Reading and understanding China in all its complexity and wonder 

Through history, geography, culture and a study of its policies, domestic and foreign, writers, experts and academics explain why it is imperative for India to know its neighbour better. Only through such engagement will one realise why the country functions the way it does 

October 20, 2022 10:30 am | Updated October 25, 2022 04:39 pm IST

 A float with a giant portrait of China’s President Xi Jinping passes by Tiananmen Square during the National Day parade in Beijing in 2019.

A float with a giant portrait of China’s President Xi Jinping passes by Tiananmen Square during the National Day parade in Beijing in 2019. | Photo Credit: AFP

With memories of 1962 still fresh in Indian minds, President Xi Jinping’s statement, made at the on-going 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, that China needs to be able to “stage military operations readily, create a secure environment, deter and control risks and conflicts, and win regional wars,” is ominous for we have little idea of what China will do.

Our public understanding of China is woefully inadequate. What little we know of our giant neighbour comes from books, mostly written by retired diplomats. These reinforce Indian perceptions of China as a difficult country to deal with. Several recent books have tried to lift the curtain to provide a better understanding of China’s domestic and foreign policies. Think Nirupama Rao’s, a former Indian ambassador to China, The Fractured Himalaya: India Tibet China 1949-1962, Natwar Singh’s My China Diary 1956-88, A.S. Bhasin’s Nehru, Tibet and China or Vijay Gokhale’s Tiananmen Square: The Making of a Protest. Also add to the list Ananth Krishnan’s 2020 book, India’s China Challenge: A Journey Through China’s Rise and What it Means for India. Krishnan’s appreciation of China’s history enhanced by his travels through China and interactions with, and interviews of many Chinese, including dissidents, gives us a balanced account of a proud, deeply troubled and insecure country, with its people, for all their material prosperity, enduring unremitting surveillance and control by the Chinese state.

Deeper accounts

For even deeper accounts of China, however, we need to turn westward. The West, unlike India, has engaged with China for decades. Despite all their rivalry, over the last four decades, Chinese students have been studying in the best universities in America, Europe and Australia in the thousands. In many of these universities, they constitute the largest foreign presence. Similarly, several fine Western schools and universities are present in China where western journalists and experts, fluent in Mandarin, have studied China over the decades. Their works are the most authoritative we can lay our hands on. The latest by Hong Kong based academic Frank Dikötter, the acclaimed author of Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe 1958-62, is one such.

His tightly written new book, China after Mao: The Rise of a Superpower (September 2022), is being widely praised for its depth of research based on data and archival material no longer available to researchers. Dikötter’s book brings out how poorly China is managed economically, how fraught its rise is and how compromised its long-term stability has become, not least due to the actions of a strengthened President Xi Jinping, the “Chairman of Everything.”

China’s rise to superpower status, next only to the U.S., however, is real. Dikötter’s account therefore needs to be read along with Mark Leonard’s 2008 book, What Does China Think? and another by the Chinese-American economist, Yukon Huang’s Cracking the China Conundrum: Why Conventional Economic Wisdom Is Wrong (2017).

Both Leonard and Huang highlight what Dikötter underplays: the fact that China, however inadequately, does think things through and that its spectacular economic success — perhaps one of the greatest in human history — was the outcome of well-thought-out policy measures.

Bleak prospects

It is possible that China’s economic transformation may be running out of steam. Its management of the COVID-19 pandemic has been draconian and its population is in decline exacerbated by its long-running one-child policy. Another major failure appears to be an opaque state-controlled economy which, among other things, has led to the dramatic collapse of its real estate sector, with just one builder, Evergrande, running up a debt of $300 billion.

The long-term economic prospect of China is indeed bad but not so much because of its overleveraged building sector. China’s economic policies have led to a huge and unbridgeable rural urban divide leaving over 600 million Chinese impoverished and insecure and mostly out of sight. The Stanford University developmental economist, Scott Rozelle, who has spent decades researching in China, brings this out in considerable detail in his book (co-authored with Natalie Hell), Invisible China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China's Rise. According to Rozelle, China's long-term prospects are bleak, chiefly because most of its population, contrary to popular perception, “does not have the skills to move up the supply chain,” with 70% of its labour force unskilled and unfit for anything more than manual labour.

With so many books on China coming out with such frequency, anyone interested in the country will do well to start off with the renowned historian Michael Wood’s wonderfully illuminating and entertaining book, The Story of China: A Portrait of A Civilisation and Its People, revealing China, warts and all, while unhesitatingly highlighting western and Japanese depredations of the country through the 19th and 20th centuries, a period the Chinese bitterly recall as their “century of humiliation.”

Through this book, written for a popular audience, we can better understand why the Chinese behave the way they do, and read other writers to further an understanding of a country Indians need to know much better and engage more broadly with, as the West does.

The writer teaches public policy and contemporary history at IISc, Bengaluru. Views are personal.

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