Book Review: The Future Is Asian

Parag Khanna clearly loathes the West, hates democracy and believes the entire continent of Asia – from Japan to Saudi Arabia, from Afghanistan to West Papua – is the new utopia. That, at least, is the impression left by his new book, The Future is Asian.

There are, of course, many truths in the book. Western democracy is facing severe challenges. The election of Donald Trump in the United States, Britain’s vote for Brexit and the rise of the far right and far left in the rest of Europe have thrown norms that were previously taken for granted into flux. The current crisis in Britain over the implementation of Brexit has exposed weaknesses in Britain’s parliamentary democracy.

And no one can deny it, much of Asia clearly does represent much of the future. From the well-established Asian ‘tigers’ – Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea – to the new economic superpowers of China and India, and the newer economies of South-east Asia, the dynamic, entrepreneurial spirit and technological innovation makes much of the region an incredibly exciting – and important – place to be.

Yet as someone who has spent most of my adult life, over the past three decades, travelling, working and for a time living in Asia, who loves Asia and its rich, diverse cultures and finds much to admire in the region, I found Khanna’s book profoundly unbalanced. Literally everything in Asia, it seems, is better than literally everything in the West, according to Khanna – and as much as I love Asia, I disagree.

For a start, writing a book about ‘Asia’ – especially when the author includes within that the Middle East – is an extraordinarily ambitious goal. To suggest that there is such a common theme as ‘Asia’ linking the East Asian Chinese, Korean and Japanese cultures with South Asian cultures, plus the diversity of Southeast Asia and then leaping to Saudi Arabia, passing Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and the other ‘stans’ en route, is a stretch.

Bringing together, in a single volume, a study of a continent that includes, in Khanna’s words, “half of the world’s largest countries by land area, … most of the world’s twenty most populous countries, … some of the wealthiest countries in the world, … but also some of the smallest, least populous, and poorest” is no easy task. Khanna deserves respect for being bold enough to try.

Where Khanna is right is in pointing out – ad nauseam – Asia’s economic miracles. Few would dispute the extraordinary rise of Asia’s economies. But then, it’s not really news. It has been told before.

Where Khanna seems to have a blind spot is in the grave challenges which Asia still faces. He suggests that “religious diversity has been a pillar of Asian civilization stability” and paints a picture of near-perfect harmony.

“The fundamental differences among Asia’s dominant religions are the reason they have been able to coexist in stability,” he writes. “They are so dissimilar yet each is so numerically robust that the conquest of one by the other is both spiritually unthinkable and logistically impossible. Asians have no choice but to live and let live.” Asians, he adds, “have long tolerated one another’s belief systems, demonstrating over many centuries a capacity for interethnic and religious coexistence.”

Having spent most of the past 20 years working for freedom of religion or belief and inter-religious harmony in the region, I would say tell that to a Christian or an Ahmadiyya in Pakistan, a Muslim in parts of India and in Myanmar, an Uyghur or Falun Gong practitioner in China or, increasingly, to minorities under threat in Indonesia or Malaysia. I don’t think they see a “live and let live” attitude from Buddhist nationalist groups such as Ma Ba Tha in Myanmar, Islamist extremists in Pakistan or Indonesia, Hindu nationalists in India or Xi Jinping’s regime in China.

That leads to the second blind spot: human rights. Khanna appears to have little appreciation for the universal values of human rights. It isn’t until page 308 that Khanna turns to questions of civil liberties, civil society and press freedom, acknowledging briefly that Freedom House ranks more than half of Asia’s governments as ‘not free’.

And one has to wait until page 117 before there is a mention of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and page 122 before the genocide of the Rohingyas in Myanmar gets a look in, and even then in both cases, it is a cursory few sentences. However much one loves Asia, and I do deeply, how can one ignore two of the world’s worst human rights catastrophes that have occurred within this region? Indeed, I would argue that if one really loves Asia, and not just its economic growth, one would make the way many of Asia’s own people are treated a priority in a book about the region.

And then the third blind spot: a hostility to democracy and a passionate extolling of the virtues of ‘technocracy.’ It is straight out of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy rule-book – where, of course, Khanna is a research fellow. “Across Asia,” he writes, “from Moscow to Muscat and from Dubai to Beijing, the most admired and closely studied government today is that of Singapore.” Really?

“The state builders, urban planners and economic strategists of the twenty-first century all take their inspiration from Lee Kuan Yew, not Thomas Jefferson,” he adds. Singapore has much to admire, for sure, and its story is a miracle, but is it really ‘the most admired’, is Lee Kuan Yew really the sole inspiration for the entire world, or is that Singaporean propaganda?

China, Khanna contends, is misunderstood. Contrary to Western fears, Xi Jinping is not really “exporting its authoritarian model to the rest of the world,” but rather “importing best practices from abroad.”

Oh really? And just what might those ‘best practices’ be? Strengthening the rule of law – while arresting, jailing and disappearing hundreds of lawyers? Promoting social cohesion – while incarcerating over a million Uyghur Muslims, forcibly extracting human organs from prisoners of conscience, and dynamiting churches? Enhancing transparency and accountability – while abolishing term limits, making himself President for life and adding ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ to the Constitution? I’d love to know what ‘best practices’ you see imported into China, Mr Khanna.

At this point, the book turns into a parody of itself. “Entrenched despots could potentially benefit from aspects of the China model if that means focusing on infrastructure, education, health care, technology,” writes Khanna. Oh yes, I am sure ‘entrenched despots’ would love to learn the tricks of the trade, of how China sells prisoners’ organs in their health care system, turns the education system into a propaganda unit, and uses technology to spy on everyone and control citizens through an Orwellian ‘social credit’ system.

But no, says Khanna, “China is the only country in the world in which about 40 years of training are required before one is allowed to wield federal authority”. Indeed: but that’s because the Chinese Communist Party is so paranoid that it wants to ensure its leaders are ideologically pure, blindly loyal and utterly ruthless. “Thousands of officials meritocratically work their way up the ladder and build significant administrative experience,” says Khanna. Ah yes: meritocratic brutality.

After praising China, Khanna then redoubles his assault on Western democracy with a series of snide and unsubstantiated jibes. “Whereas Western democracies today have wish lists, Asian technocracies have strategies,” he writes. “Democracy guarantees neither that good ideas will emerge nor that they will be implemented.”

Technocracy, he argues, is “well suited to Asia’s more deferential cultures,” although as a concession he adds that it should be “civil rather than military”. It is, he suggests, a “salvation after societies realize that democracy doesn’t guarantee national success. Democracy eventually gets sick of itself and votes for technocracy”. Asian technocracy, he concludes simplistically, is “better” than Western democracy.

There are some points in the book I agree with, and there are many things about Asia that I love. But as someone who believes passionately in democracy and human rights, I found far more aspects of the book deeply troubling. Democracy, for all its faults, at least allows for a system of checks and balances and an ability for people to hold their leaders accountable, and that surely has some virtue to it?

This would have been a much better book if the author had avoided knee-jerk blanket prejudices against the West and Lee Kuan Yew ‘Asian values’ indoctrination. It reads too much as banal propaganda-speak. Compared with another, far more thoughtful and balanced attempt to look at a region – Michael Vatikiotis’ superb Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia, which I recommend very highly – Khanna deserves full marks for trying, credit from his propaganda masters for his loyalty to their message, but a disappointingly low grade overall. The future may well be Asian, but not because Khanna says so.

Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights activist specializing in Asia. He works for the human rights organization CSW and is founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch.