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The bridge of dreams in Asia

Print edition : Feb 02, 2002 T+T-

On a new book that provides a serious comparative study of India and China.

THE recent visit of Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji to India was quite remarkably low-key. It is true, of course, that the relationship between India and China has always been a complex one, and the current interaction reflects many layers of that convoluted past as well as unstated uncertainties about the future.

But it is also true that Indians are, in general, largely unwilling to reveal the true extent of their fascination with China. The rather puerile notion of the countries as Asian "rivals" is not the only reason for this. Too often, it appears that the Chinese social experiments are not only bolder and more ambitious, but possibly more successful in certain ways, and this of course makes us feel uncomfortable. And then there is the other tendency, of uncritical glorification of processes in China, which is just as problematic.

This may be why there are hardly any serious attempts at the comparative study of India and China from within this country. But a new book edited by G.P. Deshpande and Alka Acharya (Crossing a Bridge of Dreams: 50 years of India and China, Tulika, 2001) goes a long way towards filling this gap.

The title is evocative, even romantic. But the romanticism is speedily dispelled by the ironic quotation from a poem which forms the frontispiece. The poem is by Lady Sarashina, who lived in early 11th century Japan:

Cross it, trouble lies ahead Do not cross, and you are still trouble-bound Truly a troublous place Is the Ford of Shikasuga.

The editors' freewheeling introduction touches on this basic contradiction between India and China, and also on how the consequent inability to engage together productively vis-a-vis the wider world has been associated with a growing dominance of North Atlantic structures in both countries. The current impetus towards economic liberalisation and globalisation is situated in the broader historical context of the urges towards "modernisation" in both societies over the past two centuries.

For many Indians, the most fascinating aspect of Chinese development over the past decade (or indeed, over earlier decades) has been the changes being wrought in the economy. One section of this book is devoted to a detailed consideration and comparison of the Chinese and Indian economic reform processes. All too often, Indian economists writing on China have tended to fall into the mainstream Western trap of simplistically treating the Chinese reforms as an example of how markets work better than state intervention. Mercifully, most of the articles here avoid this to take a more nuanced view.

Utsa Patnaik shows how the withdrawal of some forms of state intervention have been associated with cropping pattern shifts in both countries which can undermine staple grain production, and affect the basic nutritional status of the masses. C.P. Chandrasekhar explains the differences in industrial growth performance in the two countries in terms of the very different role played by foreign direct investment (FDI), the ability of China to spread production links between export-oriented foreign firms and small enterprises in the hinterland, and the fact that state enterprises have continued to be a significant part of the industrial sector. In other words, pre-reform elements of the Chinese economy have been significant in ensuring the post-reform industrial success, especially when compared with India where the achievements in terms of industrial growth have been much less remarkable.

The tremendous economic changes that have formed part of the last decade have obviously had their counterparts in polity, society and even geopolitical strategy in the two countries. Here too, the volume edited by Deshpande and Acharya goes beyond the conventional and obvious analyses. Manoranjan Mohanty considers the nature of party systems and ideology in the two countries. In a thoughtful piece, Hemant Adlakha interrogates the notion of "civil society" and the mainstream Western writings on it in both China and India.

The major achievement of China in comparison with India is unquestionably in the field of human development, and several articles on health, education and environment not only discuss these but also analyse the causes of difference in terms of internal political economy. But a very significant chunk of the book is devoted to what could be called strategic or geopolitical considerations, and are concerned not only with the past, but with what can be expected from the future.

Of course, this emphasis is quite natural at one level, because India's interest in China must certainly be comprised in large part of the wider implications of what China does in strategic or diplomatic terms and how that in turn impinges on India. And several of the articles do make the point that the focus on the West, in both India and China, and the relative downplaying of the possibilities for strategic cooperation and interaction with each other, have meant that the effective power of both has been less than it otherwise might have been.

Many would argue that the Chinese have always been prone to seeing themselves at the centre of the world, and the Indians by contrast have increasingly been happy to latch on to the margins of what they see as power. But in both countries there is much more recognition of international pressures, and perhaps more willingness to make those more influential in domestic policy. Yet the sheer size, complexity and multi-faceted nature of both of these societies makes the interaction with the wider world necessarily more fraught, and possibly more divisive internally.

To cope with such pressures, and even to manage the as yet unfinished project of development in both these countries, it would obviously be useful to have much greater understanding of each other's experiences. So a volume such as this is indeed welcome, since it not just recognises the bridge of dreams, but also provides the early attempts at building a bridge of understanding.