NOVEMBER 24, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 46 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK
What's in store for kids in the next 25 years?
By CESAR BACANI
The child pictured here may grow up in a more peaceful and economically resurgent Asia. The Internet will bring more open forms of communication and foster increasing individualism and opportunity. A reunified China might erase the nightmare of mainland missiles screaming across the Taiwan Strait. A united Korea could also bring calm, provided the unpredictable possibly nuclear North is tamed by the more prudent South. So might a settlement of the blood feud between India and Pakistan over Kashmir: U.S. President Bill Clinton has described the subcontinent as "the world's most dangerous place" because both countries have successfully tested atomic bombs. As for that ancient enemy, poverty, wouldn't it be grand if no one has to survive on less than $1 a day and no child dies from malnutrition? Throw in full respect for women's rights they, after all, make up half of Asia's 3-billion-plus population and today's kids will live in nirvana. Maybe. Looking across the region, there is plenty of reason for hope. But plenty could go wrong, too.
China. Wei Wou, the dean of the College of International Studies at Taiwan's Tamkang University, believes China will be a united nation, no longer torn by the half-century old civil war that divides Taiwan and the mainland. Political reforms in the mainland are inevitable, he says, and democratic changes in turn, will help resolve the Taiwan question. "Twenty five years from now, the Chinese government will be giving people a large measure of self-determination," says Wei. "Freedom of religion, the press and speech will be enshrined in this process." Wei does not see the Chinese Communist Party being overthrown. Instead, he predicts a distancing from Marxism and Leninism, with the party adopting an ideology based on the traditional Chinese values of Confucianism and Taoism.
In a sort of democracy "with Chinese characteristics," to use Beijing's language, the Communist Party could govern in cooperation with other groups, just as that other veteran power-holder, the Liberal Democratic Party, now rules Japan in partnership with smaller parties. "It will be like the Japanese model, but slightly more conservative," says Wei. Direct elections? Maybe not in Beijing. But Wei believes that Taiwan will continue to vote for its president and other officials after reunification. "China will be mature enough to allow Taiwan a high measure of self-determination," says Wei. "Under this politically reformed China, Taiwan will naturally come back to the fold."
Will Beijing's so-called fourth-generation leaders, who include 57-year old Vice President Hu Jintao, be more flexible than today's leaders when they take over, possibly as soon as 2002? "They can take history into their hands by beginning confidence-building measures like withdrawing China's phalanx of missiles aimed at Taiwan," says Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council on Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei.
China's new leaders will preside over a rapidly changing nation. Beijing is finally joining the World Trade Organization, which means it will have to reform economic policies to fulfill its obligations to fellow members (including Taiwan, whose application is on hold pending China's entry). These changes will eventually carry over to politics. "China has reached a stage where the system must be revised," says Yang. "As it advances economically, it will naturally become more moderate." The fourth-generation leaders, he believes, will not necessarily be wedded to the "one country, two systems" formula in Hong Kong, in which Beijing promised to respect the former British colony's way of life for 50 years. "Reunification could be a federation," says Yang an option more acceptable in Taiwan.
The Koreas. The Korean peninsula is Asia's second trouble spot. There, the reunification process seems to be more advanced, kickstarted by a historic summit in June between the South's Kim Dae Jung and the North's Kim Jong Il. But Seoul is anxious to dampen expectations. "Reunification of the two Koreas?" asks Lee Jong Suk, a fellow at think-tank The Sejong Institute. "I don't expect that to happen anytime soon not in the next 20 or 30 years." Lee was a member of the delegation that accompanied President Kim Dae Jung to Pyongyang in June. "Of course, our vision is unification of the fatherland, but that is not something that can be achieved in a year or two," says Lee. "Considering that the two Koreas fought a war [in 1950-53] and had been separated for 55 years, reconciliation will not be easy."
The main worry is an economic and political implosion in the North, which could lead to hungry hordes descending on the South. That would force a rapid German-style unification that could destroy South Korea's recovering economy. So Kim Dae Jung has decreed a "sunshine policy" that aims to strengthen the North's economy while encouraging social and cultural exchanges as confidence-building measures. If this means keeping Kim Jong Il in power and leaving the communist system intact, so be it. For the South, it is more important to create breathing space to give both sides time to adjust to the idea of reunification.
Security obligations South Korea's relationship with the U.S. and the North's with Russia and China complicate the issue, since none of the big powers want to be left out of the game. Lee says Pyongyang has at least replaced its security pact with Moscow with a broader friendship treaty. It is negotiating a similar reworking with China. "But in the case of South Korea and the U.S., the relationship is still governed by a bilateral security treaty," says Lee. "What the two nations should do is to find another security relationship, perhaps in line with the ASEAN Regional Forum, under which both China and the U.S. could be included. If this happens, neither Korea would feel that its security is threatened."
Another troubling issue is grassroots support. It is difficult to say how the hermetic North Koreans view unity. In the more prosperous South, however, many citizens harbor ambivalent feelings. "Of course, we want unification," says lawyer Yim Kwang Kyu, who is secretary-general of the non-government organization Constitutional Law Advocates. "But it should not be unification for unification's sake. We don't want to give up our freedom and democracy. North Korea is a totalitarian state that has committed many crimes against South Koreans, so it should first show remorse and demonstrate that it wants to live side by side with us."
Kashmir. This disputed territory continues to be a terrifying spot. India and Pakistan, the world's newest nuclear powers, have had no formal contact with regard to Kashmir since Nawaz Sharif was ousted as Pakistani prime minister in a military coup last year. In March 1999, Indian Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee had taken a bus for a landmark journey to Lahore, where he met with Sharif and agreed to discuss the contentious issue of Kashmir. That breakthrough came to nothing after Gen. Pervez Musharraf took power seven months later. India blames him for the July 1999 mini-war in the mountain peaks of Kargil, along the line of control dividing the parts of Kashmir held by the two sides. Ever since, the bloody skirmishing has continued.
The impasse darkens hopes of a resolution in the next 25 years. "Peace is not possible between the two countries," declares Delhi-based journalist Pran Jalali. "Pakistan sustains itself through antagonism toward India." He is the bitter victim of a religious divide Jalali is a Hindu who was forced to leave his Kashmiri hometown by Islamic militants. The conflict dates back to 1947, when Pakistan became an independent state. Kashmir's Hindu king opted to join India, but a number of his predominantly Muslim subjects wanted to become part of Islamic Pakistan. A war erupted in 1948, ending in an uneasy ceasefire that left India and Pakistan in control of parts of Kashmir.
The U.N. Security Council's 1948 call for a plebiscite among Kashmiris has yet to be heeded. India is wary of internationalizing the problem. Vajpayee says he is willing to restart talks provided Pakistan stops training Islamic militants to fight in Kashmir. Pakistan denies abetting terrorists. "We need to move toward peace," says Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, Pakistan's ambassador to New Delhi. "Until we solve the problem in Kashmir, there could not be any real [economic] progress in this region." Not to say peace of mind the fear is that a new conflict could escalate into a nuclear war.
Business Strains. Economists expect a peace dividend from any easing of tension in Asia's three flash points, as money for missiles are spent instead on infrastructure and social programs. Other forces could also spur an economic resurgence after the shock of the 1997 Asian Crisis. "The region must respond to strong secular forces like globalization, trade opening and new technologies," says Manu Bhaskaran of SG Securities Asia in Singapore. "There are looming deadlines for trade and investment liberalization set into motion by the World Trade Organization and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Rapid changes in technology are making nonsense of protectionism in sectors such as financial services."
How Asian governments and companies handle these pressures will be crucial. "We are not going to see a lot of wealth creation in Asia if corporate restructuring does not take place," warns Tim Condon, chief regional economist for ING Barings in Hong Kong. "There are just too many vested interests. Even though everyone knows that change is necessary, no one actually wants to go out on a limb." Adds Arup Raha, chief Asia economist at UBS Warburg: "Governments must realize that no amount of propping will save crony corporations. Companies need to learn to survive in a competitive and globalized environment, rather than expect the government to keep domestic markets closed."
But many economists are optimistic. "When governments and entrepreneurs see markets rewarding companies in one country because they changed for the better, they will themselves reform," says Raha. In the next 10 years, predicts Bhaskaran, instability will be reduced because most of the region has learned the lessons of the Asian Crisis. He sees more consistent state policies, improvements in financial-sector monitoring and viable mechanisms to deal with corporate failures. "This new phase will probably deliver lower GDP growth compared with pre-Crisis levels," says Bhaskaran. "But the expansion will be built on solid fundamentals and will be less vulnerable to crises."
Poverty Relief. Will this new wealth trickle down to the poor? Hunger and want still stalk many parts of Asia. According to the World Bank, four of 10 Indians live on $1 a day, the international definition of poverty. More than 235 million Chinese 18.5% of the mainland's population lead the same hardscrabble existence. In the Philippines, the richest 30% of the population consume 89% of national output, while the poorest 30% make do with just 7.7% of the pie. There is evidence, however, that the poor do share in the bounty of consistent GDP growth. In 1980, 82 of 1,000 children aged 5 or younger in East Asia died of malnutrition and other causes. Two decades on and despite the Asian Crisis, child mortality had been halved to 43 deaths for every 1,000 kids.
Rising Women. In the fight against poverty, Asia has one underutilized resource its women. "There is evidence that when women enter decision-making bodies in significant numbers, issues vital to the development of all people, like childcare, are more likely to become priorities," says Ivy Josiah, executive secretary of Malaysia's Women's Aid Organization. "But the average proportion of women's participation in national parliaments worldwide is 12.7%. In Malaysia, it is less than 5%." The Convention for Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, approved at the U.N. international women's conference in Beijing in 1995, calls for 30% representation for women in all fields.
Across Asia, the proportion of women power holders may rise in the next 25 years slowly. Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, New Zealand, the Philippines and Sri Lanka are or have been led by women. In Malaysia, says Josiah, political parties have awakened to the women's vote (they make up 54% of the country's electorate). Women comprise more than half of the 2.8 million members of dominant party United Malays National Organization (UMNO). But they are still shut out of decision-making. "There is not even one woman party vice-president, except for the head of the women's wing, who is a de facto VP," says lawyer Azalina Othman Said. She is one of only four women on UMNO's 46-member supreme council.
The activists don't always agree on tactics. Josiah urges intervention. Quotas are needed to overcome "built-in resistance and hierarchy," she says. "There is deep resistance because the old boys resent women taking away their positions." Azalina favors evolution. "I want to see women empowered naturally, not by executive, political or legislative acts," says the lawyer. "In this country, women never ask questions. They have [long] played secondary roles. Someone must be willing to make a difference. Women must know their rights."
What those rights are is another question. Malaysia's Constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of religion, race, heritage or place of birth but not gender. Josiah sees little chance of gender equality getting enshrined in the charter. "There is increasing [Islamic] fundamentalism," says the feminist, a non-Muslim. "Extremists want to restrict women's participation in public office and even their choice of attire." Azalina is worried too. "As a Muslim, I do not want to see religion used as a weapon to suppress and deny equality to women," she says. "We should be allowed to make choices about what to do with our lives."
Time for a reality check. Did we mention nirvana? By now it should be clear that Asia may not attain that state of ultimate bliss in the next 25 years, if at all. Even if, say, China were to unite with Taiwan, that marriage would surely have to grapple with new problems. China's neighbors would start fretting about the threat posed by the emergence of a richer and more powerful Asian superpower. The most we can say about the future is that it will not be the same as the present. "Change is likely to be the only constant in Asia," says economist Bhaskaran. But what we dream and do today will help determine the shape of things to come.
Reported by Allen Cheng/Beijing, Santha Oorjitham/Kuala Lumpur, Sanjay Kapoor/New Delhi, Assif Shameen/Singapore and Laxmi Nakarmi/Seoul
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