Courtesy Reuters

The End of Asia? Redefining a Changing Continent

In This Review

Thunder From the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia

By Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Alfred A. Knopf, 2000
384 pp. $27.50

"Can Asians think?" Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore's ambassador to the United Nations, famously asked in a 1997 lecture. Thunder From the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia drives us to ask a variation of Mahbubani's question: Can anyone think about Asia?

This is not because Thunder From the East is a bad book or because the authors' observations are uninformed. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are a husband-and-wife team of Pulitzer-prize winning journalists who know their subject: Kristof served as The New York Times' bureau chief in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Tokyo, and WuDunn was a correspondent for the paper across Asia. Together they have logged thousands of miles and taped hundreds of interviews in years of travel through Asia. They have raised a family there, and with their son enrolled in a Japanese elementary school, they can offer an intimate, PTA-level view of Japanese society that is all too rare in the West.

Kristof and WuDunn describe Asians in every imaginable circumstance: from Japanese politicians revealed in private moments of frankness to Cambodian child prostitutes interviewed in front of their brothels; from bankrupt Thai ex-millionaires rebuilding their fortunes to Javanese peasants hacking "sorcerers" to death with machetes. The authors have captured the kaleidoscopic realities of contemporary Asia as few others have and reproduced them sympathetically.


The recent Asian financial crisis, write Kristof and WuDunn, signalled a change of pace in Asia's economic growth but not its end. In the larger historical context, the book reminds us, Asia still has much ground to recover: although Asia's GDP amounted to 33 percent of world output in 1998, up from only 17 percent in 1952, the current proportion reflects a recovery only to the levels of 1890. The best estimates available suggest that in 1700, Asian output accounted for 62 percent of world production and that as late as 1820, China's output alone exceeded all of Europe's. Asian productivity presumably will over time approach that of European and North American economies, even with the slower growth the authors forecast for East

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