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Beijing isn’t worried

Young and self-assured Chinese don’t see India as a threat,or even a challenge

Written by Sanjaya Baru |
May 23, 2012 2:24:17 am

Young and self-assured Chinese don’t see India as a threat,or even a challenge

In Cabaret (1972),Bob Fosse’s film adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin,a handsome young member of the Hitler Youth stands up at a roadside beer garden and inspires a group of young people to sing with great confidence the chilling number,“Tomorrow belongs to me.” A couple of elderly Germans sink their heads with furrowed brows. That scene crossed my mind when a handsome young Chinese scholar told me last week in Beijing,almost as a matter of fact,as an elder next to him wore an amused look,“Today the United States is Number One economy,China is Number Two; by 2020 China will be Number One.” Tomorrow,he was sure,belongs to him.

It was not his self-confidence that bothered me as much as the question he then posed: “Where will India be?” I mumbled something about the problem with linear projections of national income and added that similar studies place India at Number Three by 2020. “Really?” asked my interlocutor,“Is that possible?”

In 1995,I first visited Pudong,across the river from old Shanghai,when it was still under construction. A guide escorting me around a display of construction plans proudly claimed that the new city was designed to be like New York. My dispatch on the “Manhattan of the East”,as I dubbed it,began with the line,“the only thing Red about China is the liberal dose of lipstick that every young woman on the Shanghai bund displays!” Today Pudong stands tall as a metaphor for New China.

China has travelled a long way in these 17 years and many books have been written on this unprecedented human endeavour. In his impressive 850-page tome on the architect of this New China,Deng Xiaoping,Ezra Vogel outlines in detail how Deng conceptualised the reconstruction and transformation of China and systematically implemented his vision.

The Chinese miracle was constructed on four pillars — two inherited from Mao Zedong,one from Zhou Enlai and another constructed by Deng. Mao’s legacy was the investment in education and the kindling of Chinese nationalism. But his economic legacy was abysmal. In 1975,both China and India were at similar levels of development,competitiveness and integration with the world economy.

Deng built on Zhou’s idea of Four Modernisations — the modernisation of agriculture,industry,science and technology and national defence — and crafted his own pillar,namely,the idea of pragmatism in policy — both domestic and foreign — “it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse”.

Two generations (Alvin Toffler defined a “generation” as spanning 18 years) were able to convert the “Vision” into reality. This has given today’s China enormous self-confidence,bordering on arrogance. Some of this arrogance and “assertiveness”,as it is often called,is understandable. It is the manifestation of pride in national success.

The more mature among China’s scholars concede that their political and military leaders sometimes overreach themselves due to this new self-confidence. But they derive comfort from growing factionalism and public display of intra-party differences. “This is democracy China-style,” said a senior professor at a premier Chinese institution. “We do not have multiple parties,but the Communist Party has multiple factions and they compete for power and positions.”

He identified five such factions — the more ideologically oriented old guard (the “conservatives”); workers’ and peasants’ unions; managers of state-owned enterprises (“an increasingly influential pro-reform,pro-liberalisation faction”); liberal scholars,intellectuals and artists; and the People’s Liberation Army,a hardline faction in his view. I asked if regional leaders were coming up in China as they are in India,and he reminded me that within the party there was always a Beijing and a Shanghai faction,and maybe in future there could be others from the more rapidly growing southern coastal regions. Neither Tibet nor Xinjiang has much of a voice in the power system.

I have been visiting China since 1995. My most recent visit was last week. Seventeen years ago,everyone I met took a benign view of India,but showed little interest in what was happening here. Their focus was entirely on “catching up with the West”. Seven years ago Chinese analysts began taking India more seriously as they saw it absorb the economic impact of the 1998 nuclear tests,the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and push its growth rate above 8 per cent for five successive years (2003-08). These achievements came with a new pragmatism in Indian foreign policy,culminating in the US-India civil nuclear agreement. Deng-like pragmatism in economic and foreign policy was yielding dividends for India,concluded many Chinese analysts,so the time had come to pay closer attention to what India might become in a decade.

Today one encounters greater curiosity about India,and its ability to sustain reasonable rates of growth despite all its handicaps,but few see India making it to China’s league. The world may view India more benignly,but it does more business with China. It courts China,it needs China. Look at the genuflecting Europeans and the fork-tongued Americans!

If there is one thing about India that still worries China,it is the relationship with the US. Vogel records how Deng viewed friendship with the US — both as a means to modernise and as a weapon against the enemy,the Soviet Union. In his meetings with Henry Kissinger,says Vogel,Deng kept insisting that the US was being “timid in responding to the Soviet threat”. Many Chinese,therefore,believe that India too seeks to modernise with the US’s help and would help the US “contain” China,just the way China helped the US defeat,not just contain,the USSR.

But those better informed about India know that this neighbour is unlikely to,perhaps incapable of,playing that game. Mired in its own internal squabbles and incompetencies,India is not seen as a challenge,much less a threat. The older generation of Chinese scholars view India benignly,the younger ones really don’t bother. Tomorrow belongs to them,they are convinced. Even the day after does not as yet belong to India. So why bother?

The writer is director for geo-economics and strategy,International Institute for Strategic Studies and honorary senior fellow,Centre for Policy Research,New Delhi,express@expressindia.com

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