Why You Just Gotta Hate Asia Right Now

Last Updated May 21, 2010 6:33 PM EDT

We're rioting in Athens, foreclosing in the U.S., panicking in Portugal and striking in London. The White Man's Burden these days is debt-wave upon wave of the stuff. What started as a U.S. mortgage crisis (and looked as if it might be ending) has metastasized into a European sovereign debt crisis that looks as if it could once again entangle the world in a new Global Financial Crisis.

Or, maybe that GFC never was all that global, kemo sabe.
Sanjaya Baru, editor of India's Business Standard newspaper, takes issue with the very name. In a speech to western journalists on an Asian economic fellowship tour, he noted that it's more accurate to call it a trans-Atlantic crisis. While western stock markets were crashing over Greek debt and the fate of the euro (not to mention the suddenly frail-looking U.S. rebound), Chinese stocks actually rose. As Westerners frantically try to fan a few dim economic sparks into a real recovery, China, India, Singapore and Malaysia are trying to slow their economies. China's main concern now is the bubble in its own white-hot real estate market. Beijing recently raised the down payment on second homes and prohibited the purchase of third homes. (Idea for next article: Communists who can afford third homes.)

And then there's the attitude. Businessmen, journalists and diplomats alike say China's rapid rebound has given the nation more confidence, even a swagger. The sense in Washington, according to one veteran, is that "China is practically doing a victory lap." Folks there say China is emboldened in territory disputes with its neighbors. And in economic matters, Beijing has done squat about its currency, the undervalued yuan, which helps to make Chinese exports so cheap. That's not exactly helpful to American exporters that could use a hand up.

The saying used to be, "When the U.S. sneezes, the rest of the world catches cold." Well, countless people in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan wear surgical masks on the street everyday, so they won't catch a cold... or H1N1, or whatever. That's an appropriate metaphor for Asian economies, as well.

Here are five reasons Asia is feeling just fine, thank you, during this nasty season for economic flu:

1. Cautious cultures. When asked about the financial crisis President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan he said, "People joke that we are not globalized enough." That was a variation of a comment repeated throughout Asia... that banks there weren't "sophisticated" enough. Well, let's hear it for the simpleton Asian banks, which didn't engage in the type of risk that brought so many Western counterparts to their knees. No doubt some of the prudence was a result of the currency crisis a decade earlier when numerous banks in the region did go belly up. And if Asian banks are more conservative, so are their customers. Asians save more than Americans. Of course that's not hard to do, since we weren't saving at all a few years ago.

2. A growing middle class. China and India are the world's two most populous countries. And millions of Chinese and Indians have been put to work in call centers and in factories to feed the insatiable demand for cheap stuff from Asia. They learn to make things for Americans, they learn the ways of Americans, they even learn to sound like Americans. So it only makes sense they want to buy what Americans do, too. Which is why Buick is so big in Beijing.

3. Better targeted stimulus. While the U.S. had Cash for Clunkers, China had Cash for Everything as an incentive to get consumers to replace old appliances. That's in addition to increased spending on health care. And a construction job for just about everyone. Singapore's government cut taxes, subsidized employers to keep workers on the payrolls and retrained workers for new jobs. So, consumers kept spending or even accelerated their spending, which helped offset the decline in demand from Americans and Europeans.

4. In some countries, no messy democratic politics. Dr. Baru says authoritarian regimes like China and Singapore had an advantage in weathering the financial storm. They can move quickly and without a lengthy public debate when time is of the essence. "History has shown people tolerate intervention" better during tough times, he says. Beijing financial engineers don't have to call special sessions of Congress or worry about voter backlash to TARP.

5. Asians can keep a secret. Since authoritarian governments control the press, they control the story. Jimmy Lai, the billionaire founder of Next Media, Hong Kong's largest publicly listed Chinese-language print media company, told me, "You guys innovate and you make a mess out of it. But you'll come out of it." He says the dirty laundry in China is still buried, but that the stench can only be contained for so long. "We won't know about China until the big crisis comes."

We don't know when China's day of reckoning will come, if ever. What we do know is that this new wave of the Global Financial Crisis magnifies the differences between the haves and have-not economies. And we're not the haves.

Susan Lisovicz is a business journalist and was CNN's primary stock market reporter for 10 years. She just returned to the U.S. from a fellowship in Asia.