"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 Asia. This growth eventually will restore the central role in the global economy that the Asian nations temporarily lost following the Industrial Revolution. And from this economic growth, cultural and political consequences will flow: As the United States gradually (but only relatively) declines, the authors speculate, the twenty-first century will witness Asia's return to global preeminence.

The next Asian economic miracle, suggest Kristof and WuDunn, will come from India rather than East Asia. They could well be right. Having lagged behind its East Asian neighbors in opening its economy to world markets, India's growing population and generally low productivity rates give it great catch-up potential. But as the authors point out, obstacles remain. Indian expatriates hesitate to reinvest money back home, unlike Chinese mainlanders in Taiwan and around the world who have plowed billions back into the ancestral home. Until India convinces its dispersed offspring to invest, it will fall well short of its potential.

The book's economic and political forecasts for the rest of the region are mixed. Japan faces absolute population decline. The Chinese and most other East Asian economies will grow but at a slower rate than before the 1997-98 crisis. China, the authors predict, will ultimately be forced to abandon Tibet and Sinkiang, a province on China's northwestern border with a restive Muslim population.

"The optimist," the American novelist James Branch Cabell once wrote, "proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true." The authors are modestly upbeat by this definition, but they point out that success breeds its own problems. Nationalist rivalries and environmental disasters, for instance, could derail Asian progress. Nevertheless, Kristof and WuDunn's nuanced Cabellian optimism is shared by most Asia-watchers in Asia and abroad, and their ability to ground their judgment in close and careful reporting lends it additional credibility.


On reading this book, however, the reader is struck by one basic question: What is Asia anyway? The continent is so large and diverse, and its leading countries are so differently circumstanced, that a book as exhaustive as this one only makes us ask whether it is possible to generalize meaningfully about "Asia" at all.

"India," Winston Churchill snidely remarked, "is merely a geographical expression." But the Asia of Thunder From the East is not even that. Pakistan is included, Iran is not. Why? And what then is Iran part of?

Kristof and WuDunn argue that their geographic Asia (roughly, moving from east to west, Japan through Pakistan) has a certain cultural unity -- the influence of Indic culture throughout the region via the vehicle of Buddhism. This may be true, but one might just as well call Norway part of the Middle East because it is Christian.

Equivocal words such as "Asia" inevitably create confusion. When Kristof asks why so-called Europe "discovered" so-called Asia rather than the other way around, he refers to Ming Dynasty China's notorious failure to follow up on the early fifteenth-century voyages of Zheng He. This is interesting but sinocentric. Asian Mongols and Turks had not only discovered Europe by the time of Zheng He's travels -- they had conquered great swaths of it, including the Balkans. India, the Asian country closest to the West and the likeliest candidate to "discover" it, had known both the Hellenistic and Roman worlds since the time of Alexander. By the fifteenth century, India was well into a millennium of intermittent, internecine struggle with Islam and was more closely linked to the power politics of the Mediterranean world than it was to events in China. In fact, Turkish economic and military pressures on Europe drove Western adventurers past the Cape of Good Hope to reopen the spice trade. And the struggle with Islam encouraged some Indian rulers to accept the European trading presence on European terms.

Kristof and WuDunn's problems with defining Asia and identifying a unitary course of Asian development underline a principal reason why it is so difficult to think or write clearly about the subject. Asia is not, as most of us habitually think, the complement or counterpart to Europe or even to the West. Rather, China and, with all due respect to Churchill, India are each -- in population, in cultural diversity, and in achievement -- civilizations on their own, equivalent to Europe itself rather than an individual European country. The illusion that they represent a single continental category is a byproduct of the Western ascendancy of the last two centuries, an ascendancy that temporarily made it possible to divide the world into "the West and the rest."


The real analogue of Kristof and WuDunn's Buddhocentric Asia is neither Europe nor the West. It is something bigger and looser: the Abrahamic world. This world emerged from the triad of religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- that trace their roots to the Biblical patriarch and spawned the great secular ideologies of scientific empiricism, liberal democracy, and Marxism. Unlike the Buddhist and Hindu world views, the Abrahamic perspective sees nature as reducible to predictable laws and history as a process with a meaningful beginning, middle, and end. The Muslim, the Marxist, the democrat, the Baconian scientist, the Christian, and the Jew all share this fundamentally similar outlook on life.

Because the Western perspective focuses on the sibling rivalries between Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Jefferson, Bacon, and Marx, it too often overlooks the extraordinary spread of Abrahamism out of its native Middle East into nearly every corner of the world. Virtually every human culture that has encountered Abrahamic ideology has adopted it sooner or later. Asia is no exception. In the last 100 years, each major Asian state has embraced at least one Abrahamic faith. Consequently, every Asian society is today engaged in a fundamental effort to reconcile its increasingly Abrahamic outlook with its native culture.

Islam was the first branch of the Abrahamic family to put down deep roots in what Kristof and WuDunn call Asia, and now roughly half of the world's more than one billion Muslims live there. Thirty percent of the Indian subcontinent's population has accepted the message of the Koran. In contrast, although Christianity (the other missionary Abrahamic faith) appeared in the region before Islam, it failed outside of the Philippines to win significant numbers of converts until the last 125 years. Marxism -- a secular outgrowth of the Abrahamic outlook -- was one of the last to appear and the fastest both to rise and to fall. Its decay leaves an ideological vacuum in countries such as China and Vietnam.

Although one cannot now predict what will follow, it would be surprising if Marx's successor is not also Abrahamic. Liberal democracy, the reigning secular ideology of the Abrahamic world, was first planted in Asia early in the twentieth century and has blossomed even in countries such as Thailand, Japan, and India, which have proven resistant to the religious varieties of the Abrahamic way.

If "Asia" is adopting Abrahamic ideology, it never does so passively but always adapts as it adopts. It has also been profoundly affected by another product of the Abrahamic world. That, of course, is capitalism.

In accounting for Ming China's failure to follow up earlier exploratory voyages, Thunder From the East points to the relative weakness of greed as a social force in Asia. "The rich," writes Kristof, "tended to hoard their wealth in the form of gold or land rather than recycle it or invest in commercial ventures." Europe, by contrast, was "obsessed" with greed. This is a somewhat infelicitous way to say that mercantile activity in Asia remained limited by quasi-feudal restraints while Europe progressed to full-blown capitalism.

In effect, capitalism is simply another of the "ISMS" that have germinated in the fertile Western Christian seedbed of Abrahamic culture. "Accumulate! Accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!" wrote the angry Marx. Capitalism has proceeded from and accentuated the dynamic, world-conquering nature of the Western Christian branch of the family of Abraham.

This set of social and economic behaviors has proven as aggressive and as penetrating in the economic sphere as most Abrahamic philosophies and religions have been in the ideological arena. Indeed, the endless multiplication and accumulation of capital -- as opposed to the accumulation of wealth for purposes of consumption -- has been the hallmark of the modern West.

Allied to the military forces of the Christian powers, capitalism fell on Asia like Byron's Assyrian on the fold. Resistance -- either nativist like Gandhi's or Marxist like Mao's -- proved futile. In the end, Asian societies had to defend themselves in the only way possible, by internalizing capitalist practice. Both processes continue today. Capitalism's onslaught proceeds as foreign multinationals insert themselves more thoroughly into Asian economies, and the cold, impersonal forces of market-driven exchange are painfully but inevitably adopted as previous economic patterns centered around relationships and patronage give way.

Unleashing entrepreneurial energy at the price of undermining ancient social ties, the cyclone of capitalist creative destruction is tearing across Asia as it tore -- and still tears -- through Europe and North America. Many of the phenomena that Kristof and WuDunn describe in Asia have their counterparts in the history of the capitalist West. The teeming, unsanitary slums crowded with peasants forced off the land, child workers, environmental disasters, and dizzying successions of booms and busts were as present in the London of Dickens and the Paris of Zola as they are in the Bangkok and Jakarta of Kristof and WuDunn. The masses of impoverished immigrants who crossed the Atlantic in disease-laden boats to pour into the slums of New York and Chicago, to toil at subsistence wages every week amid dangerous machinery and poisonous chemicals -- these masses had much in common with today's peasants flocking to Asian cities.


The capitalism transforming Asia today is more developed and dynamic than the one that enveloped the West in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The stages of capitalist industrialization -- the spinning jenny, the railroad, the steel mill, electrical mass production, the transistor, the jet, the computer -- that appeared in successive European and American generations are falling on many Asian communities in a single life span, sometimes in a single decade. We cannot simply use Western experience to predict the future of capitalist, industrial, and postindustrial Asia. Asian societies are bigger, the pace of change is faster, and both capitalism itself and the Abrahamic ideologies that enfold and sometimes challenge it are still very new in many places. They are still often felt to be alien, perhaps illegitimate interlopers.

The comparative approach to predicting Asia's future somewhat modifies the Kristof-WuDunn conclusion. That events in geographical Asia will dominate the twenty-first century seems almost self-evident. That Asia's rising productive capacity will vastly increase its share of the world's total output is also hard to dispute. But whether all this activity can accurately be described as the "rise of Asia," as Kristof and WuDunn put it in their subtitle, is another question entirely. The enormous cultural, social, political, and economic revolution sweeping through the traditional societies of the eastern and southern coastlands of Eurasia is not as simple, benign, and one-directional as a rise.

In fact, the twenty-first century may well be remembered more for the end of Asia than for its rise. On the one hand, the universal solvents of capitalism and Abrahamic ideology will continue to sow deep social and cultural changes among the peoples of geographical Asia, steadily reducing, transforming, and remixing -- although probably never finally eliminating -- the last traces of pre-Abrahamic culture. A Christian Korea and an Islamic Malaysia may ultimately have as much and as little connection as Norway and Kuwait. At the same time, the growing political and cultural power of individual Asian societies, especially of China and India, will make it ever more difficult and finally impossible for observers to talk about "Asia" as a political or cultural unit. Asia tomorrow may well be what Eurasia is today: a geographically useful expression with little cultural or even political relevance. That development would be the natural and logical climax to the trends described in the pages of this remarkable book.

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