China in 2011: Through the Indian Looking Glass

Originally published: Jabin T. Jacob, “We are not that different, you and I,” DNA, 27 December 2011, p. 12.

With the exception of the 1962 conflict almost everything else about China is seen and understood in India through Western eyes. But, isn’t China, like India, a country of over a billion people? Why then suppose that anybody could understand the Chinese and their problems better than we Indians could? Who but Indians can really grasp the incredible complexities and myriad problems of a billion people living under one flag?

As Shakespeare’s Shylock might have continued asking, does China not have corruption and police brutality, unemployment and inflation, farmers committing suicide and migrant workers shivering in the cold? Does China not have a weak government and coalition politics, ethnic conflict and environmental protests?

“It does?”, you ask. Yes, it does.

For all the differences in our two political systems, the Chinese in 2011 saw and faced some of the same problems that Indians had to deal with this year.

2011 marked the 100th year of the fall of the last imperial dynasty of China and which led to the birth of the Republic of China, now represented by Taiwan. It was also the 90th anniversary of the birth of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Neither anniversary however, saw the sort of theatre associated with the Beijing Olympics of 2008. But the older anniversary certainly reminded many in China that democracy – the yearning of the 1911 revolutionaries – remains stillborn in their country.

Liu Xiaobo, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the blind Chen Guangcheng are only the most prominent of several civil rights activists who continue to remain imprisoned in China. Others, such as the avant garde artist Ai Weiwei, have been detained for varying lengths of time for “inciting subversion of state power” – a charge that Binayak Sen and others rights activists in India too, are familiar with.

China had a brief ‘jasmine revolution’ of its own in 2011 inspired by Tunisia and Egypt and while this soon petered out, there was unprecedented interest in elections this year to local party congresses that will send delegates to the 18th CPC Congress next year and which will chose China’s next generation of rulers. Especially notable was the higher than usual number of independent candidates in the elections several of whom ran serious campaigns using social media.

That said, tensions and violence continue in minority-dominated areas with self-immolations by Tibetan monks being the starkest reminder. And even in Han-dominated areas, protests grow daily in number.

This activism across the spectrum of Chinese society is driven also by a realization of the gap between the CPC’s current image and the ideals it originally stood for – a gap that the CPC anniversary certainly called attention to. If inflation and unemployment aren’t already problems for China’s lower and middle classes, inequality in China has also grown rapidly in recent years. But what really is galling for ordinary Chinese is the unfairness of it all represented by high levels of official corruption and worse, the ability of some of the Party elite or their children to get away with ostentatious lifestyles and anything but the most egregious of crimes. While in India, at least some former ministers are in jail, is it anybody’s case that all the big fish have been caught or will ever be?

Often entire villages in China have risen up in protest. Thus, the protests of the farmers of Wukan in China’s Guangdong province against land grabs by officials with little or no compensation paid, should strike a chord with Bengali farmers in Singur and Nandigram just as protests related to environment and safety concerns over a new power plant in Haiman also in Guangdong or over a new chemical plant in Dalian in Liaoning province must resonate with the protesters in Koodankulam and elsewhere in India.

Good Luck, Om and the Good Lord - everything goes in China

In both countries, meanwhile, the pressures faced by the government are not limited to issues of governance and state capacity alone but include also power struggles between interest groups and factions. With over 80 million members, the CPC is no monolith. And Hu Jintao as General Secretary is merely first among equals in the nine-member Politbureau Standing Committee, the most powerful group of men in China. The members of this group represent different, even opposing lines of thought on political and economic reform and as with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in India, so also with Hu – coalition-building and compromises are essential to survival and running the government.

Thus, Hu stands accused in China on the same grounds that Singh is – to have backtracked or been unable to push through important policy decisions in his last term in office.

And if in India, regional leaders can be seen as vying for the national throne – think Narendra Modi or Mayawati – so too in China, with Bo Xilai in Chongqing and Wang Yang in Guangdong using their positions as the chief provincial (state) leaders to bolster their chances for entering next year’s new Politbureau Standing Committee.

Finally, in both China and India, efforts by the elites to preserve their status and role in the domestic power structure continue. Both groups tend to copy the developed West in their outlook on economic matters while China also seeks parochial ideological explanations for perpetuating its existing political structure. And this when what both ordinary Chinese and Indians want is exactly the other way around – less laissez faire capitalism and more universal political values.

Thus, the CPC experiments with Confucianism – an ideology of inbuilt hierarchies in social relationships – installing in January (and then later removing under pressure from left-wingers) a statue of the Chinese sage in Tiananmen Square.  In India, meanwhile, a plethora of centrally-sponsored welfare schemes not only subvert the goals of decentralization and federalism but also perpetuate the hierarchies of caste and class in a different form, with the government cast as the constant benefactor rather than as an agent of empowerment.

China and India are different, yes, but maybe, not so different.

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