Magazine article Newsweek

At the Top: Increasingly, Asia's Course Is Being Charted by Its Booming Cities-And a Crop of Brash Mayors

Magazine article Newsweek

At the Top: Increasingly, Asia's Course Is Being Charted by Its Booming Cities-And a Crop of Brash Mayors

Article excerpt

Byline: George Wehrfritz

Shintaro Ishihara is an inveterate showman. But the flamboyant governor of Tokyo deserves headlines for more than bashing North Korea every chance he gets. Since taking office in 1999, he's reined in runaway spending that threatened to bankrupt the world's biggest city and put uniformed troops on the streets (for disaster drills) for the first time since World War II. He's not shy about challenging national leaders--having raised taxes on banks against their objections--and has flirted with the idea of running for prime minister himself. Arguably that might be a lateral move: elected by a constituency that amounts to 10 percent of the Japanese public, Ishihara has a popular mandate surpassing that of any single legislator. Says political commentator Masayuki Fukuoka: "What's [emerging] is a small-scale presidential system."

Japan is hardly alone in this regard. Increasingly, Asia's fate is being determined by its booming cities. From Karachi to Seoul, the region is undergoing one of history's most remarkable transformations: an unceasing tide of urbanization, similar to that which revolutionized the West in the early 20th century. Twenty-five years from now most Asians will live in cities and towns. In fact, of the more than 2 billion people who will be added to the earth's total population in that time, the vast majority will live in urban Asia. By 2015 Dhaka, Mumbai and Delhi will number among the world's five largest cities--and Asia as a whole will account for 12 of the world's 21 megacities (graphic).

The scale and the speed of this shift is unprecedented. Asia is becoming predominantly urban in half the time it took Europe and America. Rome was the first settlement to reach 1 million people, in 5 B.C.; only in 1800 did London become the second. By 2015 Asia alone will have 267 cities with 1 million or more residents. These metropolises are coming to dominate Asian economies: by some estimates, they will contribute at least 70 percent of East Asia's economic growth over the next 20 years. And, through a new generation of brash, powerful mayors, they are demanding--and winning--an equivalent political clout.

Like Ishihara, these leaders are making waves by addressing a broad menu of urban concerns that, in the eyes of many city dwellers, national governments have ignored for too long. They're making their cities more livable and more global--unsnarling traffic and untangling red tape, cleaning up slums and jetting around the world to seek out investment dollars. Millions are flocking to these metropolises because they are home to opportunity: age-old distinctions like race, sex, caste--even education--are less of a hindrance than ever before. And once they're there, they have little patience for the caution of central governments. It was China's thriving coastal cities that first began to quietly privatize their state-owned enterprises, years before the Communist Party was forced to sanction the policy.

According to Thomas P. Rohlen, senior fellow at the Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, Asia's cities are now the driving force behind change in the region. "What we're watching is the transformation of an agrarian, peasant-centered East Asian world to an urban, outward-looking world," he says. In fact, Rohlen argues, what is emerging are virtual city-states, islands of affluence that have more in common with each other than with their impoverished hinterlands--or with their own national governments.

Ishihara's Tokyo, for instance, now stands in open rebellion against an economic order that for 50 years has been controlled by bureaucrats in powerful ministries--a system the governor denounces as "socialist. …

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