IN November Russian television reported how a schoolboy in Pervomayskoye, seven kilometres from the border, found two families of starving North Koreans begging for food at his house. When the border guards came, sympathetic locals insisted on feeding them first. The Koreans pleaded to be allowed to stay in Russia: even imprisonment was better than being sent back. Although the report said the border guards were preparing to send them back, it suggested they could still appeal for political asylum. Ten years ago the idea that starving victims of communism could be appealing for political asylum in Russia would have been a joke. And it begs the question: how is it that nearly all the fully fledged communist governments left in the world are in Asia? The rulers of China, North Korea and Vietnam remain faithful to Marxism-Leninism which, apart from Fidel Castro in Cuba, everyone has discarded. Laos and Cambodia might also be added to the list as they are both ruled by former hard-line Marxists. In Latin America, Marxist guerillas still exist, especially in Colombia, but they are not the threat they were in the 1970s. In Africa communist parties are powerful in Mozambique, Angola and South Africa but no government there wields the kind of social control that North Korea does. After World War II, the United States feared communism would sweep over East Asia. Even in occupied Japan communists organised huge student-led demonstrations which threatened to propel the Communist Party to power. By the early 1950s, Mao Zedong's army had swept away the Kuomintang government in China, the Soviet-backed invasion of South Korea was under away, the French were losing control of North Vietnam, and the British were fighting a communist rebellion in Malaya. By the mid-1960s, there were strong communist-led insurgencies in Burma, Thailand, South Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines. In Indonesia only a massacre by the Suharto-led military destroyed the threat posed by the powerful Indonesia Communist Party. In Sri Lanka a hard-left government came to power. By the early 1970s, when US-backed South Vietnam was losing the war, the Sino-Soviet rivalry gave added impetus to Asian communism. Moscow and Beijing poured money into training and arming revolutionaries across the region. By the end of the 1970s, after the unification of Vietnam, just when the movement seemed invincible, it began to fade. With the death of Mao and the rise of Deng Xiaoping, market economics began to attract followers. One theory links the popularity of communism in Asia to the development of anti-colonial passion. Leaders such as Ho Chi-minh and Mao positioned themselves as nationalists, attracting non-communists under the umbrella of a united front. Once the Dutch, British, French and Portuguese had left Asia (apart from a handful of enclaves like Hong Kong) the nationalist underpinning of many political parties was bound to disintegrate. In the end the white man's burden was being shouldered only by the US - which had military bases throughout the region. As the Americans saw themselves as anti-colonialists, the conflict became a battle between liberal democracy and dictatorship. Two books became famous for examining how meaningful this is to Asians. The Ugly American by William J Lederer and Eugene Burdick became a bestseller by expounding the idea that rather than supporting right-wing dictatorships the Americans should be preaching the gospel of free enterprise. The hero of the novel is the (ugly) engineer Homer Atkins who spends his time on development projects in the imaginary country of Sarkhan - directly helping peasants improve their life by building water pumps or breeding fatter pigs. Conversely, in The Quiet American, Graham Greene attacks the arrogance and innocence of Americans' attempt to introduce their ideals to the unfathomable Vietnamese. In one scene, when the narrator takes refuge in a guard tower with the quiet American of the title, the awful Pyle, he tries to figure what the average peasant really wanted. 'They want rice. They don't want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another,' asserts the narrator, a cynical British journalist. He predicts that in 500 years there may be no New York or London but the peasants will still be growing rice in paddy fields and wearing straw hats. Some argue that Chinese communists have survived partly because they have begun to meet the aspirations of the peasantry - who account for 80 per cent of the population. Yet this does not explain the continuing grip of communism in North Korea, where people are starving. One theory - which manages to explain both the East Asian economic miracle and the survival of communism - harks back to Confucianism, the common heritage of Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan. What distinguishes East Asia from, say, East Africa is that for 1,000 years (and in China's case 2,000), these countries have been under powerful monolithic bureaucracies. That sense of statehood is absent from many other parts of the developing world where boundaries were drawn arbitrarily in the colonial era, and where the Catholic Church or some other force rivalled the state apparatus for power. The Confucian state has survived into the 20th century only in China, Vietnam and Korea. The traditions of a centralised state enabled the rulers to mobilise a docile population either into creating a self-sufficient and highly militarised state like North Korea, or a powerful export-led economy like South Korea. Since the death of Mao, many Chinese intellectuals have been less enamoured by Confucianism - preferring to dwell on the legacy of Qin Shihuang, the first Chinese emperor. Mao compared himself to the ruler who, by ruthlessly following totalitarian principles, managed to destroy the other states in China. This notion, which underlies a number of recent Chinese film epics such as The Emperor And The Assassin, is now held up to explain why the century-long struggle by some intellectuals to implant Western ideas of democracy on China has failed. From a legalist point of view the mainland remains a success, a powerful state in which a handful of men exert unquestioned control over the largest population in history.