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Culture, state and varieties of capitalism: a comparative study of life insurance markets in Hong Kong and Taiwan




This article examines the interplay between local culture, the state, and economic actors' agency in producing variation across markets. I adopt a political–cultural approach to examining why life insurance has been far more popular in Taiwan than Hong Kong, despite the presence of a cultural taboo on the topic of premature death in both societies. Based on interview data and documentary references, the findings reveal that as an independent state, the Taiwanese government heavily protected domestic insurance firms during their emergence. These domestic firms adopted a market-share approach by re-defining the concept of life insurance to accommodate the local cultural taboo. The colonial Hong Kong government, on the other hand, adopted laissez-faire policies that essentially favoured foreign insurance firms. When faced with the tension between local adaptation and the profitability of the business, these foreign firms chose the latter. Their reluctance to accommodate local cultures, however, resulted in a smaller market. I argue that state actions mediate who the dominant economic players are and that the nature of the dominant players affects the extent of localization. Specifically, the presence of competitive domestic players alongside transnational corporations is more likely to produce varieties of capitalism.