Two of the worlds largest institutionsthe Roman Catholic Church and Chinas communist stateelected new leaders last week. Whats common to them? Both are facing enormous challenges,which call for urgent reforms. In the wake of the controversies that swirled around the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI,many introspective Catholics would support New York Times columnist Frank Brunis assessment that they are left with a faith whose essence warms them,but whose formal administration leaves them cold. Time will tell whether,and how,Pope Francis I will reform the troubled church.
Even if the new pope doesnt,there is no imminent threat to the church. Religious institutions survive longer than political ones. However,for Xi Jinping,who became Chinas president on Thursdayhis election had become predictable after he took the reins of the communist party (CPC) in November lastreform is not an option but a dire necessity. China undoubtedly has achieved spectacular progress in many fields,for which the credit must go to both the Chinese people and the communist leadership. But with growing disconnect between the people and the party,the communist rule is now facing challenges that are not just formidable,but even existential. Indeed,the very survival of the CPCs one-party reign depends on how effectively it surmounts the many complex and fast rising problems of development,governance and social stability. Chinas new leadership has to grapple with widening income gaps; widespread corruption; unbridled consumerism; alarming levels of environmental degradation; a rise in the number of local-level protests by workers,peasants,even journalists; clamour for political reforms and freedoms; and an enlarging moral emptiness in society. For example,a recent study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences showed that the overall level of trust in society has declined to an all-time low.
No Chinese communist leader has been as outspoken as Xi in warning fellow partymen that they should not take the permanence of CPCs rule for granted. Only if the capabilities of all party members unceasingly continue to strengthen,can the goal of Two 100 Years and the dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people be realised, Xi said in a recent speech at the CPCs Central Party School. Two 100 Years refers to two landmark centenaries in the countrys modern history100th anniversary of the founding of the CPC in 2021 and of the Peoples Republic of China in 2049. Notably,the CPC centenary arrives one year before Xi completes his second five-year term. Hence,he has made it his personal mission to reform the communist party and also to ensure that it remains a ruling party in the second century of its existence. He must achieve this without social turmoil and violence. Time will tell whether Xi succeeds,but there is little doubt that he has already impressed both his countrymen and China-watchers abroad with his gravitas,candour and conduct,conveying a sense that he is a leader who means business.
Significantly,Xi exhorted that the CPC will be able to mark its 100th birthday only if communist leaders learnt from the selfless sages of the past,mentioning in this context widely respected philosophers from ancient China,such as Confucius and Mencius,and philosopher-king Zhuge Liang. In doing so,Chinas new leader was indirectly hinting that Marx,Lenin and Mao are not as relevant to the CPCs future as the inspiring spiritual personalities,social reformers and ideal kings from Chinas 5,000-year-old history.
This isnt merely Xis personal conviction. Rather,he is giving vent to a certain New Thinking that is sweeping the countrys intelligentsia and its hyper-active netizens. I had a small glimpse of it during my recent visit to China,when I gave talks on my book on Mahatma Gandhi at many universities and think tanks in Beijing,Shanghai and Shenzhen. I was overwhelmed by the interest in Gandhijis personality and philosophy. His practice-based advocacy of truth,nonviolence and justice in all affairs of human life,his environmental wisdom,his thoughts on sustainable development based on rejection of consumerism and respect for nature,his concept of trusteeship,his insistence that the true purpose of science and technology is to reduce human suffering and to expand mans knowledge of himself and the universe,his championing of womens empowerment,his sincere striving for inter-religious,inter-ethnic and inter-national harmony,and his simple,selfless and saintly livingall these seem to be making an impact on a section of Chinas thought leaders,who are also affirming their faith in Buddhism.
There is a strong resonance between Gandhis moral philosophy and the teachings of Chinas ancient sages, Prof Quanyu Shang,a well-known Gandhian scholar who teaches at South China Normal University,Guangzhou,said to me last week. Currently on a lecture tour of India,he recently translated retired Indian diplomat Pascal Alan Nazareths book Gandhis Outstanding Leadership into Chinese. With Xi Jinpings campaign against corruption and focus on frugality,and Chinas quest for balanced development and harmonious society,Gandhi will become even more relevant to us in the 21st century, he observed.
A concluding thought. The Government of India must take urgent and necessary steps to establish a well-endowed Centre for Gandhian Studies in Beijing,to be jointly inaugurated by Xi Jinping and a visiting Indian president or prime minister. Id love to read Xis speech on the occasion.