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Cultural evolution

To deal with Beijing effectively, India must update its vision of China as a Mao-era State where The Party's control over all levers of power is absolute, writes Debasish Roy Chowdhury.

india Updated: May 21, 2011 19:28 IST
Debasish Roy Chowdhury
Debasish Roy Chowdhury
Hindustan Times

First we wouldn't talk. Then when we started talking we can't seem to stop. India and China have been at it for nearly 30 years now. No one can say the talks aren't going anywhere. Just compare the trade figures from the 1970s with today's. But what about the issue over which we fought and stopped talking in the first place? Can someone please tell us where the border talks are heading?

It's difficult to argue with the reasoning that economic ties enhance bilateral relations. Money is the mover of all relations, yada yada yada. But is it really that simple? If our ties have developed as much as our trade, why do we work ourselves into a froth every now and then over a misplaced staple or an ungranted visa?

Looking at the 'entire gamut' of the relationship, as our policymakers are prone to saying, is fine, but our core issue really is the border. And as long as it stays unresolved, our relation will continue to be hamstrung by politics, never reaping the fruits that a full-fledged Sino-Indian alliance can deliver.

Had economics really been the prime driver of relations between nations, the Chinese, Japanese and the Americans would have lived happily ever after. Compared with the level of economic engagement between these three, the money that changes hands between China and India is loose change. Yet, most street protests we have seen in China in recent years are targeted at its two biggest trading partners. Ask a Chinese shopper at a Wal-Mart or a Ito-Yokado store in Beijing what the biggest threats to his nation are, and the answer will inevitably be Japan and the US. There really are things money can't buy.

So let's talk border, not as part of the 'entire gamut', but with a sense of urgency. We are convinced that more business will smooth the waters so it makes sense to wait till we get to a point where our economic interdependence overrides our political differences. But the fact of the matter is that the more we wait, the more difficult it gets to reach a deal.

Any border deal will require both China and India to give up some of their claims. We both can't win on all fronts if it's a negotiated settlement. The problem is selling the people what we lose. We may think that would be trickier in a noisy, multi-party democracy like ours than in totalitarian China. That might have been true in Mao Zedong's time but it's got far more complicated since.

The Chinese society is in the throes of seismic changes, which are quickly making its leadership more accountable to — or at least forcing it to interact more with — its people. And these changes are happening much faster than we can imagine.

We tend to see China as some sort of an affluent North Korea. In our minds, it is still the Mao-era Orwellian State where The Party's control over all levers of power is as absolute as its ability to herd the people. The reality is quite different. The state still enjoys enormous authority, but the dynamics of its relation with society has changed dramatically in past years. Public participation in politics may not yet be approaching the raucousness in India, but it is equally incorrect to view the Chinese as obedient zombies silently following the State's very diktat.

While economic liberalisation in China has weaned more and more people away from State dependence and fostered a spirit of individualism, the internet has provided the platform where this individualism finds expression, in the process creating a new form of social interaction between the state and the people.

As of the end of 2009, there were 384 million internet users in China, roughly 30% of the population. The coming of age of smartphones will substantially add to this number. This huge mass of well-informed, tech-savvy and highly opinionated Chinese connect, engage, debate, cheer and fight each other mostly through the ubiquitous bulletin board systems (BBS) — over 1 million — and some 220 million blogs.

There is great power in numbers, even in an autocracy, and the anonymous 'netizen' is very powerful and much-courted in China — tracked by marketing houses to align new products with popular tastes, quoted by state media to validate or refute standpoints, and, increasingly, heeded by the authorities to gauge public opinion.

Though the government still can, and often does, clamp down on these channels of free speech when they cut too close to the bone, in recent times there have been far too many instances that suggest the authorities would rather use this option sparingly and instead go with the tide, provided the legitimacy of the party's monopoly over power is not being threatened. Everything else is fair game.

In recent times, a senior party official was fired after internet vigilantes raised a stink about his pictures on the internet showing him wearing a Vacheron Constantin watch and puffing on expensive cigarettes. A party secretary was sacked following an internet clamour for his head after a video was posted showing him trying to molest an 11-year-old girl and then boasting about his rank when confronted by her family.

One of the latest catchphrases in China these days is 'My dad is Li Gang', a tongue-in-cheek excuse for anything from forgetting one's anniversary to not doing homework. It originates in the online fury that erupted after a university student was run over by a 22-year-old drunk driver on campus grounds. The unrepentant son of Li Gang, a police chief, then kept daring the security guards not to mess with him.

The growing power of the internet instils both accountability and unease in China's otherwise untouchable officialdom, which is why it has directed its energy to co-opt the web rather than confront it. Government departments solicit views from the public, mayors are encouraged to write blogs and officials debate policy in online forums.

There is particularly one area the government seems most comfortable allowing netizens to discuss — nationalism. It's safer than discussions on low-level corruption, effectively plays on the collective sense of past humiliation at the hands of foreign powers, and pits the government on the same side as the people against an inequitable world order. China's cyber-nationalists are a rabid lot. But that's one rabidity the government can handle, steer and even use.

The target of this nationalistic fervour is usually the US and Japan. And that's partly because the government has kept it that way. In general, the Chinese see India as a fellow victim of Western exploitation, a fellow ancient civilisation messed up by upstarts. There are occasional faint rumblings on America's attempts to use India to encircle India, but here again the target is more the US than India.

But all that can change if the Chinese masses become convinced that India is a willing partner in the scheme to contain their country and if the government plays along and allows a more anti-India discourse in official media and cyber pace. Imagine passing a border deal in China in such an environment. This is what China's ambassador to India Zhang Yan was alluding to when he said relations are very fragile, easy to be damaged and need "special care in the information age”. People are at the heart of any relationship, Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao correctly surmised at the same conference this week.

Let's remember these crucial components of bilateral relations that think-tankers rarely talk about: people and information age. They can make relations way more difficult than they already are, and let's try and work out a deal while things are still under control. Because god forbid, if China ever becomes a democracy, 1.3 billion people will have to negotiate a border with 1.3 billion people.

Debasish Roy Chowdhury is the Money Editor, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Dec 19, 2010 22:22 IST