From China with soul: are we paying heed?

With China storming ahead of its neighbours in economic development, we are seeing an admiring India beginning to emulate some of the less attractive aspects of the Chinese style of government. Whose example should they follow?
N. Jayaram
19 August 2011

A few days after a high-speed train crash at Wenzhou in eastern China on July 23, in which 40 people were killed and nearly 200 injured, a Chinese journalist wrote a few words in a blog that captured the imagination of a considerable section of the nearly 500 million people with internet access in the country.

The evocative words by Tong Dahuan were subsequently arranged in the form of a poem. Even in English translation, they make for a great quote:

“China, please slow your soaring strides, wait for your people, wait for your soul, wait for your morality, wait for your conscience! We don’t want derailed trains, collapsing bridges, roads that slide into pits or homes that collapse. Move more slowly. Let every life have freedom and dignity. Let no one be cast aside by this era. Let every person reach their destination easily and in peace.”

A few newspapers and websites elsewhere have reproduced these words. But they deserve wider notice, especially in the developing countries of Asia and Africa mesmerized by the China model of authoritarian control and three decades of stupendous infrastructure development. The words have relevance also for western governments focusing more on figures on the page than on the people in whose name they govern, pursuing “sound finances” and debt reduction by cutting funds meant for schools and hospitals.

The message is most relevant for neighbouring India, where, despite enduring suspicions since the 1962 war, there is great admiration too for China’s achievements. Indians have what the journalist Pallavi Aiyar (author of Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China, 2008) calls “road envy”. Indians visiting China are awestruck by the sight of the gleaming airports they land in and the smooth highways and roads crisscrossing most cities. That some of these highways are grossly underused is ignored.

Indians admire the Chinese government’s capacity to acquire land and uproot people to build huge dams, highways, airports and other eye-catching infrastructure, without having to worry about court cases or agitation. India has tried to emulate China’s penchant for evictions, albeit in a small way. Witness the fracas over the Indian government’s approval of a $12 billion investment by the South Korean Pohang Iron and Steel Company in the eastern state of Orissa which requires the clearing of more than 1,600 hectares of mostly forest land, leading to strong protests by villagers living nearby. No wonder that swathes of eastern Indian states, including Orissa, are in the grip of Maoist insurgencies.

There is a China connection to some massive corruption scandals, as in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Illegal mining and export of iron ore to China has yielded untold riches for a family of politicians belonging to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which, despite media exposure of the corrupt practice, continues to rule the state.

Democratic India’s leaders have even voiced admiration for Chinese laws that keep workers cowed. In January, Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia said “Indian trade unions need to learn from China on labour law flexibility.” On paper, Chinese workers enjoy enviable protection but in reality, the All China Federation of Trade Unions serves the state and company managers, not its members. And China’s more than 200 million migrant workers are virtual second class citizens in the cities they have moved to from the countryside.

As India tries to catch up with China, which was two decades ahead in pursuing economic reforms, some of the voices on the fringe, such as that of Tong Dahuan need to be heeded. Especially as, according to the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, 645 million Indians are poor, and India can ill afford to emulate official China while ignoring those words - 'soul' and 'morality' - that Mahatma Gandhi, the man India regards as Father of the Nation, also used countless times.

Governments everywhere seem to be looking at the bottom line, their own and that of corporations, giving the latter greater leeway to pursue the kind of policies the economist Dr Nouriel Roubini, no Marxist, has said would lead to capitalism self-destructing. “You cannot keep on shifting income from labour to capital without having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand... Every firm wants to survive and thrive, thus slashing labour costs even more. My labour costs are someone else's income and consumption. That's why it's a self-destructive process.”

In Hong Kong, which is run by technocrats and tycoons beholden to Beijing, inequality has been rising with firms regularly slashing staff and paying workers as little as they can. A minimum wage law passed earlier this year left out some of the most vulnerable, the few hundred thousand domestic helpers, mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines. And some employers have sought to claw back the tiny income rise by proposing reduced lunch breaks. Massive turnouts at the annual June 4 candlelight vigil in memory of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement in Beijing as well as a rally on July 1 drew large crowds this year. Even in an undemocratic system, Hong Kong people found ways of venting their feelings.

The word 'tycoon' has cropped up of late in reports from Israel too. Hundreds of thousands have taken part in protests in several cities against rocketing living costs and the control of the economy by a few billionaires. Meanwhile, much has been made of some protesters in England looting luxury goods, but the legal loot of corporations in the form of astronomical bonuses are lost sight of. Where is the morality in this?

It is not only in North Africa that people have been clamouring for justice. Even in democracies, such as in far-off Chile, students, backed by workers, have been agitating for education reforms. But the right-wing Chilean government of President Sebastian Pinera does not appear to be budging.

Neither he nor other leaders in democratic countries can impose the kind of draconian curbs on the media that China does. One of the reasons Tong Dahuan’s statement stands out is that it broke through the Great Firewall of internet curbs. However, British Prime Minister David Cameron, for one, seems to be drawing the wrong lessons from China and thinking aloud about clamping down on social media.

Would it not be a more stable world if leaders heeded Tong’s call to his own country, to reach into their souls and abide by morality, not leaving anyone behind? 

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