In July 1981, when today’s celebrated poet and novelist Vikram Seth visited China, he was then an unknown Stanford University graduate, about to embark upon an epic journey hitchhiking his way through Xinjiang, Tibet, and Nepal. It was the first time when he learned about the death of ‘Lita' in the Chinese city of Turfan. “I heard that Lita died earlier this year" an officer in the city’s General Police Station had told Seth, empathetically adding, “I am very sorry to read about it. We take a lot of interest in Lita and Laz.” Rita and Raj were the names of the leading protagonists in Bollywood’s earliest crossover hit, Awara (1951; Eng. Vagabond; Chinese Liulanzhe). Nargis (1929-81), the Indian actress who played the role of Rita had died a couple of months earlier in May and the officer had read about it in a Chinese magazine. Seth was not the first nor the last Indian to possess an encounter with the Awara story in China. Many Indians who have lived in or traveled through the People’s Republic have their own versions of hearing Bollywood movies from the Chinese neighbors. If anything binds Indians and Chinese ardently together was and is, the spirit of Bollywood.
The tone of Sino-Indian relationships has varied from time to time. From war to cordiality to mutual suspicion. The recent May 2020 China-India border dispute has added fuel to the fire. For the first time, the intimacy between the neighbors has been challenged to such an extent that the Indian government decided to ban several Chinese apps, and campaigns advocating the boycott of Chinese products are heard across India.
It is now a common trend to avoid and neglect Chinese achievements completely. But even in these times of strong animosity, there are certain things that India should learn from its neighbor. Also to know its neighbor well, rather than keeping it at arm’s length.
On average, China has been able to double the size of its economy in real terms every eight years. In 1949, the average life expectancy was 35 years and has now doubled to 75.87. Since 1953, when the First Five Year Plan for 1953-57 was declared, the People’s Republic has primarily focused its attention toward the production of steel, coal, and agriculture. China is what we see today as a challenging country to define, the next great superpower and a global economic powerhouse. But the journey of the People’s Republic was never smooth.
China’s economy suffered from the debilitating effects of decades of warfare. The country had lost the Second World War, faced Civil wars, devastated by war effects, famines, internal strife, corruption, and inflation. But the People’s Republic overcame all its barriers and was successful in turning into an example for not only the Third World but also the Western economic giants.
An important characteristic in the development of economic policies and the underlying economic model was that each new policy period, while differing significantly from its predecessor, nonetheless retained most of the existing economic organization. The form of the economic model and the policies that expressed it at any given point in Chinese history reflected both the current policy emphasis and a structural foundation built up during the earlier periods.
The chief goal of the government of the People’s Republic was simply to restore the economy to normal working order anyhow. The administration moved quickly to repair transportation and communication links that had been destroyed by the ill-effects of warfare, to revive the flow of economic activity. To bring inflation under control by 1951, Mao Zedong’s government centralized and nationalized the banking system under the People’s Bank of China, along with it unified the monetary system, tightened credit, restricted government budgets at all levels, and put them under central control and guaranteed the value of currency.
Even after industries had been firmly established and commerce stimulated, agriculture (in which China is top at the world’s scoreboard today) faced a major blow in coping with the industrial developments. But soon the major change in land ownership and under a nationwide land reform program China by 1952, had restored stability in agriculture and regained their previous peak in levels of production. India, another agriculture-centric Nation, like China had started its development story simultaneously in the 1950s. Yet today are on different pages with respect to economy and farm development. India has a lot of catching up to do when compared to its neighbor. One such example is China and India are the two most populated countries with a shortage of land. China, even after being a highly industrious country stresses investing more in agriculture research, developments (R&D) and innovations, while improving incentives for farmers by carrying out agricultural marketing reforms and adding to direct input subsidies by the Chinese Government. China’s prime focus on agriculture should be India’s major learning aspect in modern times.
Apart from agriculture, the prosperity of the People’s Republic lies in its Five Years Plan, which is again a similar policy followed by India, yet different. In times of a worldwide pandemic, when India’s GDP has contracted by 23.9% and 53% of businesses have specified a certain amount of impact of COVID-19 shutdowns, China's “Everyone is an entrepreneur, creativity of the masses” should be an inspiration to India. China’s innovation by abandoning old heavy industry and building up bases of modern information-intensive infrastructure has been a center of attraction for the world. To achieve economic restoration, India needs to bridge the welfare gaps between countryside and cities, rich and poor by distributing and managing resources more effectively. The Five Year Plans of China have throughout focused on bridging the gaps and fighting inequalities.
Unlike ‘Make in India', the ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative is an initiative that the People’s Republic has decided to pursue in order to comprehensively upgrade Chinese industry and to obtain a bigger part of the global production chains. India’s ‘Make in India' was an impressive national program of the Indian Government. But unfortunately, it has lately turned into a design to facilitate investors from abroad rather than being an alternative to the world. India needs to ‘produce Indian' rather than ‘producing international’.
By design, for a long time now China has been encircling India by investing in mega-infrastructure projects not only in the subcontinent but also around the world. India should take note of how China is successfully conceiving its strategic interests. One can rightly argue why there is a necessity to maintain strategic interests across the globe. But that is how encirclement works, slowly and surely. Gwadar port in Pakistan and the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka have both been developed with substantial Chinese involvement and funding. In Nepal, China intends to build a 540 km high-speed rail link from Tibet passing through a tunnel under Mount Everest. This rail link will come right up to the India-Nepal border.
China is a master of infrastructure making at home and abroad. China is currently undertaking what it considers the largest project of the century – building a network of railroads and shipping lanes linking itself with 70 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania. When the US has openly opposed such an initiative by proposing a counter-initiative called ‘The Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP), more than 130 countries to date have issued endorsements to the Chinese project.
China is presently involved in infrastructure projects in 35 African countries. Its activities have been divided fairly evenly among two main sectors: power generation (especially hydropower) and transport (especially railroads), followed by the ICT sector (mainly equipment supply). Projects include dams, power, ports, rail, roads, water, and sanitation. The recent data of the World Bank and African Development Bank have cited that Chinese contracting has significant presence and experience and have largely won the faith of Africa.
Apart from Africa, China’s praiseworthy joint projects have impressed the Arab and Middle Eastern Worlds as well. China has significantly increased its economic, political, and security footprint in Middle Eastern countries. In 2015, as a result of its role, China officially became the biggest global importer of crude oil. In 2016, China became the largest investor in the Middle East. In 2018, China committed $20 billion in loans for reconstruction in the Arab World, as well as $3 billion in loans for the banking sector. Furthermore, there has also been a boom in trade between the two sides, which has multiplied to reach almost $245 billion. As a result, China remains a major buyer of oil and natural gas from Middle Eastern exporters. The Middle East accounts for more than 40 percent of China’s oil imports and is also a key supplier of the country’s liquefied natural gas. For India, it is yet to set its strong grip over the Middle East.
In the Chinese strategic and economic success model, trade and investment are everything. The Chinese are especially obsessed with investment in infrastructures, arguably their best skill and asset. Even Chinese cities have transformed themselves built on the back of trade surplus money, cheap construction labor, and heavy lending. This should be India’s perfect model of urbanization. The Chinese way of strategic development is absolutely a new invention of this century. Even in the current days when anti-China movements are still at the peak of the Western World, the European Union is still trying hard to sign an investment pact with China, as they know it is not the US but China who can be the ultimate partner for success.
Figure-1: Infrastructure-building of China
Infrastructure is more important to the Chinese economy. An interesting feature of Chinese investment is a government to government deal. When Indians or even Americans invest in a foreign country, it is done mostly through private enterprises and private funds. But China in committing the entire pact into a government deal is not only beneficial for the country’s development but also to forge a strong political network over the region. Binding strong political networks is something China has accomplished through its strategic interests.
Poverty is an issue that is relevant for both China and India. Yet the approach in handling it has again made China play the upper hand. The People’s Republic has lifted 850 million people out of poverty in the past 70 years, with its Zero Poverty Mission. The People’s Republic set 2020 as the year it aims to eradicate absolute poverty nationwide. The country’s achievement in poverty eradication must count as one of the most remarkable achievements in modern world history. The country has placed agriculture, farmers (threenong) at the core of its policy agenda to achieve the goal of a moderately prosperous society (xiao kang). Rural health insurance and pensions have improved since the early 2000s to help bridge the gap with the urban social population.
One of the top concerns for government officials and citizens alike was access to food, during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sporadic reports of panic food buying, food price spikes, and concerns about the freshness of food appeared on social media. Yet food supplies and food prices in China have remained stable. Food shortages had become a severe challenge for many countries, amid the rapid spread of the virus all over the world. But the Chinese government took the successful initiative in checking that no people are left hungry. In India, where millions are in the destiny of poverty and go to bed hunger-stricken, lessons from its neighbor could save millions of lives.
Figure-2: Mission Eradicating Poverty: President Xi Jinping in the house of a poor family.
Foreign Policy and International Network
As China’s economic power increased, its foreign policy has been a matter of study for the entire world. China’s political influence over other nations or events is generally limited. China in history never interfered in the domestic affairs of other countries. It has been a core principle of China’s foreign policy. Chinese foreign policy rather believes in interest for its own domestic developments. China places a high priority on economic self-sufficiency, particularly in the energy sector and semiconductor industry. As of 2018, China imports hundreds of billions of dollars worth of oil annually but spends three times as much on imports of integrated circuits. Therefore, energy, security, and self-reliance for semiconductors are made a priority.
From land bridges to ports, Chinese infrastructure investment has led to the establishment of strong political and international networks worldwide. In recent years, trade has become an increasingly important part of China’s foreign policy. It has been used as a significant tool for economic modernization. Apart from economic modernization, China’s foreign policy has largely contributed to economic integration. India even after its several international achievements lacks the capability to be an international alternative. India should work on a flexible and adaptive foreign policy and should focus on international networking in order to be a global power.
The success of the People’s Republic is often linked with China’s authoritarianism as the sole reason. When it comes to the comparison between China and Western countries, the issue is often framed by the contrast between the Beijing Consensus on the role of government intervention and the Washington Consensus on the role of the free market. But authoritarianism does not explain China’s success nor the success of any other Nation. The western model of democracy has been an imposition for several countries in the East. Similarly, the Western expectation of the world to follow their pattern of economic reform and other processes of development is again a very manipulative notion and a facet of Western hegemony.
China’s rise since 1979 has not been a series of happy accidents. It has been the result of immense planning and foresight. The country’s economic success is the result of prolonged market reforms. The country’s foreign policy has been geared to meet its security, strategic and economic needs in a masterful way. India’s recent stance on self-reliance is no wonder a welcoming initiative to have followed by any Nation. But following self-reliance does not mean negligence in learning. If India is to have any hope of standing up to its powerful neighbor, it needs to take note of what requires to be learned and formulate according to its necessity. A completely blind attitude toward China can never be a solution to any of India’s problem.
In the present times when ‘boycotting China' is a famous practice in India, what is more, required by India — is to know and understand China well. The Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, has rightly written in his famous book, ‘Art of War', “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” For this, one needs to learn from his opponent as well. Otherwise, as Tzu has warned, “the war will be lost without a fight.”
Soumava Basu is pursuing graduation in history from Jadavpur University, India. His areas of interest include International History, Intellectual History, Global Affairs, US History, Chinese History, and Political Philosophy.
See Vikram Seth, From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet, Vintage Books, 1987.