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Seeing China from Chengdu

(The writer visited Sichuan from August 26 to 31,2007)

The Chinese leadership and people continue to prove foreign skeptics wrong and race ahead to the future without getting stuck in the past. Despite periodic negative reports in sections of the Western media and negative forecasts in the reports of some Western think-tanks, governmental efficiency has improved, there is a greater professional competence all around—whether in the State or private sector—than in the past, and there is a greater confidence in their destiny as the coming equal of the US —whether in the economic or military sphere or in the field of science and technology or even sports.

2. Their successful execution of the Three Gorges dam project and the railway line to Lhasa are but two examples of the way they have proved the skeptics wrong. Unnoticed by the outside world, they are on their way to proving those foreign skeptics wrong, who had, in the 1990s, predicted widespread unrest in Western China because of the widened economic gap with coastal China, which was initially given priority for economic development when China opened up post-1978. This gap has now been sought to be removed through a crash development programme. The results are already there for everyone to see. Western China is not yet as developed as coastal China, but it is already far ahead of the most developed regions of India.

3. Western China had developed faster than coastal China under Mao Zedong, who gave priority to the development of the heavy and military industries. Afraid of a US or a Taiwanese military strike in the coastal areas, he located them away from the coast in Western China. The Sichuan province was a special beneficiary of this policy. The Chinese people in the coastal areas accepted this policy as they felt it was in the national interest.

4. Deng Xiaoping upgraded the priority for the consumer and other light industries. He opened up coastal China first at a time when Taiwan and Hong Kong were shifting from the manufacturing sector to the services sector and, even in the manufacturing sector, from low-tech to hi-tech industries. They started looking for new areas with cheap labour where they could shift their low-tech industries. The policy-makers under Deng provided them with such areas in Guangdong, Fujian and Shanghai. The coastal areas overtook Western China in economic development and prosperity, helped by the torrential flow of Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) from the overseas Chinese diaspora, the Asian Tigers of the 1990s and Japanese, South Korean and Western investors and by the huge US market, which the Hong Kong and Taiwanese investors brought along with them. They understood the American market better than the mainland Chinese. They brought along with their manufacturing skills, the goodwill which they had earned over the years in the US market.

5. As coastal China raced ahead, Western China started stagnating. “Let them (coastal China) get rich first, you can get rich later,” Deng, who was himself a son of the Sichuan soil, told the people of Western China. The people of Western China accepted his word as they felt it was in their national interest. Now that the economy of coastal China has acquired a self-sustaining momentum and can cruise along on its own inherent strength without the need for any special governmental attention, the policy-makers under President Hu Jintao have turned their attention to Western China. I was able to see for myself the impressive results in the Sichuan province. Objective observers certify that the results are equally impressive in Tibet and Xinjiang, but I did not have an opportunity of visiting them.

6. For China’s national security managers, coastal China, Tibet and Xinjiang are priority areas for attention—the coastal areas because of the concerns over a possible military confrontation with Taiwan and Tibet and Xinjiang because of internal security problems, the continuing border dispute with India and the activities of Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda organisations from the Pakistani territory. For the Chinese, without good infrastructure, there can be neither economic nor military strength. In the 1990s and the early 2000s, they poured money and attention for the development of the infrastructure in the coastal areas. They are now doing the same in Sichuan, Tibet and Xinjiang. The infrastructure in the Sichuan province is already of world standard. One is told that it is on the way to becoming so in Tibet and Xinjiang. Compare the way the Chinese have opened up and developed Sichuan, Tibet and Xinjiang to the way we have neglected our North-East. If the economic development of India is at least 15 years behind that of China as a whole, the economic development of our North-East is at least 30 years behind that of Tibet.

7. Despite the impressive economic development in Tibet and Xinjiang, concerns over internal security and continued political stability remain. The Chinese seem confident that no external power can cause political instability or insecurity in the rest of China. They give the impression of being similarly confident in Tibet and Xinjiang too, but they are keeping the fingers crossed because of non-convergence of political aspirations between the Hans and the non-Hans, who are in a majority in these areas. How to integrate the sons of the soil in the national mainstream without weakening their non-Han identity? A satisfactory answer to this question will largely determine continued political stability in these areas.

8. One could see a lot of good will for India in Sichuan, where the influence of Buddhism and Indian culture is stronger than in coastal China. There is a greater interest in India in the local academic circles than in those of Shanghai. Chengdu prides itself in being China’s intellectual window on South Asia. The Sichuan University has an Institute For South Asian Studies, which is nearly 44 years old. It has a Centre for South Asia-West China Co-operation and Development Studies, which is four years old. Two other centres to promote research on South Asia and Tibet and on Pakistan are in the offing. India’s economic policies and the progress made by it in matters such as poverty eradication receive greater attention from local academics and students than in Shanghai or Beijing. On my return from Chengdu, I was told by a knowledgeable friend that there was a time when the faculty of the Sichuan University, which is considered among the 10 best universities in China, had some Indian academics, who used to teach the Chinese students.

9. One can discern a tinge of disappointment that the great hopes raised by the visit of former Prime Minister Shri A.B.Vajpayee to China in June,2003,about an improvement in people-to-people contacts are still to be realised. It is said that more visas are issued to Indians wanting to visit China than vice versa. Figures cited: Two thousand Indians in China with student visas as against about 20 Chinese in India; 50000 Chinese tourist visas per annum to Indians as against 5000 Indian tourist visas to Chinese; average time taken by the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi to issue visas to Indians four working days as against a much longer time taken by the India missions in China; visa difficulties faced by academics, students. businessmen, investors, contractors etc. It is further said that Chinese—whatever be their profession—find it easier to get a visa to visit the US than to visit India.

10. It is also said that in the 1980s and the 1990s, young Chinese had a fascination for going to Japan and the US for studies. Now, an increasing number would like to go to India for studies, but the difficulties in getting a visa discourage them.

11.One could also discern a note of disappointment over the lack of reciprocation by India to what is projected as a Chinese gesture in recognising Sikkim as an integral part of India. There is an expectation that India would reciprocate by conceding the Chinese claim to Arunachal Pradesh. There is unease over reports of India joining the US, Australia and Japan in a so-called concert of democracies. Chinese public opinion continues to feel uncomfortable over Japan and India’s alleged insensitivity to this discomfort is viewed with regret. But for these two issues—Arunachal Pradesh and the so-called concert of democracies—there are no major limits to an improvement in Sino-India relations, it is explained.

12. A puzzling question for the Chinese is: How can India put all its strategic policy eggs in the baskets of three sunset leaders, namely, President George Bush, who will be out next year, Mr.John Howard of Australia, who may be out by the end of this year, and Mr.Shinzo Abe of Japan (he is already out) ? A convergence of views and interests with these sunset leaders will be ephemeral and of uncertain benefit to India and its people, whereas any convergence with the Chinese leadership would be durable and of definite benefit to India and its people. So, it is said.

13. All Chinese eyes are now turned towards next year’s Olympic Games in Beijing.They are determined to make a grand success of it— as a sports meet, as a spectacle, as a show case of what China has already achieved and what it is going to achieve in future and as a demonstration of China’s soft power. One can be certain that they will. A tremendous pride in themselves as a country and as a people, self-discipline, self-motivation, a readiness to admit that they have so much to learn yet and a willingness to learn it from others—whether they be Indians or Americans or Japanese or Europeans or other Asians or anybody else. These are the defining characteristics of China of today. No visitor to China can miss them.

14. India has to be wary of China in view of its past painful experiences in dealing with it, but its cautious reflexes born out of its past painful experiences should not blind it to the positive aspects of China of today and make it shy of learning from them.

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: seventyone2@gmail.com)

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