• Tuesday, Apr 20, 2021
  • Last Update : 01:44 pm

OP-ED: Could inequality ruin the Asian dream?

  • Published at 01:38 am December 2nd, 2020
Apartment towers china
High-rise apartment towers in Shenzhen, China Reuters

Will crazy rich Asians become passé as we emerge from a pandemic-riven world?

The tarnished American dream has had a good innings, but is being superseded by the Asian dream. Asia, however, could do with a lot less triumphalism and much more prudence and sagacity. The narrative has taken hold in countries which are still actually poor. Populations are focused on the “future being bright” even while the “present is precarious.” Asia dreams of catching up with the West. Indeed in the cities, provinces, and regions on the shores of the East China Sea and Sea of Japan, people are already living in wealthy, advanced societies.

Crazy rich Asians

The novel and film about impossibly wealthy families of Chinese origin in Singapore of the 2010s captured the opulent lifestyle for Asia’s 0.1%. A growing Asian minority, a new caste-based on Mammon rather than an Almighty. Today, one-third of all luxury goods consumption takes place in Communist China. That cannot be a good thing. There must be a feeling that things have gone too far. Offering incentives to dynamic entrepreneurs and industrialists is one thing. High rollers gambling with abandon in casinos offshore in Southeast Asia is, by contrast, tasteless, and often criminal. 

China has been trying to rein in the excesses for several years. It has a long way to go. Meanwhile, India exhibits all the same issues without the benefits. The top 10% grab 57% of national income, up from a 34% in 1990. The top 1% own more than half the wealth; the bottom 60% hold only 5%. Not to be outdone, four men in Muslim Indonesia possess more wealth than 100 million of their fellow citizens.

The problem in India is that it has not established industry in textiles, vehicles, or consumer products on a scale commensurate to the size of its vast population. It has seen almost jobless growth. It continues and will continue to fail to become the next China.

As India’s downtrodden farmers lay siege to Delhi this week, it should be clear that most service sector jobs favour middle classes more than the urban and rural poor. Elites ask whether inequality matters. If they want their workforces to improve all-important productivity, they require much better health care and education. They need a realistic chance to earn a decent income. Economic growth suffers otherwise. Inequality holds back economic development in the medium term, even though one can accept disparities in the initial stages. What seems to have happened is that many elites have opted for permanent inequality, unwilling to share. 

I have little doubt that China will be a fully developed country within a generation. Its challenge is to ensure that prosperity is shared equitably now that it has finally eradicated extreme poverty. Along with lifting 800 million people out of poverty, this must rank as THE achievement of the last few decades. 

Nevertheless, around 600 million Chinese barely cover their monthly outgoings. China has decided to move to a “dual-circulation economy,” to rely much more on domestic demand. East Asia is no longer to be merely a lower cost producer for Western consumers. It therefore has no choice but to rapidly increase the purchasing power of several hundred million people. 

Post-pandemic politics

Some better-off people believe that impending vaccinations against the virus will return the pleasures and certainties of the pre-Covid world. Initially perhaps, but further along this decade can one be so certain?

The memories of the wretched inland migration in India and Bangladesh, for example, will be forgotten by the affluent, if they have not already done so. I am not sure those who had to trek hundreds of kilometres back and forth will be so forgiving. The heartless elite reaction in South Asia to the coronavirus has ripped open the social facade. It has revealed a divide, in more senses than one, between people living in air-conditioned high-rise towers and the slum dwellers in low rise shacks. Publicly funded health care has been almost invisible in comparison to need. Where did the money go? 

If we are approaching an inflexion point, the issue of inequality, and its sidekick justice, could soon define politics. Climate change and automation are unlikely to elbow it aside and will have to co-exist and indeed see it as part of the solution. The principle of equality has to reappear. It must form a core component of the new zeitgeist. I am not sure if Modi got the memo.

Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst.

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