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"Outstanding... [A] most memorable portrait of modern Asia."
--The New York Times Book Review
"Individually, Kristof and WuDunn are extraordinarily knowledgeable; collectively, they are untouchable."
--The Miami Herald
"If we Muslims are being treated like animals, will we stand for it?" Banu asked, his voice rising to a crescendo.
"No!" his followers yelled back.
"If we catch the ninja, what should we do? Give them to the police or kill them?"
"So send this message to your families," Banu added grimly: "When we catch the attackers, we must kill them."
That night, I tossed and turned. Would these villagers, who had been so hospitable to me, actually attack people they suspected to be sorcerers? I wondered whether I had lent credibility to Banu by attending the meeting, increasing the chance that he and his friends would butcher strangers. Finally, I decided that it was all talk and fell into a comfortable slumber. But in the morning, my interpreter brought a local newspaper and I learned that at roughly the same time that Banu was holding his meeting, mobs a bit farther to the south had been tearing apart five men who lacked identification and were consequently suspected of being sorcerers. Two were burned alive and three were beheaded, their heads impaled on pikes and paraded through the nearby towns.
"Where did that happen?" I asked.
"In a little town called Turen," replied my interpreter, a local journalist. As I looked at the articles, I felt revulsion and fear, but in the mix there was also a large dose of curiosity. What kind of people could commit such grotesque acts? How could citizens behead their neighbors? The killings struck me as a modern version of the seventeenth-century Salem witch trials. If there were any sorcery in Indonesia, I mused, it was the economic and social alchemy that left people running around in mobs carrying human heads on pikes. The despair and social disintegration that accompanied the crisis seemed to leave Indonesians particularly inclined to supernatural explanations, particularly vulnerable to manipulation by secret army units, and particularly likely to respond with mob violence to each new threat that appeared to disrupt their lives.
"Let's go," I suggested. "Let's try to find some of the people who did it and talk to them."
It was an odd drive. In journalism you occasionally find yourself careering the wrong way on a one-way street, heading in precisely the direction that you know quite confidently you should be fleeing from. I was tense with apprehension but also soothed by the vivid green countryside we were driving through. It seemed impossible to reconcile the macabre news accounts with a landscape that was tranquil and lovely that morning: paddies sprouting rich green rice plants, dark green forested hills in the distance, occasional coconut plantations with endless rows of palms.
This was the first time in ten years that I had been in this part of East Java, and the economic development over the intervening decade was dazzling. The previous time I had bounced over rutted gravel roads in creaky old buses filled with exhaust smoke. Once a bus had simply let me off on a remote hillside where the road had washed out, and I had been forced to spend the night in a peasant's house, cadging bananas for dinner. Now, just ten years later, I was hurtling along a road that was sleek, paved, and straight, and modern cars and trucks were gliding by clean restaurants and stores. I was traveling on a modern highway to meet mobs that paraded heads on pikes.
When Dante set forth into the Inferno, he was battered by the "sighs, lamentations, and loud wailings resounding through the starless air." I was encountering my own netherworld, with its own wails and laments and cries for help. Since the economic crisis had spread economic and social convulsions through the region, Asia and especially Indonesia had been transformed into something that in its bleakest hours resembled Dante's ninth ring of hell.
As we approached Turen, traffic thinned out and virtually disappeared. We stopped at a regional police station to ask if it was safe, and a senior officer -- a tall, stout man with a crisp uniform -- assured us pompously that the day had been calm so far. We asked if it might be possible to take a policeman in the car with us for safety's sake, and he frowned.
"No, I'm afraid not," he said. "All the police officers are staying inside the compound here."
He hesitated for a moment, deflated, and then said: "They think it's too dangerous to go out in the streets." . . .
As I nervously probed my neck for reassurance, what rocked me was a sense of utter sadness and confusion. This was Java, a gloriously cultured land that had been civilized before Britain and whose people are renowned for their kindness and restraint. This was a nation that the World Bank had hailed as a model for the developing world. But now the Asian economic crisis had contorted it into an example of Asia at its very worst. Suddenly, theParadiso of Asia had become the Inferno.
Two conclusions might seem obvious from these economic and social upheavals: First, the Asian economic crisis was a catastrophe of historic proportions. Second, the Pacific Century is over before it began. Asia may hobble back eventually, but when people start running around hacking off each other's heads, they are not on the brink of a middle-class or an industrial revolution.
Yet those are, we think, precisely the wrong conclusions. As Zhao Yi, a Chinese poet, wrote two hundred years ago: I>gai guan lun ting. It means roughly: "You cannot rightly judge a person until his coffin lid is sealed." And although during the crisis Asia was widely measured for its coffin -- and sometimes seemed to stretch out inside -- it is far too soon to seal the lid. On the contrary, instead of suggesting that the crisis was a catastrophe or that the Pacific Century is over, we will over the course of this book make two very different arguments.
First, the Asian economic crisis was the best thing that could have happened to Asia. It entailed a terrible human cost, but it is also helping to destroy much of the cronyism, protectionism, and government regulation that had burdened Asian business. The crisis helped launch a political, social, and economic revolution that is still incomplete but that ultimately will reshape Asia as greatly as the fall of the Berlin Wall reshaped Europe.
This revolution is essential because for all the praise lavished on the Asian business culture, up close it never looked nearly so impressive. Sometimes it looked downright idiotic. I talked to Japanese bankers about their practice of spending thousands of dollars taking their Finance Ministry bank regulators out to $500-a-person expense-account dinners at no-pan-shabu-shabu restaurants in Tokyo's Kabukicho red-light district. The attraction of these restaurants is not the shabu-shabu, the thinly sliced beef that is dipped into a hot pot in front of the customer. Rather the appeal is the waitresses in short skirts and "no pan" (no panties). The restaurants keep water and sake high up, so that the waitresses have to stretch to reach them. One of these no-pan-shabu-shabu restaurants, seeking to ensure that customers could appreciate its "special amenities," even put mirrors on the floors. "And if you pay a tip," one official confided, "then the girl will climb on the table and lift her skirt."
Imagine the intellectual level of the discussion at these dinners. Imagine the caliber of Japan's bank regulation.
The Asian economic crisis forced a greater reliance on markets, democracy, and the rule of law. One result is that Tokyo no longer has any no-pan-shabu-shaburestaurants. The crisis also meant that Asian countries finally got first-class financial institutions -- often American ones -- to underwrite the industrial revolution and cultivate deep capital markets. Just as Britain's economic near-collapse in 1976 and subsequent bailout by the International Monetary Fund laid the groundwork for its renaissance over the next two decades, Asia's upheavals will gradually help clear out the dead wood and reinvigorate the region.
The second conclusion is broader: Partly because of this forced restructuring, Asia is likely to wrench economic, diplomatic, and military power from the West over the coming decades. The "center of the world," to the extent that there is one, has migrated repeatedly over the years. It was China for most of the first millennium b.c., then Rome during the Roman Empire, then China again for well over one thousand years, then Spain in the sixteenth century, then England, and finally America since the late nineteenth century. Now the center of the world may be slowly shifting again, and eventually it will settle in Asia.
The United States is incomparably ahead of Asia in information systems, business management, financial services, and entertainment industries, plus it has the advantage of operating in the international language. But the United States's share of the world's gross domestic product (GDP) peaked in the aftermath of World War II, at about 32 percent. Now America's share of global GDP has fallen to 25 percent, and it is continuing to fall despite the vigor of the American economy in recent years.
This is natural. Poor countries can enjoy "catch-up" growth rates of 5 to 10 percent per year, while mature nations seem unable to average much more than 3 percent. The upshot is that just about every forecast -- by the World Bank, by the Asian Development Bank, and by private economists -- shows that the East will gain considerably in its share of the global economy in the coming decades. The World Bank's forecasts show Asia's share of global GDP rising from 19 percent in 1950 to 33 percent in 1992, to 55 to 60 percent by 2025. In that year, Asia will still lag behind the West in technology, nuclear weaponry, and per capita incomes, but it will have approximately the same share of global income that the West had at its peak in the 1950s.
This shift of power to Asia is in large part a function of population: Just as the city-state of Venice could not compete with the nation of Spain, and England could not muster the power of a continental nation like America, so it will be difficult for the United States to hold its own indefinitely against the rise of countries in Asia. Sixty percent of the world's people live in Asia, and the proportion will probably reach two-thirds by the middle of this century. In contrast, 5 percent of the world's people live in North America, mostly in the United States.
Posted May 11, 2001
Reading about the unfortunate people in the village Badui, China is worth the price of the book. One's mind sobs at the assistance not provided to these poor people by anyone, not the billionaires the world over or by companionless mother China, herself. These sad examples are contrasted with a hopefulness in many instances at the supreme cost in self-sacrificing and heroic life choices made by others equally underprivileged. An Asian 'Tobacco Road.' The book makes American welfare concepts of need laughable. Asians are seen turning to family for meager assistance, and never to government. Despite the cynicism one has for ubiquitious U. S. humanitary aide organizations advertising in the U. S., the reader is stunned learning one dollar can be the difference between food or hunger, education or illiteracy, indeed, life or death. Politically correct American readers will never think of foreign sweat shops the same again. The authors present a view of Asia I had never learned. They anticipate throughout the book great things from this lowliness for future Asia while painting a picture of an Asian 'boiling pot' different from the promise of America's 'metling pot.' Asia is shown as a roiling society of grandeur, simplicity, intelligence, danger, hope, sadness, energy, determination with potential for greatness unlike any other in history. Juxtapositioned against 'The China Threat' and the recent Chinese and American aircraft collision, there is a feeling of urgency reading 'Thunder from the East.' This book should be read to every American high school student.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 20, 2010
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Posted January 25, 2010
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