsive institutions and, frankly, a touch of political genius.  The diplomatic system America is trying to build in Asia is also going to be affected by the consequences of this social revolution; the Pentagon and the State Department will have to learn to cope with consequences of Asian unrest.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Luke Lea

    “They can organize into trade unions. They can strike. They can demonstrate. They start to build that power and try it out: this is happening today all over China. . .”

    Independent trade unions in China? Where can I read about that?

  • Steve Kellmeyer

    And, of course, the economic problems are only one difficulty.

    There’s also the demographic transition that accompanies all industrial revolutions. Asian societies are aging out faster than Western counterparts did.

    And there’s the paucity of women. Sex selection abortion in Asian countries has made it impossible for many young men to find wives. This not only accelerates the demographic transition, it creates a lot of non-economic frustration among the most potentially violent population group – single young men.

  • SenatorMark4

    Unrest is driving at those emerging countries like a truck because they haven’t figured out that INDIVIDUAL human rights are what leads to long term success. You don’t really think that the three countries you mention (Japan, Taiwan, Korea) owe nothing to the American view of the world, however warped we let them implement it. It is past time for us to demand that visas, aid, EVERYTHING be dependent on adherence to our First Amendment. Only then will we have friends in freedom versus trading partners who are enemies.

  • Kris

    “The Giant of The 21st Century Begins To Awake”

    Yes! After the sore disappointments of Western and Eastern Europe, the Revolution will finally be carried out by the Asian proletariat! “C’est la lutte finale…”


  • RM Occidental

    The other day, I began re-reading Eric Hoffer’s book: “The Ordeal of Change”. It is striking how well the “Longshoresman Philosopher,” cataloged what is happening in China presently more than half a century ago, when the continent first stirred in the modern world.

    The book, first published in 1952, has a chapter entitled “The Awakening of Asia”, where Hoffer makes some salient observations.

    “What is it that the ill-fed, ill-clad, and ill-housed masses… so desperately desire? … The clamor that is rising all over the Orient is a clamor for pride.”

    Hoffer postulates, the need for pride comes from a society moving from communal-agrarian to the individualistic-industrial. And the individual obtains this much needed aspect of his psyche through self advancement.

    “He needs an environment in which achievement, acquisition, sheer action, or the development of his capacities and talent seems within easy reach.”

    If action-achievement is not available, Hoffer warns individual existence can become unbearable. This is a high undesirable situation.

    “Where self-confidence and self-esteem seem unattainable, the emerging individual becomes a highly explosive entity… He and his like become the breeding ground of convulsions and upheavals that shake society to its foundations.”

    It’s a problematic situation, given where Hoffer believes unfulfilled individuals turn.

    “The substitute for self-confidence is faith; the substitute for self-esteem is pride; and the substitute for individual balance is fusion with others into a compact group.”

    And these substitutes are all consuming.

    “(A) substitute is almost always explosive if for no other reason than that we can never have enough of it.”

    Interesting times.

  • Stephen

    Yes, Kris, les travailleurs sont unir. Savor the irony.

  • Bill A.

    The next big war that China will be involved in will be the Chinese government against the Chinese people.

  • LuxuryBag

    Google “Gucci sweatshop in Shenzhen” for a more interesting example.

  • An


    The rapid industrialization is happening in South America and, to a lesser extent, Africa. It’s going to be tough for South Americans to compete with the Asian manufacturers in a price war.

  • don

    Well, if it’s any consolation, after the Chinese have their retro War Lord period and the war between the War Lords, the Chinese Civil War should take care of their surplus males and their rising expectations; Chinese females will be filling all those traditional male roles, like the grade school teachers after the American Civil War. Hey, pretty soon kick ball will be banned from the play grounds and sensitive male eunuchs will be the in thing for the new mandarins in their supportive roles for the new Chinese state. I don’t know how the promised 72 virgins in the here after will compete with the Muslim’s rising expectations for theocracy in Indonesia though. Perhaps there will be more public whippings of infidels for sorcery instead of beheadings?

  • Mike Mahoney

    About robotics, they are fast. They do repetitive tasks exactly as programmed. But the little bastards are tempermental. Too hot, they go on strike. A little bzzt in the power supply, brrreak time. Something gets shook out of position a couple milimeters, they wom’t budge an untill things are where They want them to be.

  • fenceboards

    The fallacy of all the elitist pundits is that somehow govt no matter what it is described as, is business monopoly on the people in its juridiction. Gone are the moral underpinnings and true action of liberty from coercion

  • kcs

    I support a company’s right to locate manufacturing plants where they please, and I do not begrudge the poor in those nations a higher standard of living.

    That said, perhaps multinationals will see an advantage in relocating back to N. America and Europe, rather than chasing the lowest-paid-workforce from one Asian country to another.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service