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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

China, India, Chindia?!...

When I was in class seven (already an avid reader of newspapers) Mao Ze Dong, the ‘Great Helmsman’ who had transformed China and in the process become certainly among the ten most important men of the 20th century (for better or for worse) died at a ripe old age. His proteges, most prominently Deng Xiao Bing, who collectively stepped into his shoes, promptly launched that vast and ancient nation on a course of reforms, which, though they preferred to call it incrementalism or gradualism – no more than a bit of timely and much-needed tinkering with the system Mao had put in place – took the world’s breath away over the next three decades. They called it ‘market socialism’: a system whereby politically they would continue to be ruled by a single party wedded to a pretty rigid ideology of centralised socialist dictatorship, while economically they would loosen up, capitalist-fashion, to harness the energies of a ‘hundred million entrepreneurs’, the advantages of every kind of modern technology, and the disciplined hard work of the most gigantic labour force in the world. Their determined and single-minded aim was to increase the gross national product by leaps and bounds. I shall not, right now, go into the politico-economic nitty-gritties, nor all the social costs that had to be (or were alleged by all kinds of detractors to be) paid. What mattered to those who mattered in China was to set a sizzling pace of overall growth for the span of an entire generation or more: and they did it. By 2000, the United States (like most other rich countries) was swamped with cheap, good-quality Chinese imports of every description, from dolls to computer hardware: some said US soldiers went to war wearing uniforms stitched in Shanghai, and more sophisticated observers muttered that China was buying up large and precious chunks of the US economy itself with its incredible horde of trade-surplus dollars! Meanwhile, glittering cities of chrome-and-steel skyscrapers, along with vast new powerplants, canals, highways, airports and ports are coming up all over China like mushrooms in wet weather: recent visitors can hardly recognise the country they last saw thirty years ago.

Within the last couple of years, according to some estimates, China has become the second largest economy in the world (though, because of the gigantic population, her per-capita income is still far below that of the US, leave alone the really rich tiny countries like Liechtenstein); she is the world’s largest producer of steel, the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, probably the largest market for expensive cars and snazzy mobile phones; she has the world’s largest army (more than twice the size of the US army) which, though technologically more comparable with ours than the American, is also modernising at breakneck pace (it is said they already have pretty accurate nuclear-tipped ICBMs which can hit west-coast US cities across the Pacific if ever the need arises); she is rapidly emerging as one of the largest aid-dispensers in the world (most prominently in Africa), having learnt that aid is the best way not only to open up trade which is highly advantageous to her, but to win pliant allies, or at least neutrals – which is already showing up in the way the US is continuously losing ground to her whenever there is voting in the UN General Assembly. Her hunger and zest for growth is still undimmed, and many of the best scholars around the world are predicting that she will outstrip the US to become the largest economy of all within the next twenty years. God knows what will happen to us all then, and the world as we knew it!

While China’s miraculous emergence as a global giant (‘The Dragon Awakes!’) has caused first disbelief, then awe and fear and an incredible amount of criticism from both within and without – “she’ll be the death of us all with so much pollution!/ she’s making a hundred thousand tycoons and grinding several hundred million into the dust in the process – Karl Marx must be turning in his grave!/look at what horrors she has unleashed in Tibet and what more horrors she is winking at in Darfur, Sudan!/God help America and the western way of living, democracy, human rights and all/ Don’t forget Tiananmen Square and the Falun Gong!…” it seems, from the writing of more keen and sober observers, that an enormous number of ordinary Chinese are not only participating more or less willingly in the continuing miracle but are very proud of their ever-growing global stature, and would like it to keep on growing, no matter what.

The following links are only two of the many score that I have read in the last few months:

‘China’s new intelligentsia’
http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=10078

‘Inside the Dragon’
http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/05/china/journey/hessler-text

The former is an article in the March 2008 issue of a British thinking-man’s magazine about contemporary Chinese intellectuals, who, it seems on the whole, are not about to overthrow the system they live in at all. They are (unlike ours!) almost unanimous – in this day of globalisation (western-style) and dissolving national borders – in their desire to see China emerge as a confident and vigorous new superpower on the world’s stage. Internally, though they argue and bicker a lot (there’s apparently much more space for dissent, at least among educated and non-violent circles, than many west-aligned people would like to believe), they seem to be agreed, too, that the system only needs more tinkering, sometimes a little towards the right (dismantle all remnants of the public sector), sometime a little to the left (spread the social security net much wider, care more for the environment). The second link is to an article in the May 2008 issue of National Geographic magazine – itself a phenomenon I can’t remember seeing ever before, a whole issue, every page of it, devoted to the developments in just one country!

China has been going flat out over the last few years to make such a grand and perfect spectacle of the Olympic Games she’s going to host this year (beginning about a week from now) that the rest of the world might remember her emergence dead-centre of the spotlight for a long time to come. All the magazines I see, Nat Geo and Reader’s Digest included, are full of it; apparently China is not only prepared to dazzle the world with spanking-clean modern cities and the most ultra-sophisticated security and highspeed transport systems and sports stadiums but is also determined to sweep the medals tally ahead of all the rest (nobody doubts that she’ll have the second-largest tally at least: the former Olympics have seen to that).

All this makes me proud as an Asian (it is certainly high time, historically speaking, that the Anglo-Saxon hegemony on global economics and culture was broken), and glad for the Chinese people, but rather sad when I turn back to look at my own country (I shall, at this point, ask the patient reader to read, or re-read, the little essay titled My India earlier on this blog: just type it into the search bar on the right, please). I know everything’s not all right with China, not everything that she’s doing is worthy of admiration. I know that someone of the stature of Amartya Sen believes that we Indians ought to be proud of two very great achievements: despite our grinding poverty, enormous disparities, repeated wars and widespread illiteracy, we – unlike China – have succeeded in avoiding giant famines and in preseving democracy, and I don’t entirely disagree with him. I know that India’s own brand of reforms started 13 years after China’s, and that we too have been growing at a pretty fast clip of late – indeed, many of the developments I can see all around me, from the proliferation of cellphones to ever-worsening traffic snarls on the roads to better clothes for the urban working class to increasing obesity and heart-disease among the rich and upper-middle classes, it’s all pretty much like what’s happening in China. And yet, and yet…

First of all, our growth is far too slow and sporadic; at this rate, leave alone the US, we don’t have a hope of catching up with China within the next 25 years, if we ever do. Second, the growth is, I believe, far more uneven than in China: so our rural sector (where two-thirds of our people still live) is seriously languishing, our infrastructure (roads, water supply, sanitation, housing, power, transport) is incredibly inadequate and creaking with age and lack of maintenance; we are miles behind China in this regard, leave alone the fully ‘developed’ countries, and as Manmohan Singh himself worries (but seems to be unable to do much about!), that could choke off our growth too soon, besides the fact that it keeps the vast majority of us permanently condemned to a very poor quality of life. Other than a few sectors (such as IT – which is too dependent on the health and whims of western economies, and too small to take the burden of the entire economy on its shoulders), too many areas have hardly seen progress of any kind. We boast of a handful of IITs, and half our population remains functionally illiterate. In the fields of military power and sports, the less said about us the better; in terms of new products, patents and theories, India (despite its millions "studying science" in high school) has hardly contributed anything at all to the world of science – our pathetic submission to the US’s dictates via the recent nuclear treaty, for instance, would be an open admission that our 50-year long nuclear ‘research’ has been a farce, we cannot build N-power plants without American help, virtually all our cellphones and car engines have been designed or even manufactured abroad, and I haven’t seen a computer using an operating system developed in India yet, or high-grade surgical instruments designed and made in India for that matter. As for the number of Indian scientists from India who win high acclaim for original papers published in the world's top peer-reviewed journals, compared to our population-size and our endless boasting, ha ha ha!

But far worse than mere techno-economic achievements (or lack of them) I believe where we have really fallen behind with little hope of redemption is that, unlike Japan earlier and China now, we neither have a national will to greatness nor any faith that we could do anything by ourselves. Everything from baseball caps to slang to textbooks to popular music tunes to machinery must be begged, borrowed, copied or bought from the west; the only things we are determined to preserve are the very things about our tradition that hold us back: religious bigotry, casteism, superstition, cheating the public to benefit the family (or, even more narrowly, just me!), allergy to regular, disciplined and meticulous work, unwillingness to take the slightest of risks, whether as individuals or as organisations, and complete lack of shame about everything we are bad at (punctuality, cleanliness and good manners, to name just three). Even if we are sometimes painfully conscious of our myriad shortcomings, we happily pin them all on ‘corrupt’ politicians (as if they don’t reflect us, as if they are found only in India), and dream and pray that we, or at least our children, may escape for a better life to America (I hear millions of Chinese have done that too, but then they keep ploughing back far bigger investments into their mother country than our huge Indian NRI community has ever felt like doing, though they too are very well-off indeed). I had a hope of seeing India taking a place at the high table of the world’s leaders in my lifetime: that hope is growing fainter with every passing year. To be a world leader it isn’t enough to be rich, or even to be (militarily) powerful, you must have something to give to the world, to teach, to be admired for. What have we got? In the first of the two articles I read that today’s Chinese intellectuals are dredging their ancient classics and sages (that would mean everything from the Tao te Ching to Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tse and Sun Tzu) for every pearl of wisdom they can find: how many young educated Indians could teach foreigners a thing or two from books like the Dhammapada, the Mahabharat, the Arthashastra, the Brahmasamhita or Abhignyan Shakuntalam?

And finally, there’s a bit of worry, or even fear, nagging at the back of my mind. China has never liked India – not, at least, since we gave shelter to the Dalai Lama in 1959, and India has been suspicious and uneasy about China’s real intentions ever since our military humiliation at their hands in 1962. Publicly top leaders on both sides keep saying they are keen on building bridges, and of course it would be a wonderful thing if China and India (along with Russia, too, perhaps) join hands to counterbalance the overwhelming might and influence of the west and create a really effective UNO – that would be the biggest step on the road to the ultimate desideratum of all, a truly fair and good world government for the benefit of all mankind! But idealistic dreams do not realpolitik make. China has always favoured Pakistan as a geopolitical counterpoise to India; she is making no secret of her desire to hem us in and keep us confined with her giant armed might, unable to spread our influence wide; she is publicly unhappy about any moves we make to cosy up to the US. In her bid for world dominion, she will probably do anything in her power to keep us from emerging into a rival, even a peaceful one. And the fact that we are falling so far behind in the race for prosperity, power, self-confidence and glory does not augur well for us at all! Merely having a lot of fat Indians going around in jeans, chewing gum, listening to hard metal rock on iPods, mall-crawling and saying ‘yo man, cool rags!’ to one another when they meet is not going to help us catch up with anyone.

8 comments:

santanu Chatterjee said...

The post was interesting one but i do have certain reservation about the idea of chinese dominance. Let me clarify them one by one. First of all you have said the market is getting flooded with chinese goods. True, but what about brands? Have they been able to create a single brand? Do you remember of using anything that has been designed and fabricated in China? The answer is no.

Next, yes production has been definitely very high and so is their GNP, but the economy is too america dependent. Their economy is largely dependent on their exports to america and that too those goods that are branded and undergoes quality control by some US based MNC. Today if their is a recession in US, I doubt how many companies will keep their chinese offshoring centres open. At least our countries production units need not shut down because we consume most of what we produce. The offshoring of US based companies is one of the major reasons for chinese boom. Note the difference with IT industry of India which depends on outsourcing.

You have talked about high quality chinese goods. Well the lesser we talk about quality of chinese goods the better. Huge amount of goods of a particular US based MNC produced in China had to be withdrawn from the market because the colors used were found toxic. The moment US companies find a better offshoring place where they can get away by not obeying stringent labor laws, and very cheap and disciplined labor, they will shift there.
Interestingly you will find that countries like Japan, Korea and some European countries have decided not to depend on "Made in China" tag. Has MNCs like Samsung, Sony, Daimler been depending on Made in China tag just for cost cutting?

Yes where ever pure menial labor is required like the garment industry, steel industry, they have offshored their units to China and are making merry.

Look at their university/higher education system. I know that a miniscule per cent is associated with it. That is true for any country. But how many universities in China can be ranked with the really greats of the world?

China is a giant as far as a few big cities and some zones go. And that is where the reporters of Nat Geo and Reader's Digest stay, right?

Next coming to India's situation, i totally agree to whatever you say. But so is the situation of China. How much innovativeness have they shown. They have a huge labor force and a disciplined one at that. And that is their USP added to the strict government control on what they do, say, eat etc.. All the skyscrappers that have been built, all the cities and airports that have been built have been done with the help of US MNCs. Refer to the Nat Geo's documentary on Megastructures. Their industry is also dependent on beg, borrow or steal policy and continually hobnobbing with the "rogue" states which has been responsible for the worst of human rights violation. How safe is it to depend on them to outwit USA in UN is a question mark?

aquietchild said...

I am going to recommend you a book to read after having gone through your post on the 'Chindia' phenomenon. If you have not still picked it up, i think you will, and you will like it too:
Aravind Adiga's 'The White Tiger'...

With Regards, Chirantan.

Subhanjan said...

Today, while going through the details on the box of my new optical mouse, I learnt that my optical mouse, to my surprise, had been manufactured in China. The realisation that I will be using a mouse that had been manufactured far away in a different country by different people made me ponder on the vastness of globalisation. After that I tried to find out whether there were other goods in my house that had been manufactured by China. And I found out that many things, from the motherbord of my computer to a few new stickers that my sister had bought, were made in China. No doubt, there is a little bit of China in every household. Is there a little bit of India in every Chinese household?

Kaushik said...

The first Editorial Comment, “Olympian Effort” appearing in this Saturday’s ‘The Telegraph’ edition (August 9, 2008) , I found, is a salutary read here and I doubt if the blog-master, with all his wry humour and an inexorable sense of history, actually authored it, like he often did in the past!

Kaushik Chatterjee

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Ha ha, Kaushik - thanks very much for that comment. Good to see that there are still some people around who publicly remember that I used to draft editorials for The Telegraph once upon a time. I have been out of touch with that world for so long that these days most people in this one-horse town I live in prefer not to believe that this ageing private tutor really did such things once!

But no, I didn't write that editorial.

Rajdeep said...

Sir,
I read that recently inflow of money from NRI's have increased and overtaken that of Chinese abroad. Is it true?
Also, China released for the first time a collection of Tagore photographs and materials on this visits to China, for exhibition in India.

Today I read another article:
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Beijing-backs-big-role-for-India-in-Asia-club/articleshow/9351710.cms

Your views on these please!

Best regards,

Rajdeep

Shilpi said...

Suvro da,

This post of yours has disturbed me and made me deeply uncomfortable for a long time.

I could come up with a mile long comment about my own misgivings and borrowing amply from your own writings (!) on democracy and the herd mentality and why most people in a nation go along with the belief that the masses are doing well because it's nice to believe..., and I can write too about what a couple of Chinese students told me for they talked far less favourably about their country's progress as it is generally perceived and as China wishes it to be perceived and believed (it seems and sounds like India but without democracy even though they may be progressing economically at a faster rate (whatever that means)), and yes, the US economy is heavily dependent on China but after reading those articles and re-reading your post (and sure it's a lovely thing that many of their intellectuals are returning to their ancient boxes of wisdom), I've got only one thought that's weighing on my nerves: a blog writer was huddled off to prison for writing unpleasant truths!

Shilpi

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Rajdeep, I am not too sure of the latest figures: you could help me by sending me a link. As for China diplomatically supporting a bigger role for India, that, I think, is merely designed for a good press: they would have to deliver much more solid on-the-ground evidence before I can start believing that their intentions are good. By stopping all covert aid to Pakistan, for example. Besides, India will have to earn herself a much greater status in the eyes of the Chinese rulers - at present they are almost openly contemptuous, and with good reason.

Shilpi,
I understand every bit of your concern. Re-read the post very slowly. I assure you I wouldn't like to live in a Chinese city, even if they retired me with a pension big enough to afford a penthouse apartment and a BMW!