“Let some people get rich first,” the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping proclaimed a generation ago, inaugurating a strange new phase in his country’s—and the world’s—history. It now seems clear that nowhere has capitalism’s promise to create wealth been affirmed more forcefully than in post–World War II Asia. By now we have all heard about the rise of China and India as economic powers. But as early as the late 1960s, the rates of economic growth in South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and even Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia were double the rate in European and American countries.
In most of these nations, collaborations between the military or authoritarian-minded governments and businessmen ensured the rise of big, often monopoly, conglomerates, such as the South Korean chaebols. Most ordinary people suffered from a long denial of democracy and then, following free elections, the subversion of democratic institutions; after decades of uneven economic growth they now try to cope with the irreversible contamination of air, soil, and water. Long working hours, low wages, limited mobility, and perennial job insecurity are the lot of most toilers in Asian economies, especially women. Nevertheless, some people have gotten extremely rich in Asia’s own Gilded Age: for instance, in “rising” India, the number of malnourished children, nearly 50 percent, has barely altered while a handful of Indian billionaires increased their share of national income from less than 1 percent in 1996 to 22 percent in 2008.
Such concentrations of private wealth are now common across Asia, which accordingly has produced several Horatio Alger–type legends of its own. Born in 1928, Hong Kong’s Li Ka-shing, today Asia’s richest man with an estimated wealth of $31 billion, started out as a poor immigrant from China hawking plastic combs. Another kind of morality tale is illuminated by the career of the Indonesian Mochtar Riady, who worked in a bicycle shop before he turned his modest enterprise, with the help of the Indonesian strongman Suharto and the “bamboo network” of overseas Chinese businessmen—the greatest Asian economic power outside of Japan—into a family business empire drawing on global resources.
Most Americans first heard of Riady when his banker son James was convicted of funneling illegal donations to Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1996; he was also accused of links with Chinese intelligence. But then similar stories of corporate and political intrigue are not unknown in the history of capitalism in the West. After all, families owned businesses, ran banks, and sought to manipulate political processes in Victorian England and Wilhelmine Germany. Robber barons dominated the early phases of American industrial capitalism before the oil, steel, and railway tycoons, and their family members, descendants, and cronies, gave way to relatively transparent, shareholder-friendly companies.
What is new is the growing literary assessment of the ideology and practice of Asian capitalism. In Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke,…
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