A China diary

Published : Nov 25, 2000 00:00 IST

History moves on as ebullient contemporary China keeps a respectful distance from its past. An account of China's changing overall perspective of South Asia, particularly India.

CHINA'S cities look dazzling. Every alternate year that I happen to go to that country, I find that the cities look even more dazzling than they did the previous time. The initial shock of seeing beggars on the streets there has also eased somewhat. That is because the memories of "pre-liberalisation" China have dimmed over a period of time. There seems to be a strange unanimity in China that the early years of revolutionary China are best forgotten or perhaps preserved only as a hazy memory. There are of course huge statues of Mao Zedong. The one on the Fudan University campus is a fine example of an exquisitely sculpted statue. Physical bigness and revolutionary greatness went together in Mao Zedong. The statues in Fudan capture just that combination . Yet everybody on the campus goes to the right or the left of it. Mao stands there in splendid isolation.

Shanghai was the place where the first congress of the Chinese Communist Party took place. The venue is well preserved. A couple of photographs are missing. But it is a case of political amnesia, as it were. Now of course the whole exercise appears mispl aced. There are queues there still. In 1991 I was looking for Lukac's house in Budapest. My interpreter, a smart young woman, did not seem to know him, let alone his house. And even if she did she could not care. Here in Shanghai nothing of historical im portance is entirely forgotten. The modest house in which the first communists of China met is therefore well remembered. But that is about all. The communists and the communist world are nearly forgotten. Dazzling Shanghai has very little to do with tha t world.

So much so that nobody talks about the Cultural Revolution either. Once I travelled from Beijing to Jehol, the summer capital of imperial China. Throughout the journey my fellow passenger, a doctor in a Beijing hospital, never stopped talking about her e xperiences of the Cultural Revolution, adding small bits of information provided with a rather wry sense of humour. (She told me how she was forced to cultivate cucumbers. It is useful for doctors to know how they are produced, she added with a smile.)

In the year 2000, the Cultural Revolution is already a distant, unpleasant dream if at all. In Kunming (the capital of Yunan province in southwest China), our interpreter colleagues, Guo and Deng, reacted with boisterous laughter when one of us made them scions of Guo Moro and Deng Xiaoping. That Guo Moro would be remembered in such a familiar way came to me as a surprise. But that was all. No further thought was spared for Guo Moro. One gets a feeling that a kalpa (a time-cycle of the four yugas , of which Kali is the last) is over. All good and bad dreams are forgotten.

Maybe, nostalgia is not a Chinese virtue or vice. History moves on. The ebullience of contemporary Chinese would come as a surprise, almost a shock, to the old man standing in sculptural glory on the Fudan complex (among other places in China). It would shock him no less to see the somewhat incongruous coexistence between a 16th century garden and a Kentucky Fried Chicken joint. Should not Col. Sanders (is that not the name of a man who started it all?) and his KFC have kept their respectful distance?

It seems that "respectful distance" is what a contemporary Chinese person keeps from his Maoist past. Arrogant iconoclasm of modernity has not invaded the Chinese psyche. The Chinese people know that Mao's world is dead and gone. But the ancestor-worship ping Chinese would not give up Mao for that reason.

"WHY do Americans dislike our democracy? The answer is simple. Our ruling party still calls itself a Communist Party and the Americans do not like it." This was the response to a question about China's ideas on political liberalisation at a lunch in Shan ghai. "We are a practising democracy," a Chinese social scientist insisted. How do you explain the American response then (or words to that effect), was the Indian response. The above remark came as a reply to those words. A case of respectful distancing from Western ideas of democracy.

Conversations over lunch were a peculiar mix of elaborate, almost imperious, formality and informal and at times proud and forthright remarks. We shall have democracy and, more important, we shall define it. This has always been the Chinese response. Thi s time it was explicit, assertive and proud. Echoes of three people's principles of Sun Yat-sen were clearly audible. Nobody should be surprised if a Chinese political scientist came out with a volume tracing the taxonomy of the concept of democracy begi nning with Kang Yuwei (the leader of the 1898 political reforms) bringing it to Deng via Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong. All this would happen not because or not only because the Chinese are nationalistic but also because democracy itself can be understood o nly in a historicist manner. Western ideas are important but eastern history is no less so. China will have democracy, which its history and experience dictate. There was also reiteration of President Jiang Zemin's remark that there cannot and need not b e one colour in the world. At this lunch it was not attributed to Jiang. As the Chinese say, it was the prefatory clause that introduced the remark. This prefatory clause or some version of it always appears in Chinese discourse. It serves many purposes. It establishes or underlines the fact that there is no universalism to political concepts or discourse as Western commentators seem forever to emphasise. It further makes the point that if universalism were indeed feasible, it would necessarily involve contributions from the Chinese (or Indian or West Asian) discourse.

There is an unstated convention about "informal" or even formal conversation in China. You are not to press the point beyond a limit. If a point of no return has or is being reached, either party should give up the subject. All conversation on political liberalisation in China ends on that note if you are not careful. It is almost as if all dynamism in dialogue dries up. A polite silence or reiteration of a familiar position is all that you get. The Indian insistence on the semantic battles or the faith in the universal is not understood in China. Several visits and talks in China have repeatedly confirmed this belief to me. Dialogue in China is always a qualified dialogue. It is qualified by civilisational limitations. It is also qualified by the fact that all exchanges are political and as such all that we can hope to do is to see the limits of (each other's) political understanding. Reaching a point of no return goes against China's pragmatic grain. Perhaps for that reason informal conversations ov er lunch or dinner become so interesting. It is easier and less tension-ridden to see the coming point of no return.

One such point was reached in this conversation in Shanghai. 'Has democracy as you understand it worked in India?' was a general, typical question. The Chinese have very little use for the Indian liberal scepticism about the political processes in India. Equally, the fact that Western democracy is not being rejected in India because it is Western is simply ignored. The thrust of the argument was clear: we (the Chinese) intend to work our democracy out. If the United States does not like it, so be it!

There was also some surprise (not entirely pleasant) that India should be so much at home with Western democracy. The Shanghai Institute of International Studies has published a collection of essays this year, which seeks to analyse 'The Post-Cold War Wo rld'. The question of democracy and, therefore, of human rights is seen by these scholars as one of human rights and national sovereignty. China seems to be the only developing state that does not accept the rhetoric of civil society as a supra-state dis course. It follows the line enunciated by Deng Xiaoping thus: "Some Western countries, on the pretext that China has an unsatisfactory human rights record and an irrational and illegitimate socialist system, attempt to jeopardise our national sovereignty " (The Post-Cold War World, p. 34). The implications are clear. The human rights question is important but it is not and cannot be a supra-state question. The problem of democracy is not the problem of the weakening of the state.

The curious thing was the discussion on the state. Partly the problem was linguistic. The term for state and for nation is the same in Chinese. The Chinese language does not quite clearly distinguish between the two concepts. If one thought hard on it, a number of Indian and for that matter oriental languages do not distinguish clearly between nation and state or at any rate use these terms inter-changeably. In response to a question about naming two plus points of China's growth and governance I ventur ed a suggestion that China had not weakened its state in the process of modernistion. The problem of rendering state as guojia, which also means nation, became evident. I cite this conversation to underline yet another fact. There is not much disc ussion in China about hard and soft state. The guojia has to be and is strong. China will maintain its strength. The question of hard or soft does not arise. The strength of the guojia is the issue.

There is little doubt that not much liberal rhetoric sells in China. Simply put, 'civil society versus state' kind of formulation has no appeal in China. China is a huge country. There would, therefore, be people who would be enamoured of this contradict ion. But taken as a whole they are an insignificant, marginalised minority. In Kunming we discussed some opposition to reforms and things like that in India and China. It was clear that whether on issues of globalisation or the environment or the indeed declining social welfare content of the new policies, there was some opposition in the country, but it was not a major force. Nothing is ever brought to a halt in China. Our friends in Shanghai seemed clear about that. I discovered that my reference to t he opposition to the Narmada project and suggestion that there might be some to the Three Gorges project on the Changjiang river did not bring forth any response. I expected it as it was yet another example of a point of no return.

THE realm of foreign policy is always the clearest in China. The positions are taken with utmost care but statements are not, for that reason, loose or ambiguous. I was in Shanghai last year as well (1999). The atmosphere there then was full of the Pokhr an-II nuclear tests, Defence Minister George Fernandes' assessment of China and Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's letter to President Bill Clinton. The responses then were predictable and, in a sense, not at all forgiving. India had no business to go nuclea r, that would be a neat one-sentence summary of China's attitude.

Within 12 months (from October 1999 to October 2000) there was a sea-change. Pokhran-II was still an object of intense dislike. But the verbal outrage was not there. There was the reluctant admission that China must face the reality. India (or for that m atter Pakistan) is what it is, that is, a nuclear state, and China can do precious little to alter that reality. This is the attitude now. A lone commentator still argued that India should sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Otherwise there wa s not much discussion of the articles of faith of the non-proliferation regime and those who run it. Probably there is not a wide recognition that Indian or Pakistani nuclear capabilities do not really amount to very much. Whatever be the reason, the nuc lear weapons do not seem to matter any longer. Clearly, India-China relations are finally beyond Pokhran-II.

The warming of Indo-American relations now is quietly acknowledged. For the first time in my several trips to China I heard remarks to the effect that India has become "a regional power" in South Asia. As least one commentator seemed to argue that India had become a dominant power and was not far from being a hegemonistic power in South Asia. The other, milder, version was that India's emergence as a regional power was inevitable. A new turn in Indo-U.S. relations has been direly noted. Pakistan still m atters to Chinese foreign policy. It will continue to do so for a long time. But there is a change in China's overall perspective on South Asia. It would not be an exaggeration to argue that China now accepts that India's position in South Asia has quali tatively changed and that China must adjust to it without prejudice to its relationship with Pakistan.

There was therefore some murmur about the Dalai Lama and his activities. In Kunming there was even a reference to the Karmapa episode. It was clear that all would not be well with Sino-Indian relations until that tangle was sorted out. Nevertheless, ther e was appreciation that the principal problem in and about Tibet was the West and the Western liberals. Their enthusiasm rather than India had made the Dalai Lama what he was. It was simply a case of knocking at the wrong door.

THE U.S. loomed large in China. We were in China when the joint military exercises with the U.S. were being conducted. When we left the Shanghai Institute of International Studies we were told that the visitor to the institute the following day would be the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy. This information was supplied with a smile. These Shanghai people, especially those from the Academy of the Social Sciences and the Institute of International Studies, are business-like. Between them they constit ute a major think tank of China, complementing and competing with the think tanks in Beijing, especially at the China Institute of International Relations and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. My impression is that Beijing and Shanghai react differ ently to the U.S. Beijing is formal and correct. Understandably it carries out joint military exercises with the U.S. It also publishes a white paper on defence. The exercises speak of a will to cooperate with and engage the U.S. Taiwan is a grim reminde r of the military implications of the continued U.S. role in the Taiwan Straits. China will "adopt all drastic measures possible, including the use of force" if foreign forces invade the island or if Taiwan were to refuse reunification with the mainland, thunders a white paper on the foreign power. It goes without saying that "the foreign power" referred to is the U.S. If Taiwan were to make bold and avoid reunification it could do so only with the support of the U.S. The contradiction with the U.S. is inescapable. That would in summary form the Beijing view.

In Shanghai, people took a more flexible view. Well, in a very logical sense, contradiction with the U.S. was inescapable. And to that extent China's view of the U.S. would no longer be comparable to that of the 1970s. As the same time it did not appear that from Shanghai the Sino-U.S. relationship looked terribly grim. In the final analysis it would be adversarial. But the state of "final analysis" may not after all be reached.

INDIA has acquired a new standing in China's worldview. Let us get into the trading game. Let us get into information technology cooperation. That was the recurrent theme. I had not heard much last year by way of a complimentary view of India's developme nt. Plenty of such pep talk was heard this year. There is greater respect for India as an economic power.

All this could be the first steps towards re-arranging China's relations with its neighbours. Quite often a statement of existing realities is a statement of forthcoming change. It would appear that Shanghai think tanks are looking forward to a phase of a different relationship with India. They see a phase of cooperation ahead. More important, however, a new strategic equation with India is being sought. Pakistan matters but less and less so. There was also a frank discussion on the so-called nuclear ai d to Pakistan. There was a readiness to discuss each detail. The earlier posture that there is nothing between China and Pakistan as far as nuclear cooperation was concerned was not reiterated mechanically and unmindfully. At the Fudan University's Centr e for American Studies, a more flexible attitude was discernible. There is more in Sino-Indian relations than meets the eye. Perhaps for the first time there is now a realisation that Indian uneasiness at Sino-Pakistan relations deserves a consideration. A new alignment of China's policies is not possible without involving India, or so Shanghai thinks.

That the pace of Sino-Indian normalisation is slow was recognised. The fragility of the relations between the two countries was also taken note of. Refreshingly, no attempt was made to blame India alone or Indian nuclear posturing or India's Kashmir prob lem as the villain of the piece. Shanghai seems to feel that India's weightage in China's foreign policy has to change. It is important for China's foreign policy generally. It is even important for Sino-U.S. relations. That probably is still not Beijing 's view. But that Shanghai articulates a slightly distanced position in itself suggests that there are some supporters of this position in Beijing. At any rate, that could be an alternative scenario under consideration in Beijing.

Kunming is a pretty, little city. At an altitude of about 1,500 metres, it boasts of being a city of eternal spring. A typical capital of a backward province (Yunan), Kunming's eyes are turned towards South-East Asia and South Asia. Southwest China has t o look out. There is going to be a four-nation conference (China, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar) in Delhi in December to discuss regional cooperation. What would come out of these deliberations, one does not know. China's southwest and India's northeast look like being good and right partners in progress. The difficulty, however, is that India's view of its northeast is different from China's view. In China's view one whole State of India's northeast is not a part of India. A very fragile starting point for cooperation, indeed. When one raised this issue in Kunming, there was silence. Only one person spoke. He argued that while there was dispute over Arunachal Pradesh and its status, India and China could shelve the issue and cooperate nevertheless. I am not sure if disputes so close to the proposed area of cooperation can be shelved. Perhaps yes. Perhaps no. Let us see what the December conference yields in terms of actually definable progress. So far the progress on southwest China-northeast India cooperation has been little more than an articulation of good intentions and the forwarding of some rather tentative ideas. What is important is that Kunming is indeed looking further southwest. Economic relations get top priority in this area of China. Kunming appeared interested in little else. It had, however, very few ideas on how to turn the competitive economies of China and India into complementary economies. At the moment, we know that both the governments are interested in their backward areas and look upon economic cooperation as one of the ways of redress and growth.

One might conclude this account with the Chinese sense of history and continuity that one opened these remarks with. There is a stone forest about 60 km from Kunming, a literal forest of tall, tree-like stones, a beautiful and exceptional sight. As you e nter this extraordinary place you see a stone formation (one among hundreds), which is quite remarkable. You see a public notice there. This was the stone at which Zhou Enlai and Zhu De had their photograph taken. It was remarkable that a guerilla genera l like Zhu De was still remembered. People who can preserve continuities within a rapidly changing environment are most likely candidates for survival, and glorious survival at that. The Chinese certainly are one such people. Let us hope that Indians lik ewise are.

G.P. Deshpande is Professor of Chinese Studies, School of International Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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