Category Archives: Asia

Palm Oil, Rubber, and Colonialism

The Emergence of an Export Cluster: Traders and Palm Oil in Early Twentieth-century Southeast Asia

by Valeria Giacomin (Harvard-Newcomen Fellow in Business History during 2017/2018)

Abstract: Malaysia and Indonesia account for 90 percent of global exports of palm oil, forming one of the largest agricultural clusters in the world. This article uses archival sources to trace how this cluster emerged from the rubber business in the era of British and Dutch colonialism. Specifically, the rise of palm oil in this region was due to three interrelated factors: (1) the institutional environment of the existing rubber cluster; (2) an established community of foreign traders; and (3) a trading hub in Singapore that offered a multitude of advanced services. This analysis stresses the historical dimension of clusters, which has been neglected in the previous management and strategy works, by connecting cluster emergence to the business history of trading firms. The article also extends the current literature on cluster emergence by showing that the rise of this cluster occurred parallel, and intimately related, to the product specialization within international trading houses.

Freely available at Enterprise and Society, Volume 19, Issue 2, June 2018, pp. 272-308

Review by Helena Varkkey (University of Malaya)

In this article, Giacomin presents an archive-based historical analysis of how palm oil became one of the most important traded commodities from Southeast Asia to the world in the early- to mid-1900s. She uses the cluster (defined as a “geographically proximate group of interconnected companies and associated institutions in a particular field, linked by commonalities and complementarities”) approach to explain how the organizational structure of the pre-existing rubber cluster in the Malay peninsula (at the time a British colony) and Sumatra (under the Dutch) formed the basis for an emerging palm oil cluster in the same geographical region.

The first part of her paper focuses on how the regional rubber cluster structure developed. While the literature commonly credits unique local factors in the development of such clusters, Giacomin instead looks at nonlocal factors: (1) mainland Chinese traders that controlled regional trading routes from major Southeast Asian ports and brought in low-skilled tappers and harvesters from surrounding territories, and (2) Western traders that brought in capital inputs (seeds, machinery and finance) and highly-skilled human resources (estate managers and engineers) from Europe and other parts of the Empire and established headquarters in major European trading ports, allowing them to access crucial market information on demand. Both of these foreign merchant communities congregated in the emerging trading hub of Singapore, strategically located in between British Malaya and Dutch Sumatra, and developed a mutual dependency: Chinese contacts were vital for Western traders wanting to run a business in the Eastern colonies, while the Chinese needed Western traders to scale up their region-based commercial activity to a global scope.

The second part of the article explains how palm oil became the “spin-off” crop of the rubber cluster in the region. During the natural rubber boom in the early 1900s, the Malaya-Sumatra rubber cluster became over-dependent on this export and thus over-specialised in terms of existing practises, agronomic knowledge (through R&D agencies like the Rubber Research Institute), and coordinating institutions (eg. the Rubber Growers’ Association). When the advent of synthetic rubber in the 1920s caused natural rubber prices to fall, companies desperately looked to diversify their production to recoup and replace their losses. However, this over-specialisation meant that they could consider only a limited range of crops similar to rubber for diversification. As it happened, the rubber estate structure could be conveniently repurposed for into oil palm estates. Furthermore, the oil palm flourished in a much narrower latitude span compared to rubber, giving confidence to companies that the demand for palm oil would be more sustained since supply would be more limited.
Giacomin concludes that even though the literature often regards over-specialisation as fatal, in the case of the Southeast Asian rubber cluster, this serendipitously led to the emergence of one of the most enduring regional clusters serving the global economy. Today, Indonesia and Malaysia account for over 90% of global palm oil exports.

While the significance of the rubber sector in paving the way for palm oil in Malaysia and Indonesia is well known, this paper remains an important and significant addition to the current literature, not only on general business management and strategy, but also more specifically in terms of (1) palm oil expansion and development and (2) agricultural systems (estate vs. smallholdings).

Firstly, the specific role of nonlocal (especially Chinese) entrepreneurs in connecting the production areas in this region to the consumption areas in the West was previously not well understood. In the context of the “global north” and “global south”, palm oil can be considered a uniquely “southern” vegetable oil. Compared to other oils like sunflower, rapeseed, and soya bean, the production, major business players, beneficiaries and direct impacts of palm oil is situated more comparatively in the global south. Giacomin alludes to this in reference to the narrow latitude where oil palm can be grown. This northern/southern framing has coloured much of the recent debates and controversies over palm oil today. This paper’s analysis on the historical role of Chinese merchants is especially useful in further informing the idea of palm oil as a “southern” oil, while at the same time, the equally important role of the Western merchants that Giacomin highlights may be useful in moderating certain northern arguments in this ongoing debate.

Secondly, the historical nature of Giacomin’s analysis of this sector is especially timely in the current period where other regions, like West Africa and Latin America, are looking to increase their global trading share of palm oil. Giacomin mentions that even though the oil palm originated from and was first produced commercially in West Africa during colonial times, Western African territories were unable to effectively penetrate global markets because they did not display the same institutional cohesion across neighbouring territories, something that Southeast Asia managed to do through the pre-existing rubber cluster. This “cluster” model may thus provide an exemplar to be used by emerging palm oil production regions and companies as an effective way to possibly break the current oligopoly (Indonesian and Malaysian firms) which is the palm oil industry. Especially for West Africa, which is considered the current “greenfield” area for palm oil outside Southeast Asia, current strategies can be developed to avoid past mistakes.

Finally, Giacomin’s analysis of early smallholders is useful to inform current discussions on the ideal agricultural systems for oil palm. Her paper argues that in the mid-20th century, the fact that the palm oil was an estate crop (involving high costs and favouring large-scale production) provided a solution to the problem previously faced by rubber companies that were facing competition from and losing market share to rubber smallholdings. While this might have been the case historically, oil palm today has been successfully adapted to the smallholder model in both Indonesia and Malaysia, with a significant share of both countries’ production (about 40% each) coming from either organised or independent smallholders. Giacomin’s analysis stops at the early decolonialisation period, before the newly independent nations began to formulate oil palm smallholder schemes as a strategic tool for rural development and poverty eradication for both countries. Her analysis however can serve as a useful starting point in the ongoing debates on if and how both the estate and smallholder systems can co-exist efficiently and in harmony.

Overall, this paper is a valuable piece of business history that helps to further shed light on a controversial agro-economic sector often shrouded in secrecy. The fact that palm oil continues to be a hot topic worldwide today underlines the relevance and importance of such forays into history to inform the present.

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The Middle Income Trap

Development State Evolving: Japan’s Graduation from a Middle Income Country

By Tetsuji Okazaki (University of Tokyo)

Abstract: This paper reexamines the industrial policy in postwar Japan from perspectives of the literature on a “development state” and a “middle income trap”. Japan transited from a middle income country to a high income country in the period from the 1950s to the 1970s. This process was characterized by a large structural change, such as resource reallocation from the primary industry to the secondary and the tertiary industries as well as resource reallocation within the secondary industry. Transition to a high income country is a challenging task for a middle income country. With respect to Japan, the industrial policy played a positive role in the transition. This was achieved by interactions between MITI and other related actors, who constrained and corrected MITI’s attempts of excess intervention.

URL: https://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:tky:fseres:2017cf1063

Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2017‒09‒03

Review by: Joyman Lee (University College London)

Summary

Students of modern Japanese economic history are familiar with the work of Chalmers Johnson (1982) on the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). In that work Johnson argued that MITI was the leading state actor in Japan’s economic miracle, playing a vital coordinating role between policymakers and the private sector. Johnson’s emphasis on the role of the state in the East Asian experience has triggered similar studies on the development state in Korea (Alice Amsden) and Taiwan (Robert Wade).

As Okazaki notes, the emergence of newly industrialising economies facing the challenges of globalisation and democratisation has led to a renewed interest in the development state. Okazaki argues that rather than constituting a static set of policies, Japan’s developmental state was highly dynamic and adaptive, echoing Douglass North’s idea of “adaptive efficiency” (North 2005). Significantly, this ceased to be the case in Japan after the 1990s. A second strand of literature that informs the paper is the idea of the “middle income trap” (Gill and Kharas 2007), which highlights a particularly challenging transition which middle-income economies face, as the policies that have fueled the initial stages of growth are no longer appropriate for continued growth. The idea has gained considerable traction among commentators in China.

china middle income

The fear of the “middle income trap” has been particularly acute in China.

Okazaki’s paper shows that Japan’s successful voyage through the “trap” was partly facilitated by its success in resource allocation across industries, in addition to well-known increases in the intra-sector productivity. Between 1955 and 1975, Okazaki attributes 29% of the increases in labour productivity to resource allocation, which he stresses was “substantial” (p. 4).

Okazaki traces the evolution of policies from the American occupation period, when U.S. advisor Joseph Dodge initiated the abolition of strict wartime controls. A 1953 government report was followed by the Five Year Plan of 1955, which highlighted the need to transition from light to heavy industries. MITI was formed in 1949 to pursue the policy of “industrial rationalization”. Formal economic controls were replaced by a portfolio of public financial institutions, including the Japan Development Bank (1951), tax relief, and foreign exchange allocation, and a central coordinating Council for Industrial Reorganisationolic . The government promoted new sectors, particularly the machinery and the automobile industries within it, which included the use of cultural strategies such as a campaign to promote the purchase of domestic cars at the same time as regulating foreign direct investment (1952) and curtailing the foreign exchange available for car imports (1954). The government also actively implemented policies concerning the automobile parts industry, which was quite atypical given the miscellaneous and low tech nature of that sector.

japan car industry

A Toyota factory in 1948. MITI’s policy in supporting the automobile parts industry which supplied major manufacturers such as Toyota was particularly distinctive.

At the same time as developing the domestic economy, MITI also foresaw foreign pressure on trade liberalisation, and formed a committee to formulate its strategy in 1959. While the ministry remained ambivalent with respect to its effects, it nonetheless adopted a sequential programme of liberalisation that was intertwined with plans to upgrade the industrial infrastructure. The high level of alert to likely external treasures had a direct effect on the government’s sector-specific strategies, e.g. to focus on passenger cars in the automobile sector. However, MITI’s more radical plans to consolidate the industry by policy intervention were not adopted, and instead the government aided the industry through JDB loans and low interest loans to small and medium-sized suppliers. MITI also successfully resisted IMF pressures to remove the industry from the foreign exchange system until Japan was well established in the world market (1963). Meanwhile, the government conceded that the coal industry would be uncompetitive and adopted a programme of gradual phasing out.

Comment

Okazaki’s study provides a timely, quantitative and authoritative review on an important and relatively understudied topic (given the acceptance of Johnson’s view as orthodoxy among historians) by one of Japan’s leading economic historians, whose trans-war perspective is particularly useful in teasing out more subtle changes amidst MITI’s strong posture towards industrial policy. As Okazaki observes,  the difficulties that middle-income economies face are acute, as “one of the difficulties that middle income countries face is that they should compete with low income countries in the markets of labor-intensive industries as well as with high income countries in the markets of capital and technology intensive industries” (Bulman 2017). In this context, Japan’s success appears remarkable, perhaps no less than the historiographically well-recognised significance of Japan’s Meiji-period Westernisation.

However, the complexity of policies required for breaking the “middle-income trap” in Japan’s case may not provide much comfort for middle-income economies currently facing the challenge. Although Japan rejected centralised state controls, the Japanese example appears to require a complex set of policies that presupposes a high degree of political cohesion and long-range economic planning, which is often difficult in many middle income economies given various political and social challenges. It also requires a state that is highly persuasive to the populace with respect to its vision for economic development. These factors appear to mark Japan out as an exception rather than an example that can be easily perceived as immediately relevant by many developing countries.

Perhaps the most avid student of Japan’s experiences will be China, which possesses a similar state capacity for a coordinated industrial policy and a qualified commitment to the market, even if it may not enjoy the same degree of social cohesion. This likely Chinese interest may explain the timing of Okazaki’s paper. However, the requirement of a strong state may produce perverse incentives for middle-income countries to maintain authoritarian systems of government (even though Japan was not classically authoritarian in that period in its history), and reminds us of unresolved tensions between economic development and democratisation.

Additional References

Alice, A, 1992. Asia’s Next Giant: South Korea and Late Industrialization. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Bulman, D, Eden, M, Nguyen, H, 2017. “Transition from Low-Income Growth to High-Income Growth: Is there a Middle-Income Trap ?” Journal of the Asian Pacific Economy, 22(1): 5-28.

Gill, I, Kharas, H, 2007. An East Asian Renaissance: Idea for Economic Growth. Washington DC: The World Bank.

Johnson, C, 1982. MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

North, D, 2005. Understanding the Process of Economic Change. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wade, R, 2003. Governing the Market: Economic Theory and the Role of Government in East Asian Industrialization. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Entrepreneurs and Indian Transnational Business

Transnational Indian Business in the Twentieth Century

By: Chinmay Tumbe (Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, India)

Abstract: This article argues that migration and investment from India moved in tandem to chart the evolution of transnational Indian business in the twentieth century, first toward Southeast Asia and Africa and later toward the United States, Europe, and West Asia. With a focus on the banking and diamond sectors, the overseas investment project of the Aditya Birla Group, and the transnational linkages of India’s one hundred richest business leaders, the article locates important events, policies, and actors before economic liberalization in 1991 that laid the foundation for subsequent globalization of Indian firms.

Business History Review (Forthcoming – Published online: 12 December 2017)
https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007680517001350

Review by Niall G MacKenzie (Strathclyde Business School)

Chinmay Tumbe’s article in Business History Review, ‘Transnational Indian Business
in the Twentieth Century’ is, as the title suggests, an exploration of Indian business history at home and abroad throughout the twentieth century. The article is well-written with a number of themes present throughout which go beyond simple transnational analyses, encompassing elements of kith (networks) and kin (family) in the development of Indian business over the period set against changing migration patterns within and outwith, the Indian sub-continent. A further clear theme throughout the paper is the changing role and concomitant impact of the institutional frameworks in which Indian business acted under, both in domestic and international terms. It is on these areas that this review takes its focus.

The paper compares and contrasts twentieth century Indian migration trajectories and their impact on Indian international business connections, with a particular focus on the activities of the banking and diamond industries, as well as highlighting a number of famous Indian firms and entrepreneurs including the Godrej, Birla, and Tata families, Lakshmi Mittal, and the top 100 richest Indians using a mixture of archive data, corporate histories, biographies, and secondary materials such as magazines and newspapers. In this sense, the paper is a non-traditional business history piece that combines a variety of methodological approaches to paint a picture of Indian transnational business history over the twentieth century that distinguishes itself with its attention to rigour, a clear story arc, and the creation of a historical framework for future studies. As one may expect from Business History Review, the writing is tight, the subject matter broad but detailed in its analysis, and a number of valuable insights into how Indian business developed over the period emerge as a result.

Tumbe’s work covers both Indian domestic business activities and overseas investment activities by Indian companies over the twentieth century, offering readers an interesting and illuminating analysis of these subjects which reflect a growing interest in Indian business within business history more generally, including a special issue in Business History edited by Carlo Morelli and Swapnesh Masrani on Indian Business in the Global World, publication of the Oxford History of Indian Business by Dwijendra Tripathi (2014), the developing economies initiative at Harvard Business School which focuses on (amongst other developing countries) Indian business, a 2015 conference on Indian and South East Asian business history hosted by Harvard Business School bringing together scholars from all over the world, and a number of articles published in each of the major business, economic, and accounting history journals. In this sense Tumbe’s paper is a continuation of the growing interest in Indian business history around the world and recognition that much of the history of the country has been written from the perspective of the west, and in particular Anglo-Indian viewpoints.

Work written from the perspective of indigenous Indian scholars therefore has the potential to provide counterpoints, deeper insights, and more interesting considerations of phenomena and change that are oftentimes taken for granted by Western scholars. Indeed, much theory that has been produced in business and management has been done so within Western developed countries and typically by Western scholars. This is a point that has been raised in the Family Business Review journal by its outgoing editor Pramodita Sharma (with family business stalwarts Jim Chrisman and Kelin Gersick), who in a 2012 editorial called for more testing of existing theory, and creation of new theories by looking at ‘different institutional contexts’ as ways of doing this. This is a call that applies beyond family business however and into business and management more generally – cognizance of context and its multiple forms and applications to existing and new knowledge is something that historians are perhaps naturally familiar with and indeed drawn to, but which has value beyond history also.

Arguably the most interesting aspect of the paper (to this author at least) was the focus on the role that Indian family businesses played within the constantly evolving Indian and global institutional contexts over time, engaging domestic and international business networks and deploying their capital in different ways to address their aims and aspirations. The case of AV Birla going to study at MIT is one such example – scions of large family businesses nowadays are regularly packed off to global top institutions to gain a world class education and expose them to more of the world in preparation for taking the helm of the family business. However, according to Tumbe, in the mid-1960s India was a relatively insular looking country and business environment which suggests Birla’s decision to study at MIT was one that was more than just expanding personal horizons but was in fact, at the time, a relatively novel way of preparing Birla and the helping firm’s international expansion aspirations. Birla was then an early example of what is now a relatively standard practice in terms of preparing for the future leaders within the family business, but also of preparing the business itself by accessing and leveraging the networks that come with enrolment in top global education institutions for higher education.

One of the principal questions posted in the paper was “How and why did Indian business operations extend beyond the boundaries of the subcontinent, and was migration a relevant factor in this process?” The short answer that Tumbe’s paper provides, is that migration was a relevant factor in the process (as one might reasonably expect), but also that Indian business operations did exist beyond the boundaries of the subcontinent and the reasons for doing so were varied. In some cases, Indian businesses were accessing existing networks of Indian diaspora for soft landings abroad, in others they were seeking to expand operations due to the constrictions that were imposed on them by an FDI-hostile Indian government that resulted in domestic industrial stagnation and a strong push factor to invest abroad, requiring Indian businesses to look outwards for international expansion and growth opportunities. Kith and kin were therefore important features of such expansion with the desire to mitigate the agential risk that naturally comes with the creation of distance between operations and control as far as possible. Consistent within this is the recognition that friends and family are important in business expansion and development; Tumbe provides a demonstrable example of this in his analysis of Birla’s expansion into Antwerp and the role Vijay Mehta, a cousin of AV Birla’s best friend based in Antwerp and Bangkok, played in Birla’s first overseas investment.

Tumbe’s article is ultimately a broad sweep analysis of Indian transnational business activities and development over the twentieth century that illustrates the changing nature of business in India, the shifting institutional context, and the opportunities and constrictions that come with doing business in a developing country. Its relevance and interest to business and economic historians is clear in its historical analysis and content, but its wider applicability to understanding contemporary business and management phenomena such as resource orchestration, transnational business, and family business is also apparent. For those familiar with Indian business history it will likely confirm a number of existing thoughts and concepts, but for those who are not as familiar it provides an enjoyable and informative overview of how Indian business changed over the course of the twenties century with an array of source material that is handled well and written in an engaging fashion.

Assessing the Determinants of Economic Growth in South East Asia

The Historical State, Local Collective Action, and Economic Development in Vietnam

By Melissa Dell (Harvard University), Nathaniel Lane (Stockholm University), Pablo Querubin (New York University)

Abstract – This study examines how the historical state conditions long-run development, using Vietnam as a laboratory. Northern Vietnam (Dai Viet) was ruled by a strong centralized state in which the village was the fundamental administrative unit. Southern Vietnam was a peripheral tributary of the Khmer (Cambodian) Empire, which followed a patron-client model with weaker, more personalized power relations and no village intermediation. Using a regression discontinuity design across the Dai Viet-Khmer boundary, the study shows that areas historically under a strong state have higher living standards today and better economic outcomes over the past 150 years. Rich historical data document that in villages with a strong historical state, citizens have been better able to organize for public goods and redistribution through civil society and local government. This suggests that the strong historical state crowded in village-level collective action and that these norms persisted long after the original state disappeared.

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/nbrnberwo/23208.htm

Circulated by nep-his on 2017/03/19

Review by Fernando Arteaga (George Mason University)

What was the impact of the ancient Vietnamese Dai Viet empire in promoting long-term economic development? That is the main question the authors try to assess. Their inquiry is embedded within the now large literature on the importance of culture and institutions, as deep determinants of growth. The contribution the paper makes is, however, not restricted to adding one more piece of evidence in favor of it, but, more importantly, in providing empirical support for a specific transmission channel: how state capacity can be built through time via the fostering of local self-organization capabilities.

The paper’s main story builds on the idea that two distinct meta-societies existed within East Asia, and idea around which, by the way, there is general agreement. One of these societies based on Chinese precepts, prevalent in the Northeastern region; and other spread in the Southeast throughout the Indian Ocean.  Societies of the former category were historically constituted around a sort of Weberian professional bureaucracy that consolidated the working of a central state. The latter depended more on informal networking mechanisms among local elites to survive, and hence, tended to promote hierarchical patriarchal relationships.

Today’s Socialist Republic of Vietnam (henceforth Vietnam) is an interesting case study precisely because it arose out of the union of those two distinct cultures. The northern part, the Dai Viet, is an example of a Sino-style state, while the southern part of Vietnam (initially part of the Champa State and later as part of the larger Khmer Empire) resulted from a Indo-style society.  Figure 1 below offers map of present day Vietnam aligned with the size of the historical Dai Viet empire. Figure 1 suggests the Dai Viet expanded southwards through time but ended up establishing its final frontier in 1698 (orange color). It is this border the authors think provides a natural experiment that allows a clean regression discontinuity (RD) strategy that permits the disentanglement of the effect of being part of a bureaucratized state vis a vis a patriarchal state.

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Figure 1: Dai Viet Historical Boundaries (Dell et al., 2017)

The use of the RD design is appropriate, the authors argue, because the chosen border resulted from exogenous contingencies that do not reflect any difference in future economic potential. The 1698 demarcation was settled on the ridges of a river, but there was nothing else particular to it that made that boundary preferable to other potential borders. The Dai Viet stopped its expansion because of constrains imposed by a local civil war (something that has nothing to do with the river itself). Moreover, the environmental characteristics of both sides of the river are almost identical (or vary smoothly), so there is no important geographical difference either. The only thing that changes abruptly is that on the east shore of the 1698 border, Dai Viet settlers occupied and controlled the land, while Khmer villagers occupied and controlled the land to the west of the river. Another possible counterargument to the use of the 1698 border as a natural experiment is the relevance of migration: if settlers moved across villages (at any time after the establishment of the original border), then the boundary becomes inconsequential. The authors argue that, even though they do not have historical data to control for it, there is qualitative evidence that refers to negative attitudes towards outsiders within the villages, which constitutes an important constraint to any major migratory flow. Today, both sides are part of Vietnam. It is then possible to assess if Die Viet institutions still exert some type of effect in current economic outcomes.

Figure 2 portraits the main outcome of the paper. Using household expenditure data from recent censuses (2002-2012), the authors find that today, villages situated along the historical Die Viet side of the border earn a third more than those communities that are situated on the historical Khmer side (Within the figure, the darker the zone depict lower earnings).

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Figure 2a: Household Consumption, RD Graph (Dell et al., 2017)

The authors, however, not content with establishing the effects on current outcomes, look for historical evidence too. They collect data from different periods of Vietnamese history: 1878-1921 for the French Colonization, 1969-1973 for the South Vietnam State, and 1975-1985 for the early Communist Period; and find that the pattern is persistent through time: The Diet Viet zone is, in general, more developed than the Khmer side.

How can these results be interpreted?  The income differences must be due to the Die Viet heritage of greater state capacity that acted through local community self-organization that made them more co-operative and facilitated the resolution of local collective action problems. To test whether this transmission channel matters, the authors looked for data on social capital. Their main sources were the surveys and census of the South Vietnamese period. What they find corroborates their story: villagers on the Diet Viet side were more prone to participate in community activities, to collect more taxes (that at the time were local responsibility, not provincial), to have greater access to public goods (health, school and law enforcement), to be skeptical of central government in favor of local, and to give more to charity.

Comment

All in all, the authors do a thorough job in assessing the robustness of their main story. They control for several of potential alternative stories and/or possible variables that could affect the results and mechanisms.  Any critique of it may sound redundant or unreachable.  Yet, I would point to three different aspects that may be important.

First, and perhaps most importantly, I would stress that although the argument makes sense, the narrative is unclear as to how specifically the Dai Viet, which supposedly was a centralized bureaucratized state, fostered local governance. As the authors mention in the introduction, the literature on social capital is ambivalent on its effects on economic outcomes. As it is, the paper’s contribution is the finding of empirical evidence on the presence of a particular transmission channel (from state to local governance), but without a clear model and/or an analytical narrative, we are left in the dark about how explicitly this mechanism worked its way throughout society.

Second, and pushing the level of pickiness even further, one can always speak of a potential omitted variable bias. I must ask then: what about genes? The authors minimize ethnic fragmentation as a problem because they find the studied area is cataloged as being almost entirely composed of homogeneously ethnic Vietnamese. The problem is that censuses and surveys may under-report true ethnicity, and cannot capture genetic differences at all. By the authors’ own account, we are told the Diet Viet State originated as, and remained for a long time, Chinese. Moreover, as Tran (1993) attests, Chinese ethnicity may conflate the results of the paper in other several ways:

  • the largest Chinese migration occurred between the late 17th century and early 19th century, just at the time that the Dai Viet-Khmer border was being established;
  • The Chinese settled mostly in southern Vietnam, the part that the authors use as study case;
  • Chinese early importance resided precisely in that they helped establish new villages and trade outposts. They (not merely the Diet Viet heritage) helped to build local governance structures.

If ethnicity has been underreported and/or Chinese genetics matter in fostering economic development in any way (as suggested by Ashraf-Galor, 20013a, 2013b) then the interpretation of the paper could dramatically change: the importance of the Dai Viet state would be downplayed in favor of just being more ethnic/genetic Chinese. After all, it is known that there is a correlation between having larger ethnic Chinese minority and larger economic growth (Priebe and Rudulf, 2015).

Third, related to the last point: one would expect that given the importance of the result – the long-term reach of Diet Viet institutions–, its impact would feel more broadly across all the territory, not only in the immediate zones of the frontier which were the last to be incorporated into the state.  Figure 3, for example, shows the level of poverty in Vietnam (Epprecht-Heinmann,2004). It is visible that the area under study (along the last border of the historical Diet Viet) has the lowest share of poverty in the whole country. The immediate area to the left (which coincides with the area that historically belonged to the Khmer Empire) is poorer indeed. But the differences are minor if we compare them to the rest of current Vietnam, which belonged almost entirely to the Diet Viet, and has the largest poorer areas.  The RD design may be identifying a non-observable variable that is concentrated in the southern part (like ethnicity or/and genes) and is not broadly distributed across the rest of Vietnam.

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Figure 3: Incidence of Poverty in Vietnam (Epprecht-Heinmann, 2004: 155).

Additional References

Ashraf, Q., Galor, O., 2013a. Genetic Diversity and the Origins of Cultural Fragmentation. The American Economic Review: Papers on Proceedings 103, 528–533.

Ashraf, Q., Galor, O., 2013b. The “Out of Africa” Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development. American Economic Review 103, 1–46.

Epprecht, M., Heinemann, A., 2004. Socioeconomic Atlas of Vietnam: A depiction of the 1999 Population and Housing Census. Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research, Bern.

Priebe, J., Rudolf, R., 2015. Does the Chinese Diaspora Speed Up Growth in Host Countries? World Development 76, 249–262.

Trần, K., 1993. The Ethnic Chinese and Economic Development in Vietnam. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.