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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 48, November 16, 2013

The Sino-Indian Story: Towards a Unity of Opposites

Tuesday 19 November 2013, by Uttam Sen

The Chinese news agency Xinhua had described Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to China as historic. The fact stems from a past that could facilitate solutions to the problems of the future, at least in our own backyards. Global financial asymmetry, domination, the challenge to hegemony, and so on, are being dealt with extensively in discourse. But the crossroads are showing glimpses of innovation as the US takes a page out of Europe’s book and seeks to provide for all sections of its people. A meaningful, universal civil society could emerge from the condition.

China has changed beyond measure in the nearly four decades after Mao Zedong’s death. There has been a seesaw movement towards opening up and the reiteration of a unique identity. Ideologically, communism with Chinese characteristics has maintained continuity with Confucianism, despite predictable points of departure, namely, social order sans feudal authority. The state and Communist Party of China (CPC) have remained powerfully entrenched, but the contours of a civil society are emerging. The property and wealth of the urban rich have become the defining features of new China. Ironically, the elites have returned with the party’s blessings. Disparity has grown but the country is a global powerhouse capable of influencing a universal agenda. To the economic novice, Arvind Subramanian’s prescription appears convincing enough: let China finance multilateral financial institutions (this was toted at the time of the European financial crisis as well) and begin resetting the rules. All the hype about China’s trade surplus spelling danger to itself and the world would be rendered superfluous in one fell swoop.

Be that as it may, the worldly-wise third plenary of the 18th CPC Central Committee appeared poised to stage reforms. By the time news began to trickle in on the week-end, a carefully worded communiqué in the People’s Daily promised a very general reform agenda in which the market would decide the allocation of resources. The communiqué said “economic reform is key and the core solution is the proper relationship between the government and the market”. However, the change of the market’s role from “basic” to “decisive” in the ensuing document was interpreted as an important highlight, purportedly a shift from an invest-ment-led economic model to one driven by efficiency.

The current plenary, stewarded by Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan, described as aristocrats from veteran Communist families, was expected, in some quarters, to be a game-changer. But doubters are not sure that can they get past the groups that control the system and benefit from it, to the extent that their vested interests are endangered. The irony is that latter-day Chinese commentators based in the US are recalling the nature of the support Mao Zedong mobilised for transformation and fear Xi and company will not make it, or perhaps choose not to entirely do so in the national interest, subject to interpre-tation by people according to their convictions.

The CPC has, however, repeatedly pulled back from the brink, for example, after the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square when the party-controlled government’s response appeared to have taken the lid off a restive populace’s quest for more freedom. If the government resisted concession on political choice, its quid pro quo for apoliticism was freedom and encouragement for money-making. The Great Helmsman had himself posed a bigger challenge to the CPC through the Cultural Revolution. But purists point out that Mao’s ideal of egalitarianism suffered as the party in effect outmanoeuvred him. His unfailing deputy and one-time senior Zhou Enlai weathered the storm to pave the way for the thrice disgraced Deng Xiaoping to be Mao’s successor. The hard-nosed trailblazer, who began the process of economic liberalisation, in earnest, was responsible both for unleashing the animal spirits of economic enterprise that created unprecedented wealth and along with it mass migrations to the city, inequality and corruption. That epochal change under Deng took place in the third plenum of the 18th party congress in 1978 and changed the face of China. It was effected with consensus within the party and outside.

But the point is not so much market reform as the ability to lead by following at which Mao was a master. Xi has shown such glimpses in packaging the change for the middle class. As a layman with access only to the received wisdom in the public domain one would like to imagine that even if not on the verge of tectonic change, China could be readying for a qualitative makeover.

Today China’s relative opening up has made it party to international laws and conventions it had earlier shunned. The country is looking at successful Han cousins in South-East Asia for ideas. We are told that the brainstorming has borne fruit, arguably to recommence a route that was broken in the early 20th century, at about the same time as when seminal Indian minds were absorbing the legacy of the 19th century Western intellectual advent. Going by Tagore’s recollections China, Japan and Russia were on the Indian radar, as the world frowned on the small-mindedness of European rivalries that almost undid the catholicity of its scientific and intellectual revolution and rung in a world war. The arbitrary delegation of German interests in Shandong province to Japanese tutelage in the Versailles Treaty erupted in the May Fourth (1919) movement that was in addition an expression of the people’s simmering discontent with the unequal treaties by which they had lost out to foreigners. The xenophobia increased with the subsequent Japanese invasion as the nationalists and Communists united against the invader. There is a school of thought which contends that without the ferocity of the Japanese assault mainland China would have followed a more peaceful trajectory and kept intact the growing cultural and intellectual rapport with the external world. Chinese thinkers and writers had gained as much from Western missionaries and the liberal ethic as from Japan where the Chinese upper classes sent their wards for higher learning and specialisation.

Be that as it may, pristine impulses have been vibrating anew. Even Western liberalism has been reconsidered, though a less restrictive version of Chinese values, both modern and traditional, appear to be reigning in the public sphere. It is believed that debate over the social media in the Chinese language is direct, fearless and impassioned, and has led to the exposure, trial and conviction of leading public figures (that is, when malfeasance has been as much fact as perception).

The Indian affinity with several Chinese experiences, in the past as well as in the present, is fairly clear, not the least the trouble of managing growth with equity. Dr Singh himself has been one of the architects of Indian liberalisation and has alternately encountered censure and praise. The trait of securing benefit out of adversity has been common. China emerged from the economic precariousness of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the depredations of the Gang of Four politically intact and reappraised private initiative under the state and party to forge its economic destiny. India’s equally distinctive, almost conversely indeterministic, path has been distinguished by freer will, and greater political choice. The rationale of limited adjustment with the status quo and political renovation in the right time or the subtlety of wresting ideological hegemony from under the nose of the ruler, that pervaded the national movement to Independence, was not wholly random. The national political leadership was ahead of its time, and well-versed in global nuances, arguably exemplars of problem-solving in the present day. Even in the past, political turmoil did not take its toll in millions, and till the drumbeat of seizing the moment overtook the directors of global opinion, India’s passage to freedom was the flavour of the times.

China itself happens to tick in an ambience where the unstated recognition of pluralism can one day translate a surface diversity into productive equivalence. While at daggers drawn with the mainland, the retreat of the nationalists in Taiwan is not only one of the four successful Asian economic “tigers”, it retains features of republican China and some of the patriarchal Confucian order of the past. Seminal vestiges of an ancient civilisation have been preserved. Hong Kong significantly still nurtures its Westernised common law system and the golden goose of capitalism under the “one-country-two-systems” model. The mind boggles at the potential of the permutations and combinations that can be struck in politics and economics/business by a resourceful Diaspora that is heavily nationalistic in outlook. The tacit prospective is that in a world shrunk by modern communications, people and countries would not only do business with but indulge in the proverbial feast of reason and flow of soul that the three variants offer. For India the paradigm stretches to South-East Asia, South Korea and Japan. But aspirants have also to forebear sensitivity to return compliments in their own (real or imagined) spheres of influence.

Another shared characteristic, despite the pressures of governance obscuring the culture of people in contiguous regions across national boundaries, some of which are a result of past distortions, as in China, is the need to get on. That is to say, China without the foreign threat could have experienced a more peaceful transition to the present, or that the subcontinent without Partition would have been less prone to internal strife, sometimes imperceptibly created by the disruption of traditional systems. Yet all the parties are carving their niches according to their circumstances that include greater transparency and recognition of diver-sity. The Chinese Han monolith has been redefined to comprise of at least 55 different categories. Coexistence (one of the five principles or Panchsheel that China has reiterated) of different, sometimes conflicting, ways of life has been fortuitously integral to Asian sustenance. Setting off opposites has been a time-tested method of heuristic learning, quite different from the control imbalance created to divide and rule. By most accounts both traditions contain the legacy, politically restructured in the five principles of peaceful coexistence. Sharing limited resources under mounting demographic pressure can make the idea more objective and universal than in the contested non-alignment context. A common factor in Chinese 19th century reverses, attributed largely to internal rebellion, foreign incursion and famine, was demographic pressure. In the same period India underwent a spate of peasant and tribal uprisings as the colonial administration legalised the appropriation of land and resources. China is contemplating the creation of land (property) rights in the countryside that will possibly unleash new forces that could prove stable if together with the great turnover of envisaged money and consuming power, social relations can be retained on an even keel. (The latest party plenum promised to do so.) It perhaps sounds anachronistic to us that China’s rural populace, ostensibly forgotten while urbanites got the feel of property and money, remain loyal to the party. Yet countrywide restiveness is understated. It is, inter alia, with such complexities in mind that Sino-Indian accommodation can redefine stability in South Asia. China and Russia successfully developed and ploughed back their investible surplus from agriculture for overall growth. Facilitating South Asia’s unfinished agenda by constructive policy and engagement would be in its enlightened self-interest, apart from triggering a marvel in regional security and prosperity.

On its part, China has the strategic pivot to guard against, mostly across the South China Sea to its eastern seaboard, where it finds the presence of the US Pacific fleet irksome, just as much as Japan remains a powerful counter-weight, in the midst of expanding relations with India. Analysts will have to contend with the distinction made between “practical” and “ethical” or “ideological”, “reformist” and “realist” till such time as the gap narrows between them. The point is that the hiatus diminishes with the wider perspective. Just as much as defence forces are duty-bound to be prepared for worst case scenarios, moderation in one theatre can lead to understanding in another, that is, it can be practical and ethical, real and reformist to contribute in the reduction of tensions in South Asia and create third party suasion against military encirclement. This is perhaps simplistic but not entirely hypothetical in the Sino-Indian state of play.

Again, for instance, the way of the world is explicit in the aggressive attitude to border regions. Yet China’s chief negotiator in the border talks with India has talked of the “miracles” that can take place. India and China did agree to desist from provocations that have taken place of late, for example, the Chinese intrusion into the Debsang bulge in East Ladakh on April 15 this year. The two have also been at loggerheads over the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s exploration in the South China Sea, but as the talks in Beijing conveyed, are well within containment. Again, an update of global security and finance, excluding rock-the-boat divergence to disturb a wobbly status quo, can underline the pluralistic virtues of contemporary global society, of which Indians and Chinese are natural legatees. China has supported the Indian proposal for a Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) development bank, perhaps still a token aspiration for functional change and improved terms of trade. But insights have to be globally interdependent for their realisation.

“Reformers” and “realists” are at odds univer-sally, not just between nation-states, but within them. An Obama, Cameron, Hollande, or, for that matter, Xi Jingping, can put two and two together and transcend the sometimes limiting finality of immediate considerations. As one Indian commentator explained in his differen-tiation of Obama and his predecessor, whereas one could “intellectualise” a situation or problem, the other could not. When the common man has to contend with the paradox that horizontal equality for his well-being is eroding quality leadership at the top that can guide him, exceptionalism in certain fields must be res-pected. Otherwise, being ahead of one’s time can turn into a liability. One among the foregoing threw members of his own Parliament into a tizzy by confessing that Kashmir was a colonial legacy. To some people Hollande is turning the European system on its head, among other reasons because they are indifferent to the values that created modern France. Xi Jingping holds out hope of taking the initiative (there will be many issues as the standard of Chinese living rises, and with it costs of labour and production that will make exports dearer. India will be presented with a window of opportunity if its labour costs remain low). Congruence with neighbours and global peers rather than economic or military transcendence will be more optimum resorts. Our own Prime Minister’s academic salience should not be taken for granted when it comes to a political leader getting the big picture, as for that of a Head of State with the savvy to broach every note-worthy political development. They can be pathfinders in the end.

Likewise, the Sino-Indian interface could provide a telling comment on a whole series of events. China has been breaking through to Central Asia, with which it has historical associations, some of which is translating into trade (as has been India’s case with China through the Silk Route). But sustainable develop-ment through energy resources also beckons. Potential US energy sufficiency through shale oil production (though still not a certainty) could recast the dynamics of energy-defined policy in the Persian Gulf. The patrons of jehad could lose some of their traction, both in terms of ideology and resources, a finite quantity that cannot last forever. There could be freer play among local state actors and traditional powers like Russia, China, India and the West from the Persian Gulf to Central Asia with a reflection on the subcontinent.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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