Watching CNN at a hotel in Beijing, I noticed an advertisement for an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Beijing. This was unthinkable a couple of decades ago, when the Cold War still raged. Today, the Nokia cellphone’s ringtone in Urumqi, Xigatse and New Delhi is the same. There’s Kentucky Fried Chicken in Xinin, Motorola and Sony Ericsson jostle for space in Lhasa, and Buick LaCrosse is advertised on the barely-used highway outside the Kumbum Monastery. Urumqi, in faraway Xingiang, shows off its 35-storeyed buildings, which house Carrefour supermarkets and L’Oreal stores. Globalisation thrives.
Beijing has to be visited to be believed, even if one has read all that there is to read and imagined the rest. From the moment one lands at the huge, gleaming airport and takes the smooth drive along the highway into the city, one senses the feeling of economic power and assurance. From the window of Jianguo Garden Hotel, not far from the Forbidden City, one can see at least 15 giant construction cranes operating as new high-rises soar. There is no evidence of anguished debates on preserving the old. All bleeding hearts have been silenced/co-opted/satisfied.
Beijing’s five ring roads with their intricate interchanges make New Delhi’s pride, the Dhaula Kuan flyover, look puny and crowded. Changan Avenue, in the heart of the city, with its eight-lane traffic, two side lanes and designer shops and chrome and glass structures, says it all. The country’s infrastructure — roads, highways, airports, train stations, telephone systems, housing estates and schools — all built for the future, seem empty or underused. It shows China’s ability to think big.
Our infrastructure is built for the past — overcrowded and inadequate from day one. Beijing has no damaged cars, no dirty buses and no blowing horns. Honda Accords, BMWs and Audis cruise past with hardly any traffic police in sight. Officialdom favours black limousines.
There was an old lady cycling down Changan Avenue. She would stop every 50 metres, pick up cigarette stubs and plastic wrappers with her tongs from the pavement and ride on. But while dust has been banished in Beijing and the streets are washed, pollution is still a problem — by afternoon, a haze settles over the city.
The Chinese have a wonderful way of adapting to circumstances. The local girls at the hotel front office answered to Yvonne or June, and not to their Chinese names. It was more convenient for the visitor. At the bookstore, Harry Potter was Hali Bota, since it was more convenient for the locals. There was no moral police checking on young couples in parks, but perhaps somewhere, there must have been the thought police.
Beijing is readying for the Olympics next year. The Olympic Games City will be China’s pride, for which, we are told, people willingly gave their land. For the present, the worry is about possible terrorist threats and not whether the facilities will be in place by the time of opening — 8 p.m., August 8, 2008.
Beijing may be the centre of power for China, but it is no longer a centre for Communist ideals. There is only one portrait of Mao in the city — at Tiananmen Square. Mao badges are now available in Silk Street’s curio shops, along with portraits of Lenin and Marx. During the fortnight I was there, I saw only two persons wearing Mao suits — at the Kumbum Monastery in Qinghai Province. The rise of the hemline is now directly proportional to prosperity.
It is ironic that there are more policemen on duty defending democracies than on the streets of China, protecting a totalitarian regime. In fact, in China, there is no longer any need to defend the proletariat. People now pursue capitalism with greater zeal than they pursued communism. The Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolutions were horrible mistakes and embarrassments that few talk about and fewer try to justify. Today, everybody is a capitalist roader.
It is no longer sacred to be a communist or profane to be wealthy. The leadership must ensure continued prosperity of its people for its own survival. The only ‘Maobadis’ are to be found in Nepal and India. This is probably because we gave our people political freedom before we could give them economic freedom. The right to seek a better life and change governments preceded the State’s ability to provide a better deal in India. In China, the reverse has happened. Consumerism is king and ideology is something only the rulers may want to pursue.
Globalisation extends beyond Beijing. Taking the Lhasa Express at Xinin was probably as exciting as it must have been to take the Orient Express. The station is nothing like the ones in our country. No coolies, no beggars, no aloo puri-walas — the place is squeaky clean. As were all the airports that we entered — in Lhasa, Diqin, Kunming and Urumqi. Shining marble tiles, chrome, steel and glass structures and noiseless baggage trolleys defined each.
Patrick French, in his book Tibet, Tibet, wrote of Lhasa’s oppressive atmosphere as a result of the overwhelming presence of security forces. He testifies to seeing the regular police at every street corner, besides the traffic police and the Barkhor police adjacent to the Jokhang, Lhasa’s holiest shrine. French also saw PLA soldiers, the People’s Armed Police and representatives of the Public Security Bureau and the State Security Bureau. Our stay was not long enough to discover all these members of the security apparatus. We saw only two uniformed personnel at the Lhalu Wetlands Reserve, unless almost everyone walking the streets of Lhasa was in disguise. Possibly French stayed much longer than we did or perhaps things are better controlled now than they were a few years ago.
It can be argued that impressions of ‘real’ China cannot be formed in a fortnight and that too after visiting selected areas. Of course, there must be poverty and want in China too. But its progress is certainly as real, if not more, than the poverty and want.
So let us match our best and modern with theirs. It is impossible for any visitor to be transported from Delhi to Gurgaon without taking him through a pothole, without encountering the local trucker or the sahib in his limousine happily driving against traffic, or a garbage dump scavenged by man and beast alike or the familiar sight of our gentlemen lined up against walls. These are our harsh realities.
In China, they can show off their best without any distractions. There, an expressway is for vehicular traffic; it is not meant for pedestrians, cycle rickshaws and bicyclists. A visit can be both an illuminating and exhilarating experience.
About 30 years ago, China was behind India in economic prosperity. Today, it is ahead. China is what India’s future could look like once we get our act right. But if we insist on saying that ‘we are like that only’, then we will remain like this only. To remain eternally fatalistic would be fatal. We simply have to change to be able to compete effectively in the world. We have to remember that all talk of harmonious development and peaceful neighbourhood notwithstanding, China will not give us space voluntarily. We have to make that space ourselves.
Vikram Sood is former Secretary, R&AW