International Committee of the Fourth International
The World Capitalist Crisis and the Tasks of the Fourth International: Perspectives Resolution of the ICFI

Imperialism and the Asian Pacific Rim

The last quarter century has seen a vast expansion of capitalism into the region of the world known as the Asian Pacific Rim, which consists of Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. The People’s Republic of China is also part of this geographic area, and it is noteworthy that its economy is now included in bourgeois analyses of the Asian Pacific Rim and its role in the world capitalist economy. Between 1960 and 1982, the Gross Domestic Product of the Asian Pacific countries, including China, rose from 7.8% of the world’s GDP to 16.4%. In relation to the GDP of the United States, that of the Asian Pacific rose from 18% to 53.2%. The region’s share of world exports more than doubled between 1960 and 1985, rising from 7.5% to 17%. In 1965, the combined Asian Pacific economies produced $183 billion in goods and services, a level 75% below that of North America. By 1983, their total production had risen to $1.7 trillion, only 50% below that of North America and less than 30% below European production.

The expansion of capitalism in many parts of the globe since the end of World War II and the creation of gigantic production centers in Asia does not contradict Lenin’s definition of imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism. As Lenin specifically warned in Imperialism, “It would be a mistake to believe that this tendency to decay precludes the rapid growth of capitalism. It does not.” American imperialism has utilized the countries of the Asian Pacific as “assembly platforms.” The US semiconductor industry, for example, ships the very complex components of integrated circuits to its Asian Pacific facilities, where the labor-intensive assembly process is carried out. The cycle of “intrafirm trade” is then completed with the import of the fully assembled units back into the United States. The motives underlying this development are quite obvious. As one study of the semiconductor industry noted: “The shift to offshore assembly by the US integrated circuit firms during the period 1964-1972 was primarily an aggressive move by which to reduce labor costs in the most labor-intensive stages of integrated circuit manufacture ... the substantial difference between wage costs in Southeast Asian developing countries and the United States offers a substantial economic incentive to shift assembly offshore” (Zysman and Tyson, eds., American Industry in International Competition [Ithaca: 1983], p. 173).

The capitalist economies of the Asian Pacific are based on this brutal exploitation of the working class. The native bourgeoisie defend the “export strategy” preferred by the International Monetary Fund with military-police dictatorships, rooted in state systems which preserve semi-feudal vestiges that have never been swept away by genuine democratic revolutions. While functioning as reservoirs of superexploited labor for the transnational corporations, the economies of all these so-called mini-Japans are desperately vulnerable to world trade patterns. The impact of a recession and protectionist legislation will be devastating.

The most significant aspect of the expansion of capitalism in the Asian Pacific is the enormous growth of the proletariat throughout the region. Since the 1960s, there has been a rapid growth of the working class in South Korea, fed by a steady migration from the countryside. The wave of strikes which has shaken South Korea and forced the retirement of General Chun Doo Hwan led one bourgeois analyst to observe: “Over the last twenty years the expectations of Korean workers regarding their standard of living have increased greatly. No longer are the workers transplanted peasants grateful for an opportunity to earn a subsistence in the factories of the cities. Workers have witnessed the dramatic and sustained expansion of productive power around them and the growing income of significant parts of the population, especially professional, technical and managerial workers and, of course, the owners of capital. Evidence of increasing disparities of income is scant, but even an official publication provides an indication of a significant worsening of income distribution since the early 1970s. In particular, industrial workers have received the lowest wages among broad groups of income earners” (C. Hamilton and R. Tanter, Journal of International Affairs, “The Antinomies of Success in South Korea,” p. 65).

The authors of the above article provide statistical proof of capitalism’s “success” in South Korea. While, according to the Korea Development Institute, the minimum cost of living for a family of five in 1980 was 270,000 won per month, 56% of the workers received less than 200,000 won. Korean workers work approximately 53 hours per week, longer than in any other country surveyed by the International Labor Organization. In the steel industry, shifts are of 12 hours duration, and it is not uncommon, during periods of shift rotation, for some workers to remain on the job for 24 straight hours. As for safety conditions, 1,718 workers were killed in industrial accidents in 1985.

The conditions in South Korea are mirrored, generally in an even more brutal form, in the other “thriving” capitalist economies of the Asian Pacific. Yet, as the struggles in South Korea have already demonstrated, the proletariat is coming to the forefront of the struggle against the oppressive bourgeois regimes. There is no question but that the Asian Pacific is destined to provide the greatest historic verification of the theory of permanent revolution.