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Thunderstruck by the Asian ascent

by Jeff Kingston

THUNDER FROM THE EAST: Portrait of a Rising Asia, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, 377 pp., $27.50.

This is a mediocre potboiler of scant significance. One suspects that these Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters for The New York Times know a great deal more about Asia than they convey in these pages, but this blurry collage of vignettes, anecdotes, one-dimensional portraits, self-indulgent asides and wince-inducing comments don’t make for a coherent or compelling portrait of the region.

Readers of The New York Times or the International Herald Tribune should know that they will be revisiting familiar ground in this book as the authors have extensively recycled their previously published reporting from the latter half of the 1990s.

The sprawling subject — Asia — is the main problem. There is no way to do justice to the considerable diversity in the region and, contrary to the authors’ assertions, there is no perceptible advantage in sacrificing depth for breadth because the wide-angle view in “Thunder from the East” is often out of focus and obscures large hunks of Asia from the field of view.

Most of the writing is about Japan and China, with perfunctory dollops on Thailand, Indonesia and Korea thrown in for good measure. The rest of Asia hardly merits a mention. The riveting-quote-from the-man-in-the-street (or the-girl-in-the-brothel) approach sets the stage for some wild generalizations about a country and/or the region, as well as tattered truisms (“Asia’s lessons are not purely economic ones”). This Asia-lite approach suffers from aimless skittering, often contradictory analysis and too much Kristof.

Do readers really care as much as he obviously does about his enormously expensive meal in Tokyo and the hostess who made him feel like a cheapskate? Norman Lewis makes it interesting to know what goes on in his mind as he travels and observes the world, but Kristof is not nearly so perceptive and comes off a tad pompous.

In explaining the Asian crisis that swept through the region in 1997 and 1998, the authors finger the usual suspects: hedge-fund currency speculators, the International Monetary Fund and overly rapid financial liberalization at the behest of the United States. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan is portrayed as negligent in not responding to warnings about an impending crash, but it is not clear what he should or could have done in the 11th hour when Thai officials sounded the alarm.

This account downplays both the role of Japanese banks in pumping up the regional bubble and then hastening its collapse, and the key role of local speculators and governments in creating an accident waiting to happen.

Was the Asian economic crisis really the best thing to happen to Asia? Kristof thinks so because he believes that the subsequent restructuring will facilitate a regional renaissance. Under this scenario, “Asia is likely to wrench economic, diplomatic and military power from the West over the coming decades.”

It is fair to expect significant elaboration on this crucial theme over the next 339 pages, but readers might have trouble divining a sustained case for this “rising Asia” thesis because the authors hedge their bets to such a degree that they effectively argue both for and against their own position.

Yes, the authors are right that Asians are gritty people, orat least some of them are, and that many are greedy and ambitious and have an enormous capacity to overcome adversity. But the stumbling blocks to a Pacific Century also highlighted throughout the text suggest that the authors do not really have a clear argument for how and why Asia will emerge on top. Indeed, toward the end of the book, readers who plow through that far are rewarded with solid chapters on the environment and role of women that seriously undermine the authors’ prediction of a Pacific Century.

According to “Thunder from the East,” Asia has had a few rough centuries but is now poised to make a comeback. Kristof asserts that China was not greedy enough to assert its hegemony when it had a chance, but apparently it has overcome this greed deficit. In response, can the U.S. manage to balance its hegemonic and isolationist inclinations? The next U.S. secretary of state would do well to ponder Kristof’s prosaic warning “that America faces not only the Scylla of imperial overstretch but also the Charybdis of imperial understretch,” if only for a good chuckle.

The authors’ admiration for Asia and its peoples is palpable, drawing on a curious mixture of orientalist cant and tough love. Kristof recounts how an encounter with a Cambodian teenage prostitute “gave me a visceral understanding of how Asia would climb its way out of the Asian economic crisis, how it would claw its way back to pre-eminence. She taught me something of two of the economic pillars of Asia’s rise — brutal drive and fantastic flexibility.” It must be hard to edit authors with a Pulitzer Prize in their pocket, but someone should have gonged these lines.

Too often the authors refute their own arguments, wax philosophical at a mundane level and find the strength of Asia in the values and attributes of Asians who they readily admit do not share many of these values and attributes. However, they are on firm ground, and can count on readers vigorously nodding is agreement, when they finally get around to admitting that “it may seem silly to generalize about societies across Asia.” This of course is a prelude to more of the same.

Indonesia is so grossly caricatured that it is hard to imagine any reader coming away knowing more than that Sumba is a pleasant island to visit and that local people in East Java lopped off the heads of strangers they took for sorcerers. Is this more of the “Asia is a mysterious and dangerous place” genre?

The coming Asian miracle will not rely on trickle-down growth, it seems, but rather on a splattering dynamism. Kristof writes, “Yet the utter ruthlessness of letting people tumble from the tightrope and splatter on the floor also helps explain why the region is so resilient.” Elsewhere, readers learn that it’s the magical absorptive capacities of the traditional village and family support that have prevented just this splattering. As for Japan, it’s the aversion to splattering that explains why it has dragged its feet on restructuring and thus is the class dunce of Asia. Is splattering a necessary and/or sufficient factor for an Asian renaissance? If the authors can’t even make the region agree on the splatter factor, why serve up oodles of other silly generalizations and stereotypes that obscure as much as they explain?

Do we learn more about the region or the writer when confronted with, “It sometimes seems to me quite fitting that an obstreperous, paranoid country like India would have an even more obdurate and jittery country — Pakistan — next door”? We also learn that a strong family is a pillar of Asia, but are then told about how overburdened, repressively patriarchal and dysfunctional these families are. Does this mean that this pillar is rotting? And if so, what are the implications ?

Readers might choke when they read “Japan does not tolerate excuses, and the whole system places a huge emphasis on cultivating remorse.” Perhaps, but don’t ask the hemophiliacs who contracted AIDS from untreated blood the government allowed to be sold, Asians who seek a forthright accounting of Japan’s wartime record nor the taxpayers called on to bail out negligent managers who squandered trillions of yen in record time and now ask to feed at the public trough and be forgiven 95 percent of their loan obligations. During Japan’s lost decade, the excuse/remorse ratio seems less favorable than what the authors observe.

There are actually four (out of 14) quite good chapters at the end of the book on coming to terms with wartime history, nationalism, the environmental time bomb and discrimination against women. These are important issues and readers will learn much from the authors’ knowledge and analysis. It is a pity that they do not seem to have taken the rest of the book as seriously.

Any lingering good impressions are quickly wiped away by a cursory conclusion. Together the authors sketch fragmentary, cartoonish scenarios about the future that belong on the cutting-room floor. They raffishly find flexibility, drive and social stability in Kabukicho, Tokyo’s red-light district, and extrapolate from that to the rise of Asia.

Lamentably, the lofty ambitions of this wide-ranging book go largely unrealized.