When Marco Polo visited China in the 13th Century, he was awestruck. Its cities, the security apparatus, systems of governance and way of life seemed eons ahead of what he had witnessed in Europe. The adventurous Italian writes about an amusing incident when he asked someone on a street how a useless piece of paper was being exchanged for goods and things to eat? This is how, ironically enough, his supposed slave introduced him to the concept of currency!
Let’s admit it. China has been way ahead, even if one were speaking only in the context of civilisation. In contemporary times when measurements like economic growth, military might and business infrastructure are au courant, India realises this only more sorely.
The entire hullabaloo about India and China emerging as power centres of the East has cooled off. Now what makes news is more of China challenging the United States and less of India and China being spoken of in the same breath.
Thomas Friedman’s ‘The World is Flat’, which was inspired by Infosys and the success stories of BPO and IT companies of Bangalore, has hardly a mention of India in his latest book, which dwells copiously on China, a clear reflection of the current thinking.
The US decided to give us the nuclear deal, it says because it wants the growing economy to have access to clean fuel, but we believe more to cultivate India so as to gain a foothold in China’s backyard.
Look at some mind-boggling facts and figures: China is the fastest growing economy of the world with growth rate figures of 8% even in times of recession. Its rapid industrialization has helped it to reduce poverty from supposed 51% in 1981 to 8% in 2001. Its GDP of nearly 8 trillion makes it the third largest economy of the world (second largest in terms of purchasing power). It has the world’s largest standing Army and the second largest defence budget.
The Dragon nation has, through its one-child policy, managed to control its population growth rate, an issue India is still struggling with.
The remarkable points about China are its discipline and meticulous planning. Whether it is its concerted long-term strategies to engineer changes in the composition of population in Xinjiang and Tibet or its spider network of roads till the very ends of its border and even incursions beyond, or simply the awe-inspiring show at the Olympics, China leaves little to chance.
It rules with an iron fist. However much many human rights activists may want to criticise its strong arm tactics, it is no mean achievement to keep such a firm grip on 9,671,018 square kms of territory. Free Tibet is a lost cause. Even the Dalai Lama openly acknowledges it. He now says even autonomy will do, but China will not concede even that much.
The Chinese tactics have a positive side as well as a negative. Is this much control ‘too much’? That the citizens of the country weren’t allowed to step out to see the 60th anniversary celebrations is a shame and media has played this up extensively enough to puncture the Chinese image, just as a worldwide debate had started about the quality of air in Beijing before the Olympics, well ignoring the world class stadia that were the marvels of modern day architecture.
Sure enough, China has had its share of problems. After declaring itself as the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, the country faced severe hardship and food scarcity because of an ethnic civil war. The 1960s and 70s were probably its most treacherous years when Mao Zedong experimented through his Cultural Revolution. If Chinese learnt to live with human rights violations, it was then; as thousands were killed, or displaced, thousands more losing their jobs and homes.
It was only in the 1980s when China began to put its house in order. That was at least a decade before we started on the path of economic liberalisation. China came up with unique blend of Communist capitalism, which has now become a model of study.
Yes even when as the country turns 60 today, a screened crowd of 30,000 people being allowed to witness the parade in the city’s infamous Tiananmen Square, is a sad story. Who wants to feel patriotic watching television anyways? But flip the coin and ask how the Chinese feel about it, instead of the media in the ‘free world’! When the question was put up to people by the BBC of how it is like to live in a tightly-controlled Communist country, abiding by its stringent rules; they seemed more than happy, and even secure. That’s the point.
There have been simmering revolts, probably the highest recorded in the world, about people wanting to breathe in free air, with freedom about their ways of life; but it seems miles away from say the making of a French Revolution. There were obituaries galore in print as Den Xiaoping era headed to its conclusion. But China survived exhibiting seamless continuity and perpetuity.
What remains to be seen is whether China’s lack of democracy and stifling control of its citizenry will ultimately prove to be a millstone that may crush its aspirations to be the greatest power on earth. Because if it does not, and the country continues to survive and thrive in this uniquely Chinese way of life, then no one can contain its march ahead. We’ll know soon enough….perhaps by China@80!