AN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVE ON ASIA
Old Myths and New Realities
By Tom Plate
March 23, 2003
The amazing news out of Asia
prompts serious reflection. The president of South Korea is impeached,
apparently; the president of Taiwan is reelected, apparently -- but only
after an assassination attempt (lone gunman? self-inflicted wounds? what
really happened?). In both Taiwan and South Korea, these political
controversies have been dumped on their legal systems for resolution. It may
take months for the dust to clear.
Amid all this political
uncertainty, Americans would profit from stepping back and reassessing the
Asia-Pacific region, now more important than ever, more politically
energized than ever and in some respects more like the West than ever. The
old cliches and pat assumptions about the world's most populated region no
longer apply. For instance:
ASIANS ARE GENERALLY NONPOLITICAL
AND JUST WANT TO MAKE MONEY.
Sure, Asians like wealth, just as
the rest of us. And, by and large, they work hard to get it. It sometimes
seems that the average adult -- especially here in Hong– is working at least
two jobs, at least.
notwithstanding, Asia has suddenly become more politically alive than ever.
Just look at all the activity that preceded the Taiwan presidential election
and at the amazing political churn here in this Special Administrative
Region of China (i.e., Hong Kong). Last June half a million took to the
streets to protest the local government; today the territory is a beehive of
activity, some for the government (though fewer each week) and many against
it. Throughout the region, elections of one sort or another loom: in
Indonesia, South Korea, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, India and so on. Even in
predominantly one-party democracies such as Singapore, members of parliament
and cabinet ministers constantly take the pulse of the people. Without a
measure of public consensus, however obtained, it's virtually impossible to
ASIA HAS ACCEPTED THAT DEMOCRACY IS
THE PREFERRED SYSTEM.
Not quite yet. People in the
Asia-Pacific region (to greatly generalize) want to participate in the
political process, absolutely; but they want that process, whatever it is
called and however structured, to be effective in its governance. People
want results. They want Big Daddy (parliament, the president, the prime
minister, the military dictator) to deliver the economic goods.
It would be hard, for example, to
make the case that Pakistan was better off before President/General Pervez
Musharraf. The prior parliamentary democracy was more corrupt than a town
council of a sleepy U.S. village in Mississippi during America's racist
‘50s. And would Chinese people on the mainland vote for a multi-party
democratic system tomorrow if that were to run the risk of (a) triggering
instability (for which China has a rich history) and (b) putting a brake on
economic growth (so much better over the past 15 years)? Don't bet on it!
And are the people of Japan so thrilled with their own parliamentary system,
which during the ‘90s all but deadlocked the world's second largest economy
in a morass of non-action?
Asians are more pragmatic than
ideological, and they want results. But, on the whole, they want to be
counted in, not counted out, by their political system. That's what's behind
all the churn here in this former British colony.
EVEN SO, ASIANS HAVE A
NEAR-MONOPOLY ON CORRUPTION, LACK OF TRANSPARENCY AND OTHER ILLS.
Hold on a second! Transparency
International, the respected global nonprofit in Berlin that rates worldwide
corruption levels, regularly places a handful of countries in this region
higher up than the United States on its cleanliness list. The latest
"Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index" awards high marks
to New Zealand, Singapore, Australia and Hong Kong. Indeed, they are among
the top 15 (of 133) countries listed as relatively clean places to do
The United States was only 18th
last year, in the wake of Enron, Arthur Andersen and mutual funds scandals.
In Europe, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom invariably crack the
select top 15, but they now have a whopper on their hands with the Shell oil
scandal. It seems that this Europe-based global group of energy and
petrochemical companies was cooking its Nigerian oil-field books to bulk up
reports about its reserves. In the ‘90s, annual bonuses for some top
executives soared on reports of ever-larger reserves. Turns out, the bonuses
were real, but not the reserves. The U.S. Security and Exchange Commission
and others are investigating.
Asia has its corruption problems,
as does the West. In fact, the two regions are beginning to look more alike
than different -- for better and for worse.