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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 19, April 27, 2013

Comments on "How India is Turning into China"

Sunday 28 April 2013, by Saurabh Kumar


The article brings to bear the writer’s formidable skills for broad-brush painting of the contemporary scene with a keen eye on history to give us some valuable insights about the commonalities in the current travails of the two “rising” Asian powers that had set out on lofty historical missions more or less together, albeit with contrasting political systems—the “profound crisis of legitimacy” confronting them both, above all.

Attributing the “growing resemblance” to the state in India “mimicking China’s authoritarian tendencies” (and Indians its authoritarianism) is, however, simplistic. (The article is also not balanced in its appraisals.) The apparent similarity in the condition of the two countries is the result rather of China’s regressive and closed (macro) ‘structure’ neither being able to address the contradictions between its political and economic facets, post-embrace of the market mantra under Deng Xiaoping and sans mechanisms for checks and balances, nor hush them up in an age of the social media; not of any imitation on the part of India or Indians. The confluence of power (of the Party) and money (of/in the market) have resulted in rip-offs and wanton conduct by Party cadres, especially at topmost levels.

The root of this vexing state of affairs lies in the untrammelled power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—a problem without solution, which the article is silent on. (The unprecedented apocalyptic warning by Hu Jintao, the outgoing General Secretary of the CCP, in his Report to the recently concluded 18th Party Congress—the five yearly apex gathering, and fountain-head, of all authority in that country—of the danger of “collapse of the Party and fall of the State” speaks for itself in this regard.)

The many failings on the Indian side, on the other hand—of misgovernance and missed opportunities more than malfeasance—are in the (subjective) realm of ‘process(es)’, not to do with macro ‘structure’, in the main. (In fact, in spite of a very carefully crafted, balanced and enlightened macro-structure, which is not given due credit in the article.) And there can be no pairing of the systematic and ruthless repression of freedoms in China with the occasional reverses in openness in India (which are fitful and miniscule in magnitude, in comparison, whether at the level of state or society).

The pessimistic prognosis (about both countries) in the concluding paragraph of the article is itself a “commonplace”, it has to be said. Between the two, India’s process-related (and micro-structural) problems might well be easier remedied than the macro-structure-driven ones of China, which are not just a matter of advancing on the learning curve, as the former are. And the likelihood of “less rather than more democracy” in the future posited in the last sentence is not pertinent in case of China, when there is none at present in the first place! “Cyber-empowerment”, to use the writer’s elegant phrase, has in any case already made sure that that cannot happen.

Additional specific comments in elaboration of the above, that have a bearing on the article’s comparative evaluation of the two countries, are offered below:

(i) The assertion that politicians in India have “built up enormous fortunes”, on the basis of legitimacy provided by elections, is queer: what about those built up by Chinese political leaders without even the fig-leaf of such legitimacy, on which there is not a word in the article? There is hardly a senior Chinese leader whose family has not been named in reports leaked out from China (featured in the New York Times and Bloomberg, most prominently) outing the amassing of wealth, obscene amounts to boot, going on in that country. Bloomberg has also reported an astonishing statistic—that the increase in the wealth of the richest 70 Chinese legislators (National People’s Congress members) over one year (2010-11)—$ 11.5 bn—was more than the total net worth of the top 535 officials in the USA (Congressmen, Administration and nine judges)—$ 7.5 bn. And we’re not talking of “corruption”—yet. The wealth alluded to here is presumably that sourced from “legitimate” income, generated by “legitimate” (business) activity. Factor in corruption—including the second ‘W’ all over the Inet in recent weeks—and it doesn’t take a moment’s reflection to appreciate the monumental scale of wrong-doing in China; far, far greater than in India—the increased opportunities for malfeasance in the latter, post-liberalisation of the economy (that have undoubtedly been widely availed of), notwithstanding.

More importantly, what does this frenzy to get rich quick (legally by the well-connected and not so legally by others) and the bizarre Bo Xilai affair (and other instances of brazen behaviour of top leaders and officials) tell us, beyond the fact of the transgressions themselves? About the permissiveness and blasé tolerance, in the Chinese political system, of conduct antithetical to the values espoused by the ideology of the CCP (even when those wayward ways had become rampant and were no longer a matter of a few isolated cases of aberrant misdeeds, which could have been set aside as ‘Type I defects’ tolerable in any system). And, even more, about the utter helplessness of the Party-State (with a reputation for managerial efficacy) in the face of such taunting disregard of the law of the land (as displayed by Bo Xilai, in particular, with impunity), not to speak of an abstract ideal like the rule of law.

The section in the 18th Congress Report on “law-based governance” is revealing: “no organisation or individual has the privilege of overstepping the Constitution and laws” and that “the Party must act within the scope prescribed by the Constitution and laws”—betraying the ground reality of the CCP (read its upper echelons) being a law unto itself.

(ii) The remark (about India) that “a small minority.....set national priorities, the most important of which is the entrenchment of their own power” is true of China as well, a 100 per cent. The CCP’s claim to fame, implicit in its name but also made explicitly not infrequently, as a party representing the underprivileged cannot be taken at face value after what has come to be known about ground realities in that country over the years. Especially so in the light of the dynamics of the Cultural Revolution; the rationale for it advanced by Mao, above all—that it was necessary to counter “revisionist” tendencies in the Party (manifested in selfserving complacency in its leadership about realisation of its original egalitarian and revolutionary vision, with a majority ready to rest content with realisation of structural transformation of the economic ‘base’ without concern about the essentially untransformed processes that apparently continued to inform the ‘super-structure’ of State and society). And its aftermath, the post-Mao evolution of the Chinese polity, which has been in a state of denial about that honest, if devastating, insight, in particular. And, as for “entrenchment of its own power”, what can be more telling than the record of the CCP? It exercises monopoly rule de facto, without even going through the motions of advancing a rationale for that practice in theoretical terms (in the Constitution of the State), aware no doubt of the utter untenability of the traditional Marxist-Leninist justification (formulated in terms of the class struggle approach—the ’historical necessity’ of exercising dictatorship over ‘erroneous’ ideas emanating from, and representative of, class interests other than those of the ‘proletariat’) when, by the CCP’s own admission, class struggle is “no longer the principal contradiction” now (and there is, consequently presumably, no more any ‘prole-tariat’ left or ‘proletarian consciousness’ necessary —those words don’t figure in the CCP’s Cons-titution as it stands today, even in a historical background setting; nor does “bourgeois liberalism”, its anti-thesis, barring an odd allusion).

(iii) Likewise, the observation that the “fanatically ........... anti-elitist nature of China’s revolution” (which the writer contrasts with India’s “small minority” exercising power to the disadvantage of the latter) turns out, on closer scrutiny, to be more apparent than real—a case of linguistic sleight of hand, in fact, with the reality underlying revolutionary rhetoric having remained relatively unchanged all along. [Just two examples to illustrate the CCP’s penchant for semantic sophistry:

a) Recall the manner in which the egalitarian vision of the Cultural Revolution was transformed into a pejorative, magically almost, by a stroke of the pen labeling it, ex-post facto, as “equalitarianism”.

b) Or the fact that that pioneering, if convulsive, movement representing an ideological advance (of acknowledgement of the need for ‘permanent revolution’) unparalleled in the history of ruling Communist Parties the world over is, not accidentally, never referred to by its correct/full name, that is, the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ but only as the ‘Cultural Revolution’, in a disingenuous bid to rob it of its essential raison d’ etre.

This obfuscatory semantic skill has proved successful, of course, time and again in clouding the judgement of foreign scholars and others with no choice but to depend on information provided by official China. A canny elite, acutely conscious of the need for political correctness (not just in propaganda but in all public projections of itself and of all its paraphernalia, under the State or otherwise), invariably manages to get the better of the outsider, especially academics, who are fore-doomed to err (on the side of caution) because of their very objectivity, and desire to remain dispassionate. For that leads them to make various kinds of allowance for the Chinese side of the story (as happened in case of scholars’ estimates of casualties of the 1958 Great Leap Forward—when official figures were released finally, they turned out to be more extreme than even the wildest of estimates of the most hostile foreign experts in the China watching academic industry, leaving them all but especially those who, being favourably inclined towards China, had tried to minimise the adverse impact of that movement terribly embarrassed).

A critical examination of China, and the CCP, today suggests a totally different picture of the state of play—of urban based elitist politics, exploitative of the poor peasantry in particular (in whose name the CCP fought its way to power) but with politically correct rhetoric camouflaging that reality. The “ruthlessly appropriated land from the peasants” mentioned by the writer is only the tip of the iceberg, being better known. Other dimensions such as the plight (unbelievable for a socialist society) of rural migrants to urban areas (on the backs of whose labour “the country’s world class infra-structure” is built and whose numbers are upwards of a hundred million) and, in fact, the very basis of exchange between the agrarian and industrial sectors of the economy, need to be brought into the reckoning. The admissions in this respect in the 18th Congress Report, bold in comparison to the tradition of steering clear of weak points (but still drowned in a sea of verbiage), testify to that amply.

(iv) As for the number of “dynasties” in India far exceeding that of Chinese “princelings” (guan er dai or “second generation nobility”, as they are known in that country), it is not clear where that assessment comes from, for the numbers of the latter are not revealed (to the outside world, if actual figures are at all available anywhere within the Chinese system)—only their over-weening influence is being felt palpably through its ubiquitousness. [China watchers widely credit Jiang Zemin, the former General Secretary of the CCP who is a ‘princeling’ himself, with having finessed his ‘commoner’ (Communist Youth League faction) successor Hu Jintao’s bid to appoint another ‘commoner’, Li Keqiang, as his successor by counter-posing the ‘princeling’, Xi Jinping, in the succession game (bringing him in at the 2007 Congress and manoeuvring him into the top slot over the next five years), and packing the Polit-Bureau Standing Committee, the real centre of power, with ‘princelings’ at transition time at the 18th Congress and in the run up to it.]

(v) Similarly, there is no basis for maintaining that the CCP upholds “the state’s role as the mitigator of inequality”, when it is Deng Xiaoping’s dictum that (it is glorious to get rich and that) it is alright for some to get richer earlier than others that rules the roost. That purveyor of pragmatism, with no more than tactical justification on the plane of realism, has, notably, been elevated (licentiously, evidently) to the level of principle and incorporated in the Constitution of the CCP as such: “the Party must.... encourage .... some people to become rich first”. [The truth, unmentionable in public (but apparent to all in China and accepted as natural, no doubt), is that it is those networked with those in power—siblings, other family members and relatives of persons in the top rungs of the CCP hierarchy, above all—who are favoured to get rich before others, unbeknownst to all but the Kafkasque network (guanxi) itself.] Not surprisingly, but most importantly, China’s Gini co-efficient—at 0.5, almost—is amongst the highest in the world, higher than in the USA or India. (A fact that the deposed leader, Bo Xilai, is reported to have proclaimed at his last press conference in an apparent bid to galvanise his constituency on the ‘Left’.) And a statistic that, most notably again, finds no mention in the 18th Congress Report, not even in a rounded fashion. Nor, indeed, do either of the words “equality” or “inequality”! A sole exhortatory mention of the need to “establish in due course a system for guaranteeing fairness.....featuring ..... equal rights, equal opportunities.....for all” at this apex gathering of the CCP shows that, far from bidding the State to ensure mitigation of inequality, that question is not amongst the CCP’s preoccupations at all.

(vi) And “disaffection there (in India) assumes more militant forms” for the simple reason that it is permitted to, in acceptance of the sanctity of fundamental freedoms and the right of the citizen to politico-legal space for dissent—unlike in China, where it is just not tolerated, and put down with an iron hand long before it can assume any such proportion! The unfazed repression in Tibet and Xinjiang in the face of over 70 self-immolation casualties and violent protests, and silencing of outspoken political dissidents, artists and activists etc. all over China, are all cases in point. To see “India as Turning into (a) China”, with that record of China, is surely a wee bit excessive, the Indian state’s ignoble transgressions with regard to ‘extreme Leftist violence’ sympathisers notwithstanding.

(vii) In the light of the above, it is difficult to see what is “ironic” about China embracing “the Singapore model of technocratic supervised national development by a one-party state”, as held by the writer—that should, in fact, be the most natural thing to be expected.

(viii) In the case of India, on the other hand, the failings—of some, be they (frequently, but not always) a powerful lot with capacity to hijack the state’s stated/professed progressive agenda—appear to be ascribed by the writer to the system itself, as if they were intrinsic to it, giving no credit to the expansive liberalism inherent in the very conceptualisation of the Indian state. This cannot be said to be fair. An inapt conflation of the existential and normative orders in India that distorts the debate on the merits and demerits of the rival Chinese and Indian models (that underlie all such comparative essays and studies), much to the disadvantage of the latter. The Achilles Heel of the unprecedented and unmatched, indeed unmatchable, Indian experiment in democratic transformation of a historically burdened and bruised society had, early in the day, been identified by Gunnar Myrdal as it being a ‘soft state’. So what is new about a re-statement of that now?

Overall, if the argument is about holding India to account to a higher standard because of the higher values—of an ‘ends plus’ or ‘ends but also means’ paradigm—underpinning its founding vision (and made in an introspective mood in a domestic policy action/reform oriented setting), it would be easy to agree with the writer irrespective of external comparisons, with China or whatever. But when presented on the international stage, judgementally, in a context of discussion meant for wider dissemination, it is incumbent on us to bring all pertinent facets and qualifications on to the same chess-board, as it were, lest we end up being injudicious unwittingly.

A retired IFS officer, Saurabh Kumar is a former Ambassador of India to the UN and other International Organisations in Vienna, Austria, Ireland and Vietnam; besides being a keen observer of developments in China having been posted to that country for several years. Currently he is Adjunct Faculty, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.

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