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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 2, January 24, 2009

Modernity Trouncing Tradition

Observations of A Brief Trip To Shanghai

Monday 26 January 2009, by Arun Kumar

I. First Impressions

There is little that prepares one for the surprise when one visits Shanghai for the first time. For all its rapid growth in the last 25 years, China is still one of the poor countries of the world and a part of the developing world. Yet, the centre of Shanghai is like the downtown of a modern European or US city. Excellent infrastructure, skyscrapers, no power outages, good roads with proper signages, bicycle tracks and in places even moped tracks. The city boasts of the largest number of hotels and malls of any city in the world. Some years back, Mumbai wanted to be like Shanghai and on seeing it one realised why; but it also became clear that the goal is a distant one.

Police is not much in evidence suggesting that the crime rate must be low and people largely law abiding. Unlike Delhi, cars do not have dents and traffic is orderly, driving in lanes; even if one is stuck in traffic jams of which there are plenty, motorists do not jump lanes and create a chaos slowing everyone else down (as often happens here). Taxis are plentiful and charged by the meter and apparently there are hardly any complaints of over-charging or of taking foreigners for a ride via circuitous routes to make them pay more.

The first impressions on landing at the Shanghai airport (Pudong) gave a hint of what was ahead. The airport is massive, very neat and with immigration taking only a few minutes. As more and more disembarking passengers came in, the number of counters open increased from three to 15. The trip from the airport to the city was in a comfortable bus on an enviable highway where traffic was fast and smooth. Buses were available with great regularity to pick up passengers to different parts of the town. People were helpful, guiding us (strangers) from the disembarkation point to the hotel.

II. Strong Implementation

THE next day we were efficiently picked up at the appointed time to reach the venue of the conference, the reason for our visit to Shanghai. There was much clicking of cameras as three Indians came to the entrance of the conference venue—perhaps to establish that it was an international conference. The conference, organised under the auspices of The Third World Forum on China Studies was titled, ‘Common Challenges, Common Efforts: Working Together for a Better World’. The organisation was excellent throughout the two days with simultaneous translation working well etc. The picture one got was of a highly organised society where things work. This is the underlying basis of the economic miracle. Decisions once taken (right or wrong) get implemented. There is hierarchy everywhere and orders seem to be carried out systematically so that the institutions achieve their goals.

This can also be disconcerting to someone used to living in a democracy. Is everyone’s voice heard or only those at the top decide what is good for society and then everyone has to follow? As long as the cat catches the mice it does not matter whether it is black or white. This is the basis of the idea of ‘growth at any cost’. Who is bearing the cost?

At the inaugural session of the conference, it was repeatedly mentioned that there is need for harmony in society—perhaps because there is a growing perception of a lack of it. Are there protests taking place somewhere against this kind of growth? I was asked about Singur. Curiosity suggested that the protests in Singur and the predicament of the Tatas may have some relevance to China also. Massive displacement has occurred in China. Data suggest that there has been a decline in acreage under crops.

III. Old is Out

ON a trip to see the cleaned-up Suzhou Creek in Shanghai, one was impressed by the changes brought about. What was worse than a stinking nullah (much like the river Yamuna in the lean season) has become clean with fish reappearing and the stink gone. All around the beautiful park, created to showcase the clean-up to the tourists, are high-rise apartments. More are coming up as the old houses are demolished. Obviously, there has been resistance since one can still see surviving pockets of old single and double storied houses. These are hidden behind surrounding high walls. On peeping inside one can see that some houses have been demolished while others are still standing. Conditions inside appeared to be obviously bad and in stark contrast to the modern and bustling city just outside the walls.

One could see this pattern in many other parts of the old city like around the Yeu (meaning High) Garden. Upon taking a walk through this part, one could see despondency on the faces of those staying in these areas in miserable conditions. They are only being tolerated till the tide turns. It is like they are engulfed by the open jaws of the dragon of modernity and it is a matter of time before the jaws close and they get swallowed up by modernity of which they obviously want no part. Life in the clouds outside their hovels must seem to be like a bad dream which does not vanish when the eyes open. The future is staring them in the face.

In the middle of the Yeu Garden is the old tea house located in the middle of a pretty pond where, as one is proudly told by everyone, the Queen of England and Clinton had come to have tea. Around it are beautiful old buildings seemingly well preserved and teeming with visitors. One felt cheated that these are actually new buildings which have been constructed for tourists to get a feel of what it may have been in the days gone by. The ASI in India would not have allowed new construction within 100 metres of the historic structure but the Chinese perhaps have no such restrictions to worry about.

What of history? The Europeans try to preserve every old building and their history. We are told that the developers will give those displaced from the older buildings a flat in the new apartment block to be built on that land. They would also get cash. Why are they resisting? One young girl said they are bargaining for more. When one asked if it could be the case that they may value the land of their forefathers and their community more than the money they will get, she sheepishly admitted that it was likely. But she said that the young people want none of that and would happily move. She also added that the young wish to have little to do with the old ideas or things and want to modernise. History matters little to them or perhaps begins with their generation.

IV. Visit to a Chinese Village

ON a drive outside Shanghai, one saw massive projects and highways coming up every few miles. Communities are being swallowed up rapidly. We stopped at a village with ponds full of lotus, a rivulet flowing by, every inch of the land planted with something—maize, cabbage, egg plant, gourds, lemon etc. Even the few feet between the cemented road and the ditch had cotton growing on it. In the village, some very fancy houses with big cars were surrounded by blocks of houses in rows (perhaps a legacy of the Maoist era) and some very broken down houses. Those living in obviously miserable conditions were few but not lacking in dignity or patriotism. They did not wish to be photographed because they said it would be a loss of face for the community and the country.

Some big construction was coming up within visible range and the construction of a massive highway seemed headed towards the village and it only seemed a matter of time before the village would disappear. These are the limited observations of a limited trip to a village—perhaps not a typical Chinese village since it was in the neighbourhood of Shanghai.

While trying to beat the West at its own game of material development, the Chinese have paid a big price. Their youth wishes to have little to do with its own past. They are highly Westernised in approach and envious of us for our ability to converse in fluent English. I often heard it being said that India has excellent higher education by which was meant that many of us knew English. They kept saying that you have services and we have manufacturing. They were incredulous to learn that we have only a handful of good institutions of higher learning and spend about four per cent of the GDP on Education. They were surprised that it is not government policy but due to the pattern of demand of the elite that we have such a high share of services in our economy.

Seeing the massive investment all around, it occurred to me that could it not have been used to revive and preserve the old? It may have been cheaper also, especially in environmental terms, if the economic model was different from the one being borrowed from the West but then China is in a hurry to catch the mice. So, the real problem is not the colour of the cat but one of what is being caught—mice or something else along with it?

V. Growing Disparities

WE enjoyed the Chinese hospitality with meals running into twenty to forty dishes. One learnt after the first meal that one can barely taste what was served if one wished to try everything; otherwise half-way through one had to give up. The green tea, chopsticks and the food seemed genuinely Chinese and the young enjoy it but in their day-to-day existence some students said there is a substantial switch to quick food, sandwiches and coffee.

Only big cars are in evidence in Shanghai. There is little between them and the two-wheelers and the bicycles. Apparently they are not encouraged. Yet, the driver of the car that took us to the rural areas had his dinner at the same table as the group hosting us. The Secretary to the boss was also with us. Dignity of labour is still intact.

Traffic on the roads was massive but none of the vehicles emitted black smoke and so the pollution levels were tolerable even though when approaching Shanghai from the air at night one got the sense that there was a brown cloud hanging over the city. But this could also be due to the light pollution. The streets were very well lighted and high beams blinding the traffic from the other direction were not in evidence.

The city is well provided with a East-West and a North-South corridor along with Ring roads. These are roads built over existing roads. There is an efficient metro system and a bus service. But there are traffic jams through most of the day. Perhaps there is a need to build another layer of highways. Where would this stop?

At night one saw some people rummaging through the garbage to collect plastic bottles, etc. One was also told that there were those who slept under the bridges and flyovers and there were many of them. One did not see any beggar (though there are reports of children begging) but there was an old man playing a one-stringed instrument and people dropped coins in his cap kept in front of him. However, the number of poor seemed to be far less than one sees in Indian metros. Also, the situation maybe different in the less prosperous hinterland and rural areas. The malls were full of stores from the high-fashion world of the US and Europe and they seemed to be doing enough business for there to be so many of them. The young aspired to buy this stuff. Disparities are there but apparently less than what is visible in India.

VI. The Missing Macroeconomics

INDIA is of marginal interest. It is seen as weak and not able to overcome its problems. But its software is seen as something to envy. Indian youth is now going in a big way to study in China because it is cheaper than the private sector professional colleges. The plane we went in had a significant number of young students going there for studies. They were carting spices and food items to survive but China has attractions for them.

The India related papers at the conference saw little interest but privatisation in China and Russia was far more interesting. Macroeconomics held less interest than the nitty gritty of how to go ahead with the markets. There was little concern at the slowdown in the world economy given that the Chinese economy was still growing at 10 per cent and it was expected to continue to grow at double digit rates. No one referred to the collapse of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and the decline of the value of their shares by 90 per cent. The Chinese investments in these have been substantial and they would have suffered big losses. The high savings and investment rates and large reserves held by China and the resulting high liquidity did not arouse any serious analysis of the emerging situation. Either there was complacency or there are few macro analysts.

In the hotel, at breakfast, one met a couple of executives from Hong Kong who said that non-resident Chinese are active investors. Buildings of all sizes are coming up. The hundred-storey building the Chinese completed has been eclipsed by others and especially now by the Dubai Burj but there would be little surprise if one hears of a taller building planned for the coming years. For the Chinese the earth is square and the heaven round; so one saw many buildings which have a round something at the top. We were told that the foreign investor ties up with some political heavy-weight who delivers on the land and the approval of the schemes. Capital of any description is welcome; displacement and labour are not a problem. The workforce is disciplined and wages not too high but the managers and professionals seem to be well looked after. They are the consumers in the economy.

VII. Chinese World View and Concerns

THE situation in agriculture and in the western and central parts of the country are an obvious cause of concern since they have lagged behind. One senior analyst suggested that the government is a disinterested party in development so it looks after the interest of the country as a whole. Others contested this view by pointing to the growing regional and rural urban divide—mirroring the current Indian discussion. Many of the academics are trained in the West and bring with them the Western framework of analysis. The neo-classical framework was much in evidence with analysts swearing by the power of the market and largely interested in suggesting how it can be furthered.

In the inaugural session of the conference, the theme of harmony was firmly placed on the agenda but apart from us from India who wove this theme into our presentations and raised this as a serious concern in India and also in China others in our sessions hardly referred to it explicitly. In the roundtables held just prior to the concluding session, one did not hear it being mentioned.

In one of these roundtable discussions, China was upbraided by a Japanese and some Western participants for joining the group of 21 to stall the Doha round. It was suggested that China was expected to be more constructive and not to join India. It was suggested that China’s trade could slow down as could its flow of foreign investments. At another roundtable one heard that China has to adopt the Western tools of analysis for understanding society since only one kind of analysis is possible in today’s world.

In the opening session of the Conference, Li Wuwei, the Vice-Chairman, National Committee of CPPCC and Research Professor, SASS, suggested that China has made great strides but this has aroused concerns in the rest of the world and that some call it the “China Threat”. He projected the current trends to 2025 and said the GDP per capita will reach $ 8000. He said, it is essential that there be peaceful development in the world and that there is an interconnection between China’s future and destiny and those of the world. He said: ‘China will continue to contribute to the regional and world common development.’ There were elements of China having a hegemonic position in the world and that requires peace.

Prof Wang Ronghua, the President, SASS and Vice-Chair of the Shanghai Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC), in a paper, Harmony and Peace: The Global Implications of Chinese Development, SASS Working Papers, suggests that ‘Western powers typically rose through overseas expansion, often connected with wars’ while China is ‘influencing the world constructively by reforming itself’. He states: ‘ … lifting approximately 300 million people out of poverty. … in every sense a substantial contribution to human cause of peace and development.’

He maintains: ‘Two features shaping Chinese development are easily identified: its massive territory and wide gaps between different regions.’ It is a cause of concern that ‘levels of development in China are still very imbalanced amongst different regions’. Regarding the world economy he suggests that China ‘is expanding the volume of global market on the one hand, and on the other hand, helping to curb rising costs and any consequent worldwide inflation’ and this is because it ‘has great comparative advantages, especially in labour’ but unfortunately, this is not seen as the cause of great and growing disparities.

If one asks: is China still socialist?—it is reiterated that China has a unique path of development. But it is not explained whether what exists is distinguishable from state capitalism and primitive accumulation of capital.

Professor Li Junru, the Vice-President, Party School of the Central Committee of the CPC and Vice-Chairman of China’s Reform and Opening-up Forum, speaking in the inaugural session, talked of ‘the adaptation of Marxism to Chinese conditions’. He said: ‘Adapting Marxism to Chinese conditions is just to make every Communist Party member act with Chinese characteristics.’ He said that Deng Xiaoping suggested ‘taking our own road and building socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

According to him, application of value orientation is important which implies ‘to save the whole nation from great misery’ and ‘to liberate the whole nation’. According to him, Deng Xiaoping used this to argue that ‘the Chinese development cannot be away from the world’ and this led to the opening up. This was the objective of reform. Jiang Zemin used this to suggest ‘our Party should follow closely the progressive trend of the world’. He used this to join the WTO and become a part of economic globalisation. Hu Jintao has used this to put forward a global strategy of ‘following a win-win strategy of opening up’.

Zheng Bijian, the former Executive President, Party School of the Central Committee of the CPC, and former Chairman of China’s Reform and Opening up Forum, said economic globalisation started in the middle of the 18th century and identified three great turns in it. He suggested that the US failure in Vietnam and the Soviet’s failure in Afghanistan made their globalisation strategy meet with serious setbacks. He said, in the 21st century we are facing a new ‘hundred schools of thought’ and this is the third time it has happened in Chinese history. He doubted that the idea of ‘civilisational conflict’ and the shifts in characterisation from ‘China Collapse to China Threat to China Uncertainty’ have much validity in them.

He said: ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics is a socialism that advocates peace.’ He added: ‘It is impossible to have no twists and turns, ups and downs and even mistakes; it is impossible to be out of balance, out of control, corruption, underside, and even chaos.’ He identified the massive work force in agriculture as a problem that needs to be solved and suggested that there has to be a ‘new industrialisation route’, a ‘modernisation route with Chinese characteristics’ but what this means was not spelt out. He suggested that ‘we can’t learn from the Western powers the colonialist plundering of the world resources’ or ‘learn from the military nations like Germany and Japan’ or copy the ‘hegemonism of the former Soviet Union’. He suggested that there was a need for a ‘harmonious world’.

Mei Zharong, the former President of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs and former Chinese Ambassador to Germany, observed that China’s rise has led to ‘malicious attacks of the Western powers’. He said that they speak ‘ill of China’s human rights in spite of the China’s actual conditions’. He said that the West is worried about China aiding Africa and falsely accuses it of locking up or plundering its natural resources. He also raised the issue of Western support to the Dalai Lama under the garb of supporting cultural autonomy. He averred that China ‘must keep modest and prudent’, and further, ‘must avoid by all means self-praise and publicise everywhere and play tricks of “image engineering” and “achievements in official career”’.

All in all, China is projecting itself as an economically successful nation and telling the world that it is ready to take its place in the comity of nations as a leader. It is not particularly worried about its socialist past or claim to be governed by a Communist Party. It advocates peace to enable its growth to continue so that it becomes the world leader by 2025.

VIII. Conclusion

IT is clear that China has not evolved a successful indigenous alternative; so when Maoist philosophy gave way what was left was the path of Western modernity which was dominant in the world. Hence for the upwardly mobile, the notion of success has become ‘Western’. Young people aspire to go to the West to study. Those adopting the Western ways are seen as successful. The youth seems to have given up China’s history in a big way as redundant.

Did communism and its failure after the mid-sixties deliver China to the West? That has happened in much of the world and in the former colonies that fought on the plank of nationalism and indigenous development. The Cultural Revolution and the running down of all forms of past practices from before the revolution suggested to the population that all the ancient influences were backward and had to be given up in favour of Western modernity.

It was a fascinating trip to a great country which has taken rapid strides in material terms but there were uncomfortable questions related to the need for any great country to have its own path which was not in evidence in China. One was groping to understand how a great civilisation with such a long history has suddenly given it up in substantial measure.

Dr Arun Kumar is a Professor, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at e-mail:

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