In Asia's `economic miracles,' leaders face demands for reform
East Asia's ``economic miracles'' are facing mounting pressure for political change. The region's newly industrialized countries (or NICs) -- South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore -- have just completed the longest period of high economic growth ever recorded anywhere. But material success has led to a questioning of the authoritarian regimes that made such success possible.Skip to next paragraph
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``We're looking at a paradox,'' says a political analyst in Hong Kong. ``Affluence has made us more politicized, but this is eroding one of the values that helped us grow.''
That value is political stability. It is widely recognized that rigidly ordered societies and the absence of democracy are key factors in the NICs' rise from postwar poverty to a level of affluence unmatched elsewhere in the region except by Japan. But the NICs share the dilemma of how to meet growing demands for more representative government -- demands that many Asians feel would allow the political instability that could hinder further growth.
The issue is fast becoming critical. Several of the region's longtime leaders are aging, and they face the pressing question of how -- and how smoothly -- their successors will be chosen.
Viewed broadly, the four are evolving from traditional to modern societies. Politically, that translates into restive opposition movements and calls for more freedom of speech, movement, and other basic rights.
Analysts are now uncertain about what impact slower growth, apparent in the four economies since last year, will have on political stability. Until now, they have foregone democratic government as the price of prosperity; a prolonged slowdown, many believe, could easily upset the equation.
The governments' claims that rigid controls are necessary for economic prosperity are quickly losing credibility. Unemployment is worsening, for instance, in South Korea and Singapore. In all of the NICs, reduced growth is likely to exacerbate already deep divisions between the rich and poor.
At the same time, longstanding problems of political succession are becoming more acute. The most pressing question in each of the NICs now is how democratically a new generation of leaders should be chosen.
In Hong Kong, the succession crisis takes an unusual form. The territory is cautiously preparing for an elected government to replace British administration when the colonial leases expire in 1997. But there is increasing pressure from Peking to limit democratic reforms.
China has effectively divided the colony. Conservatives argue that Hong Kong's prosperity is based on its unrepresentative colonial government. Effectively, most of Hong Kong's business leaders have sided with the communists in supporting as little change as possible.
Many others -- particularly the younger generation here -- are anxious to institute some form of representative government before Peking reasserts its sovereignty. For them, democratic values outweigh Hong Kong's contribution to China's modernization and traditional Chinese bonds with the mainland.
``We should go ahead with our reforms as quickly as possible,'' says a young Chinese filmmaker here. ``It's the only thing we can do.''
Hong Kong and the other NICs are not the only ones in Asia with political problems. Throughout the region, the success of the recent popular uprising in the Philippines has encouraged those seeking political reform and has heightened concerns about stability among both leaders and citizens who want to maintain the status quo.
But the NICs are distinguished by their roots in the Chinese tradition of moral and political order, first codified by Confucius in the sixth century BC. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's prime minister, has often called the NICs part of the ``chopstick civilization.''