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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

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A 16th-century Portuguese galleon in Nagasaki was one link in Asia's long chain of global ties. Asiaweek Pictures
FEBRUARY 18, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 6

Asia's Worldly Past
Everything old is new again
By JONATHAN SPRAGUE

It is a time when exports are the key to wealth - as well as political power - and neighboring territories jostle to attract foreign traders. Those traders are not passive players either, investing in one territory and helping it grow, only to abandon it for greener pastures later. More subtly, the foreigners bring ideas with them that could reorder the entire society, threatening elites who cannot change with the times or entrenching the adaptable. Is this Southeast Asia today? Or in the 13th and 14th centuries, when Islam brought by Arab spice merchants swept through the Indonesian archipelago? Or the 5th and 6th centuries, when Indian and Chinese traders brought with them Hinduism and Buddhism?

Globalization is not new to Asia. There never was a time when Asian states were unaffected by outside forces, when Asian cultures could claim to be unadulterated by foreign influences - or when Asia had no impact on other parts of the world. At the dawn of the last millennium, Chinese silks were already traveling the "Silk Road" to Rome. Wool, gold and silver made the return trip, along with Buddhism (which stuck) and Nestorian Christianity (which didn't). Controlling and protecting that trade was a key policy concern for Han dynasty emperors. Malay merchants sailed north to China and west as far as Madagascar, carrying their prized spices.

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Globalization
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Interview: George Yeo
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Winners and Losers
Riders of the Global Tidal Wave

Asia's Worldly Past
Everything old is new again

China's Rarest Man
The mainland's first entrepreneur to list his company outside China may be a harbinger of things to come

The Revenge of Cronyism
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Of course the "globe" in globalization was smaller and more fragmented in ancient years. Contact between the great civilizations of the Mediterranean, South Asia and East Asia was extremely limited, and the Americas were completely isolated. Ideas and technologies took centuries to spread from one land to another. Trade consisted of a few luxury goods passing indirectly through many different hands. The occasional direct contact brought about by far-reaching conquerors like Genghis Khan or Tamerlane caused as much disruption as communication. But some things did trickle through, and usually east to west - inventions like paper and gunpowder, intellectual concepts like the number zero, and diseases like the bubonic plague, the first global pandemic.

The pace and scope of globalization picked up in the 16th century when Western Europeans, driven by the desire for Asian spices and empowered by their newfound navigational prowess, launched their age of exploration and empire. From Asia, they sent back to Europe many items that quickly became part of European culture, like tea. They brought with them many things that are now thoroughly Asian. Tempura? The Portuguese introduced deep frying to Japan. Peanut sauce for satay? Peanuts came from the Americas via the Spanish. The Europeans also brought with them colonialism, which for better and worse tied Asia more closely into global trends.

Until the advent of colonialism, Asian contact with foreigners was limited to a thin layer of elites and merchants. But in the 19th and early 20th century, staggered by how weak Asia was in a Europe-dominated world, Asian intellectuals, artists and students of all stripes eagerly absorbed Western ideas in everything from politics and science to arts and culture. The flow wasn't all one way, and had some surprising eddies. French impressionist painters like Vincent van Gogh were profoundly influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e wood block prints, which were used as padding for shipments of porcelain. The music of French composer Claude Debussy was colored by the sound of Indonesian gamelan orchestra, which he probably first heard as part of an exhibit in the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition.

Today, globalization is more comprehensive than in the past, affecting more aspects of life and moving faster and faster. But Asia has been dealing with globalization for millennia, and has remained unquestionably Asian.

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