[OUTLOOK]Old Magazines and New Global Realities

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[OUTLOOK]Old Magazines and New Global Realities

Once in 15 years, everybody should have to close up a house and move somewhere else. It gives you a chance to throw out all the magazines you have been saving because you plan to get around to reading them some day.

Pretty far down in my pile of "someday" reading when I cleared the house before coming to Korea was a 10-year-old magazine featuring a striking Chinese mandarin in black and gold on the cover and the headline: "Looking East: the Confucian Challenge to Western Liberalism." That one I kept, and I have now gotten around to reading it. Ten years later, it offers perhaps more compelling reading than when the articles were fresh.

The magazine is New Perspectives Quarterly, an "ideas" journal that typically takes a big subject and brings together big-thinkers and leading politicians to discuss it. "The Confucian Challenge" posits that the age of European and American hegemony is coming to an end and asks what might replace it in the 21st century. The 12 articles by 14 authors including the Dalai Lama, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, Malaysia's Mahathir bin Mohamed, Sony's founder Akio Morita, the global banker David Rockefeller and the Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi explored the possibility of a world dominated by Asia. It was a popular idea at the time. Communism was vanquished; the West had won the Cold War. What next?

One American sage, Francis Fukuyama, thought he saw "The End of History." His idea was that a 200-year ideological struggle, from the French Revolution to the fall of the Berlin Wall, had ended with Western liberalism (meaning free elections, a free economy, separation of church and state, independent courts and press, individual rights) proved to be better able to provide for human welfare than aristocracy, theological privilege, fascism, communism or any other governing system or political theory. At least for now, Mr. Fukuyama said, there is nothing to fight about, only competing versions (Democrats versus Republicans) of how to deliver the good life within the framework of Western liberalism.

Curiously enough, through proclaimed winners, some Western liberals refused to claim victory, perhaps unwilling to see conservative presidents Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush given the credit. Western liberalism has its own flaws, they pointed out. Rampant individualism works just fine for the few geniuses among us, but it leads to income inequality and a degradation of community values. Besides, chimed in a number of authoritarian Asian leaders, what good are "abstract human rights" to a family that has nothing to eat?

And so the search was on for a system that might challenge the hegemony of Western liberalism. Asian "communitarian" capitalism was the obvious first place to look. After all, in 1991 the United States, citadel of Western liberalism, was in recession, while Japan, the model and inspiration for all the Asian "tiger" economies, appeared to be unstoppable. Extrapolating relentlessly, some statisticians reckoned that by 2025 Japan would surpass the U.S. as the world's largest economy.

And it wasn't just Japan. All the most dynamic economies were in Asia - Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea. The grand old liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith said that what made national economies successful was not whether they were capitalist or communist but whether they were culturally related to China.

Hence the theme of the magazine issue: "The Confucian Challenge to Western Liberalism"

One of the things I love about Western liberals is their willingness to consider that everything they believe may be wrong - no other partisans show such courage. But it is still strange to read liberal paeans to hierarchical Asian authoritarianism. "Public duty, not individual rights, is the highest value," wrote the quarterly's editor. In Japan, wrote MIT's Lester Thurow, "'administrative guidance' is a way of life."

Mystical reasons, too - "the eternal cycle of the ages," in Mr. Gardels's phrase - heralded Asia's ascendance.

Well, that was then. The world shifted almost on the very day in 1991 that the magazine was printed. For the past 10 years we have had a buoyant America and a Japan in doldrums. Asian hierarchical authoritarianism turned out to have not only virtues but vices: corruption, nepotism, cronyism.

The proud Asian "tiger" economies, like South Korea's have come to doubt themselves. We - may I say "we" now that I live here and identify my future with Korea's? - seize on all the bad news and bemoan our smallness and weakness in a world dominated by faraway potentates like IMF and WTO. (Never mind what the initials stand for; the point appears to be that poor little Korea is at the mercy of a bunch of acronyms.)

I traveled extensively in Asia in 1993 and 1995 - after the "Confucian Challenge" articles were published - and I was just as impressed with Asian dynamism as any contributor to New Perspectives Quarterly. I wrote similar articles for the newspaper I then worked for about "the Asian Century." And I am not ready to say it was all a mirage. By any measure - lifespan, literacy, calories consumed per day, infant mortality - Asia has made stunning strides in the past quarter-century. And all those skyscrapers in Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur and Seoul were not mirages; men and women work in them, creating the world of tomorrow.

Perhaps it is a silly exercise for politicians and journalists to try to ordain some future rank order among nations, or worse yet, philosophies: Who will win, Confucians or Western Liberals?

Perhaps, learning from each other, both may win.


The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

by Hal Piper

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