As China celebrates the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic with much military pomp and nationalist pride today, India must reflect upon the extraordinary transformation on its northern frontiers. China’s internal and external trajectory has enthused, puzzled and troubled India since the early 20th century. The PRC’s fascinating evolution presents four broad themes for any Indian contemplation.
The first is China’s awe-inspiring economic miracle. This demands a deep Indian admiration for China’s success in improving the lives of the largest number of people in the shortest period ever. While Mao’s economic experimentation turned out to be disastrous, the era of reform and opening up launched by Deng Xiaoping at the end of the 1970s transformed China into the world’s second largest economy. It’s a matter of time that China will overtake the United States in terms of the aggregate size of the economy. China is not the first country to move from underdeveloped to developed status. It is the first country to compress that journey into just four decades.
Many in India tend to minimise the significance of this growth by pointing to the nature of the political system under the Chinese Communist Party. They invoke the excuse that India has had to pay a democracy tax that slows its development while China had an authoritarian dividend. The denial of China’s economic miracle, however, is also often accompanied by an envy of China’s rise. A more balanced Indian judgement would underline the possibilities for rapid and productive change that China has demonstrated to other developing countries.
In the middle of the 20th century, the dominant sentiment about Asia’s economic future was of pessimism. Many were convinced that it was impossible for late entrants into the world economy, dominated by Western imperial powers, to develop rapidly or successfully. China, in spectacular manner, proved that assumption wrong. India’s own reforms at the turn of the 1990s generated similar optimism that it too could rise within a short period. One difference, though, is in the comprehensive and sustained nature of China’s reforms — from education to diplomacy and from military to municipal governance. India’s reform strategy in comparison has been tentative, episodic and limited.
One exception to China’s story of sweeping reform, though, has been in the arena of political modernisation. That takes us to the second theme. The CCP deserves much praise for stitching a diverse set of people and territories into a single nation-state. But the CCP’s continuing challenges are evident in the problems it confronts today in regions with ethnic as well as religious minorities such as Xinjiang and Tibet.
China is also having difficulty in bringing Hong Kong under full sovereign control. Protests have continued for weeks against Beijing’s efforts to turn Hong Kong — that has enjoyed the benefits of the principle “one country, two systems”— into just another city in China. The developments are a reminder of the unending and uphill task of generating national coherence in a large state. The Hong Kong protests might also make it even harder for the CCP to complete Taiwan’s unification with the PRC.
Meanwhile, hopes that China’s economic growth will eventually lead to the emergence of a middle class and the democratisation of its polity have been dampened. The Xi Jinping era has seen a vigorous crackdown on dissent and the emergence of a surveillance state that has deployed emerging digital technologies in asserting unprecedented control over its population.
India has rightly avoided telling China how to govern itself. For, India has many problems of its own in building national unity and consolidating territorial sovereignty. But India can certainly learn from the ancient Chinese wisdom that governing a large nation is like cooking a small fish. They are easily overdone.
Deng Xiaoping’s emphasis on “one country, two systems” and letting some of China’s regions grow first and then pulling others forward brought great sophistication and subtlety to administering China. But Xi’s harder line could turn China into a strong but brittle state. India’s strength, in contrast, lies in its soft but supple structure that can absorb the inevitable tensions of nation-building. It is easy to forget this.
Third is China’s huge commitment to building national capabilities in science and technology. Exactly a century ago, the May Fourth Movement in China defined the goals of the nation’s modernisation as replacing “Mr Confucius” with “Mr Democracy and Mr Science”. Nationalists and communists alike recognised that breaking free from the chains of inherited religious and social custom was critical for China’s modernisation. While Mr Democracy has been elusive, Mr Science has found a thriving home in China. Unlike China’s economic rise, its emerging impressive credentials on science and technology have been less recognised in India.
China has begun to take the pole position in a number of emerging areas like artificial intelligence, robotics, data analytics, synthetic biology, new materials and space sciences. The size of investments in research and development, modernisation of the higher education system, opening China up for foreign faculty and talent, and making the People’s Liberation Army a major stakeholder have all propelled China to the highest ranks of scientific power. But, without a successful battle against feudalism, China’s technological progress would not have been so dramatic.
To be sure, the fight against Confucianism took extreme forms under Mao, including the vandalisation of China’s rich cultural heritage. Under Mao’s successors though, China has found a better balance between preserving the rich past and embracing the spirit of science and technology. Meanwhile, India’s battle against feudal legacy is incomplete and might be losing steam. Delhi has also much ground to cover in catching up with China on science and technology.
Finally, there is the question of power in China’s world view. Nationalists and communists were one in their determination to restore China’s “wealth and power” (fuqiang in Chinese) that eroded so quickly in the encounter with the West during the colonial era. The CCP can rightly claim the redemption of that ambition in good measure. While many in the West admired and promoted the economic rise of China, they seem utterly surprised by Beijing’s current assertion as a great power.
The expectation that China will play by the rules devised by West and accept a status designated for them has turned out to be a delusion. China is now a great power in its own right and wants to deal with the world on its own terms. But the CCP, too, has been surprised by the pushback from the West and the rapid escalation of conflict with the United States. The nature of the increasingly unpredictable relationship between China and the West will shape international relations in the decades ahead.
Like the West, India, too, underestimated China’s entirely legitimate aspirations to be a great power and the speed with which it has got there. This has been compounded by a persistent Indian temptation to romanticise the relationship with China and hope that declarations of solidarity will overcome contradictory interests. To make matters worse, the illusion of parity with China has prevented Delhi from coming to terms with the rapidly widening power gap with Beijing and its impact on India’s world. Overcoming the consequences of that gap, which is likely to persist for long, will be India’s greatest national challenge in the coming decades.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 1, 2019 under the title ‘An illusion of parity’. The writer is Director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express.