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America sets the standard in Asia

While we're heading out to the beach or stoking up the backyard barbecue grill for the July 4th holiday, it's probably useful to consider, however briefly, the great majority of people out there who don't have it as good as we do.

I'm not talking about waving the flag and bragging about how we're richer, freer and all-around nicer people than anybody else on the planet. For one thing, that's not entirely true. Two or three countries have per capita annual incomes as high or higher than ours, and most Western European nations now enjoy the same kind of personal and social freedoms we do.

As for being nicer than anybody else, you'll get an argument about that in countries around the world.

What few can dispute, however, is that if there's any country that exemplifies democratic values more than all the others, it's the United States. We may not be perfect in how we apply it in this country, but the fact remains that when people around the world talk about democracy, they're often as not talking about the way we practice it here.

Sometimes the best way to appreciate that is to leave the United States for a while, to see what people of other nations think about democracy and to see ourselves through their eyes. That's what I did recently, traveling for a little over a month through East Asia and talking to people in the cities and the countryside about democracy and the freedoms that go with it.

In China, in Hong Kong and especially in Vietnam, the subject that came up most consistently was how desirable but extraordinarily difficult it is to create the kind of democracy we have here in America.

The talk about democracy was especially fascinating in China. The Communist Party leadership there seems convinced it can have it both ways _ get rich with a free-market economy similar to those in the industrial democracies while at the same time maintaining tight, authoritarian political controls.

Democracy, the leaders in Beijing say, may be wonderful in the United States but it just isn't possible in an Asian country like China that has a population of more than a billion people. India, an Asian nation whose population is almost as large as China's, is also a working democracy but is dismissed as an example in Beijing because of its relative poverty.

No, when Chinese officials talk about democracy they set their sights very high. They talk about American-style democracy and conclude that it's simply out of reach for their country any time in the foreseeable future. It's a self-serving argument, to be sure, one made by politicians more interested in hanging on to their jobs than helping their people.

The fact remains, however, that when the Chinese talk about democracy the gold standard is still the United States.

The subject of democracy is a popular one in Hong Kong, too, and for good reason. This is because the 6-million or so people of Hong Kong could lose whatever democratic privileges they enjoy when China takes over the British colony in 1997.

During my visit, I had the opportunity to hear from some of Hong Kong's most eloquent proponents of democracy, and every one of them cited the United States as the prime example of how they would like to see political freedoms develop where they live. These are people well-versed in how democracy works in Britain and how another version of it operates in Canada. But when they talk about the kind of democracy they would like to see in Hong Kong, it's the United States that sets the measure.

Vietnam is probably the most telling example of how appealing the American success story can be. Here, after all, is a country whose people have every reason to dislike the United States.

The Vietnamese of the north lost more than 1-million fighters while defeating the United States and establishing a Communist dictatorship throughout the land. Those in the south might be justified in feeling that Washington was a terrible ally, one that cut and ran when the fighting got tough.

Despite all these reasons for hostility, the main thing Vietnamese politicians and private citizens wanted to talk about was re-establishing normal relations with the United States.

Economics is part of it, of course. The Vietnamese want normal ties with Washington so that more American executives start arriving with lucrative contracts for Vietnamese companies.

But if the Vietnamese were motivated only by money, they would probably be smarter addressing themselves to Japan and Taiwan. Both Asian nations have businesses with a lot of money to invest and much more inclination to invest it in Vietnam than their American counterparts.

What the Vietnamese seem to want more than even money right now is the legitimacy that comes from being a political and economic ally of the world's pre-eminent democracy and single remaining superpower. Some Vietnamese officials feel that might even help them sort out their differences with neighboring China.

America's image abroad has suffered a lot recently, especially in the last three years. Foreign leaders wonder if we've lost our will to lead, our determination to remain engaged and active on the world stage.

While those kinds of doubts may be disturbing, it's still nice to know that even our most determined opponents and detractors recognize who's No. 1 and what it is they have to shoot for.

Have a good Fourth.

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