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How not to talk about Asia

Asian countries are as messy, as lively as any other. They deserve probing interrogation and analysis, not Roger Cohen's vacuous attempts at provocation.
Kanishk Tharoor
2 April 2008

With forests of skyscrapers rising in Shanghai, fantastical contents emerging off the coast of Dubai, and fibre-optic arteries pumping knowledge from the heart of India's IT boom, it is difficult not to be impressed by the pace of transformation across Asia. Tremendous change is afoot in much of the region, greased in places by growing oil revenues and elsewhere by decade-old programs of liberal reform that now seem to be bearing fruit. This goes beyond the putative "Asian giants" of India and China; with many smaller countries also sharing in the economic success, a whole continent seems to be on the rise.

In the glow of heady financial statistics, many analysts see an epochal shift of power from the west to Asia. Some scholars, like the Singaporean diplomat and writer Kishore Mahbubani (author of The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East), have described the pendulum swing in civilisational terms. "Asian values" of harmony, commitment to education, and stability all speed the east's ascendancy (and the west's decline).

Others, like Clyde Prestowitz (author of Three Billion New Capitalists: The Great Shift of Wealth and Power to the East) reaffirm their faith in liberalisation in Asia's example. With stagnation and protectionist moods gripping many western countries, capitalist success stories in the east restore belief in the ultimate logic of the free market.

Both these views come together in Roger Cohen's recent column in the New York Times, "The Baton Passes to Asia". Gloomy about the slump in the American economy, Cohen grandiosely heralds "the end of the era of the white man". "The West's moment", he says, "is passing. Money and might are increasingly elsewhere. America's little dose of socialism from Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson might stave off the worst but cannot halt the trend." He then trots out the familiar statistics that accompany such prognostications - there are 450 million cellphones in China; 300 million Indians will move into cities in the next 20 years; by 2030, the Indian and Chinese economies will sit only behind the United States in terms of size.

But the difference, he insists, is not simply statistical.

It's about the mind. Come to Asia and fear drains away. It's replaced by confidence and a burning desire to succeed. Asian business leaders are rock stars. The culture of education and achievement is fierce. China is bent on beating the U.S.A.

What you feel in Asia, said Claude Smadja, a prominent global strategist, is "a burst of energy, of new dreams, and the end of the era of Western domination and the white man."

Some of the above is, of course, indisputable. The mood of the business elites in India, China and elsewhere in Asia is indeed bullish and optimistic, in marked contrast to the anxiety in Wall Street and the City. While European and north American strategists plot the revival of their economies, their Asian counterparts just want the good times to keep on rolling.

At the same time, Cohen and Co. miss much of the larger picture of what's happening in "the East" by looking simply from the top, simply through business. He glowingly describes "Asians and Arabs spending their way" through Dubai's glitzy airport. This is the view of the airport lounge, the sleek hotel, the limousine, the conference centre. Not only is it limited, it's predetermined to see what it wants to see.

Asia's problems remain as great as its prospects. Without recapitulating the Berkeley economist Pranab Bardhan's masterful critique of Chinese and Indian superpower aspirations, the depth of change in India and China and elsewhere is easily overstated. The rate of poverty reduction in India has actually slowed in the last decade; China has lost tens of millions of manufacturing jobs since the mid-1990s; staggering gulfs of inequality widen in both countries. India's crippling paucity of infrastructure and of at least the inklings of social safety net remain its major stumbling blocks; in the long-run, the unimaginative authoritarianism of the Chinese system may ensure instability, rather than stability; even the astronomical prosperity of the Gulf rests on the unsustainable and problematic lucre of oil.

Beyond these material limitations, there is a willful simplicity in the portrayal of Asia (and Asians) that seems to borrow from the hackneyed stereotypes of "model Asians" - single-minded, ambitious, over-achieving, automaton-like. Commentary on the transformations afoot in the east needs more flesh than the dry bones of statistics. Asian countries are as messy, as lively as any other country. They deserve probing interrogation and analysis, not Roger Cohen's vacuous attempts at provocation.

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