Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia

Article excerpt

By Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. 337 pages. $27.50.

Once again Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the renowned New York Times foreign correspondent husband-wife team, have produced a thought-provoking and highly readable volume on a topic of considerable interest. Kristof and WuDunn's previous collaborative effort resulted in China Wakes (Times Books, 1994) which this reviewer also highly commends to readers. This time the intrepid Pulitzer Prize-winning duo tackles a far more daunting challenge--a study of all Asia. Indeed, the authors readily admit that they have attempted an awesome task, and that their approach has limitations. Nevertheless, the book succeeds rather admirably as a lively yet solid introduction to contemporary Asia.

The reader is presented with vivid portraits of countries and individuals. One value of the volume is that it provides a human dimension that is often missing in the writings of inside-the-Beltway national security analysts. While these researchers tend to identify correctly the key Asian trends and skillfully assess their effects and the implications for the United States, they rarely discuss what it all means for ordinary people in the countries concerned. Even regular visitors to the region tend to interact only with their counterparts and taxi drivers in these countries rather than the proverbial man in the street. Kristof and WuDunn, in their quest to bring Asia home to their readers, reach well beyond the subjects most conveniently available to foreign correspondents. They give voice to an Indonesian rickshaw driver in eastern Java, a Cambodian child prostitute in Phnom Penh, a Japanese gangster in Tokyo, the father of a Thai teenager working in a Bangkok sweatshop. These vignettes are not so much recounted to titillate as they are to reinforce larger points about major issues facing particular countries or the entire region. The authors, for example, skillfully weave together personal stories to illustrate both the severe impact of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 and the surprisingly quick recovery that has allowed many inhabitants of the worst-hit countries to get back on their feet, albeit battered and bruised.

Of greatest interest is the final third of the book, focusing on Asia's destiny. …