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美國對亞洲的觀察

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.

Economic preoccupations 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 govern efficiently.

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 business.

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.

 
 

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