Nation & World

‘Asia: The Next Ten Years’

6 min read

Report from conference marking 10 years of Harvard’s Asia Center

The view of Asia from the Norton Woods was especially clear Friday afternoon (May 2).

Despite the rain and drear outside, inside at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, participants in a two-day conference marking the first 10 years of the Harvard University Asia Center were given a notably hopeful and positive survey of likely developments in Asia over the next 10 years.

In the panel discussion , “Asia: The Next Ten Years,” which concluded the conference, William P. Alford, Henry L. Stimson Professor Of Law; Susan J. Pharr, Edwin O. Reischauer Professor of Japanese Politics; and Tony Saich, Daewoo Professor of International Affairs and the outgoing director of the Asia Center, each provided a broad overview of trends — political and economic but also demographic and cultural.

Louis T. Wells Jr., the Herbert F. Johnson Professor of International Business Management, discussed the experience of American investors building infrastructure in Indonesia in the late 1990s as an example of the kind of cultural gaps that will have to be bridged if globalization is to continue to maximum benefit.

Alford identified what he perceives as some critical needs in China, noting, “I would not be a friend of China if I were not to be truthful about what I see to be its shortcomings.” They are:

• To develop the institutions of civil society.

• To develop institutions in which the broad masses have confidence when they seek redress against central government and other powerful figures.

• To allow the development of some entity that would provide a counterweight to the central government.

He had some ideas for Japan, as well. Taking care to frame his remarks “with all due humility,” Alford said, “Japan will need to make two very difficult acknowledgments if it is to attain the global eminence it desires and deserves.” The first is a “fuller recognition in Japanese textbooks and public life” of the Japanese role in World War II, and the second is acceptance of the rapidly growing presence of foreign nationals within its society, especially as the country ages.

Commenting on the backlash against free trade in the United States, Alford commented: “It’s no surprise that there’s growing resentment of trade here, when we consider how we treat people in this country when they’ve lost their jobs.”

Giving her overview, Pharr predicted a time of “growing interdependence” for the countries of Asia. She sees the period ahead as one in which Asia will work out regional cooperative structures comparable to those of Europe. Japan has been a “model country,” she said — a one-time “pariah” that has learned to build relationships and turned wholeheartedly to diplomacy as the way to get things done on the international stage.

Pharr also pointed to the rise of civil society as an important trend in Asia. She noted that half the civil society organizations in Europe have arisen in only the past 20 years. As middle-class societies in Asia demand a greater public voice, she predicted, they will follow the Europeans down this path. A Japanese law passed in 1998 makes it easier for groups to form and raise money, for instance.

And the development of civil society is being felt, Pharr said. Concurring with Alford on the Japanese history issue, she pointed out that much of the new information about the Japanese wartime record is coming not from foreign scholars but from new Japanese civil society organizations that have been, in her phrase, “chewing the heels of the Ministry of Education on the history textbook issue.”

A third trend Pharr pointed out was the rise of Asian popular culture — “a tremendous force in the region.” Pop culture such as anime films provides commonality across borders, notably of young people, and challenges the orthodoxies of the senior generation.

Japan’s status as an aging society is well known. Demographic pressure, Pharr suggested, is likely to prompt Japanese society to move in two directions that outside observers have long counseled — better integration of women in the workforce and more openness to immigrants.

Pharr also touched on Japan’s regional role, acknowledging the fear throughout Asia of Japanese remilitarization. But the public support for revising the constitution that pollsters find isn’t quite what it seems, she said. A majority of the Japanese want to revise their constitution, which states that Japan renounces war as an instrument of policy. But only 13 percent want Article 9 — the “no war” clause — removed. The issue is that the Japanese want to revise their American-written constitution to make it their own.

Saich is obviously bullish on China. “The energy is just palpable. Any society going through the changes that China is going through produces tremendous energy,” he said, citing art, poetry, and music as some of the fields benefiting from this new energy. China is a society that needs to have a conversation within itself, and yet, he noted, “the Chinese Community Party is reluctant to license such a conversation.”

Saich talked about China in terms of two important demographic trends — the aging of the population and the skewed sex ratio, the result of Chinese couples using selective abortion to ensure that their one child is a son.

While the developed countries of the West have grown rich and now are growing old, China may grow old before it grows rich. Foreseeing that in a few years, 30 percent of the population of Shanghai will be 65-plus, Saich commented, “If I were investing in China, I’d be looking for homes for the elderly.”

The sex ratio at birth is 120 males to 100 females, Saich said — a ratio that goes up to 140 to 100 in some provinces. As a result, demographers are predicting that by 2020, China will have 100 million men who will never find a wife. In some areas, bride prices have increased more than tenfold, according to Saich. Another effect of this imbalance: It will make it harder to ensure the elderly are adequately cared for.

“Relax,” Saich advised his listeners in closing. “The rise of every single economy in Asia has been hugely beneficial for everybody elsewhere in the world, whether that’s been in the U.S. or whether that’s been in Europe, and I don’t see any reason for that to change.”