Asia's fate to dictate the future Will 21st century see in global harmony, or will rivalry and peril be in forefront?

November 02, 1997|By HAL PIPER

With Asian currencies and stock markets roiling, it's easy to forget that only a couple of years ago there was much talk that an "Asian Century" was about to dawn.

The fastest economic growth rates were in Asia - 8, 10, 12 percent a year. At a sustained 10 percent, a nation's economy will double in seven years. Since the Tiananmen Square massacre eight years ago, China's economy has more than doubled.

Asian cities throbbed with Western flash - jeans, miniskirts, in-your-face T-shirts. Traffic jams choked Bangkok; cell phones linked Hong Kong; electronic gizmos beguiled Japan. Western investment capital poured into Asia, where the sons and daughters of farmers flocked to the cities to work round-the-clock shifts as builders. In Malaysia, where the billboards boasted, "The future is here!" they worked on roads, bridges, a new airport, a billion-dollar dam, a vast, high-tech "cyber-city" plan-ned as the Silicon Valley of Asia - and the twin Petronas Towers, 1,483 feet high.

Briefly, the towers are the world's tallest building, until they are surpassed by a skyscraper nearing completion in Chongqing, China, and shortly after that by the Shanghai World Financial Center, 1,509 feet. (In the United States, no building of more than 50 stories was under construction last year.)

Asia had not escaped social problems, of course, but poverty and malnourishment no longer seemed the dominant Asian reality. The Economist magazine giddily predicted that one billion - yes, one billion Asians were in the immediate process of moving into the middle class.

A new Asian bourgeoisie meant a billion new consumers upgrading their diets with more meat. A billion aspiring automobile owners. A billion I well, what are you selling? Imagine one billion Asian exhalations and the bliss of being a mouthwash salesman during the new dawn. To the deodorant manufacturer, an untapped market of two billion armpits must be a heavenly thought indeed.

And it wasn't only Western capitalists who were bullish on Asia. Asian leaders were downright cocky.

To those who suggested that a bourgeois Asia would necessarily become a democratic Asia, Malaysia's waspish prime minister Mahathir Mohamad replied that if crime, drugs and moral degeneracy were the fruits of Western democracy, Asia had no need of it. Singapore's frosty Lee Kuan Yew posited that "Asian values" peculiar to the region enabled it to develop harmoniously, without democracy or what he called "so-called" human rights.

And last week, China's imperious Jiang Zemin insisted on being received at the White House with a 21-gun salute befitting the leader of a rising superpower. Tiananmen Square has been reduced, in at least one American press account, from a massacre of peaceful protesters to a "divisive I episode."

How inconvenient, then, that even as Jiang was on American soil, a sudden convulsion in the world's stock markets challenged the whole idea of an "Asian Century."

As a week's worth of newspaper op/eds and television talking heads have explained, Asia has some problems. The go-go countries have been driving their economies too fast. A lot of that Western investment has been skimmed by the friends and families of Asia's strongmen, or has gone into prestige projects of little economic benefit. All that new construction in Shanghai, in Beijing, in Bangkok, has resulted in a lot of empty towers - the office-space vacancy rate is about a third.

Asia in the 1990s, in other words, bears some resemblance to America in the 1980s, when the tax laws encouraged speculative building that led to recession in 1990-1991. Or to Japan's "bubble economy" of the 1980s, when the paper value of Tokyo real estate exceeded the entire assessed value of all the land in the United States - until the bubble burst.

So perhaps China's economy will not, as the World Bank once forecast, overtake that of the United States within 40 years. Perhaps Malaysia will not become the next Silicon Valley. Perhaps empty bellies, not unfragrant armpits, will be Asia's most urgent task in the 21st century. A report last week by the International Food Policy Research Institute said that more than half of the world's 800 million hungry or malnourished people in the next quarter-century will be Asians.

But the sobering news does not discredit - in fact it reinforces - the idea of a coming Asian Century. Asia may not dominate or lead the world, but Asia is where the history will be made.

The 20th century belonged to the West. The World Wars started in Europe. The malignant ideologies of fascism and communism were the brainchildren of Europeans. Even the break-up of the colonial empires was a European story to the extent that Europeans had built the empires. The world colossus, the United States, is a country run by the descendants of Europeans.

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