Even though ten days have passed since my return from Beijing I remain under its spell. To say that I am hugely impressed by the Chinese capital is an understatement. The truth is that I was flabbergasted by what I saw and discovered. Now, in addition, it’s re-kindled an old debate I had comfortably assumed was resolved a long while ago.
Admittedly, I was in Beijing for just three days and saw only a small section of the capital. But I did travel to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs and, within the city, I spent hours driving around. Yet everything I saw suggested the developed First World. The roads, the buildings, the shops, the appearance of the people and their behaviour spoke of a European or north American metropolis, not a Third World city. In none of these respects can Delhi compete. Not in any meaningful way.
Beijing was also unbelievably clean and, surprisingly — even astonishingly — friendly. I had been told the Chinese spit in public. In three days I barely saw half a dozen people doing so, including the thousands at the Ming Tombs or the Forbidden City. There was no litter on the pavements, no paan stains on walls, no discarded cigarette stubs or torn polythene bags outside the shops.
And the Chinese are incredibly friendly. Strangers would frequently walk up as I wandered from the hotel to Tiananmen Square and start chatting. They would fall in step and begin a conversation as if it was the natural and obvious thing to do. No doubt many were students practising English, but I’ve never witnessed such uninhibited spontaneity in any other city.
Consequently, if I went to Beijing with a China complex shaped by 1962 and a very Indian perception of the Chindia competition, I’ve returned with a fascination that is no less intense and one-sided. But it’s re-ignited an old clash of ideologies.
China, an authoritarian State, pursues economic growth and development as its priority while disregarding the liberal rights of free speech, association and political choice. Discipline matters more than free expression. Dissent is vigorously punished. India, in contrast, is a democracy with a free press, multiple and contending political parties, an independent judiciary and people who are theoretically free to do as they want. We frequently change our governments and often discard our politicians. Put simply and starkly like that, China seems a less inviting country.
But look at it differently. China has given its people economic security, a better life style and a higher per capita income. In 1947 (or 1949, when the People’s Republic was born) the two were in a similar position. Today China’s per capita income is four times greater. Seven per cent of its children are malnourished; 46 per cent of ours. Indians, it would seem, are free to stay poor.
So which is the better system? I remember this old chestnut taking up hours of feverish debate during the Emergency. I assumed the elections of 1977 had settled the matter. The people of India voted for liberty and turned down Indira Gandhi’s bait of progress and development. But China has re-awakened the question. Thirty years of 10 per cent growth provide a stark — and tempting — alternative to what we’ve achieved. And the gap could be widening.
Of course, I need to know and see a lot more of China before I can make up my mind. But my confidence is dented whilst the questions that have crept through are disturbing.
The views expressed by the author are personal