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Imagine someone had told you, in the waning days of the 20th century, any of the following: Deadly violence against New York and Washington, D.C., would soon lead to two U.S. wars in Asia; a handheld device designed in California and manufactured in China would help change the face of everything from commerce to elections to surveillance; and the GDP of China would multiply by 12, allowing it to challenge the U.S. for global economic supremacy.
What if you had heard that within the next 20 years, a Nobel Laureate, an icon for democracy and freedom, would be accused of complicity in genocide? What if someone had said you would be able to buy goods in Tokyo with a “cryptocurrency,” or that cash would all but vanish from transactions in Beijing? That tyrants and pro-democracy activists alike would use digital platforms to advance their aims? And what if you’d heard that one of the most feared leaders in Asia would be a 36-year-old; and one of its “newly-elected” heads of state would be 94?
Well, you might have replied, I think you’re crazy. Or you might have said: Please, tell me more.
The phrase “Asian Century” was coined well before the century itself arrived. It was reportedly first used in a U.S. Senate committee hearing in the mid-1980s, and picked up by the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who poured cold water on the concept in the late 1980s during a visit with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi: “People have been saying that the next century will be the century of Asia and the Pacific, as if that were sure to be the case. I disagree with this view.”
By the time the century arrived, however, “Asian” seemed a fitting adjective; 20 years in, it’s hard to imagine a better moniker.
The most mind-bending changes of these last two decades have had a China dateline. Beyond the staggering GDP numbers, we have seen a paradigm shift in its economy.
Twenty years ago, the main source of China’s growth was the low-cost manufacturing of toys and clothing and other goods destined for Walmart shelves. Since then, much of that manufacturing has migrated to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Bangladesh, among other places, and the new engines of Chinese growth are in the decidedly less bricks-and-mortar titans such as Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent.
Another paradigm shift involves personalities: Xi Jinping has ushered in an era that now draws fewer comparisons to Deng — architect of China’s great revival — and more to Mao Zedong and his cult of personality. And today, the U.S. and China — which 20 years ago had found a post-Tiananmen modus vivendi — have seen their relationship descend to new and potentially dangerous lows.
Meanwhile, as we write, China (and the world at large) faces a fresh and nightmarish challenge in the face of the coronavirus crisis.
Of course, great change has swept across other parts of Asia, too. If history is measured in moments of dynamism, then nearly all of the last two decades’ “history” on the Korean peninsula came at the beginning and end of that period. In June 2000, the big news involved the meeting of North and South Korean heads of state in Pyongyang. It was the first such summit since the Korean War. Just a few months later, the South Korean leader Kim Dae-jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “Sunshine Policy” of greater openness to the North.
Nearly 20 years later came the remarkable scenes of North Korean leaders at the South Korea-hosted Winter Olympic Games, then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s visit to Pyongyang, and soon after, the Singapore and Hanoi summits where U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un ended a six-decade period in which no sitting North Korean leader had been invited to meet his American counterpart.
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Are we any safer as a result of those moments? Not clear. Or, at least, open for debate.
In other corners of Asia, we have witnessed more substantive cracks in the geostrategic ice. In Iran, a long diplomatic effort brought the 2015 nuclear deal; in Burma — now Myanmar — back-channel diplomacy ended the long rule of a military junta, and paved the way for the release and then elevation to leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. Today both the Iran deal and the halo that hung around Suu Kyi have been badly damaged.
In South Asia, meanwhile, plus ça change. For all the talk of a drawdown, the U.S. war in Afghanistan is nearly 20 years old, and instability and violence continue to wrack the country. In May 1999, the Indian Air Force launched an attack on Pakistan army troops and militants in Kashmir, ultimately recapturing Kargil after a two-month offensive. Almost exactly 20 years later, India eliminated the special status of Kashmir — a radical departure from a status quo that had existed since partition. The tensions then and now are high.
Beyond the challenges of security and geopolitics, there are existential challenges, as well. The late-1990s’ landmark deal on climate change had an Asian dateline — Kyoto. Two decades later, while much has been done to promote clean energy and awareness of the perils of climate change, the danger has only magnified, with many Asian countries facing the greatest risks.
Then there is the challenge of demography. Asia is home to a massive youth population (particularly in much of South and Southeast Asia), with fears of vast unemployment. Elsewhere in the region, Japan, China, and other nations are struggling with the burdens that come with rapidly aging populations.
And what of Asia’s successes, and opportunities? Technology. Innovation. Cashless societies. Infrastructure booms. And, again, economic growth.
Consider the results of a U.N. Development Programme report published last year: Between 2006 and 2016, India lifted 271 million people from poverty, “the fastest reduction in the multipoverty index” anywhere on earth. The report identified 10 nations, with a combined population of roughly 2 billion, which led the way to poverty reduction: half of these were in Asia (Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, and Vietnam). China, meanwhile, had done much of the continent’s poverty-fighting earlier. Between 1980 and 2010, more than 700 million people in China rose out of poverty.
In the world of high technology, Silicon Valley has boomed but also found challengers in the high-tech powerhouses of Shenzhen and Shanghai, in India’s “Silicon Coast” and further west, to the powerhouse of Israel’s “Startup Nation.”
If Steve Jobs gave Asian consumers the palm-of-your-hand device, it was Jack Ma who paved the way for billions of people in Asia to chat and order and pay and date and find friends — without ever leaving their homes. The pace of such change, which has affected billions of people, is staggering indeed.
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A final note about change, in the form of an anecdote. Recently, I came upon an old file from my days at ABC News, notes from a trip to China with the ABC anchor Peter Jennings. We had gone to Beijing and Shanghai in June 1998, a trip timed in conjunction with President Bill Clinton’s visit, and Jennings had done a few interviews under the heading “The New China” (even then, China seemed “new” and stunningly different).
Twenty years later, the transcripts make for fascinating reading. We met Edward Zeng, the man who opened China’s first internet café, and who predicted a freer flow of information on the internet. “I think in the future,” he said, “Chinese leaders will understand this is something you have to open. And I don’t think there is any problem.” To Zeng, the only real “problem” was that the hardware and software were all designed in the U.S.
Meanwhile, a real estate developer, Zhang Xin, told Jennings about the “revolutionary” idea of home mortgages in her country: “Now finally home ownership is happening in China. It’s what we’ve been waiting for.”
Two decades later, there are over 829 million internet users in China, nearly all of whom use mobile devices to access the internet — but the restrictions on news and information are as severe as ever. Meanwhile, today, roughly nine in 10 Chinese families reportedly own homes, and among the country’s greatest challenges is a tide of home mortgage debt.
And, as it happens, Zeng and Zhang turned out to be pretty good personifications of China’s meteoric rise. Today, Zeng is ranked among China’s pre-eminent entrepreneurs, having founded Sparkice, an ecommerce company; and Zhang (who is an Asia Society trustee) and her husband run SOHO China, one of the most successful real estate companies in the world.
As we reflect on these changes — small and staggering, positive and negative, from such a range of geographies and professions — we can only guess, and wonder: Where might the “Asian Century” take us, and the world, in the years to come?