Friday, October 02, 2009

Change is the only constant

China is likely to surprise the world in the coming sixty years as well

In Asian cultures, including that of India, the 60th birthday or the shastipoorti, is a unique one. It marks the end of one term of life and the stepping ahead into another, better one. On Thursday, the People’s Republic of China celebrates its 60th birthday. This is an occasion to sum up the first tumultuous and eventful sixty years of the country’s life, and to figure out what the coming decades will be like.

The last sixty years have been epochal and dramatic. There was an important symbolism in Mao Zedong and his comrades deciding on the afternoon of October 1, 1949, to proclaim the new People’s Republic of China from the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tienanmen) leading into imperial Forbidden City in Beijing. They wanted to tell the Chinese people and the world that the Communist Party of China had, after resisting the Japanese onslaught, triumphed in the long civil war. It was now determined to put the “One Hundred Years of Humiliation” — the century of foreign invasions — behind and usher in a new China.

Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese revolution

That path was to prove uncommonly difficult and bloody. The Great Leap Forward (1958-61), the first grand social and economic plan which was supposed to launch the parallel economic and agricultural development of China was a disaster of enormous magnitude. A combination of flood, drought and chaos engendered by Mao’s forced collectivisation policy led to a famine where between 30 and 40 million people died.


After a brief period of recovery, came the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966 that lasted till Mao’s death in 1976. The Cultural Revolution was Mao’s megalomaniacal effort to establish his hegemony on China, but all it brought was economic and political chaos and considerable bloodshed and hardship to the average Chinese. For ten years, China’s educational system came to a grinding halt as its students rampaged across the land and their professors were sent to remote farms to do hard labour.
But Deng Xiaoping’s return to power in 1978, began the process of China’s transformation. Deng was anti-Mao. Where Mao could not see beyond Marxist doctrine and dogma, Deng insisted that “white or black as long as it catches the mouse, the cat is good.”
He reintroduced capitalism in China and insisted that this was only “market socialism.” As of the end of June 2009, China’s foreign currency reserves stood at $ 2.13 trillion, the largest in the world, its 2008 GDP was $4.33 trillion — more than 20 times greater than it was when Deng’s policy of reform began, and the third highest in the world after the US and Japan. China’s exports totaled $1.43 trillion in 2008, second only to Germany’s.
Deng Xiaoping’s main contribution to China, besides his leadership as a reformer, was to provide his country political stability. A child of the revolution, and its sometime victim, he ensured that in the post-Mao era, the Communist Party would institutionalise a system of peaceful transfer of power from one generation of the collective leadership to another. The economic achievement was built upon the unexpectedly stable and resilient Communist party system.
The unprecedented prosperity has brought the individual Chinese enormous self-confidence and pride, but not political freedom or a liberal ambience. Those who disagree with the official view are treated like criminals. Entire ethnic groups like the Tibetans and the Uighur are suspect because they want to retain their cultural exclusivity. This is what led to the clash at Tienanmen Square in 1989 and to the repeated uprisings in Tibet and Xianjiang.
Things cannot but change. The economic growth of the country is itself creating new classes of people who are outside the formal power structure. The internet age has brought to the Chinese a means of individual expression. Though the net is policed extensively, it is not possible to maintain the kind of social control that the party had in Mao’s heyday. It has to rule by some sort of consent, which is based on the competence of the leaders and the party cadre. The need for political reform is manifest, but China probably awaits a new Deng to inaugurate that period.

Deng Xiaoping, the father of modern China
In many senses, what we are witnessing is not the rise of China, but its resurrection after two centuries of decline brought on by the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the west and its accompanying predatory colonialism. People wonder whether the rise of China is a “threat” or an “opportunity”. Those who think it is a threat worry that its opaque policy-making practices, which have encouraged nuclear proliferation and supported unsavoury regimes around the world, could take the world into an era of uncertainty and strife. On the other hand, there are those who think that the Chinese engine could be the new factor in the world’s economic development.


Given the economic success of China and its continuing failure to reform its politics, the rise of China confronts the world with both threat and opportunity. This China is no longer guided by Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character strategy. That dictum called for China to “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capabilities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”
The last two or three years have seen the shift. On the issue of Tibet last year, the Chinese were not just assertive, but almost hostilely so. The national day parade on Thursday will be the biggest and most impressive display of Chinese military hardware in a long time; military capabilities are no longer hidden. The economic crisis of 2008 has thrust the Chinese closer to a leadership role in the world of finance.

DF-31s parading at the 60th anniversary celebrations on October 1, 2009

China is India’s big neighbour and without doubt our major challenge, and a multi-dimensional one at that. Many people focus mainly on the military challenge arising out of our past humiliation in war and the disputed land boundary. But that is a small part of what confronts us in the future. In that future, China is a development challenge because its success not only offsets our attraction to our neighbours, but actually undermines our position with them. Beijing understands this well and expends considerable effort in keeping us off balance in our own region.


The recent revelations that China supplied Pakistan with nuclear weapons designs and material and actually tested a Pakistani-made weapon in 1990 underscore this point; Beijing’s aid to Pakistan has completely transformed our security paradigm. China’s friendship with a country like Pakistan, of course, begs the question about the friends it has in the international system.
In the 1990s, India took its first hesitant steps towards economic reform. In the process, it has scripted a success story of its own, no less distinct than that of China in the economic field. The world does not speak of the rise of India in the same hushed tones as it does of China. But the Indian transformation, too, has similar characteristics, including a sharp growth of the country’s military power. India has emerged as a geopolitical entity in its own right and has begun to exert its own gravitational pull which has to a small degree offset Beijing’s attractions.

Looked at from the vantage point of the present when the world has just emerged from a major economic crisis, the future looks optimistic from the point of view of China. But it still has a long way to go. China’s per capita GDP does not even today place it in the ranks of the top 100 countries of the world. Its political system, of course, remains antiquated and authoritarian.
But China has repeatedly surprised the world in the past sixty years; there is no reason why it cannot do so in the future, though hopefully in a pleasant sort of way.
This article appeared in Mail Today September 30, 2009

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