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Western Press Review: Economics Makes The World Go Round

By Joel Blocker and Esther Pan

Prague, 17 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- North American newspapers have been ranging far in their commentaries the past few days, assessing events in China, Hong Kong and Indonesia. West European press commentary is staying closer to home, with developments in France, Greece and Turkey attracting analysts' attention.

LOS ANGELES TIMES: The problems are formidable and the policy changes dramatic

Communist China's two-week-long National People's Congress, due to end within the next few days, was the subject of an editorial yesterday in the Los Angeles Times. Under the title "China's Risky Economic Play," the paper wrote: "China is poised for its most ambitious effort yet to dismantle major parts of its state-run economy. Driven by the dark economic realities engulfing Asia, Beijing appears to have little choice, but nevertheless it runs the risk of upsetting a delicate balance between economic growth and social unrest. The proposed changes would mean massive job losses. But doing nothing could drag China down the Asian whirlpool."

The editorial continued: "The National People's Congress last week gave overwhelming approval to the reforms, reducing the number of central government ministries to 29 from 40. The aim is to convert inefficient state-run industries into market-driven ones. Although the unavoidable result would be a heavy blow to employment, China can no longer afford a politically padded work force." The paper summed up: "The problems are formidable and the policy changes dramatic in scope, but if Beijing can manage the restructuring, it should emerge with an economy welcomed by its Asian neighbors, the Western world and, foremost, its people."

NEW YORK TIMES: Ideologically, the Chinese Communist Party is dead

A commentary yesterday by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who is currently visiting China, suggested that major national economic reforms have roots in the country's rice fields. Friedman wrote: "Not only is China's move toward a free market irreversible, it is now being driven as much from the villages up as from Beijing down. When people say that in China today the government's only ideology -- and basis of legitimacy -- is its ability to keep incomes rising, they are so right. Ideologically, the Chinese Communist Party is dead." His commentary went on: "In the village (election) campaign speeches (I've) heard, the Communist Party was mentioned in only the most perfunctory references. Instead every candidate dwelled on his commitment to be 'practical' or 'pragmatic' in finding ways to raise village incomes." Friedman concluded: "Sure, the party is still in control, but without any message....There's only one message from the party to the masses now: Get a job."

WASHINGTON POST: Now comes renewed pressure on Hong Kong's free media

The same day (Mar. 16), the Washington Post assessed recent events in Hong Kong, which Britain turned over to China nine months ago. In its editorial, the paper said: "Since Chinese control July 1, Hong Kong hasn't had an easy time. The city-state of 6 million people, now a tiny enclave of capitalism inside a giant Communist country, escaped the worst of Asia's financial crisis, but it didn't escape altogether. Meanwhile, tourism is way down, in part because of the overall downturn and in part, perhaps, because Hong Kong no longer appeals to travelers as an exotic marriage of East and West." The editorial continued: "Now comes renewed pressure on Hong Kong's free media, which -- absent truly open elections -- represent the best hope for preserving 'one country, two systems.' A pro-China media baron, Xu Simin, chose Beijing as his venue to attack Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) for broadcasting too much criticism of China and its appointees in Hong Kong. Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, instead of defending RTHK, (said): 'While freedom of speech is important, it is also important for government policies to be positively presented.'" The Post's editorial noted: "There has been little reaction from Hong Kong's friends in the West."

CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR: Lack of effective decision-making in Jakarta stands in the way of a resolution of the crisis

Also yesterday, a commentary in the U.S. daily Christian Science Monitor assessed Indonesia's current troubles. Analyst Helena Cobban asked: "Why does political Washington continue to treat the crisis in Indonesia as though it were 'merely' an economic crisis --rather than dealing with the full-blown crisis of political governance in that troubled nation?" She provided her own answer: "Yes, Indonesia's economic problems are severe. But what stands in the way of their resolution is not lack of capital, and not yet a world depression. It is lack of effective decision-making in Jakarta. Indonesia, after all, is not the only Asian nation suffering from the current downturn. The problems started in Thailand and have swept through other East Asian nations. But nowhere else except in Indonesia has the political will to solve problems been so totally stymied by the country's internal political rot." Cobban also noted: "Indonesia is big: Asian statesmen are rightly fearful of the consequences if this 200-million-person nation implodes. With its location astride key shipping lanes, its vulnerable minority of ethnic Chinese, and its status as the world's largest Muslim nation, an Indonesian collapse could spark political and military unrest throughout the continent.

FINANCIAL POST: President Suharto has taken a big gamble

Today's issue of the Canadian daily Financial Post, published in Toronto, also comments on Indonesia's problems. In an editorial the paper writes: "If pride goes before the fall, Indonesia's President Suharto has taken a big gamble in his (recent) prideful snub of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Early this year, Suharto reluctantly signed an agreement to implement a series of economic reforms in exchange for IMF aid for the debt-ridden Indonesian economy. Subsequently, the nationalists around the president have become more and more resentful of IMF pressure and the reforms have yet to be implemented." The editorial continues: "Suharto has begun his seventh five-year term as president by circling the wagons around (that is, protecting) the status quo. He named a cabinet on the weekend that is widely interpreted as a rebuke to the IMF.....While one would expect any president to surround himself with loyal supporters, Suharto appears to have gone to extra lengths to sustain the control his family and its associates have over the Indonesian economy." The paper concludes: "Suharto's defiance (of the IMF) perpetuates the very structure -- the favoritism, the excessive loans for ill-conceived megaprojects -- that led to the collapse of the rupiah in the first place."

LIBERATION: The confirmation of the mandate was very conditional

Sunday's regional elections in France, won narrowly by the ruling national Left coalition, was the subject of a signed editorial in yesterday's daily Liberation, a left-of-center paper. Editor-in-chief Laurent Joffrin wrote: "(Socialist Prime Minister) Lionel Jospin often displays his modesty. He now has an imperative reason for doing so: the electoral score of the Left coalition (in Sunday's vote) forces him to do so. The (opposition) Right feared 'an earthquake.' It didn't happen." The editorial continued: "Of course, the mandate of last June (when the Left won general elections and took power) has now been confirmed, a source of satisfaction for the Prime Minister...But the confirmation was very conditional, as the relative nature of the victory shows: It was the (moderate) Right's bad score, combined with the solid stability of the (extreme Right's) National Front (which won more than 15 percent of the vote) -- not the Left's score itself -- that allowed the Left to win considerable power on the regional level." Joffrin concluded: "The (National Front) eyesore continues to disfigure the electoral face of the country. Because of this persistent menace, too, the Left's victory must be seen as a relative one."

LE SOIR: Abstentionists were winners of the election

The Belgian daily Le Soir also commented on the French regional elections yesterday. Analyst Joelle Meskens wrote that the real "winners of the election (were) the abstentionists," more than 40 percent of the eligible electorate. She said: "This election's first lesson is that, fed up with things as they are, the voters did not come out in great numbers. Make them angry and they'll shout, 'That's enough.' (But) if the Government rules without too much loss and confusion, that leaves them indifferent." She continued: "The second lesson of the election is that the crime of abstentionism serves (the purposes) of the National Front....Once again, (the Front) will play an arbiter's role in the consultations (and political deals) that will place later this week before the election of (24) regional presidents. It is to be feared that, the more electoral majorities are difficult to find, the more certain will be the temptation to succumb to the sirens of the extreme (National Front)."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Athens' reputation in the EU has improved today, Turkey's has deteriorated

Two German dailies yesterday assessed recent developments in Greece and Turkey. Writing from Ankara in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Wolfgang Koydl said that "Europe is the goal of both (Greece and Turkey): Greeks want (to join the) euro, Turks (want) EU membership." Koydl wrote: "Not so long ago, Greece was a dirty word in the European Union. Just mentioning the country in Brussels, Luxembourg or Bonn would unleash strong reactions ranging from the rolling of eyes to curses emitted through clenched teeth. If Athens' reputation in the EU has improved today, then it is largely thanks to Greek Prime Minister Kostas Simitis." As for Turkey, he went on, it used to have "a really good name among the EU's foreign ministries and chancelleries. Criticism, if any, came mostly from human rights activists or Green politicians. In other circles, the name conjured up a vision of a stable partner in an unstable region, a reliable friend."

Koydl continued: "If Ankara's reputation in the EU today has deteriorated, it is largely the fault of Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz" (who has made controversial anti-EU and anti-German statements in recent weeks)." He concluded: "Simitis made a big step when he devalued the drachma (last week) to create the conditions for (Greece's) joining (the euro). Yilmaz, on the other hand, messed it up again last weekend with his loud-mouthed and whining complaints about Turkey's mistreatment. He has yet to do anything to lead Turkey into Europe."

DIE WELT: Greece still faces much work to qualify to join the euro

In Die Welt, analyst Bodo Scheffels also saw Simitis' devaluation of the drachma as a step forward for Greece. He wrote that Greece "wants to lead the second wave of countries joining the euro --and in no way intends to lag behind the others....Greece is in a difficult position because all other EU countries have fulfilled the criteria for monetary union laid down by the Maastricht Treaty. While Britain, Sweden and Denmark only have to make a decision about whether they want to join in two or three years' time, Greece still faces much work just to qualify." He continued: "The pressure for participation in the (EU's coming) European Monetary System is making it easier for the Greek government to argue in favor of reform. The Greeks are correct to fear that if they remain on the sidelines much longer even the Central and East European (candidate) nations will join the euro zone faster than they would."