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NOVEMBER 24, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 46 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

The End of Politics
The market is the moving force behind the New Asia

In Asiaweek's first full year of publication, 1976, three of Asia's titans died. All three of them were revolutionary war horses of China, who expired within months of each other. They were the longtime Premier Zhou Enlai and the commander of the communist armies Zhu De. Towering over them was the founder of the Chinese People's Republic Mao Zedong himself. When he died it seemed that the earth literally shook. These passages of course, were the occasion for lengthy cover stories in Asia's newest newsmagazine, Indeed, in a way they even helped to give a magazine struggling to be born a start on life. A quarter century later, political giants of the old school no longer seem so prominent. Of course, such luminaries as Singapore's senior minister Lee Kuan Yew still live in active retirement as respected senior statesmen. One might add to the list South Korea's president and Asia's newest Nobel Laureate, Kim Dae Jung, honored not just for his successful peace overtures with North Korea but for a lifetime of struggle and commitment to bringing democracy to his country. But even a cursory look at today's Asiaweek shows how things have changed. The newsmaker gracing the cover or commanding the inside pages is more likely to be somebody far removed from the ordinary run of politics. One week it might be Jerry Yang, founder of the Internet search company Yahoo. Another issue might feature Richard Li, the son of Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing and himself a major force in the New Economy. This year Asiaweek took the unusual step of naming as the most powerful person in Asia, not one of the usual suspects, not a president or prime minister, but a businessman, Li Ka-shing.

A revolution is brewing, and the rebels — the younger generation — are building a New Asia. You might call the transformation the "end of politics." Zhou Enlai was once asked to give his assessment of the French Revolution, then nearly 200 years distant. He famously replied that it was too early to tell. We, however, do not think it is too early to assess the dramatic change that has taken place in Asia during the last quarter century. To put it succinctly, economics is the real moving force. Most young Chinese these days couldn't care less who is up and who is down in the party Politburo. What they want is not just to make money but to enlarge their own personal space. To use a Jeffersonian phrase, they want to pursue their own happiness. Just listen to Shanghai-born Paul Zheng, a 28-year old netpreneur featured in this week's 25th anniversary package. Zheng, who founded a software services company in China, isn't thinking about Communist Party politics: "I want to make this venture into a big success," he says. Then he plans to open a bar, start a rock band, and develop a record label.

When Asiaweek began publication, the atmosphere was entirely different. The region was just emerging from decades of European imperialism. The main driving force was anti-colonialism; the essential task, nation-building. The emergence of a middle class in almost every Asian nation was just beginning. Today, most Asians take their own sense of nationalism for granted. To be sure, some of the old antagonisms exist. Sri Lanka, torn by ethnic civil war for almost two decades, is still not a country comfortable with itself. And Indonesia may be in the process of disintegrating. Sometimes Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad speaks as if the colonialists were still around, this time roiling his financial markets. Yet we are seeing the first generation of Asians with no reason to feel inferior to the West, and they don't feel the same compulsions that drove their fathers. Business sometimes simply transcends politics. Today, a Taiwanese entrepreneur might own a factory in Vietnam, with supervisors from mainland China, producing shoes for the U.S. market.

There is considerable irony in this historic shift away from politics. The three members of the old guard who departed the scene in 1976 were revolutionary Communists — Marxists. The central maxim of classical Marxism is that economics drives everything. But once these political giants got power, they proceeded to turn Marxism on its head. Mao Zedong is still revered in China, despite the many mistakes that caused unprecedented hardship; he is admired primarily for his political success in driving away the last vestiges of colonialism and uniting the country after a century of humiliation in the hands of Imperialists. Many Chinese would rather forget the fact that Mao's economic policies were uniformly disastrous disastrous.

Significantly, 1976 was also the year when the Great Cultural Revolution in China finally petered out. For a decade, everything had taken a back seat to political correctness. Deng Xiaoping's great legacy was to reverse that. He told Chinese people to put politics aside in the interests of getting rich. Most people, weary of the political struggles and of the Gang of Four, were happy enough to follow that advice. Today, in the nominally communist countries left in Asia, aside from Stalinist North Korea, people have turned back to building their own lives — and making money.

One could argue that politics has always taken a back seat to economics in Japan. It has been a cliché for years that Japan possessed a first-rate economy and a third-rate political system. There never were any towering post-war political figures, comparable to the Chinese giants. When one looks for anyone of similar stature, only the names of Matshushita Konosuke or Morita Akio, the founder of Sony, come readily to mind, both businessmen. But after a decade of recession and stagnant growth, one could equally argue that Japan no longer boasts a first-rate economy. In truth many of the verities about "Japan Inc" or the "Japanese miracle" — a phrases that gained currency about twenty-five years ago — no longer have much validity in today's rapidly changing economy.

The good news is that the failure of the bureaucracies and giant companies has caused the best young minds to shun them. Increasingly, they are starting their own ventures or taking the risky option of leaving secure jobs with large corporations in mid-career. The rise of the Internet has empowered many individuals, allowing them to short-circuit the more rigid and hierarchical society that tends to favor entrenched interests. When Japanese do think of politics, they are turning to non-politicians, such as the new governor of rural Nagano prefecture, a writer with no previous governmental experience whatsoever.

It is not that people are indifferent to civic affairs. They are approaching them in new and different ways. A revealing poll recently asked Japanese whom they trusted to lead the country into the future. On a scale of 100, politicians received a five. Civil and non-profit organizations got a 56. Twenty-five years ago, the term NGO might just as well have been NHO, for Never Heard Of it. Since then the numbers and reach of these entities has grown enormously. In many parts of Asia, NGOs are the only institutions interested in protecting the environment, helping the poor or arresting the spread of AIDS. Even in China, where the government is hostile to any kind of independent civil activity, people have been attracted to nascent environmental movements.

In Malaysia political activism burned brightly but only briefly in the wake of the firing and prosecution of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. But even as the reformasi movement evaporated, many younger Malaysians channeled their energy and idealism into other avenues. Rather than tackle cronyism head on, they seemingly withdrew from political life altogether or put their energies into creating new companies, new opportunities, new conditions that in their own way challenge and will ultimately undermine the old system in which political connections guaranteed success in business. "If you think that change can only come from . . . politics," you are doomed, says one enterprising young Malaysian.

During the first twenty-five years after the end of World War II, politics was unquestionably the driving force in Asia. But now entrepreneurs are leaving the old-line politicians and even corporate tycoons behind. Emancipated Asians in their twenties no longer are swayed by the old anti-colonial rhetoric. Secure in their own identity, they approach the new globalism without fear. "Cracks are widening in the old businesses, exposing institutional exhaustion," warns Takano Ken, a 25-year old Japanese netpreneur who also appears in our anniversary package. "It's our generation who will take over and carry on." Asia's youth are fighting for the freedom to create their own vision of Asian society, culture and business. In the region's boardrooms, on the Internet, and in their homes, they are winning. And a new Asia is born.

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