Is there such a thing as a Confucian ethic lurking at the root of Asian economic success stories, something like the good old Protestant ethic that supposedly underpinned the great Western successes of a century ago?
A number of scholars, diplomats and economists think the answer is "yes."
They point to the booming, prosperous countries stretching alongside China and see common threads that just may be traced to the teachings of the great Chinese scholar.
Japan. South Korea. Taiwan. Hong Kong. Singapore. All emerged from devastation and poverty in the Letter From Japan past three decades to become textbook examples of economic takeoff. None has any natural resources to speak of. All had been touched, directly or indirectly, by the Confucian tradition.
A tight social discipline, for example. Stability, imposed from above. A thirst for education. Respect for leaders, so long as the leaders prove their worth. A penchant for planning. All are Confucian tenets and, when mixed with a form of modern capitalism, seemed somehow to work.
TAKESHI WATANABE, an economist and the first president of the Asian Development Bank, sees the connection most strongly in the Confucian insistence on stability and order.
"Confucius showed how to keep the society intact," he said. "That was the advice of the Confucian wise men to the warlords of China -- stability and respect for the present regime so it can move along in an orderly way. It is contrary to the idea of revolution."
Each of the Asian success stories has an element of strong government leadership and methodical planning. South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan flourished under authoritarian governments that carefully drafted plans and patiently carried them out. Japan's success was largely charted by government technocrats.
The acceptance of plans laid down by elite groups over a length of time is one of the keys to those countries' development and is very Confucian, said Koji Watanabe, Asian affairs specialist at the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
"It is closely related to Confucian ethics," Watanabe said. "The individual is supposed to trust his superiors, and they are expected to reciprocate in terms of improving the individual's living style."
He summed up the Confucian influence with this formula: "Diligence of the people, organized by elites, and regulated by the governments."
"In each of these countries, there is a common perception that the elites have faced the challenges and overcome them," Watanabe added. "In Japan, up until the middle 1960s, there was a pervasive feeling that we were forever doomed to suffer from an imbalance of payments, a trade deficit. We thought it was just something we could never overcome. But the elites here perceived this and overcame it."
ALL FIVE COUNTRIES have emerged from the devastation of World War II and primitive economies to achieve levels of success rarely found in today's Third World. Japan boasts the world's third-largest economy. The other four have all known periods of double-digit economic growth and are officially classed as middle-income countries by the World Bank.
South Korea has recently built the world's most modern steel mill. Taiwan is moving toward high-technology industries. Hong Kong grows ever richer as the Asian trading and financial giant. Singapore, perhaps the most innovative of all, is reaching for Japan's coattails as a producer of sophisticated technology.
The success of these "four little dragons" of Asia, as Fortune magazine calls them, contrasts sharply with what has been happening on the Asian mainland, where communist China lags far behind in industrial prowess and Indochina staggers from one impoverishing dilemma to another. A businessman in Taiwan recently observed that the Chinese have been extraordinarily successful economically in almost every country except China. He suggested that Confucius might be a better guide to prosperity than Marx or Lenin.
Takeshi Watanabe believes China may indeed be looking back to her ancient sage for guidance. He recalled a recent conversation in Peking with Premier Deng Xiaoping in which Deng was asked how China will cope with social problems if an economic advance gets under way.
"His reply was not Marxist but Confucian," Watanabe said. "He spoke about the virtues of being orderly and stable and said that is how China will manage."
SABURO OKITA, an economist and former foreign minister of Japan, doesn't think the Confucian ethic theory holds water. He cited China to prove his point.
"If it were all Confucius, China would be the most powerful country in the world," he said. Okita believes that a particular, but not necessarily Confucian, social discipline does lie at the roots of success. Brazil and Mexico are moving up fast economically, he points out, and other Asian countries not much touched by Confucianism -- the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia -- have achieved respectable growth rates.
Others, however, point to old Confucian traits that have survived in Japan and the "little dragons" but are not usually found elswhere. A dislike for flamboyant, gaudy life-styles, for example, resulting in high rates of personal savings and, in turn, large capital investments.
Furthermore, the transplanted Confucian respect for education has turned into a passion for university education in the five countries. Competition for admission is intense because a college degree is the great dividing line between the leaders and the led.
In South Korea not long ago, a scandal erupted when it was discovered that high school students were carrying so much homework in their bookbags that younger pupils were suffering curvatures of their spines. (The solution was not to lighten homework but to rip textbooks into sections to lighten the physical load each night.)
A disregard for dogma, religious or political, is also Confucian. The dominant "ism" is pragmatism. Singapore a few years ago wanted to move away from primitive industries that depended on low wages for their success. The solution was marvelously simple: The government decreed a series of general wage increases. So far, it seems to be working, moving Singapore into the bracket of higher technology industries.
"Pragmatism is very Confucian," observes Sueo Sekiguchi, an economic scholar with the Japan Center for International Exchange. "Confucius wasn't much concerned with gods or other worldly things. He was concerned with the role of political leaders and such things as management and equality and how to behave well in a real society."