A China diary
ulhasj at SPAMbom4.vsnl.net.in
Thu Jan 4 19:18:39 MST 2001
Volume 17 - Issue 24, Nov. 25 - Dec. 08, 2000
India's National Magazine on indiaserver.com
from the publishers of THE HINDU
A China diary
History moves on as ebullient contemporary China keeps a respectful distance
from its past. An account of China's changing overall perspective of South
Asia, particularly India.
CHINA'S cities look dazzling. Every alternate year that I happen to go to
that country, I find that the cities look even more dazzling than they did
the previous time. The initial shock of seeing beggars on the streets there
has also eased somewhat. That is because the memories of
"pre-liberalisation" China have dimmed over a period of time. There seems to
be a strange unanimity in China that the early years of revolutionary China
are best forgotten or perhaps preserved only as a hazy memory. There are of
course huge statues of Mao Zedong. The one on the Fudan University campus is
a fine example of an exquisitely sculpted statue. Physical bigness and
revolutionary greatness went together in Mao Zedong. The statues in Fudan
capture just that combination . Yet everybody on the campus goes to the
right or the left of it. Mao stands there in splendid isolation.
Shanghai was the place where the first congress of the Chinese Communist
Party took place. The venue is well preserved. A couple of photographs are
missing. But it is a case of political amnesia, as it were. Now of course
the whole exercise appears misplaced. There are queues there still. In 1991
I was looking for Lukacs house in Budapest. My interpreter, a smart young
woman, did not seem to know him, let alone his house. And even if she did
she could not care. Here in Shanghai nothing of historical importance is
entirely forgotten. The modest house in which the first communists of China
met is therefore well remembered. But that is about all. The communists and
the communist world are nearly forgotten. Dazzling Shanghai has very little
to do with that world.
So much so that nobody talks about the Cultural Revolution either. Once I
travelled from Beijing to Jehol, the summer capital of imperial China.
Throughout the journey my fellow passenger, a doctor in a Beijing hospital,
never stopped talking about her experiences of the Cultural Revolution,
adding small bits of information provided with a rather wry sense of humour.
(She told me how she was forced to cultivate cucumbers. It is useful for
doctors to know how they are produced, she added with a smile.)
In the year 2000, the Cultural Revolution is already a distant, unpleasant
dream if at all. In Kunming (the capital of Yunan province in southwest
China), our interpreter colleagues, Guo and Deng, reacted with boisterous
laughter when one of us made them scions of Guo Moro and Deng Xiaoping. That
Guo Moro would be remembered in such a familiar way came to me as a
surprise. But that was all. No further thought was spared for Guo Moro. One
gets a feeling that a kalpa (a time-cycle of the four yugas , of which Kali
is the last) is over. All good and bad dreams are forgotten.
Maybe, nostalgia is not a Chinese virtue or vice. History moves on. The
ebullience of contemporary Chinese would come as a surprise, almost a shock,
to the old man standing in sculptural glory on the Fudan complex (among
other places in China). It would shock him no less to see the somewhat
incongruous coexistence between a 16th century garden and a Kentucky Fried
Chicken joint. Should not Col. Sanders (is that not the name of a man who
started it all?) and his KFC have kept their respectful distance?
It seems that "respectful distance" is what a contemporary Chinese person
keeps from his Maoist past. Arrogant iconoclasm of modernity has not invaded
the Chinese psyche. The Chinese people know that Mao's world is dead and
gone. But the ancestor-worshipping Chinese would not give up Mao for that
"WHY do Americans dislike our democracy? The answer is simple. Our ruling
party still calls itself a Communist Party and the Americans do not like
it." This was the response to a question about China's ideas on political
liberalisation at a lunch in Shanghai. "We are a practising democracy," a
Chinese social scientist insisted. How do you explain the American response
then (or words to that effect), was the Indian response. The above remark
came as a reply to those words. A case of respectful distancing from Western
ideas of democracy.
Conversations over lunch were a peculiar mix of elaborate, almost imperious,
formality and informal and at times proud and forthright remarks. We shall
have democracy and, more important, we shall define it. This has always been
the Chinese response. This time it was explicit, assertive and proud.
Echoes of three people's principles of Sun Yat-sen were clearly audible.
Nobody should be surprised if a Chinese political scientist came out with a
volume tracing the taxonomy of the concept of democracy beginning with Kang
Yuwei (the leader of the 1898 political reforms) bringing it to Deng via Sun
Yat-sen and Mao Zedong. All this would happen not because or not only
because the Chinese are nationalistic but also because democracy itself can
be understood only in a historicist manner. Western ideas are important but
eastern history is no less so. China will have democracy, which its history
and experience dictate. There was also reiteration of President Jiang
Zemin's remark that there cannot and need not be one colour in the world.
At this lunch it was not attributed to Jiang. As the Chinese say, it was the
prefatory clause that introduced the remark. This prefatory clause or some
version of it always appears in Chinese discourse. It serves many purposes.
It establishes or underlines the fact that there is no universalism to
political concepts or discourse as Western commentators seem forever to
emphasise. It further makes the point that if universalism were indeed
feasible, it would necessarily involve contributions from the Chinese (or
Indian or West Asian) discourse.
There is an unstated convention about "informal" or even formal conversation
in China. You are not to press the point beyond a limit. If a point of no
return has or is being reached, either party should give up the subject. All
conversation on political liberalisation in China ends on that note if you
are not careful. It is almost as if all dynamism in dialogue dries up. A
polite silence or reiteration of a familiar position is all that you get.The
Indian insistence on the semantic battles or the faith in the universal is
not understood in China. Several visits and talks in China have
repeatedly confirmed this belief to me. Dialogue in China is always a
qualified dialogue. It is qualified by civilisational limitations. It is
also qualified by the fact that all exchanges are political and as such all
that we can hope to do is to see the limits of (each other's) political
understanding. Reaching a point of no return goes against China's pragmatic
grain. Perhaps for that reason informal conversations over lunch or dinner
become so interesting. It is easier and less tension-ridden to see the
coming point of no return.
One such point was reached in this conversation in Shanghai. 'Has democracy
as you understand it worked in India?' was a general, typical question. The
Chinese have very little use for the Indian liberal scepticism about the
political processes in India. Equally, the fact that Western democracy is
not being rejected in India because it is Western is simply ignored. The
thrust of the argument was clear: we (the Chinese) intend to work our
democracy out. If the United States does not like it, so be it!
There was also some surprise (not entirely pleasant) that India should be so
much at home with Western democracy. The Shanghai Institute of International
Studies has published a collection of essays this year, which seeks to
analyse 'The Post-Cold War World'. The question of democracy and,
therefore, of human rights is seen by these scholars as one of human rights
and national sovereignty. China seems to be the only developing state that
does not accept the rhetoric of civil society as a supra-state discourse.
It follows the line enunciated by Deng Xiaoping thus: "Some Western
countries, on the pretext that China has an unsatisfactory human rights
record and an irrational and illegitimate socialist system, attempt to
jeopardise our national sovereignty " (The Post-Cold War World, p. 34). The
implications are clear. The human rights question is important but it is not
and cannot be a supra-state question. The problem of democracy is not the
problem of the weakening of the state.
The curious thing was the discussion on the state. Partly the problem was
linguistic. The term for state and for nation is the same in Chinese. The
Chinese language does not quite clearly distinguish between the two
concepts. If one thought hard on it, a number of Indian and for that matter
oriental languages do not distinguish clearly between nation and state or at
any rate use these terms inter-changeably. In response to a question about
naming two plus points of China's growth and governance I ventured a
suggestion that China had not weakened its state in the process of
modernistion. The problem of rendering state as guojia, which also means
nation, became evident. I cite this conversation to underline yet another
fact. There is not much discussion in China about hard and soft state. The
guojia has to be and is strong. China will maintain its strength. The
question of hard or soft does not arise. The strength of the guojia is the
There is little doubt that not much liberal rhetoric sells in China. Simply
put, 'civil society versus state' kind of formulation has no appeal in
China. China is a huge country. There would, therefore, be people who would
be enamoured of this contradiction. But taken as a whole they are an
insignificant, marginalised minority. In Kunming we discussed some
opposition to reforms and things like that in India and China. It was clear
that whether on issues of globalisation or the environment or the indeed
declining social welfare content of the new policies, there was some
opposition in the country, but it was not a major force. Nothing is ever
brought to a halt in China. Our friends in Shanghai seemed clear about that.
I discovered that my reference to the opposition to the Narmada project and
suggestion that there might be some to the Three Gorges project on the
Changjiang river did not bring forth any response. I expected it as it was
yet another example of a point of no return.
THE realm of foreign policy is always the clearest in China. The positions
are taken with utmost care but statements are not, for that reason, loose or
ambiguous. I was in Shanghai last year as well (1999). The atmosphere there
then was full of the Pokhran-II nuclear tests, Defence Minister George
Fernandes' assessment of China and Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's letter to
President Bill Clinton. The responses then were predictable and, in a sense,
not at all forgiving. India had no business to go nuclear, that would be a
neat one-sentence summary of China's attitude.
Within 12 months (from October 1999 to October 2000) there was a sea-change.
Pokhran-II was still an object of intense dislike. But the verbal outrage
was not there. There was the reluctant admission that China must face the
reality. India (or for that matter Pakistan) is what it is, that is, a
nuclear state, and China can do precious little to alter that reality. This
is the attitude now. A lone commentator still argued that India should sign
the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Otherwise there was not much
discussion of the articles of faith of the non-proliferation regime and
those who run it. Probably there is not a wide recognition that Indian or
Pakistani nuclear capabilities do not really amount to very much. Whatever
be the reason, the nuclear weapons do not seem to matter any longer.
Clearly, India-China relations are finally beyond Pokhran-II.
The warming of Indo-American relations now is quietly acknowledged. For the
first time in my several trips to China I heard remarks to the effect that
India has become "a regional power" in South Asia. As least one commentator
seemed to argue that India had become a dominant power and was not far from
being a hegemonistic power in South Asia. The other, milder, version was
that India's emergence as a regional power was inevitable. A new turn in
Indo-U.S. relations has been direly noted. Pakistan still matters to Chinese
foreign policy. It will continue to do so for a long time. But there is a
change in China's overall perspective on South Asia. It would not be an
exaggeration to argue that China now accepts that India's position in South
Asia has qualitatively changed and that China must adjust to it without
prejudice to its relationship with Pakistan.
There was therefore some murmur about the Dalai Lama and his activities. In
Kunming there was even a reference to the Karmapa episode. It was clear that
all would not be well with Sino-Indian relations until that tangle was
sorted out. Nevertheless, there was appreciation that the principal problem
in and about Tibet was the West and the Western liberals. Their enthusiasm
rather than India had made the Dalai Lama what he was. It was simply a case
of knocking at the wrong door.
THE U.S. loomed large in China. We were in China when the joint military
exercises with the U.S. were being conducted. When we left the Shanghai
Institute of International Studies we were told that the visitor to the
institute the following day would be the Assistant Secretary of the U.S.
Navy. This information was supplied with a smile. These Shanghai people,
especially those from the Academy of the Social Sciences and the Institute
of International Studies, are business-like. Between them they constitute a
major think tank of China, complementing and competing with the think tanks
in Beijing, especially at the China Institute of International Relations and
the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. My impression is that Beijing and
Shanghai react differently to the U.S. Beijing is formal and correct.
Understandably it carries out joint military exercises with the U.S. It also
publishes a white paper on defence. The exercises speak of a will to
cooperate with and engage the U.S. Taiwan is a grim reminder of the
military implications of the continued U.S. role in the Taiwan Straits.
China will "adopt all drastic measures possible, including the use of force"
if foreign forces invade the island or if Taiwan were to refuse
reunification with the mainland, thunders a white paper on the foreign
power. It goes without saying that "the foreign power" referred to is the
U.S. If Taiwan were to make bold and avoid reunification it could do so only
with the support of the U.S. The contradiction with the U.S. is inescapable.
That would in summary form the Beijing view.
In Shanghai, people took a more flexible view. Well, in a very logical
sense, contradiction with the U.S. was inescapable. And to that extent
China's view of the U.S. would no longer be comparable to that of the 1970s.
As the same time it did not appear that from Shanghai the Sino-U.S.
relationship looked terribly grim. In the final analysis it would be
adversarial. But the state of "final analysis" may not after all be reached.
INDIA has acquired a new standing in China's worldview. Let us get into the
trading game. Let us get into information technology cooperation. That was
the recurrent theme. I had not heard much last year by way of a
complimentary view of India's development. Plenty of such pep talk was
heard this year. There is greater respect for India as an economic power.
All this could be the first steps towards re-arranging China's relations
with its neighbours. Quite often a statement of existing realities is a
statement of forthcoming change. It would appear that Shanghai think tanks
are looking forward to a phase of a different relationship with India. They
see a phase of cooperation ahead. More important, however, a new strategic
equation with India is being sought. Pakistan matters but less and less so.
There was also a frank discussion on the so-called nuclear aid to Pakistan.
There was a readiness to discuss each detail. The earlier posture that there
is nothing between China and Pakistan as far as nuclear cooperation was
concerned was not reiterated mechanically and unmindfully. At the Fudan
University's Centre for American Studies, a more flexible attitude was
discernible. There is more in Sino-Indian relations than meets the eye.
Perhaps for the first time there is now a realisation that Indian uneasiness
at Sino-Pakistan relations deserves a consideration. A new alignment of
China's policies is not possible without involving India, or so Shanghai
That the pace of Sino-Indian normalisation is slow was recognised. The
fragility of the relations between the two countries was also taken note of.
Refreshingly, no attempt was made to blame India alone or Indian nuclear
posturing or India's Kashmir problem as the villain of the piece. Shanghai
seems to feel that India's weightage in China's foreign policy has to
change. It is important for China's foreign policy generally. It is even
important for Sino-U.S. relations. That probably is still not Beijing 's
view. But that Shanghai articulates a slightly distanced position in itself
suggests that there are some supporters of this position in Beijing. At any
rate, that could be an alternative scenario under consideration in Beijing.
Kunming is a pretty, little city. At an altitude of about 1,500 metres, it
boasts of being a city of eternal spring. A typical capital of a backward
province (Yunan), Kunming's eyes are turned towards South-East Asia and
South Asia. Southwest China has to look out. There is going to be a
four-nation conference (China, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar) in Delhi in
December to discuss regional cooperation. What would come out of these
deliberations, one does not know. China's southwest and India's northeast
look like being good and right partners in progress. The difficulty,
however, is that India's view of its northeast is different from China's
view. In China's view one whole State of India's northeast is not a part of
India. A very fragile starting point for cooperation, indeed. When one
raised this issue in Kunming, there was silence. Only one person spoke. He
argued that while there was dispute over Arunachal Pradesh and its status,
India and China could shelve the issue and cooperate nevertheless. I am not
sure if disputes so close to the proposed area of cooperation can be
shelved. Perhaps yes. Perhaps no. Let us see what the December conference
yields in terms of actually definable progress. So far the progress on
southwest China-northeast India cooperation has been little more than an
articulation of good intentions and the forwarding of some rather tentative
ideas. What is important is that Kunming is indeed looking further
southwest. Economic relations get top priority in this area of China.
Kunming appeared interested in little else. It had, however, very few ideas
on how to turn the competitive economies of China and India into
complementary economies. At the moment, we know that both the governments
are interested in their backward areas and look upon economic cooperation as
one of the ways of redress and growth.
One might conclude this account with the Chinese sense of history and
continuity that one opened these remarks with. There is a stone forest about
60 km from Kunming, a literal forest of tall, tree-like stones, a beautiful
and exceptional sight. As you enter this extraordinary place you see a stone
formation (one among hundreds), which is quite remarkable. You see a public
notice there. This was the stone at which Zhou Enlai and Zhu De had their
photograph taken. It was remarkable that a guerilla general like Zhu De was
still remembered. People who can preserve continuities within a rapidly
changing environment are most likely candidates for survival, and glorious
survival at that. The Chinese certainly are one such people. Let us hope
that Indians likewise are.
G.P. Deshpande is Professor of Chinese Studies, School of International
Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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