Befriend thy neighbour

For a few years after it opened its doors to the world in the 1970s, China was still a socialist economy, unused to the ways of the capitalist world. My friend, Stefan Messman, a professor at Central European University, Budapest, and an authority on socialist law, was a key member of a Volkswagen team that finalised a deal with China. He was astonished at the kind of barters that had to be negotiated to set up a car plant in a country that had no market economy at that time.

China has come a long way since then. Today, it is unrecognisably capitalist, albeit with a communist face. In terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) it is the dominant economic power in the world, directly competing with the U.S. for supremacy in science and technology. India ranks third in PPP.

Rarely do we ask ourselves how a country that was no better off than India until the mid-1980s, and that suffered depredations under Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, has left India so far behind. Lacking good institutional mechanisms to understand China, Indians tend to fall for simplistic explanations such as, “We’re a democracy, China is not.” There is more to that country’s spectacular rise than just that one factor.

For all its vaunted institutions, the West is yet to get a grip on China, but it is constantly seeking to solve the riddle of China’s rise. For example, a recent issue of The Economist examined “How the West Got China Wrong”, and Foreign Affairs magazine attempted to fathom “how China hid its global ambitions” in an article titled “The Stealth Superpower”. Even as the West continues to snarl at China, some of its best institutions and universities have collaborations with that country running into millions of dollars. Harvard University, for instance, has several ongoing programmes with the Chinese government as well as leading universities like Peking and Tsinghua in engineering, the sciences, management, environment, design and the humanities.

Since science and technology are powering China’s growth, we need to make sense of those by setting up well-funded, world-class interdisciplinary centres not just in universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University but also in the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and the Indian Institutes of Technology which have the best technical and scientific minds in the country. Through these centres we should be able to arrive at our own in-depth understanding of China.

The time is also right to launch a China-India version of the Needham-Cambridge study on science and technology in China, to take a dispassionate view of how our countries have evolved through history and how they can collaborate to make their rise environmentally sustainable and equitable.

The writer has taught public policy and contemporary history at IISc Bengaluru

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Printable version | Aug 8, 2022 4:02:41 am |