‘China more unequal than India’

| Updated on: Jan 12, 2014




But China feels a much more coherent place politically. Here, our loyalties are split in so many different ways.

Pankaj Mishra combines erudition with eloquence in his political and literary writings. In his latest book, A Great Clamour: Encounters with China and its neighbours , he travels through the great emptiness of Mongolia, the clamour that is Hong Kong and Asia’s first modern country, Japan, to present the historical import and contemporary significance of these nations.

In a conversation with R. Srinivasan and Nandini Nair, he talks about the trajectory of modernisation and protests in India and China, why he would choose to be a peasant in China over India, and why he remains unpopular with the Indian establishment. Excerpts:

Your book talks about social re-engineering and socialist reconstruction of rural areas in China…

Their whole pattern of modernising the economy was totally different. This is a highly misunderstood subject. The notion that prevails is that China opened up, investments poured in, SEZs came up… But that is a highly caricatured version of what happened. First, there were massive rural reforms starting in the late 1970s, all through early ’80s. Farmers were allowed to engage in commerce and sell their own produce in markets, rather than sell to the State. That immediately produced results, and this income could be invested in export-oriented factories.

News went around that China is opening up, and the first to respond were overseas Chinese in the neighbourhood — Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia. They poured in foreign investment, out of sentimental attachment to the motherland. Later, , the Americans, Germans and French started investing in China.

In terms of the human development index, China has always looked better than India. Poverty reduction has happened there much faster than in India. But China is more unequal than India, which is an extraordinary thing to say about a country that once aspired to be a classless utopia.

On the whole, this is a very difficult thing to articulate in public, you can easily be misquoted. But if I were asked to be a peasant in India or China in the last 10 years or so, I would say, I would take my chances in China. I would have better chances to do well where I am and there would be the opportunity to move elsewhere. I would be free of many of the hierarchical systems and systems of oppression present here.

Like Muzaffarnagar?

Exactly. I have always argued against making simple-minded distinctions between democratic India and authoritarian China. Because the lived experience of a majority of people in India and China might not confirm those distinctions.

The reality is much more complex. I’m saying this with a whole lot of qualifications, but let's not congratulate ourselves too much and let’s not indulge in moral one-upmanship when we talk of these two countries.

How do you compare overseas Chinese with their Indian peers?

The sense of identification with China, to make a large generalisation is much, much stronger. Let’s not forget, Chinese nationalism is a product of the overseas Chinese. That connection is much, much stronger.

Successful Indians abroad, those who can invest back, are people who since the 1960s at least have made comfortable lives, homes, careers in the west. Indians in America have been accepted as part of the local elites in a way that no other community has been.

When we look at investment patterns, we are constantly celebrating people like Lakshmi Mittal, but that man has not made a serious investment in India. It’s the same with so many of these figures who are constantly being written about. To ask a crude question, have they put their money where their mouth is?

What about the new elite in China?

The elite here are much more globalised. They think of themselves as a transnational elite, much more strongly than their counterparts in China. But the Chinese narrative of nationalism has been much more potent and influential. For most of the Chinese rich, it is still very difficult to cut themselves off larger attachments to the so called mother country. Of course, there are enough Ferrari-driving Chinese, who want to live in the present, and there is a middle-class elite that has done very well in the pst 20 years, which doesn’t think much of what is happening in Tibet or rural areas. But China feels to me a much more coherent place politically. Here, our loyalties are split in so many different ways.

What is the source of agitations in China?

The main source is peasants, who are being dispossessed and their lands being seized. A large part of the wealth of China has been through this kind of land grab. One reason you need to be sceptical of the whole Chinese miracle is this kind of large-scale dispossession.

And in India?

Here, the urban middle class is very active in leading the protest. But if you look at the figures, it is not very impressive. How many people from rural areas are coming? It is largely urban-based at this point. And the protest movements in rural areas are assuming different forms, partly because corruption is not the biggest issue for them; there are other grievances: discrimination, poverty, unemployment, injustice. Corruption is not the main focus.

There is a lot of frustration in the middle classes, and this is running into a world wide phenomenon. You see the same class of people demonstrating on the streets of Jakarta, Tel Aviv, Sao Paulo. It is the beneficiaries of globalisation who are bumping their heads against the glass ceiling — and finding that the utopia has not been realised. That the gains they hoped to build upon are leaking away. There is definitely a sense of being cheated. We have come this far and now we are being cheated. This is very different from the people in Kudankalam or Niyamgiri, who are saying ‘we are being dispossessed, we are being forced to live with nuclear radiation’. There is a lot of euphoria in the press about (Arvind) Kejriwal, but it is actually an urban phenomenon. I think once you examine it, you find the urban middle class agenda is on collision course with the rural agenda.

Let’s talk about how India views China and vice-versa

You have given me yet another opportunity to be unpopular with the Indian establishment. Because I am going to say that the Indian establishment in their foreign policy have no coherent vision of any kind. It is not just me saying it. It is a well established fact, attested to by officers of the Indian Foreign Service, when you get them speaking in private. India has 700 diplomats around the world. You just cannot frame a coherent policy on any matter. There are a whole lot of jingoistic think tanks who keep up this ‘China is a big enemy’ drumbeat; obviously, this helps the defence industrial complex in this country, to justify their various expenditures. It is a curious thing of one establishment really unable to define what they want out of China… that is the game we are stuck with right now — bafflement, lack of curiosity; we just don’t know enough of each other.

How do you define an Asian modernity?

Maybe, we are in the process of defining it. It is clear that countries with large hinterland stuck in agricultural economy cannot be moved into a modern, urban-centred economy overnight. The process will take decades; it may never be completed because the processes are limited, even when resources are more widely available.

They can build cities in the middle of nowhere. And they have. But those cities are empty. Those are ghost cities. They are built to house people moving from rural to urban areas, but people haven’t showed up because there is nothing for them to do there. The economy has to create jobs. Here, the problem is both of infrastructure and lack of jobs. Our growth is largely jobless. So we have to start asking ourselves, can we really complete this trajectory which Western Europe first outlined, from a largely agrarian society to becoming a fully modernised one? Or whether we need a different idea of modernity for ourselves, something which is responsive to local conditions, size of our population, limits on our resources.

We have to remember that western countries expanded at a time of colonialism and imperialism when they had resources at their command, if they didn’t have resources in their own country, they could go out and get them, which they all did. Maybe we can be the kind of economy, where people can stay on in their villages and follow small and medium industries, rather than all being urban-centred.

Published on January 15, 2014

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