China’s sustained economic boom over the last 25 years and India’s progress since liberalization have generated a great deal of breathless talk—particularly in the financial press—about caged tigers waking, the balance of power in the world shifting, and the 21st century being “the Asian century”. Much of this is clearly hype. Although China is now the fourth-largest economy in the world, and India not far behind, per capita income in both countries is a fraction of what it is in the developed world.
Further, both countries have followed unusual paths to greater prosperity. India’s growth has been kick-started by its comparative advantages in the IT and service sectors: We have not enjoyed an industrial revolution, and this may hurt us in the long run.
China, on the other hand, is the workshop of the world, owing its growth to massive exports of consumer goods and an unusually high domestic-savings rate. Its economic miracle is all the more surprising because it was managed and directed by the Communist Party, which controls the apparent paradox of a socialist market economy. Everywhere the question is being asked: Can such a rise be sustained?
The French political commentator, Guy Sorman, has been an Asia-watcher for three decades now, and has written a series of intriguing books, including Barefoot Capitalism (1989) and The Genius of India (2001). His latest book, The Year of the Rooster, translated by Asha Puri, is an attempt to understand the Chinese miracle from within, building on a year of travel, study and encounters with people in China in 2005, the Year of the Rooster in the 12-year animal cycle of the Chinese calendar.
We are presented not with an enigmatic, faceless China of facts and figures, but a people very much like us, hungry for civil and religious liberty and for responsive government, but in thrall to forces whose power they cannot contest.
Sorman follows the trail of misery and cruelty left by the Party-State. The story of China, he demonstrates, is “a chronicle of everyday repression”. He meets the mother of a youth who was killed during the suppression of the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989, still trying, in 2005, to get information on how and why her son died. He comes across political dissidents who have spent years in prison being tortured, and members of banned religious sects who have done time in “labour re-education centres”.
Civil society is weak, for “the ability to associate outside the Party is what the Party fears the most”. Thought control is everywhere. Both the press and the judiciary are emasculated, and serve as unofficial extensions of the Party. The regime even subjects the Internet to government control, and the state telephone company has developed software to censor text messages for words like ‘Tiananmen’ and ‘Tibet’.
Sorman argues that the West, in not taking a harder line with China’s government for its predations, has valued “trade over human rights”. All of this, he contends, renders comparisons of China’s growth with that of India virtually meaningless, for a narrowly quantitative analysis does not reflect “non-economic values which matter like democracy, freedom of religion and respect for life”.
And even that 9% growth rate needs close examination. For one, if China is witnessing an unprecedented migration of labour from the villages to the cities, much of that migration is forced. A large section of the work force, denied the right to organize, is exploited by the upper echelons of power, and functions as “human fodder”.
China’s manufacturing revolution is based on a virtually unlimited supply of cheap labour; the spirit of creativity and innovation traditionally associated with capitalism is foreign to Chinese firms.
When, in addition to a precarious legal system and an absence of property rights, one factors in political uncertainty and a looming energy crisis, it is hard to believe that China will really become the world’s new superpower.
As Gurcharan Das, the author of India Unbound, writes in his foreword to Sorman’s book, he himself believed for a while in “the myth of contemporary China”. That starry-eyed belief is shared by a section of India’s political class: witness Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s ambition, later repeated by Manmohan Singh, of turning Mumbai into “another Shanghai”.
Sorman’s visit to Shanghai reveals nothing but “a façade of modernity”, a soulless centrally-planned city of glitzy appearances, but poor sanitation, no freedom of speech, and no proper cultural life. Most readers of Sorman’s sobering book might want to take Mumbai over Shanghai any day.
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