Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Asia's reform trinity, shift gear now

By Kishore Mahbubani (China Daily) Updated: 2014-08-18 07:53

Asia is poised to enter a historical sweet spot, with three of its most populous countries - China, India and Indonesia - led by strong, dynamic and reform-minded leaders. In fact, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indonesia's President-elect Joko "Jokowi" Widodo could end up ranked among their countries' greatest modern leaders.

In China, Mao Zedong founded the People's Republic in 1949, while Deng Xiaoping engineered its unprecedented economic rise. For Xi to join their ranks, he must create a modern, rules-based State, which requires, first and foremost, slaying the massive dragon of corruption.

Over the years, corruption has taken deep root in China, with provincial Party leaders and top executives in State-owned enterprises wielding their vast privileges and authority to accumulate personal wealth. This has done severe harm to the Communist Party of China, while hampering the kind of market-based competition that China's economy needs to propel the country toward high-income status.

So far, Xi seems to be up to the challenge. He has been boldly pursuing major figures who were previously considered "untouchables", such as Xu Caihou, former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, and Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the Political Bureau Standing Committee of the CPC Central Committee, the country's highest political body. But the long-term fight against corruption cannot depend on Xi alone. It will succeed only if strong institutions are created to protect and nurture the rule of law long after Xi leaves office.

If Xi chooses to establish such institutions, he has a strong legal tradition upon which to call. As former US ambassador to China Gary F. Locke said in a speech early this year, the concept of equality before the law has deep historical roots. Indeed, in 4th century BC, statesman and reformer Shang Yang famously asserted: "When the prince violates the law, the crime he commits is the same as that of the common people." Building on this tradition, Xi can create strong institutions that will stand the test of time. If he does - recognizing that, to be credible, the rule of law must apply even to the Party's most influential figures - he may become modern China's third great leader.

In India, Mahatma Gandhi rejuvenated the country's soul, which had been battered by colonialism, and India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru established its democratic political culture. Modi now must lay the foundation for India's emergence as a global economic power.

Replicating the 10 percent annual growth rate achieved in Gujarat when he was chief minister of the province would obviously be a boon to India's development prospects and global standing. But achieving such a high growth rate in a sustainable way will demand far-reaching, sometimes painful reforms, such as the removal of wasteful subsidies, especially on fuel, in order to free up resources for, say, increased healthcare expenditure. Other imperatives include shrinking the budget deficit, removing internal barriers to trade and encouraging private investment.

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