No, Asia Won’t Save The World

Some prominent thinkers believe that Asian values can better manage human affairs and our relationship with nature. And yet, sadly, selfishness is a universal condition.Â

In Beijing
In Beijing
Frédéric Koller


GENEVA â€" Is the future of our world in Asia’s hands? For years, people have been prophesizing that the continent will move to the center of everyone's attentions during the 21st century.

As far as the economy is concerned, the shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific is confirmed a little more each day. After two centuries of Western domination, the East appears set to take over. Or rather, the Asia-Pacific, which includes the Americas. Everybody has jumped on the bandwagon since Barack Obama launched the “pivot” strategy. From Russia and Europe to South America and Africa, they’re all turning their gaze towards eastern Asia and its locomotive economy, China.

But there’s more than just the economy. This shift towards Asia, in the reshaping of a new global balance, could also turn out to be cultural and, even, philosophical. As a matter of fact, it needs to be if we want to save our planet.

“Over the last centuries, the West has been living under the principle that the right of the individual prevails over that of the community,” says Michael Møller, the acting director-general of the United Nations Office in Geneva. “It’s the other way around in Asia. I’m convinced that, for our planet’s survival, we will need to look toward the Asian model a lot more. This is a fundamental change in how we live, how we organize, how the individual sees his role in society. This leads to a cultural and existential change. We’ve abused our planet so much that, if we are to survive as a species, we’ll need to reshape our whole inter-community interaction.”

What universal values?

Møller’s words echo those of Pascal Lamy, the World Trade Organization’s former director-general, who told Le Temps in a 2013 interview about the need for global values to emerge to better confront globalization. The “universal values” that emerged after World War II can no longer fulfill that role because they’re too much associated with the West, he explained. We have to take into account African and Asian mindsets to build a new language that speaks about “global public goods.”

Such reflections are stimulating, disturbing even. They suppose a failure of Western thinking to manage relationships amongst peoples, and between man and nature.

Given the state of our planet and of international relationships, their stance is hard to dispute. But is it correct to characterize the “universal values” the UN-system abides by as “Western” values? Isn’t that the continuation of a form of paternalism that minimizes everything that non-European peoples and nations have contributed to these norms?

What’s more, what is it that gives the impression that the Asian, and more particularly Chinese, culture would be more capable of solving conflicts among humans on the one hand, and between humans and nature on the other? Paradoxically, the sense of community in Asia â€" which is eroding just as it did in Europe in the face of modernity â€" doesn’t encourage solidarity any more than Western individualism. Selfishness is a universally shared flaw of the human race.

The same holds for our relationship to nature. The need to dominate, to be in charge, is present in most cultures, just as the wish to return to nature, to show it more respect, is a universal aspiration.

Rather than comparing cultures, shouldn’t we be questioning the value of the market that now dominates the entire world?

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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.

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