Ancient civilisations have a predilection for retaining the markers of the ages they inherit. Rome is always careful to leave its ambience as the “eternal city’’ undisturbed. China reveres its storied and ancestral past and is loathe to ripping apart even its modern ideological structures. This, also if they have outlived their purposes in certain areas. India has always been a confluence of cultures and ideas. These have formed and travelled both outwards and inwards in a wide arc of influence and inspiration. To not take this along into the future, even as perversions are corrected, would not do its essential ethos the justice it deserves.
The People’s Republic of China is today a considerable capitalist success, second only to the US in terms of the size of its economy. It is still communist — in name, and political organisation — but no longer in terms of its economic policies.
This change has been wrought since the 1980s under the guidance of its late great leader Deng Xiaoping who decided to change direction. This, after the collectivisation failures and excesses of the Mao Zedong era came to an end with the chairman’s death. Particularly, since it did not add much economic value, and was marked and scarred by a tremendous cost in human suffering. Chairman Mao’s administration, since 1949, is credited with having killed over 30 million of his own people.
China has made quick economic strides since the 1980s, with 30 years of continuous double-digit growth, using its version of the dictatorship of the proletariat. However, it was helped in this spectacular performance, by not allowing for the tumult of democracy. Since 1997, it has had to endure the freedoms of democracy, in a limited way, and as an exception, in Hong Kong. This, of course, is due to historical reasons, because the island was under British colonial administration for a very long time. This may have been authoritarian too, but European democratic ideals and the principles of free trade were taught, revered, and were, to some extent, implemented. Hong Kong was, and is, a dynamic trading citadel.
Having got Hong Kong back in 1997, after 156 years, under the treaty obligations signed by an imperial Britain with Qing China post-Opium Wars, China has tried to proceed with delicacy and caution.
Even now in 2019, China continues to profess a principle of “one nation, two systems”, for the benefit of the advanced and sophisticated people of Hong Kong and the sake of their promised autonomy. However, it has been tightening its grip over the island very gradually over the years.
This protester was shot in the chest by Hong Kong police, marking the first time a person has been injured by live rounds in 4 months of demonstrations pic.twitter.com/SUbIU85HlD
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) October 2, 2019
But now its centralised ways are facing an embarrassing opposition from the residents who think very differently from those who live and work on the mainland.
China’s stiffening stance under President Xi Jinping might be because it calculates that it can afford to substitute a very successful Shenzen, on the mainland, in place of Hong Kong, and not suffer in terms of connectivity and trade with the rest of the world. But as may be expected, the people of Hong Kong are not amused. Most people in Hong Kong, particularly the wealthy, have seen the writing on the wall, and are emigrating to other countries, including Singapore and Canada.
In addition, scant miles away from Red China is Taiwan, formerly the island of Formosa — now constituting all of the Republic of China, which is democratic, and fiercely independent of the mainland.
The vagaries of history may have to answer for why Red China continuously claims Taiwan to this day. But it is a separate country today, recognised by the whole world, and backed in its independence by the US. It was born after Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists fled the mainland after losing the fight to Mao Zedong and his Communists in 1949.
So, China lives cheek-by-jowl with democracy, both within its own territory in Hong Kong and in the lost territory of Formosa/Taiwan. But it manages to follow a different drummer ideologically for itself.
Taiwan is a separate country today, recognised by the whole world, and backed in its independence by the US
It has long been speculated how long China can hold out before its masses reach out for more political freedom despite considerable prosperity compared to the old days. But for now, under President Xi Jinping, things seem to be in control. A repeat of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 seems unlikely on the surface. Although a slowed economy, running at half of its boom years in terms of GDP, the tariff wars with its biggest export market in the US, and massive national debt, could fuel unrest at any time. The world is perpetually running blind to a certain extent when it comes to China, and will only find out if anything comes out in the open.
India is going through a transition, too. It is redefining the meaning of secularism and socialism inserted into the preamble of its Constitution during the Emergency of the 1970s. From the early days after independence in 1947, a Hindu majority country was seen to pointedly favour its minorities. This was the norm for decades; this led to a distorted sense of both entitlement in certain quarters and glaring exclusion in others. The unfairness of the situation was not thought to be remarkable. In fact, the people of the country were lectured and hectored to shun majoritarian tendencies.
The present government is actively engaged in rectifying the situation with the enthusiastic backing of over 40% of the electorate. In fact, if the NDA allies are counted, the percentage is closer to 50%. The remainder of the votes is fragmented and no other political entity can boast of much more than 30% if that.
This transitionary period is not without its share of heartburn, particularly as the once-mighty and seemingly all-knowing have been replaced by the electorate. In economic policy as well, the earlier dispensation professed to spend on the uplift of the poor, even as it neglected the engines of growth. This led to runaway inflation, as expenditure bore no relationship to income, in a deficit-fuelled and extremely corrupt administration. The money for the poor only saw under 15% of it reaching its destination.
Today, the welfare continues but so does growth. And the benefits for the poor reach them in every instance without middle-man pilferage.
In a very telling way, both secularism and socialism have come to mean very different things today. Secularism is now an even playing field for all. Hinduism is allowed its rightful place in the public discourse without imposing on any of the other religions. But by the same token, manipulated and forced conversions are being checked. However, because of decades spent with a tilted outlook, evening the balance may look revanchist to those who have been dispossessed of their authority. This is not right, despite the caterwauling, but can nevertheless be understood.
In a sense, both India and China have decided to retain the framework created and established by their founding fathers, while modifying the content to suit present times and the demands of the future.
The recent changes in Jammu and Kashmir, however, have shown up the limitations of retaining unfair legal structures. So, in a way, the conversions made there must be seen as exceptions that prove the rule. There is new secularism, new socialism, as practised by a renewed and resurgent India.
China is on its way to seeking global leadership based on its considerable success. This, of course, is not without its obstacles. India, on its part, is busy course-correcting internally as much as externally to remove the impediments to its future greatness. It is also determined to seize its leading position in the comity of nations — economically, politically, militarily and culturally.
Will there be increasing convergence between the two Asian giants? Rivals, even senior and junior ones, will never converge, and so this seems unlikely. Transactional cooperation, yes, will increase as the time goes on, but good fences always make for good neighbours.