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Better Understanding



C. V Ranganathan


This paper is the result of an experience-based study of China acquired through long years of working in and on China as a diplomat in the service of India. Its conclusions are more intuitive than empirical, more practical than conceptual. Some random thoughts are put together in an attempt to underline the need for Indians to develop the habit of an independent assessment of recent developments in China rather than depend on borrowed judgements made from different strategic viewpoints. The paper is therefore an attempt to put domestic and external developments relating to China in a context which would suit India’s interests in the several changed circumstances witnessed in contemporary times. It is a plea for “understanding” various developments in China from an Indian perspective rather than from a borrowed one.

A starting point for our discussions on understanding China could begin with the domestic evolution of China since the death of Mao Zedong which in turn is inextricably linked with Deng Xiaoping. There can be little doubt that in these last few years of the 20th Century Deng can be considered one of the world’s pre-eminent leaders, the impact of whose actions will be felt into the next century as China looms as the world’s next super-power as a result of his reform.

Deng pursued many goals during his lifetime, but none more persistently than strengthening the Chinese nation-state. As a staunch nationalist in the tradition of other great Communist leaders of China he sought to restore China’s wealth and power. This quest is a consistent refrain during the 19th and 20th centuries: creation of a modern industrial base: transformation of China’s agrarian social structure; attainment of a materially comfortable standard of living for the populace: reclaiming national independence, dignity and freedom of manoeuvre in foreign relations; a strong national defence and maintenance of territorial integrity and attainment of great power status. However while he may not have, been the first leader with these goals, he was the most successful in realising them to a substantial degree.

Deng inherited from Mao a stagnant economy, alienated society and a paralysed polity. He will bequeath to his successors a robust economy and rejuvenated society, although a political system which is common to the few surviving Leninist Party States, In this Deng was a true Leninist. But unlike Mao who assaulted the commanding heights of the Party/State, Deng sought to rebuild it. Deng believed like other Chinese reformers before him that a strong state which monopolized political power was essential to economic development. His views were reinforced by the East Asian developmental model.

In 1989 when the Tian An Men incident took place Deng faced a paradox: his economic reform programme and the autonomy from State control that he created for Chinese from many walks of life inevitably decreased the Party’s previous hegemony. But the brief attempt at subjecting society to propaganda and economic austerity since those events only brought home the realisation that these instruments had dulled as a result of the 1980s reforms, From the collapse of Communist regimes across the globe in 1989-91 Deng drew the lesson that only material gain can ultimately save socialism. Of course tight political control and the loyalty of the armed forces and security personnel were important, but without achieving further material gains, continuing survival of the Party’s dominance would increasingly be called into question. Consequently in 1992 Deng reignited radical economic reform. The results were impressive indeed: 12.8 per cent GNP growth in 1992 and a pouring-in of Foreign Direct Investment at unprecedented levels.

Deng Xiaoping ruled very differently from Mao Zedong. He did not rely on charisma or ideology. He preferred to rule through formal Party institutions and Leninist norms. But later in his career in 1991-92, like Mao, he circumvented his chosen successors and those who were for a slower pace of reforms, by taking his case for accelerated reforms directly to the people during his famous tour of southern China.

However unlike Mao, Deng trusted in the entrepreneurial spirit in Chinese culture and did much to remove state strictures from public lives. Getting the government “off-the-backs” of average Chinese, in order to free their commercial instincts will be one of Deng’s enduring legacies. He rolled back much of the intrusive apparatus that had intimidated a vast nation and provided the stimulus for the realisation of the Napoleonic prophecy of the awakened Chinese giant. His lasting contribution was to stimulate the revolution of rising expectations but like other successful reformers in history, who satisfy people’s needs in a significant measure, his reforms created new desires, which he chose not to attempt to fulfil.

The success in China of seeming adherence of economics and politics to different rules, such that there is openness in one and controls in the other can be explained by the background circumstances under which Deng became the “Paramount Leader” and the very traditional Chinese political culture of which he is a distinguished heir. Let us examine this a little further since it provides, albeit very partially, an approach to the conundrum of why “liberal democracy” has not accompanied economic growth.

Deng’s rise to power was facilitated by the situation in which China found itself after Mao’s death. The decade of the Cultural Revolution horror had shattered illusions the Chinese public had about the potency of ideology and left them profoundly cynical about Marxism. Yet equally it reinforced the Chinese cultural dread of the reality of anarchy and disorder. They wanted an end to ideological politics but remained fearful of unpredictable change. This distinctive combination of attitudes provided the basis for legitimacy for the Deng era. The people had enough of grand collective visions and were ready to focus on private concerns but at the same time they wanted public stability and public order. It is no coincidence that the Chinese Government used the bitter memories of the Cultural Revolution decade of anarchy and disorder to justify the use of military force in 1989 at the Tian An Men square. Deng resumed a leadership position in the late seventies when all Chinese wanted to rid themselves of the memories of the Cultural Revolution.

When reforms were initiated by Deng he did not seem to be operating from a given set of plans. Rather he was primarily responding to the universal desire of the Chinese people to escape from the effects of Mao’s rule. Much of the change associated with Deng’s elevation to power came about because he was willing to tolerate what once had been taboo. The idea that some sections of the population could get rich first was revolutionary only because it so blatantly contradicted the norms of Mao’s China. Quite a few changes sought by Deng actually repeated earlier formulas or policy attempts, but this time they were allowed to achieve fruition. His reform measures came at a moment in history when China had to break out of its isolation, abandon an ideological rhetoric and let in some common sense. If the timing of Deng’s assumption of power after the disastrous years of the Cultural Revolution in China was suitable, so was his assumption of the mantle of traditional Chinese political culture most natural. For politicians who live by the principle that the name of the game is public exposure it is difficult to understand a political environment in which leaders consciously shun the limelight, do not take advantage of modem communications like radio and TV, and take the utmost precaution to escape prying eyes. Chinese political culture traditionally operates on the premise that omnipotence lies in the mystery which invisibility evokes. The working of the world of the mandarinate were hidden from the eyes of commoners. The Chinese tradition is the greater the leader the more invisible the personage contributed decisively to the relative failure of the Chinese. They did not develop the art of oral persuasion and oratory as nurtured and admired first in Athens and Rome and then in Parliaments or Congresses. Deng’s refusal to mount the political stage as Chairman of the Party, Prime Minister or President in the late seventies when he could easily have assumed any office of his choice and thus exploit the powers of modem mass media technologies, thus conformed to a long standing tradition. It was however not just the Chinese people who have assumed that, even though they had little to go on, they in fact did know all that was necessary to fathom Deng’s goals, values and political methods. China watchers all around the world also claimed to understand this non-public man!

Following another Chinese political tradition, Deng was the master of the insider’s art of personnel management. As a quintessential administrator he understood that power lay in the management of officials. Yet/he was almost unique among Chinese leaders in his understanding that it, was possible to delegate responsibilities while staying in command. He rarely intervened in details, except in making personnel appointment. Although both his chosen nominees Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang fell from his political grace, much of the specifics of economic reforms can be credited to the former and the cultural opening and rehabilitation of Cultural Revolution victims to the latter. The mastery shown by Deng as a behind-the-scene administrator showed an extraordinarily self-confident and secure personality. The question whether s stable political succession to Deng has been achieved, continues to be raised after his death, although the transition to Jiang Zemin has been relatively smooth. This again is a non-issue as events since Deng’s death have proven.

Another speculation, following the spectacular economic growth of parts of China, is that China faces separation or its Chinese counterpart in warlordism. If one looked at Chinese history, even at the height of the warlord period no1 a single warlord declared independence. All of them in one way or another flew the banner of fealty to a united China. What they sought was power in their own backyard. In any event, the conditions that led to warlordism in the early 20th century no longer exist in China. You do not have, as you did then, divisions or larger bodies of troops comprised exclusively of men from the same province. There is a national army in China with units whose personnel are thoroughly mixed and who come from all over China. There is not much possibility now of a military commander building the kind of independent military force needed to sustain his power against the centre.

There has also been tremendous explosion in the geographical mobility and educational level of the Chinese people as well as vast improvement in transportation and communications - things that help tie China together. While it is certainly true that in recent years the Central Government has lost power and the provinces have gained greater autonomy, one should view this as an unstructured devolution of power from the Centre. The last time China had a strong Central Government under Mao’ and that produced disaster for China in his last years. What we are seeing now is more in keeping with the traditional form of Chinese government.

The dangerous implications of the disparity of incomes - the difference in living standards between the advanced south and east coast and the backward interior of China is referred to as a dangerous flash point for Chinese politics. True there are real differences. However, the differences between the regions are not as important as how people judge their circumstances in terms of their own experience. The differences say between Guangzhou or Shanghai and rural Gansu are enormous, What counts to the Gansu family is not how the folks in Guangzhou or Shanghai are getting along, but rather how life is now in comparison to the past. And for the average family in ,Gansu, life - while still extraordinarily hard in any terms - is noticeably better now than it was 15 years ago.

Having looked at the political evolution of China in the Deng era and made some speculations, it must be recognised that as the country rushes headlong towards modernization and consumerism and with communism being abandoned almost everywhere, there is anticipation that the emergence of a civil society can impel the country forward. Old structures of power and ideology structures and groups have taken over functions previously monopolised by the Party-State. While a weakened Party-State remains strong enough to prevent people from blatant violations of official policy, it can no longer manage society as actively as it did in the past or expect the same degree of compliance.

While major transformations in the mode of governance are not imminent while the first generation of revolutionaries remain in power, changes are taking place which are inherent in the situation China faces both externally and domestically. China’s involvement in the international community and its search for great power status force the government to atleast adopt postures which attenuate if not modify domestic policies. In order to maintain access to international credits and trade, concessions are made to human-rights concerns and concerns relating to the international trade regimes. The domestic scene also imposes contexts that cannot be ignored any longer: the rise of a bureaucratic technocracy, limited leadership institutionalisation, autonomous private organisation, coastal zones open to foreign influences and the appearance of new social groupings.

However, to determine how far China has moved towards a civil society depends in part on definition and perspective. Despite ineffective attempts to re-centralise control to reassert the primacy of the post-1989 Party-State there seems little prospect of successfully arresting the evolutionary trends towards privatisation of behaviour and acceptance of autonomous associations. Although very large sections of Chinese life an4 culture are now not subject to state interference on a de facfo basis, the Chinese government has yet to acknowledge the dejure rights of civil society. Social autonomy has therefore weak institutional bases and confined to non-political activities. Such social autonomy can flourish as long as the Four Principles evolved by Deng are not challenged.

The yardstick of the emergence of civil society to judge the quality of political life in a developing country however may be an artificial attempt at forcing an equation between Western and Chinese experiences. What we have in China today is an empirical paradox of marketisation and civil associations without multi-Party democratic development. The presence of markets is supposed to signal the imminent arrival of other parts of the capitalism” compound, like private ownership and democracy. If those other parts do not follow, they nevertheless should. From there it is but a short step to the conclusion: If only the Chinese leaders were not so reluctant to abandon socialism for capitalism, the desired developments would be sure to follow. This kind of reasoning for sure has its echo in China on the opposite side of the spectrum : Given markets, the rest of the undesirable elements of capitalism must certainly follow. Therefore the integrity of socialism must be reasserted against incipient capitalism.

It is time to leave such arguments behind. Rural China before 1950 saw six centuries of private ownership and a market economy, but remained underdeveloped, with the vast majority of the population tied to subsistence-level food production, For rural China to return today to the pre-1950 economic organisation would probably mean even greater problems than those faced earlier: The population is twice as large, and the easy advances and tractor plowing have already been made. It is difficult to see how the market could work its supposed transformative magic against ,such odds.

The collectivist approach of the 1950s through the 1970s should similarly be left behind. Under that approach, total crop output workday stagnated. The majority of the rural people remained at a bare subsistence standard of living. It makes as little sense today to persist in that approach as to return to the pre-1950 economy.

What then? The first task of scholarly research in this area, it seems to me, is to explain why the rural economy developed so vigorously in the 1980s when such development has eluded both the free-market-cum-private-property rural China of 1359-1950 and the planned, collectivist rural China of the 1950s to the 1970s. What was it about the paradoxical mixing of collective ownership by villages and townships with a marketised economy that helped to generate dynamic rural industrialisation? China’s revolutionary history is distinctive for the very large role played by her villages and townships. Those were the loci of Communist organising and revolutionary power. Through collectivisation in the 1950s villages and townships also became the basic units of ownership of land and other means of production. The permanence and stability of their constituent populations were next ensured by the extraordinary population registration policies enforced from the late 1950s on. Then, they served as the basic units of organisation for massive efforts in water control, public health, and education, greatly elaborating in the, process their administrative apparatus, All these changes gave these communities a role in rural change that is exceptional from the standpoint both of developing countries and socialist countries. Finally, in the 1980s under the twin stimuli of increased autonomy and market incentives, they became the primary units for rural industrtalisation. Their crucial role in the resulting development raises the question: Has an empirical reality emerged in China that represents an alternative path to rural modernisation that fits neither of the simple models of socialism or capitalism?

The early nineties witnessed three developments in the international sphere which caused the Chinese to reassess foreign and security policies. One was the downfall of communism almost everywhere. This graphically illustrated the true relationship between modenisation and revolution in the 20th century: Revolution now meant anti-socialist economics, and pro-democracy and marketisation, and economic development was now a pre-requisite to political modenisation, not the reverse. The end of global communism impacted directly upon Chinese foreign policy. The party realised that its time in power would be short unless it reconstructed itself, that marketisation was its only economic alternative, that the influence of personality on politics would have to be limited, that ideology would have to be replaced by a mixture of nationalism and traditionalism. Also that foreign policy would have to include the inputs of new groups in Chinese society and thus that China would not always speak with one voice, that China would have to repair its relations with the market democracies and then keep in their good stead for a considerable period. Further, that the door to investment, trade. and technology transfer would have to be kept open wide enough to admit foreign cultural and political influences, for all these reasons, a long-term centrist foreign policy would have to be maintained. This is also the background to Deng Xiaoping’s visit to South China in 1992 when he called for a speed-up in opening-up of the.Chinese economy. Another was the definitive end of the Cold War, signified not only by the anti-communist revolutions in East Europe and the subsequent withdrawal of Russian forces from that region but also by the downfall of communism in the Soviet Union itself and the consequent breakup of that country, The strategic triangle-based international system was replaced by a

loose arrangement among five power centers - North America, Greater Europe, Russia, China and Japan with very different characteristics: partial substitution of formal alliances by an ad hoc concert-of-Europe; power centered in the Group of Seven-plus-one adding Russia, with China on the outside; domination of marketisation, demonsratisation, interdependence, and near-universal attention to domestic problems; technology as the most important driving force for change; and the rise to prominence of global issues. Together, these meant that, China would have to cooperate in loose international arrangements if it wished to exert its influence abroad. Economics would replace security as Beijing’s central concern for the foreseeable future. And its Asian and Global power-status would derive mostly from its rate and level of GNP, per capita income, and technological prowess and much less from military power, population, extent of land, and quantity of production.

The Gulf War was the third systemic change. Not only did it symbolize the replacement of one international era with another. It demonstrated the integral power of the market democracies and reinforced China’s need to re-establish a foreign policy derived from reform and the open door. It also showed that a high-technology-based military was China’s only military option and that construction of such a force would take considerable time, effort and domestic change. If so, China would have to take the low road in foreign policy, compromising with former or potential enemies, and biding its time (unless unavoidable, direct threats intervened] until its relative power allowed it to achieve its expanded list of international goals. It would be best, therefore, to settle disputes with its Asian neighbours, not engender new disputes or exacerbate old ones, and place as much emphasis as possible on acquiring the new elements of power as quickly as possible through continuing the prior emphasis on rapid economic development. That meant, in addition, coming to terms (if possible) with the United States or at least not so ruining relations with Washington as to jeopardige Beijing’s fundamental economic and security goals. Moreover, China would have to hold constant, or improve if possible, its relations with the other major Asian powers-Japan, Russia and India. It meant, further, doing what was within China’s capability to cool down and perhaps help solve a range of regional security problems or at least not deliberately exacerbate them. These included the North Korean nuclear weapons question and associated Korean Peninsular matters, the Spratly Islands issue, reversion of Hong Kong, the possibility of Burmese implosion/explosion, the Kashmir question, and above all relations with Taiwan. Finally, it meant moving toward, if not enthusiastically embracing, the notion that China should work together with other relevant Asian powers to construct a new regional and bans-Pacific political, economic and security order through cooperative invention of new institutions in these three arenas. Rapid economic growth and a rising GDP has enabled China to spend more on its military modernisation, bringing about significant increments in its power thus raising a debate in China’s neighbourhood and in the West about how the Chinese would in future deal with a force projection capability. The answer to this question must keep in perspective several factors. China cannot afford to break with the USA which still plays a predominant role in the Asian security scenario and in its economy. Beijing cannot afford to be perceived by its Asian neighbours as threatening, lest they band together and clamour for American leadership. Even a single Chinese foray against one of them would be regarded as proof of a China threat. Together with Europe and USA these states, particularly in South East and East Asia, are the sources of markets, technology and investment without which China’s growth would nearly cease.

Experts evaluate that full military modernisation dependent on, economic growth would itself take China two decades to accomplish. China needs to balance a desire to expand military influence commensurate with its new economic power and international position and the need to retain markets, sources of supply and international good-will. Thus there is a gap between the country’s military capabilities and intentions on the one hand, and its military policies and involvement, on the other.

Account must be taken also of a variety of domestic factors, China, like any other large developing society has its share of problems inspite of its rapid and impressive growth rate. Inflation, too rapid urbanization, loose controls on population growth, maldistribution of social product, a slow-down in agricultural growth and a speed-up of that in the cities, worsening rural-urban differences, lack of macro-tools of indirect control of the economy, massive infrastructure problems, rising crime and corruption and speculation, a huge “floating” population etc. are some of the ills Chinese society faces and Deng’s successors will have their hands full in dealing with these problems.

Turning to the future and the prospect of India-China relations, the first ingredient or requirement in India is the sturdy retention of our independence of judgement about the rapidly changing world around us which we were taught to practise in the first decade of our independence with respect to China, with respect to Non-Alignment and with respect to which we made significant contributions of working for a plural world where there would be a multiplicity Of actors. Such an approach

was in keeping with our own complex society where diversity, tolerance, secularism, rule Of law and respect for different faiths were enshrined in our Constitution. It is ironic to note that economists from the West have today made it a cottage industry to compare India more favourably as an investment destination than China. It seems they see merits in us, which our Indo-pessimism misses, Economists from the same sources were doing exactly the opposite from the mid-fifties to the fate eighties! This underlines the need for US to maintain the independence of judgement about developments in our biggest neighbour.

To this we must add the element of self-confidence in our political system together with all its faults, and the Indian genius of seeking consensus-based cooperation from the people. To the admirers of the use of coercion in bringing about Family Planning one could pose the success of the Kerala and Tamil Nadu models in India in this field.

In particular the state of Kerala does provide an interesting comparison with China, since it too enjoys high levels of basic education, health care, and so on. Kerala’s birth rate of 19 per thousand is actually lower than China’s 19 per thousand and this has been achieved without any compulsive measures. Kerala has a better record than China in factors which help voluntary reduction in birth rates. Kerala has a higher adult female literacy than in every Province in China (96% to 68%). Male and female life expectancies at birth in China are 68 and 71 years. The 1991 figures for Kerala are 69 and 74 years respectively. These commendable results in Kerala are achieved with none of the adverse effects noted in China-heightened female mortality, the dangers of the “one-child” male-oriented family etc. Even with the advantages of coercive methods the Chinese fertility-rate has fallen more slowly than in Kerala. Tamil Nadu has recorded an even faster fall of fertility rates, from 3.5 in 1979 to 2.2 in 1991, Needless to add the Kerala and Tamil Nadu examples have to be contrasted with UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan where the levels of female education, and of general health care are much lower and all have high fertility rates between 4.4 and 5.1.

Now that relation between India and China have acquired a degree of strategic stability following the visit of two Indian Prime Ministers to China and one to India by the Chinese Premier between 1998 and 1993 and One by President Jiang Zemin to India in 1996, the task remains of adding significant substance to the Overall relationship such as would make an impact on each of the countries and an impact on the changing world at large. This task is easier said than done sine the habit Of intensive search for complimentarities - political, economic, social and cultural - is yet to take root in both societies.

In the way in which our Continental-sized population and their economies have operated in the past, with changes coming in the direction of globalisation setting in only recently, much work needs to be done in both countries. The habit of dependence on the two Governments alone and their agencies will have to be replaced by non-governmental institutions and by the societies at large.

Signs for closer overall relations and closer understanding and cooperation between India and China are propitious. Our two peoples have deep respect for each other as there has been no historical legacy of exploitative relations post our Independence. There is admiration for our long history of cultural interactions from ancient times which extends to this day even though the medium of interaction is not lofty Buddhist philosophy but the popular medium of films and pop culture. Both our peoples feel uncomfortable with the new international disorder which characterises the post-cold war world. Both want to maximize resources and the access to lucrative markets and are wary of “conditionalities” that impede their products from reaching these markets. Both adopt similar stances in international negotiations which have a bearing on technology and financial flows. Above all both have an aversion to the dangers posed to large countries by ethnic or religious extremism. Lastly several agencies from each of the countries - both at Governmental and non-Governmental levels - have increased their interactions and the immediate effect is felt on two-way trade which has seen a commendable increase in recent years.



Deng Xiaoping - Portrait of a Chinese Statesman, Edited by David Shambangh. Clarendon Paper-backs. Especially the contribution by Lucien pye.

State and Society in China: The Consequences of Reform, edited by Arthur Lewissenbaun. Especially the introduction by A.L Rosenbaun.

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© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

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