I am in China on holiday for a few weeks. I thought I should record my observations, as they occur to me and in no particular order. We say “Made in China" sniggeringly to indicate cheap and poorly made things. The evidence on China’s streets does not betray this lack of quality. The finish and construction of their pavements and parks, the way their gardens are laid out and the trees in their public spaces. All these things are first rate.
The small things, the details in China are right. Platforms are aligned exactly to the height of train floors. There is cleanliness and it comes from an engagement with surroundings.
When we attribute Singapore’s order to Lee Kuan Yew’s genius, we must be able to explain why Hong Kong is also as clean. The reason is of course that it is the Chinese whom we must credit and not some dictator.
One of the first things that one notices at the table is that the Chinese respect vegetables, unlike us. One can taste the flavour of the food on the plate, which is cooked with a light touch, not assaulted with masala. The other thing is how many vegetables they serve. We stress our vegetarianism but are essentially grain eaters.
I would say this difference also extends to tea, which the Chinese respect, unlike us. The freedom fighter Maulana Abul Kalam Azad once began researching tea and came to reject what passed for the beverage in India. He called it “liquid halwa".
On the street in China’s cities and towns, there is equality, physically speaking. The chasm, the physical separation of Indians by class—compare your colour, size, beauty to that of your servant—is unapparent.
The Han, 90% of China’s population, are a beautiful people, small but not malnourished, radiant of skin and with no body hair. Like in European nations, the dominant physical shape is slender and thin.
The old are alive in spirit, active in workplaces (we were rowed on a boat by five men of whom the youngest was 74). The parks are full of old people exercising, the tea houses are packed with them.
The Chinese have a genetic lack of tolerance to alcohol (meaning they get hammered easily). Most beers contain 2.5% alcohol. Two 320ml cans contain only as much alcohol as a small 30ml drink.
Though English is now compulsory from kindergarten in cities, almost nobody speaks it (Chinese people can modernize themselves without leaning on the West, unlike us).
Yet car number plates are in English because the Chinese system is too complicated for the small plates and I suppose for quick reading.
The English on signs is strange, as we all know, and probably the result of someone using a dictionary: “Tickets once sold will be dishonoured."
This kind of translation results in signs that are direct: “Please aim carefully", was pasted over one urinal. “Help keep this cleaner by stepping closer", was pasted over another urinal. I didn’t need to, of course.
There is a high level of state penetration. An example: In the town of Yangshuo, all restaurants are required to use identical crockery that is washed and sanitized by one company that collects and returns the vessels daily, each set in plastic wrapping placed before individual diners at the table.
Is this level of execution possible in India? Not even in my beloved Gujarat.
Currency notes of all denominations have a photo of Mao Zedong and the issuing bank is called Zhongguo Renmin Yinhang.
This is spelled out in six scripts, including Perso-Arabic for the Uighur, an ethnic minority.
Zhongguo is the Chinese name for China. Its opening syllable is pronounced as the lisped Marathi tch. However in Perso-Arabic, the bank’s name is spelled with a J meaning the Uighur cannot pronounce the name of their country properly.
You can get a first-rate meal at a high-end restaurant for seven people, including beer, for ₹ 3,000. That is not possible in India where the quality and the surroundings drop precipitously once the very highest end of expensive places is taken out.
Internet and Wi-Fi are free and without registration at airports. Almost no security is visible. Men and women are frisked together (I was always frisked by women). There is one security check and one ticket check. They have no need for the three other steps we have (ticket check at entrance, boarding pass check and stamp check).
The reason is that, like all Western nations, their idea of security is not limited to securing locations, but the environment.
The literacy rate is very high and so is its quality. Even those in the labouring classes read fluently. It is more expensive to study art and music in China than medicine and engineering. A certain sign of a highly civilized people. There is no tipping in restaurants and there is no pleading for more money, even from coolies, who carry themselves with great dignity.
Things that the Chinese have in common with us: a religious framework centred around demanding material goods as a barter with God (though the Chinese don’t give him gold unlike us). And ancestor worship.
In public spaces and in conversation, the Chinese are as noisy as us but there is none of our mindless honking.
Like us they also revere, if not quite worship, money. The Chinese entrepreneurial base is not restricted either by geography or caste, unlike ours. This is one aspect of why their economic success has a broader base than ours.
China has many negatives. Above all, an authoritarian state intolerant of dissent and a one-party political system. I could not bear to live here as a citizen, a place offering relief and choice in neither ideology not candidates.
The government decides what parts of the Internet to access. There is no access to Google. There’s no Facebook, no Twitter, no Gmail and no YouTube.
Yes, the state is effective and it penetrates. But I suspect the state in China also penetrated during most of the different historical eras and systems, including monarchy.
India compares its economic growth and achievements to China’s. It shouldn’t. This isn’t a race and no prize will be awarded. If it was, we have lost and are losing. The talk when I left India was about overtaking China’s current growth rate. The real figure to race against would be China’s growth rate when their economy was the size of ours (it is four times bigger today). At that point they were clocking double-digit annual growth in metronomic fashion.
We should calibrate our nationalist bombast to our actual achievements.
We Indians, all of us—secularists, communalists, Hindus, Muslims, all put together—are irrelevant in that sense. That is what experiencing the world will teach those of us who can afford to travel and haven’t allowed our minds to be shut by our fierce nationalism.
The truth is we have few achievements. We squabble daily over idiotic things—ban Maggi! ban Uber!—while other nations have lifted themselves.
Sailing to see the Three Gorges dam, my map showed 45 bridges across that patch of the Yangtze river and its tributaries. The entire Brahmaputra has how many? Two? A single Chinese city, Chongqing, a place few Indians have heard of, has likely seen more industrial development in the last decade than all India’s cities combined. Comparisons are embarrassing, and meaningless.
Anyway, even the Chinese are not there yet, not a fully developed nation with economic and political freedom and without everyday corruption, like Europe, like Japan. But you can see their path. Three more decades of this growth and they are there. Political freedom will come automatically in one way or another.
What’s our path out of darkness and into civilization and an equal and prosperous society? Frankly I cannot see it. But I do know that those who say it is through government, meaning that the rest of us—“civil society"—do nothing, are wrong.
To read Aakar’s previous Lounge columns, click here.