A deep look into China’s realities

Uday Balakrishnan | Updated on October 18, 2020

Title: India’s China Challenge — A Journey Through China’s Rise And What It Means To India Author: Ananth Krishnan Publisher: Harper Collins Price: ₹599

Ananth Krishnan shines a light on the different sides of China that largely remain hidden from Indian citizens

In a mere 40 years, China has transformed itself into a modern, middle-income state. It has also almost completely ended poverty, while emerging as a superpower that rivals the US in economic heft and military might.

China’s tech giants, such as Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and Huawei, dominate their respective markets. Now, the country is also set to be the top dog in the world of finance. As the October 8, 2020 issue of The Economist stated: “...the monster listing of Ant Group, its largest fintech firm, in Hong Kong and Shanghai... will probably be the biggest initial public offering in history, beating Saudi Aramco’s last year”.

China’s engineering feats — its extensive high-speed rail network, its ports and ever-expanding modern cities — are world-beaters. Several of its universities are among the top 100 globally. All these are very real achievements that the Mandarin-speaking China correspondent for The Hindu, Ananth Krishnan, highlights in his new book, India’s China Challenge. According to Krishnan, China is not the bleak communist dystopia many in India imagine it to be. Its people enjoy a better standard of living than Indians do, and day-to-day life is much better for them.

Indo-China ties

The Chinese Communist Party not only has survived Mao’s twin horrors — the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) — but also restored Mao to divine status while smartly reinventing itself as the party of transformation.

As Krishnan states (maybe in an oblique message to India): “What we know for sure is that many of China’s policies, such as investment in health and education, and the rural reforms of the 1980s underpinned everything that was to follow. No amount of throwing money into the construction of highways and skyscrapers would have yielded dividends without that foundation.”

World Bank economist Yukon Huang — who, too, had spent years in China and witnessed its astonishing rise — had earlier highlighted this point in his perceptive book, Cracking the China Conundrum.

For those in India who wish to shake off China, Krishnan has a bleak message. Given the scale of India’s dependence on China for so many essentials — from chemicals for its pharma companies to industrial equipment, laptops and smartphones — talk of a decoupling is, therefore, mere talk. More so, since even Indian companies like Wipro and Godrej find it more economical to manufacture in China. At the centre of it all, Krishnan says, is the town of Yiwu visited by 400,000 Indian businesspeople — and from where $1.8-billion worth of goods were shipped to India in 2015.

However, the future scenario need not be gloomy for India, according to Krishnan. India, because of its sheer scale, is critical for the growth of China’s formidable tech companies like Baidu, Alibab and Tencent. Significant Chinese private investments — around $8 billion at last count — is already supporting some of our largest start-ups like Paytm, Big Basket and Byju’s. Huawei has its largest development centre outside China in Bengaluru, set up in 1999.

Border conflict

Krishnan clearly has made a deep study of the India-China border dispute, as well as the close China-Pakistan relationship. He has been aided, no doubt, by opportunities to consult records in the Chinese archives and talk to a wide range of important individuals, among them Shiv Shankar Menon (a former Indian Ambassador to China and later National Security Adviser) and Ma Jiali, formerly the “leading authority in Beijing on relations between the two countries”.

Reading Krishnan’s book, one cannot help feeling that China, since the time of Zhou Enlai, has shown a greater willingness to settle the two countries’ border dispute than India has. There is even the hint, from Krishnan, that Pakistan, which is so close to China now, will lose its importance should India and China settle their border issue.

“The irony is,” writes Krishnan, “that China’s policymakers are aware that in many respects, its long-term goals in the region align more closely with India’s than Pakistan’s.”

Deep dive

In telling the story of China’s rise, Krshnan does not shy away from detailing the purgatory Mao had condemned his people to, records of which have been erased from public memory. Well before Frank Dikotter’s famous book, Mao’s Great Famine, was published, Yang Jisheng had painstakingly collected details of the starvation deaths across China — 30 million in all — caused by Mao during his infamous Great Leap Forward, and brought out a famous book on it titled Tombstone in 2008.

To deal with China, we must know it much better than we do presently. Our two-dimensional view of the country as a ruthless dictatorship and its scared people genuflecting to the state will not hold after reading Krishnan’s book. While it is true that China is a highly monitored society, the people do have a mind of their own. Through Krishnan, book we are introduced to many of those who have dared to take on the state, regardless of the consequences, and fight their corner.

China has its protests, and violent repressions — Tiananmen Square, the rotten fate of Muslims in Xinjiang and the ongoing suppression in Tibet, and now Hong Kong, being egregious examples. Krishnan does not pull any punches in telling us about them, sometimes in horrific detail.

Krishnan, who has witnessed the rise of Xi Jinping, gives us a detailed and graphic account of his rise and the ruthlessness with which he is suppressing dissent within the Communist Party. Xi Jinping’s fight against corruption (the scale of which, the book tells us, is humongous) in the Party and the People’s Liberation Army has seen many powerful people imprisoned; quite a few of them have taken their own lives.

There has been a steady flow of insightful books on China from the West by the likes of Fox Butterfield, Jonathan Spence, Henry Kissinger, and Michael Wood. Our academic community, by contrast, has nothing comparable to show.

Fortunately, Krishnan’s India’s China Challenge can match the best from anywhere. There is so much to learn from a country that has overcome multiple traumas to get to where it has today; the book touches on most of them.

While reading the book, keep a wary eye on China, its regress to the one-man rule and what Xu Zhiyong, the founder of the New Citizen’s Movement, said in an open letter to Xi Jinping: “In the classic [Book of Changes] it says: “The Dragon overreaches himself, there is regret.” Don’t delay until you are confronted by an unbearable tragedy. Then it’ll certainly be too late for regrets.”

The reviewer is a former Visiting Fellow at NIAS, CEU Budapest and CCS-IISc; and teaches at IISc

Published on October 18, 2020

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