Magazine article New Internationalist

Unmasking the Miracle: The Noise of Money Talking Tries to Drown out the Voice of Opposition in the Export-Led Economies of East Asia

Magazine article New Internationalist

Unmasking the Miracle: The Noise of Money Talking Tries to Drown out the Voice of Opposition in the Export-Led Economies of East Asia

Article excerpt

THE business executive was warming to his subject -- the wonders of commerce in Hong Kong. There is a 'buzz' to the markets here that you just don't feel anywhere else. Even Tokyo is stolid by comparison. He'd seen multi - million dollar deals clinched over a beer, like the Corona we were downing for eight dollars a pop in the hotel lounge. He certainly wasn't planning to leave in 1997 when the Chinese Government takes over the shop. He didn't believe communism really exists any more anyway. Don't Deng and Li, the Chinese leaders, always fly first class? Why would they kill the goose that lays the golden egg? Already they own much of Hong Kong real estate through their local holding company.

His eyes grew bright and his hands moved with great animation. His enthusiasm was infectious. Entrepreneurial folktales of fortunes made, lost and then remade poured forth. It wasn't just about the 'bottom line' either. There were visionaries here. Men like Gordon Wu, who has already started the first links in a new Asian superhighway that will run from Hong Kong through the Shenzhen Special Export Zone across the border, down through south China, into Vietnam and on to Bangkok. It will be the new Silk Highway. There's a sign you see on bus shelters all over Hong Kong: 'We Make Success Here' it boasts.

The boom and bustle of success is evident throughout East Asia. It's the same in Seoul or Taipei. Business is booming. Those who thought the 'Four Tigers' (Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore in South - East Asia) were a flash - in - the - pan have had to go back to their calculators. The tigers are now well into their third decade of solid economic performance. Some of the companies spawned by this boom, particularly the large Korean chaebol firms like Samsung and Hyundai, are on their way to becoming major corporate players worldwide -- investing everywhere, from China to Brazil. In the industrial North they prefer depressed, job - hungry regions with weak trade unions -- like Samsung's new electronic plant in Newcastle, Britain or Hyundai's car - production facility in the eastern townships of Quebec.

Success is now spreading to a second tier of Asian countries. Malaysia and Thailand have both entered the manufacturing exporters' sweepstakes, with south China and Indonesia not far behind. Peasant societies that produced rice and vegetables just a few short years ago are now churning out digital computers, cameras, even cars.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- desperate for some vindication of their market - driven, free - trade doctrine -- have been pushing this 'NIC (Newly Industrializing Countries) model' as the answer to all Third World poverty. But NIC success has often been achieved by ignoring rather than embracing Bank and Fund advice. At least in South Korea and Taiwan the heavy hand of government (the thing the Bank and the Fund deplore most) has been very active: protecting domestic markets, subsidizing exports, controlling credit, running nationalized industries and regulating labour relations.

One could be excused for thinking that the recent story of Asia belongs primarily on the business pages. But there are other voices aside from those of company directors and financial pundits. They are not so easy to hear -- it is hard to speak louder than money. But they are there nonetheless.

Other voices: the social movements

We have no place to go from here.' These words are spoken by Nam Sang - wa, deputy - chairperson of a tenant's committee in Pynchong - dong, part of the bigger Bongchun - dong area of south - east Seoul.

A dozen or so tenants are gathered in the living room in one of the houses that has so far escaped the wrecker's hammer. Kids run in and out of the room, sitting on their parents' laps until they get restless from too much grown - up talk. And talk there is aplenty. It swirls around the room as they pass the verbal baton from one to the other, trying to explain to me, this odd outsider the evening has thrown up, just how the mechanics of property speculation affect poor people. …

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