China 2.0

Asia's 21st Century Billionaires - Two Tales Of Success And Loss In The Big City

Shanghai by night
Shanghai by night
Sylvie Kauffman

SHANGHAI – Times are tough for billionaires. In Italy, their tax returns are being tracked down. In France, their overseas accounts are being scrutinized.

Brussels wants to ban bankers’ bonuses. Switzerland voted to outlaw golden handshakes. Even in the United States, billionaires – unless they are also philanthropists – have become suspicious characters.

Fortunately, there is still a promised land for billionaires – Asia. Fortunately? The term may be a misnomer, if one is to believe two great Asian novels, which were published this February and March: Secrets of a Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid.

These are two different books, yet they speak about the same thing: the mirages created by accelerated riches in the sprawling mega-cities of 21st century Asia. In their own surprising way, they show that if the personal appetite for wealth in contemporary Asia is largely the same appetite that shaped Europe in the 19th century and North America in the 20th century, its human and moral cost can reveal itself as equally devastating.

Other coincidences: both authors were born in the same year - 1971 - and this is their third novel each. Tash Aw is Malaysian of Chinese descent, born in Taipei, Taiwan. Mohsin Hamid is Pakistani, born in Lahore, where he still lives today.

Both studied in the best Western universities: Cambridge and Warwick for Aw; Princeton and Harvard for Hamid. They are both fans of Western literature: Albert Camus’ The Fall inspired Hamid’s first book; Aw writes in English but speaks perfect French.

After their studies abroad, both returned to live in Asia, fascinated by a renaissance that they wanted to witness. These two new books are must-reads if you want to understand the psychology of Asia’s capitalists today.

Mohsin Hamid's book is written like a self-help guide, the kinds of guides that are best sellers in the bookstores of Beijing and Kuala Lumpur. It focuses on the journey of a young boy whose family leaves a miserable rural life to try and survive in Lahore, the town that became a sprawling metropolis in just a few years. The youngest child chooses to succeed – and he does, beyond expectations. But the personal price of each step of his success justifies the title of the last chapter: "Have an exit strategy."

This chronicle of a social climber reads quickly, deliberately written in just 226 pages, the author explains, so that the text-message and Twitter generation can enjoy it right until the end. His wry humor is reminiscent of another excellent book, The White Tiger, by Indian author Aravind Adiga, which talked about the boom of the high tech sector in India with devastating cynicism.

Bright lights big city

Tash Aw tweets (@Tash_Aw) and his characters are addicted to their laptops and Blackberries, but the subtlety of his writing could not be reduced to 140-character technological shortcuts.

He lived in Shanghai for two years to write this novel and brilliantly describes the irresistible attraction of the bright lights of Shanghai. The novel, beautiful and cruel, describes the odyssey of five Malaysians who have come to the Chinese metropolis to seek fortune. The narrator, Walter Chao, writes self-help guides, one of which is called Five Star Billionaire.

Aw readily admits that while he was writing the book, he thought a lot about the parallels with the United States of a century ago, and of course New York, "which gave the impression – like Shanghai today – that everything is possible," he says. “Here, no one asks you questions, no one cares about your past,” he adds.

China is a major theme in the novel, as is the “complex relationship” that young Asians have with this country. "In a mega city like Shanghai, reinvention is not only authorized, it is encouraged. Perhaps this notion is fundamental to the identity of modern China, as it has had to reinvent itself several times during the past hundred years. It is the only way for it to resist violent change," he says.

These young Asian immigrants who want to succeed rush headlong, heartlong into their reinvention. "Never let your past weigh you down,” says one of the characters, Yinghui Leong. “Everyday is a new day,” she adds. Armed with the knowledge they acquired in the West, Aw and Hamid, try, each in their own way, to make the next generation benefit from their experience: "Our ambitions, our dreams, fulfilled and unfulfilled," explains Aw.

But in the eyes of Hamid, today’s dream today is not fulfilled either. "The market narrative of growth, more money, more cars, a bigger home is only half of the human story, because the other part of the human story is loss,” he said during an interview with U.S. public broadcaster PBS. “We get more fragile. We lose everybody we loved, and eventually we lose our lives. And that side of the story, how to deal with loss is something that this big economic boom isn't equipping us for, and I think creates a lot of tension," he said.

On the other side of the world, Harvard University philosopher Michael Sandel couldn’t agree more. His latest book is called What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!