The Baton Passes to Asia
By ROGER COHEN
Published: March 31, 2008
It’s the end of the era of the white man.
I know your head is spinning. The world can feel like one of those split-screen TVs with images of a suicide bombing in Baghdad flashing, and the latest awful market news coursing along the bottom, and an ad for some stool-loosening wonder drug squeezed into a corner.
The jumble makes no sense. It just goes on, like the mindless clacking of an ice-dispenser.
On the globalized treadmill, you drop your eyes again from the screen (now showing ads for gourmet canine cuisine) to the New Yorker or Asahi Shimbun. And another bomb goes off.
There’s a lot of noise and not much signal. Everywhere there is flux and the reaction to it: the quest, sometimes violent, for national or religious identity. These alternate faces of globalization — fluidity and tribalism — define our frontier-dissolving world.
But in all the movement back and forth, basic things shift. The world exists in what Paul Saffo, a forecaster at Stanford University, calls “punctuated equilibrium.” Every now and again, an ice cap the size of Rhode Island breaks off.
The breaking sound right now is that of the end of the era of the white man.
I’d been thinking about this at Dubai airport in the middle of the night, as the latest news came in from the United States of the bloody end to the mother of all spending binges. I was watching the newly affluent from other parts of the world — Asians and Arabs principally — spend their way through the early-morning hours.
The West’s moment, I thought, is passing. Money and might are increasingly elsewhere. America’s little dose of socialism from Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson might stave off the worst but cannot halt the trend.
Then I arrived in Hong Kong. The talk was all about how U.S. economic woes could impact Chinese growth. Might it tumble to 8 from over 11 percent? And what of India, powering along with growth of a mere 8 percent or so?
The West should have such troubles! Even revised downward, these growth rates are at levels Europe and the United States can only dream of.
Decoupling — another Hong Kong buzzword — is not possible in an interlinked world: export-led Asian economies are vulnerable in some measure to U.S. troubles. But that measure dwindles as the Chinese, Indian and Vietnamese domestic markets explode.
Asian statistics can be numbing. With one third of humanity, the numbers get big. There are now 450 million cell phones in China.
But take another — the likelihood that some 300 million people will move from rural to urban India in the next 20 years — and you get a sense of the shifts underway. By 2030, India will probably overtake Japan as the world’s third-largest economy behind the United States and China.
But in the end, transformation is not about numbers. It’s about the mind. Come to Asia and fear drains away. It’s replaced by confidence and a burning desire to succeed. Asian business leaders are rock stars. The culture of education and achievement is fierce. China is bent on beating the U.S.A.
What you feel in Asia, said Claude Smadja, a prominent global strategist, is “a burst of energy, of new dreams, and the end of the era of Western domination and the white man.”
Hong Kong purrs. Its efficiency and high-speed airport train make New York seem third-world. All the talk of Shanghai rising and Hong Kong falling was wrong: they’re both booming. Mainland Chinese tourists come here in droves to play and spend.
I went to see Frederick Ma, Hong Kong’s secretary for commerce. He’s suave in that effortless Hong Kong way, the shrewdness wrapped in a soothing patter of bonhomie. How is it that this is the only place on earth where people think of what you want before you’ve thought of it yourself?
He eased seamlessly from talk of mind-boggling infrastructure plans involving bridges and high-speed trains to a gentle lament for America.
“I am very worried about the U.S. economy right now,” he said. “When I was visiting last November, I asked a banker friend what’s going on, and she told me that a Wall Street problem was soon going to be a Main Street problem.”
Yep, it’s a Main Street problem all right when people lose their homes and realize overnight they’re illiquid and have 1930s visions as Bear Stearns goes “Poof!” in the night.
Everything passes. In the 17th century, China and India accounted for more than half the world’s economic output. After a modest interlude, the pendulum is swinging back to them at a speed the West has not grasped.
It’s the end of the era of the white man; and, before it even began in earnest, of the white woman, too.
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The Baton Passes to Asia