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New perspective on the Asian Century

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“I see potential in Asia going from strength to strength, and not just in terms of business opportunities and economic development but in imagining a new planetary future.” – Sohail Inayatullah, UNESCO chairman in futures studies

Nearly 100 years ago, in 1924, German diplomat Karl Haushofer introduced the term “Pacific age.” Haushofer anticipated the emergence of Japan, China and India as the next global powerhouses. He wrote:

“A giant space is expanding before our eyes with forces pouring into it which … await the dawn of the Pacific age, the successor of the Atlantic age, the over-age Mediterranean and European era.”

The term Asian Century is traced to the 1980s. After a meeting between Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and Rajiv Gandhi, the prime minister of India, Deng reportedly said: “In recent years people have been saying that the next century will be the century of Asia and the Pacific.”

Much has been written about the Asian Century since the 1980s, starting with Japan’s rapid rise, the so-called Four Tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore), China’s decade of double-digit growth, and now India, developing at breakneck speed and confirming the prediction of Klaus Haushofer a century ago.

Discussions about the Asian Century typically focus on Asia’s economic and industrial prowess. Little attention is given to cultural factors, and how they may shape the future of Asia and the post-industrial era. A notable exception is ASIA 2038: Ten Disruptions that Change Everything, authored by Sohail Inayatullaw and Lu Na.

ASIA 2038 was initially published in 2018, but the current global crisis has made it all the more topical. The authors don’t neglect economics but they zoom in on the human dimension of Asia’s transformation – the role of women, the re-imagination of the traditional extended family, the need for bioregionalism, and the growing symbiosis of humans and technology. 

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Co-author Sohail Inayatullah, UNESCO chairman in futures studies, argues that the transformation of Asia could have global implications. “I see potential in Asia going from strength to strength, and not just in terms of business opportunities and economic development but in imagining a new planetary future.” 

ASIA 2038 reminds us that globalization, like modernization, does not necessarily mean Westernization. Asia absorbed Western science and technology and Asianized versions of political systems, but the West with its social and political polarization and its hyper-individualism is not a model for post-industrial society.

Asia’s most highly developed countries such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore point at multiple modernities, or, as the authors put it, alternative modernities. Asia is embarking on a cultural reawakening and trying to transform society by reinterpreting its own rich traditions – Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufism.    

In economic terms, the rise of Asia is a return to the historical norm. For much of recorded history, China and India were the world’s two largest economies, overtaken only in the mid-19th century by the United States. When measured using PPP (purchasing power parity), China surpassed the US in 2014. Before the middle of this century, China and India are expected to reclaim their place as the world’s two leading economies. 

The US became the largest economy in the world in 1890.

The challenge facing Asia today is to mitigate the worst aspects of the capitalist stage of development that has been plaguing Western societies – disintegrating families, social alienations, inequality, and the power of corporations over governments that have caused historic levels of inequality.

Reimagining the traditional extended family and an inclusive extended family for the post-industrial age is a challenge but crucial to its future. As ASIA 2038 points out:  

“The [Asian] family, stretched but not broken, becomes an asset for further well-being, and indeed economic growth.

“Alternatively, if the changes that occur are far too dramatic for tradition to manage, meaning the rise of robotization, virtualization, LGBT rights, and single females, then we can expect a far more fragmented future, wherein particular rights groups argue for increased choice, while the carriers of tradition – the good old days of the extended family – legislate to protect the traditional family, declaring other sorts of union unnatural.

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“This sets up a future where social conflict – as for example in the 1960s and currently in the USA – becoming the norm.”

The authors add: “A conservative backlash is one possibility, but equally possible is a stretched Asian family, where the focus remains on prosperity for all and far less on particular identities.

“In many ways, the fully biological and traditional extended family will be increasingly difficult to maintain. Instead of privileging nuclear or single-parent families in its place, as is the case in the West, perhaps Asia can rediscover or redesign its extended family structure.

“Almost certainly, there is no way back toward traditional families, only forward and in line with both contemporary technological and cultural changes. So what is it going to be for Asia? Nuclearization, disintegration, and the disappearance of the family? Or its rediscovery as in extended family 2.0?”

The key to this process is the role of women, and there are reasons for optimism. Asia is not known as a hotbed of feminism, but the gender divide in Asia has historically been less rigid than in the West. Women in power are no anomaly in Asia. Four of the countries of the subcontinent had female leaders, as have Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan. 

Moreover, five Southeast Asian countries are among the global trendsetters for having the highest number of women in executive roles. Indonesia (globally second at 41%) and the Philippines (fourth at 40%) are just marginally ahead of Thailand (sixth in the world at 38%).

Gender equality has become part of popular culture. A Bollywood movie based on a true story about a former wrestler who trains his daughters to follow in his footsteps and challenge traditional gender roles became a huge hit in both India and China. 

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The current stage of economic development in much of Asia is still concerned with providing people with basic human needs like housing, roads, and electronics (computers, mobile phones) that have become essential to participating in economic activity.

Capitalism has been very efficient at producing these products, but Asian policymakers are looking beyond the capitalist stage of development and exploring alternatives informed by their own traditions.  

The Kingdom of Bhutan, nestled in the Himalayas between China and India, has replaced the economic metric of GDP (gross domestic product) with the human-centric GNH (gross national or domestic happiness). 

The government uses surveys to measure GNH. People are asked various questions about their social well-being, their living conditions, their main concerns, and their religious practices. It uses the outcome of the surveys to set policy objectives. 

The GNH Index, first proposed by Bhutan’s royal family, was developed in collaboration with Oxford researchers. It is comparable to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) Better Life Index and the Social Progress Index (SPI). GNH is distinct in that it has a religious component.

The UN General Assembly passed a resolution in 2013 calling for a holistic approach to development and urged member nations to follow the example of Bhutan. 

One of the most compelling arguments for Asia’s leading role in post-industrial society is the widely held view that spirit and matter are inseparable. The “materialist” worldview that gave rise to the scientific revolution served its purpose but has now reached the end of the road. As we read in ASIA 2038:

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“By all accounts, our global world is in dire need of transformation; of re-balancing its many excesses towards more sustainable and liveable futures. The changes must take place in both material, emotional and cognitive spheres; systemic as well as narrative shifts are simultaneously necessary.”

Moreover, “Buddhism regards life as the unity of the physical and the spiritual. It views all things, whether material or spiritual, seen or unseen, as manifestations of the same ultimate spiritual universal law or source of life…. The physical and spiritual aspects of our lives are completely inseparable and of equal importance.”

Asia is well placed to (re)unite the spiritual and the material world for post-industrial society. Anecdotal evidence suggests this process has already started in both the secular and religious contexts.

Some 25 years ago, Japan’s Sony Corporation introduced Aibo, a robot that responds to commands from its owner, recognizes different family members, reacts to physical interaction, and, when “tired,” returns to the charging station by itself.

Many Aibo owners became attached to their robotic pets, seeing them as part of the family. When Sony discontinued production and Aibo could no longer be serviced, owners brought their Aibo to a Buddhist temple for funeral rites.

Taking robotics a step further, a team of 12 Chinese technology, culture, and investment companies collaborated with a Buddhist temple outside of Beijing to develop a robot monk that mixes spirituality and artificial intelligence. The AI-powered robot was designed to assist Buddhist monks in disseminating Buddhist teaching.

The robot monk, 60 centimeters in height, is affectionally known as Xian’er (literally Worthy Stupid Robot Monk). Xian’er can recite Buddhist sutras and has a touchpad on his chest that allows him to respond to questions about anything from the meaning of life to issues in the family or at the workplace.  

Skeptics claim that AI-powered robots will never be able to understand human emotions. But AI developers will argue they will ultimately be able to simulate an understanding of emotions, thereby fulfilling their purpose. Most Asians are accustomed to dealing with ambiguity.

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Source: Asia Times

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