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Many years ago there was a movie in which the stereotypical semi-pathetic, semi-comic character was assigned a stock phrase (takia kalaam) that he repeated with regularity – kaash maiN Hong Kong meN paida hota (I wish I were born in Hong Kong). Hong Kong was a success story and thus attractive to an impecunious South Asian dropout. It was also not part of China then; no right-minded person even in the sluggish South Asia of the times would have wished to be born in the China of those days. How times have changed. Hong Kong has been reclaimed by China and China itself is a place that dazzles most visitors. The Chinese model of authoritarian politics and market economics has begun to draw admiring attention in many quarters.
China has a problem in Tibet. What can South Asians learn from it? A lot, if we want and can keep our prejudices out of the way. Reflect on the following: There is no enemy country intervening in Tibet. There are no militants infiltrating from across international borders into Tibet. There are no Muslims in Tibet. There are no rogue leaders in Tibet. China has poured immense amount of development money into Tibet. And yet, there is a problem in Tibet. Why? Is it because Tibetans are ignorant, ungrateful and unaware of what is good for them?
I had thought my imagination was unlimited but the first visit to China disabused me of the notion. Despite all the years of reading, talking about, and studying the country, I was surprised. My imagination, free and limitless in theory, was hostage to the reality I knew in South Asia. The phrase ‘poverty of the imagination’ took on a new meaning. Getting past the physical surprise, I was intrigued by the amazing adaptability of human beings. Here were individuals cut off from the world, living in company compounds and bicycling around in blue Mao suits within my memory. Today, taxi drivers navigated intricate webs of ring roads, commuters rode magnetic levitation trains, shoppers peered at designer goods in exquisite malls – all as if these had always been a part of their lives.
Why should we write about China on The South Asian Idea? For many reasons: First, comparisons between the economies of China and India are becoming increasingly common. Both are categorized as emerging dragons and new global superpowers. In fact, a new name has been coined to refer to these twin stars of the future – Chindia! Second, both represent amongst the most ancient, continuously-lived civilizations with very rich histories. It is possible to understand more about ourselves through a comparison of some aspects of these histories. Third, both China and India are large, billion-plus countries and there is much discussion of what each can learn from the other.