Will The Dragon Roar Again?


Portrait of a Rising Asia

By Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Knopf -- 377pp -- $27.50

In rural Indonesia, a mob parades a severed head mounted on a bamboo stake through a village street. An economic crisis has left the country in despair. Observers approvingly mutter about evil sorcerers, so-called ninjas who must be killed. It is a fittingly dramatic beginning for Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's Thunder from the East, an ambitious effort to understand Asia's extraordinary economic success of recent decades and what will follow the devastating financial collapse of the late 1990s. Was the financial typhoon that tore Asia apart a blip in Asia's ascent to world-beating economic, political, and military power--or the beginning of the region's decline?

Kristof and WuDunn, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters for The New York Times who worked in China and Japan for more than a decade, believe that Asia is set to keep rising. In fact, they say the crisis was "the best thing that could have happened to Asia," since it spurred institutional reform. They offer powerful stories told in the voices of those they have interviewed. And their anecdotes demonstrate everything from the hubris of Asia's once-mighty executives to the callousness and misconception in Washington that made the crisis worse than it need have been. Unfortunately, the authors don't tie all this together with an analysis that persuades us of their thesis--that Asia is destined to triumph over the West.

Still, much of the reporting is stirring. A 23-year-old Indonesian woman who scavenges in the Jakarta dump with her 3-year-old son says she hopes the boy can someday get a job in one of the very sweatshops that Western activists hope to put out of business. A 13-year-old Cambodian prostitute's tale of being sold into the sex slave trade provides a window into what the authors, in an uncomfortable stretch, see as a uniquely Asian resolve to succeed against the odds. WuDunn interviews a fallen Thai property tycoon as they sit amid a vast, unfinished sports stadium that was to be the centerpiece of an audacious development on Bangkok's outskirts. A Thai official proffers a letter written in the early stages of the financial meltdown, in which an aide to Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan tells Thailand that its problems aren't any of Washington's concern and that the free market must be left to work its magic.

And the book's closing anecdote is as gripping as the opener, ending the volume on a profoundly optimistic note personified by a woman named Linda Tang. A whistleblower who campaigned against corruption at the Chinese company where she worked, Tang saw her brother killed by thugs in cahoots with the local government, as he vainly tried to protect her. Tang fled China for Canada, where she earned a law degree. Now, she's back in China, suing the murderers.

For all of this vivid narration, the book is a disappointment. Although such stories may help novices better understand Asia, the volume doesn't cohere sufficiently to support the weighty claim that "Asia is likely to wrench economic, diplomatic, and military power from the West over the coming decades."

Indeed, Thunder from the East barely touches on what it will take to be an economic leader in emerging technology-intensive industries. Asia has excelled at playing catch-up in some areas and at being a producer for the West's rich markets. But as an innovator, it has a patchy record. Kristof and WuDunn clutch at the few exceptions, from Zheng He's legendary voyages to Africa more than 500 years ago to more recent trendsetters such as Sony Corp. (SNE) and Softbank. But these examples feel patched together. One is also left wondering whether such rising Asian nations as China and India will have the diplomatic and military leadership necessary to became true global powers.

And for all the claims of the economic crisis' benefits, there's little analysis of what has actually happened since. Indeed, there's scant evidence for the claim that sweeping reforms have already occurred. Asia still has a long way to go in building an institutional framework of courts, press, and civil society. The book's insightful look at Japan and its many problems could just as easily lead readers to conclude that Asia is at a developmental dead end.

In stretching to make big points, Thunder from the East ultimately undercuts its own solid reporting. For example, after a discussion between Kristof and a group of Japanese students about casual sex, he offers an "epiphany." "We are similar enough that we can learn from each other. And as Asia grows more important we will have to learn more about it." Huh? The platitude highlights the fact that the conversation was just a titillating episode that really contributed nothing. Later, a two-paragraph interlude warns the U.S. to pay more attention to the rest of the world, noting that "imperial understretch" of the sort that undercut China in the 1400s could end America's global dominance. That's interesting as casual conversation, but unfortunately far too typical of a book that by turns is richly fascinating, maddeningly meandering, and all too superficial. Had these two gifted reporters been content to tell a simpler story, the volume could have been a memorable portrait of a region in turmoil. Instead, for all its illuminating texture, it's deeply flawed.

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