Commentary: The Square People, Part 1
HANOI, Vietnam — I think I’ll plan to go from Kiev to Hanoi more often. It’s only when you go to two seemingly disconnected places that you see the big trends, and one of the big ones I’ve noticed is the emergence of “The Square People.”
In 2004, Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote about an emerging global “superclass” of “Davos Men” — alluding to attendees of the Davos World Economic Forum — a transnational, cosmopolitan elite drawn from high-tech, finance, multinationals, academics and NGOs. The Davos Men had “little need for national loyalty” and more in common with each other than their fellow citizens, Huntington argued. They also had the skills to disproportionately benefit from the new globalization of markets and information technologies.
Well, a decade later, as the IT revolution and globalization have been democratized and diffused — as we’ve gone from laptops for elites to smartphones for everyone, from networking for the lucky few at Davos to Facebook for all and from only the rich heard in the halls of power to everyone being able to talk back to their leaders on Twitter — a new global political force is aborning, bigger and more important than Davos Men. I call them The Square People.
They are mostly young, aspiring to a higher standard of living and more liberty, seeking either reform or revolution (depending on their existing government), connected to one another either by massing in squares or through virtual squares or both, and united less by a common program and more by a shared direction they want their societies to go. We’ve seen them now in the squares of Tunis, Cairo, Istanbul, New Delhi, Damascus, Tripoli, Beirut, Sanaa, Tehran, Moscow, Rio, Tel Aviv and Kiev, as well as in the virtual squares of Saudi Arabia, China and Vietnam.
The latter three countries all have unusually large numbers of Facebook, Twitter or YouTube users, or their Chinese equivalents, which together constitute a virtual square where they connect, promote change and challenge authority. The most popular Vietnamese blogger, Nguyen Quang Lap, has more followers than any government newspaper here. In Saudi Arabia, one of the most popular Twitter hashtags is #If I met the King I would tell him.
And The Square People are only getting more numerous and empowered. “Our goal is that, in three years, every Vietnamese will own a smartphone,” Nguyen Manh Hung, who leads the Viettel Group, a Vietnamese telecom, told me. “We are now manufacturing a smartphone for less than $40 and our goal is $35. We charge $2 a month for Internet connection for a PC and $2.50 for voice from a smartphone.” Because the Vietnamese media is tightly censored, it is no accident that 22 million of Vietnam’s 90 million people are on Facebook. Just two years ago there were only 8 million. Vietnam has about 100,000 students studying abroad; a decade ago it was a tenth of that. All future Square People.
To be sure, The Square People represent a diverse politics, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and ultranationalists in Kiev. But the dominant trend running through them all is this: “We now have the tools to see how everyone is living, including opportunities abroad and corrupt leaders at home, and we will not tolerate indefinitely living in a context where we can’t realize our full potential. And also we now have the tools to collaborate to do something about it.”
As a Vietnamese foreign policy expert put it, the Square People one way or another “are demanding a new social contract” with the old guards who have dominated politics. “The people want their voice to be heard in every major debate,” not to mention better schools, roads and rule of law. And they are quick to compare with others: “‘Why do those Thai get to go demonstrate and we can’t?’”
Ukraine’s Square People want to associate with the European Union — not only because they think that’s the key to prosperity, but because they think European rules, judicial norms, standards and transparency requirements will force the changes they want at home but cannot generate from above or below. Vietnamese reformers want to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership for the same reasons. Unlike Davos Men, The Square People want to use the global economy to reform their countries, not rise above them.
I gave a talk on globalization at the National University in Hanoi. Afterward I chatted with a young woman, Anh Nguyen, 19, a student who had asked several good questions. Her conversation was peppered with Square talk: “I feel empowered. ... I think Vietnam can change. ... Please tell the world about the big embezzlement case (at a state-owned shipping company) that was uncovered here. Before people would have been silent, but the verdict came out and they sentenced the (bosses) to death. ... It really surprised people. ... Now not every big boss is protected by the government. ... We get many different sources of information from the world. It opens eyes.” She has a much greater chance to achieve her potential than her parents, she added, “but not as much as I want.”
Move over Davos Man, the Square People are coming.