The Chinese Question

(From L to R) Zhang Mei, Shoma Chaudhury and Arvind Subramanian. Photo: Ishan Tankha

Tehelka’s managing editor Shoma Chaudhury found herself outflanked during ‘The Development Knot’, a session featuring the businesswoman Zhang Mei and the economist and China expert Arvind Subramanian. Probing for chinks in the seemingly impregnable armour, Chaudhury asked if Chinese economic progress, having set such a blistering pace for decades, had hit the wall and about the growing political unrest reflected in official figures of 1,50,000 riots per year. The suggestion was that perhaps India had benefited from its slower economic growth but inclusive political model.

“If I were a Dalit in India,” Subramanian said, “I would obviously choose the Chinese model. If I were part of the elite and could have bread and freedom, I’d prefer the Indian model.” This provoked an extended protest from Chaudhury, who argued that in India the poor and disenfranchised fought hard for their rights because they knew the value of those rights and that counted for more than rocketing growth. Subramanian pointed out the “quality of the Chinese State”, the effectiveness of the Communist Party in providing basic services to its citizens. This good governance, he added, was a greater catalyst for growth than its switch to a market economy. Zhang talked of the 10-fold, 15-fold increase in incomes of poor people and how the miracle of Chinese economic growth had “created a kind of fear in America”. It would be a “mistake,” she continued, “toupta overestimate China’s power but it would also be a mistake to underestimate it,” prompting Subramanian to quip, “spoken like a true Confucian”. Zhang admitted that there was a great desire for democracy, unspoken in her relatively privileged circle because the status quo had been good to them, but increasingly apparent in the unrest in remoter areas where the environmental damage caused by industrialisation has been the cause of protest, forcing even the Chinese government to backtrack on occasion. These protesting voices are very evident, Zhang said, on Chinese social media sites. Subramanian described this as really the “first time the legitimacy of the ruling party is under question”.

That said Subramanian pointed out that China’s lack of democratic process, its lack of openness and the unpredictable nature of the army’s role in Chinese governance distinguished it from the United States and Britain, the previous two superpowers. For Subramanian, change, even political change, is inevitable and the Communist Party will have to find a way to control that change to stay in power. Chaudhury continued to press Zhang and Subramanian on the subject of social and political change in China, with the former admitting that while internationally people always expressed horror over China’s censorship of blogs, say, or of YouTube, Chinese people themselves found ways to work around the restrictions, “to jump over the great firewall”. This returned the discussion to Chaudhury’s point about the poor and the marginalised being more willing to fight for democratic rights than the middle classes, who don’t want to rock the boat and lose their privileges.

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