China – 2: Making Sense of China

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.

Two conclusions seemed hard to avoid: things can change very, very rapidly; and, if you are part of the change, you can adapt to it because it occurs in front of you one day at a time.

For me, the more intriguing puzzle was to understand how exactly things had changed with such rapidity. There are, of course, a whole host of explanations but I didn’t find one that yielded the satisfaction I was after.

So I turned again to my imagination and discovered that while it had been quite limited looking ahead, it was a lot freer looking back. And it was from the very distant past that I extracted an image that helped me make sense of China.

Think of a Roman galley but one that is manned by a million slaves. Now think of a very few captains in charge of the galley who decide amongst themselves, without needing to ask anyone else, the direction in which the galley is to proceed. You can imagine that when they gave the order to go, the galley would do so at very near the speed of light, relatively speaking.

Add to it the fact that the captains like to take big gambles. What do you get? If they guessed wrong, there would be an almighty crash against the rocks; if they guessed right, they would get to the other end of the world in a hurry.

Now for some examples:

The Great Leap Forward (1958-1962): Wrong – 30 to 40 million people dead.

Cultural Revolution (1966-1976): Wrong – a generation and more of intellectuals lost.

Open Door Policy (1979 on): Jackpot – two trillion dollars in reserves; a global power.

You can get the picture – a few people decide to take a huge gamble, the whole nation falls in line, and the outcome, either way, is something that is not easy to ignore.

There is no way something like that could happen in India. Read Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian if you want to figure out why. The galley with a million slaves and a few gambling captains giving the order to go – that image is so incongruous when you think of India. Getting two Indians to agree on something takes a while; getting them to work together on that agreement, that’s a whole new task; making sure they don’t undermine each other calls for quite a few more Indians; more Indians means more arguments. These are caricatures, for sure, but the broad generalizations hold.

Things have changed in China since the Open Door policy. China is not isolated anymore and global knowledge and experience are readily accessible. There is a remarkable openness to benefit from this global resource and the Chinese have perfected the art of trying new ideas at the level of the city or the province before they are evaluated and rolled out across the nation. So the dangers of huge crashes like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution are significantly reduced.

But it does not mean that all gambles have been done away with. Rolled inside the Open Door Policy, for example, is the One-Child Policy. Nobody really knows what the outcome of this gamble would be twenty years from now. And nowhere else in the world would anyone have been able to get away with something half as restrictive – Sanjay Gandhi and sterilization immediately come to mind.

And it is easy to forget that the glamour of China is all in the cities. China has bottled up its poverty in its villages because only China could have instituted an internal passport system. So when people praise the absence of slums in Chinese cities, they disregard the fact that people are not free to move there. It’s not India where anyone can pick up their bags and move to Kolkatta or Mumbai to sleep under the bridge if they felt like it. Shanghai issues blue cards much like America issues green cards.

One feature that goes along with operation of the galley with the million slaves is that commands are communicated very, very clearly to the entire crew. These are encapsulated in slogans that are crisp and unambiguous. In a modern world such communication between the rulers and the ruled can only be admired. An example relates to a past policy initiating rural industrialization; the intention was to move people out of farming but not to have them migrate to the cities. The slogan communicating this policy was: “Leave the farm but not the village; enter the factory but not the city.” There are many other examples.

One can think of few parallels in South Asia where the majority of citizens remain uninformed about the nature or intent of national policies and programs. Take something like the Millennium Development Goals that all governments have signed on to. There is not even a comprehensible translation of the words in the local languages and if you asked a person in Islamabad, let alone in a village in Sindh, what it signified he or she would be at a complete loss.

China is a fascinating place. You cannot take a model or theory from anywhere else and apply it to the country. Everything has to be thought through from first principles which can keep you excited and busy if you enjoy that kind of challenge.

Readers might wish to refer back to the series of posts beginning with On Cooperation and Competition in order to pursue possible explanations for the differences between China and India mentioned in this post.


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