China dazzles many Indians, but emulating China could pave the road to catastrophe
For many, the BJP’s resounding mandate of May 23 is a victory for the ideal of a strong centralised state. This is what India needs, it is being said. This is the only way to ensure maximum governance.
No one would dispute that India can benefit from improved governance. But what model of state can best deliver that? As our intellectuals look around, many have fixated on the success of China, a country that was comparable to India across most socio-economic parameters until the early 1980s, but which has far outpaced us in economic development since.
In trying to emulate China, those intellectuals – driven by an intoxicating mix of envy and strategic fear – locate the solution in its strong centralised state. This is a dangerous lesson to draw. It is dangerous because it indicates a rather shallow understanding of China’s historical experiences and an inattention to the vastly different contexts, historical and contemporary, within which the Indian and Chinese republics operate.
An assessment of China that cannot balance the spectacular growth of the past four decades against equally devastating missteps is bound to produce a simplistic view of the past and lead to solutions that will only generate deep structural problems in India.
Those who are able to study Chinese history with a critical eye may well see their enthusiasm for state centralisation dimmed. China’s dramatic progress has come at significant cost to large sections of its people. An excess of state capacity certainly provides the ability to execute policy effectively; but it often does so regardless of whether the policy makes sense or not.
I offer here only the most well-known examples. From 1958 to 1961, China was set down a radical path of economic and social reorganisation known as the Great Leap Forward. It resulted in arguably the worst man-made disaster in history – a famine that killed, by broad scholarly consensus, at least 30 million people.
The One Child Policy that came into effect in 1980, fundamentally altered China’s demographic composition and has generated a host of social problems. How China adapts to becoming an ‘old country’ in the coming two decades remains to be seen.
Since the 1980s, restrictions on rural to urban mobility have created a floating migrant population nearly the size of the United States. This floating labour is the engine of China’s economic boom, but it has not seen the benefits of that boom.
A few days ago was the 30th anniversary of the crackdown in and around Tian’anmen Square, when units of the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on peaceful protesters – students, workers, and other civilians – killing hundreds. Tian’anmen was not only about quelling dissent among the people but also within the party, concentrating power among only a handful of people.
Most recently, the Chinese state is building a system of surveillance that incorporates an individual’s facial and biometric data, online activity, physical movements, and purchasing habits. Once perfected, the technology can be used just as easily to provide services or to curtail them, to “dissident” and “patriot” alike.
Central to the Chinese state’s success is its ability to crack down on any dissenting voices and to rewrite history. It continues to expend considerable resources to elide embarrassing missteps from school curricula and from public consciousness. Today, most Chinese students have to travel abroad and enroll in foreign universities to engage critically with their own history.
Among the first things many of them do is Google 6/4 (June 4, the date of the Tian’anmen crackdown). Even the basic facts of their common past have been denied them. This applies as much to contemporary developments: many in China remain unaware that their own state has over the past two years put over a million of their fellow citizens, Uighurs who reside in the western province of Xinjiang, into concentration camps.
The point is not that a powerful state cannot do good, but rather that in uncritically lusting for such a state we create the conditions for it to do tremendous harm. If that expansion in capacity is accompanied by a weakening of existing institutions, whether it is the election commission, the judiciary, the media, or a free and independent educational system, then we are complicit in the dissolution of our ability to check that state power. It remains axiomatically true: non-accountable systems generate abuses of power.
The Indian political experiment is built on accommodation of vast heterogeneity. It is a normative ideal, still well short of realisation, but one that says that a society’s norms ought not to be determined by the relative dominance of one group over another. This is what distinguishes it – warts and all – from almost all its contemporaries. Today, we seem hell bent on sacrificing that accommodative spirit at the altar of maximal state capacity.
The historical study of other parts of the world is a serious business and we have neglected it for too long in India. Tragically, current trends suggest we are becoming even more parochial in our approach to both ourselves and to the world. A little learning is a dangerous thing. To take pride in it can be catastrophic.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.