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Vignettes from China

Vignettes from China
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First Published: Mon, Sep 10 2007. 12 18 AM IST
Updated: Mon, Sep 10 2007. 12 18 AM IST
For the past few days, I have been in Dalian, China, for the inaugural meeting of the “Summer Davos”, the second venue for the World Economic Forum, which has so far met exclusively in Switzerland for 30-odd years. The meeting was aptly titled “From Davos to Dalian”, because at the opening ceremony, the Chinese Premier said—in the most matter-of-fact manner, as though reporting on the turning of the seasons—that we are witnessing the shift in the locus of power from West to East. He, of course, meant only China.
We sandwiched the trip to Dalian between stints at Beijing—the seat of political power in China for more than 2,000 years—and Hong Kong—the city that has a separate constitution, and is the petri-dish for the Chinese government to familiarize itself with ideas such as democracy and civil society activism.
A visit to China is always a turbocharged sensory overload. It’s like in the aeroplane movies where the windows break open, everything is sucked out and people can’t catch their breath. For Indians, there is also a constant comparison meter ticking away. Unfortunately, we fare badly on almost—scratch almost, on every single count—roads, public transport, parks, preservation of heritage monuments, access to tourist facilities. Almost as a coping mechanism, we reassure ourselves, saying, “We have democracy.” I say this in half-jest, of course.
Clearly, our models of change are different, and our paths will be, too. But the Chinese are affronted by having to share the spotlight with the emerging India. Theirs is a story of a grand design, immaculately planned and meticulously monitored. Ours is this disorganized, messy also-ran, which is still in the marathon and— inexplicably—seems to be picking up speed. The Chinese machine and the Indian amoeba.
The trip offered vignettes of incidents that will linger. I recount below a few of these.
Dalian also saw the meeting of the Young Global Leaders, a new platform created by the World Economic Forum for the next generation of change agents in business, government and society. It was remarkable to see the younger African leaders, forcefully making the case for grass-roots change in their continent.
Andrew Rugasira, founder of Good African Coffee in Uganda, created a network of 15,000 marginal farmers and gets them 40% more for their produce than the multinationals. He said, “We need to get up the value chain if we want to survive.” He also said that when he visits Mumbai, he doesn’t see the slums, he sees the enormous energy of hope, a sentiment that is less plentiful within Africa.
At Tiananmen Square in Beijing, our tour guide was showing us around when we asked about the massacre. She rushed into irrelevant statistics— the height of the central monument, how many stones it had, and how long it had taken to construct it. She ducked engagement on any contentious issue, saying, “These are political things, not for people like us to discuss.” Or at least not with foreigners. In India, a paanwala will hold forth on any subject from Sonia Gandhi to the Sikh problems.
A few days later, we were in a taxi, driving to Beijing airport. China is the next America—a nation of car-lovers; Bejing has two million cars and counting. We got stuck in rush-hour traffic, blocked solid for miles on both sides of the eight-lane highway. The taxi driver spoke very little English, like most Chinese.
As we inched impatiently along, he pointed out of the window at the bumper-to-bumper car chain and said, “Werrcome to the authar Great Wall of China!”
Nothing quite captures the near-complete transformation of the Chinese people as this next incident. We were in the Chinese Ancient Architecture Museum. There was an English interpreter who walked us through the exhibits, patiently explaining the various nuances of their building styles.
At the end, we were taken to the museum store, which had exquisite artefacts in wood and ceramic. There was one particular vase that we liked, but the price was steep, so we moved on. The interpreter rushed behind us, stating that since the price included shipping, they could reduce 30%. We politely shook our heads. The price plunged even further—the new reason was that the funds would go for museum upkeep.
A few iterations later, we were at less than half the original price. There is something sad about a museum professional being reduced to a petty bargainer. This is an incentive system gone awry—China is creating a nation of merchants.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at mobiusstrip@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Sep 10 2007. 12 18 AM IST