Professor Kristen Looney, Assistant Professor of Asian Studies and Government, recently published her first book titled Mobilizing for Development: The Modernization of Rural East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2020). Professor Looney’s research focuses on East Asian politics and development.
Shortly after the book debuted, the Asian Studies Program interviewed Professor Looney about her book and its contribution to the field of Asian Studies.
Your book Mobilizing for Development: The Modernization of Rural East Asia takes a systematic look at rural development campaigns in Taiwan, China, and South Korea. Can you briefly describe how rural modernization campaigns differed across the region?
One of the big takeaways of the book is that campaigns occurred not just where and when you might expect–in communist China and at the foundational moments for East Asia’s postwar regimes. Rather, they occurred across the region, in communist and non-communist regimes, and at the later stages of industrialization, after all of these governments had developed into mature, technocratic bureaucracies. The region’s rural modernization campaigns all had a profound impact on development, although their outcomes differed. Whereas Taiwan was very successful at promoting development through campaigns, Korea experienced major production failures, and China saw a rise in land grabs and forced relocations into mass housing complexes. I argue that campaign success depends on the ability of the central government to control local officials and on the presence of strong and participatory farmers’ organizations, qualities which varied across the region.
The main focus of your book centers on the rural development of East Asian countries. Can the development model used by these East Asian countries be applied to other countries in Asia or around the world looking to modernize their rural societies?
I make no claims that other countries can replicate the experiences of East Asia, even though many developing countries have tried to study and emulate the region. The danger of campaigns is that they can easily spiral out of control. It is really the interplay of campaigns and institutions that matters. Without strong and participatory institutions, it is unlikely that this approach would work. That being said, a general and rather simple lesson is that rural development needs state support. It requires a political commitment to adopt pro-rural policies in order to ensure that the countryside is not unfairly exploited for the sake of industrialization.
How does your research contribute to the field of rural development and governance in East Asia and what are the longstanding policy implications for East Asian countries today?
The book makes a unique contribution by comparing China’s experience with other countries in the region, and even though the cases I examine are historical, it helps shed light on contemporary policies such as Xi Jinping’s poverty alleviation drive and rural revitalization strategy. In fact, the phrase “rural revitalization” comes directly from a similarly named campaign that Japan carried out in the 1930s. The research relatedly suggests that China sees itself as part of an “East Asian model” and has actively borrowed from its neighbors, in the realm of rural policy and probably beyond. Regime type–whether a country is authoritarian or democratic–is thus less important for understanding policies and politics in the region than is often assumed.