Some will find fault with the pomp, glory and official heavy-handedness that went with the foundation celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Beijing can be excused: its leadership can rightly feel it has accomplished much. Modern China has many number one hits, including being the first to lift so many people out of poverty in such a short time and being the first Third World nation to be universally seen as a superpower in the making. In the realm of the economy, in particular, China has broken the mould.
China’s bout with modernity and the last few rounds it still has to get through are the stuff of epic poetry. The Chinese suffered terribly from the ruling party’s mistakes during the first three decades that followed the Republic’s founding. Political evolution still remains Beijing’s most pressing concern. In contrast, in India the political process has largely been taken for granted and it is the economic story that, until recently, has been a tale of failed expectations. The present intellectual consensus that China and India are on track to reclaim the positions they lost two centuries ago — but this time as modern rather than mediaeval States — is barely two decades old. There is still a bit of disbelief among many Chinese and Indians that this will actually come to pass. But there can be little doubt that this new attitude had its origins in China’s decision to launch economic reforms in 1971. Or that China’s success helped spur a less urgent Indian leadership to action.
Over the past six decades China and India buried a number of myths: that creating a modern State was largely a Western phenomenon, that population was a death sentence for such development, that there was a specific formula of political economy that had to be followed. Beijing still has plenty of hurdles to cross, including the direction of its polity and defining its geopolitical space. Nonetheless, China’s huge pageant was a statement that not only has it come of age, but that it did so, to take a line from Frank Sinatra, “my way.” As the Chinese writer Lu Xun once said, “When people walk all the time, on the same spot, a path appears.” It is not a path for India, but it is one now laid out for other aspiring countries.