I asked to speak with Joe Studwell, who was author of several celebrated books in the recent past, “The China Dream – the quest for the last great untapped market on earth” (2002) “Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia” (2008) and “How Asia Works: Success and Failures in the World’s Most Dynamic Region” (2014).
When i read those books, I thought he had captured the essence of the economics of the different East Asian countries he covered and explained lucidly how some countries made the transition from agriculture to industrialization, while others did not. I wanted to know how his thoughts had developed since the last book and how he was mapping his thoughts around China specifically, and the rest of Asia, today.
In the course of the conversation, I found that he was working on books trying to capture the same dynamics taking place in Africa today. He applied some of the metrics that he thought defined Asia in his past books onto developments in this new region he was wrapping his mind around. That in itself is worth waiting for and I look forward to reading his books on Africa.
I then asked him for his impressions on the countries that he had covered before and discovered a not-so-dispassionate side to him, as he rattled off some of his own biases as a Westerner looking at Asia. I thought some of his descriptions, such as that of President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, was unduly dismissive and did not bear the reality on the ground. He was much more dispassionate and accurate in the books he had written and that I admired.
I did not find his assessments of the issues as they exist today particularly insightful. It may have been because he is better when he writes than when he is asked to express an opinion off-the-cuff by an Asian person he could be dismissive of. He might have been more forthcoming if the same questions were asked by a westerner. In that sense, it was a wasted conversation for me, plodding through country-by-country with him, looking for something insightful.
But his preliminary thoughts about the challenges in Africa, such as low population density and the need for educational catch-up to get the population employed in a modern economy, are interesting considerations. Studwell also gave me his preliminary thoughts on China in Africa, but clearly he had not thought about where Africa’s engagement with the West was going. Still, I do expect that his future book on Africa will be insightful, if only it gives me an even more nuanced dimension of the rise of Asia in those formative years, as we now contemplate the rise of Africa.