China: bringing out its old recipes

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Sep 3 2005, 07:46am hrs
In the last three months alone, Business Week, Fortune, The Economist and Newsweek have all carried special reports or supplements comparing India and China, with a focus on their diverse economic models and paths. This comes on top of hundreds of business seminars and study tours that are routinely organised in the summer season by American universities, think tanks and consulting firms. In most of them, there is an apportioned share of plaudits to both countries, with China (as the more definite success story) scoring high marks on infrastructure, FDI and manufacturing, while India capturing its own quiet corner on managerial resources, entrepreneurship and IT.

For India, being paired with China is both a belated promotion and an essential reprimand. The India-Pakistan slugfest lowered our dignity and image beyond what we deserved, and only elicited a curse on both your houses sort of western sermonising. The India-China pairing allows us, mercifully, to graduate beyond the shrill and essentially self-defeating calculus of subcontinental rivalry, but it also raises us to level slightly above what we have earned.

In fact, comparison with China provides a brutal reminder of missed opportunities and self-goals during three decades of lost development. And if India is now projected as a success story in the making, it is also reminded of the long haul and difficult decisions ahead.

While most of these studies are good in capturing economic tangibles, they are not so skillful at spotting and explaining subterranean fluidities and social transformations. And one of those major changes is how China, both as a country and society, is finally stepping out into the world from its own self-imposed isolation, and that too with a very purposeful intent. Or, how the Chinese are slowly rebuilding and reconnecting to their rich cultural heritage they had all but lost during Mao.

In fact, the latter becomes clear if you attend a global conference, walk into an American bookshop or just walk through the halls of western universities.

Many books shops now have a special section on translated books of Chinese poets and authors. Unknown or unappreciated by most of us on the outside, China has seen too much turbulence in the last hundred years, starting with ascendance of Japan, the end of the last dynasty, the communist takeover and of course the Cultural Revolution. And like many Indians who are now writing in English and helping the world to understand the 1947 Partition story, so are the Chinese now beginning to write about that period and that shared experience and of their loss. It is a quiet burial and a collective grief, and it is uniquely Chinese, but these works are now being read by the western audience who are rediscovering Chinese intellectual traditions.

Another signpost is in tourism. Last year, over 100 million tourists visited China. Even discounting for the Chinese Diaspora and those ubiquitous shopping daytrips from Hong Kong, it is a huge number. Plus, in 2003 China surpassed Japan as Asias largest outbound market. Already, nearly half a million Chinese have travelled to Vietnam in the first six months of 2005 and an equal number to Thailand, with almost 40 million Chinese in all projected to travel overseas this year. In business, the Chinese are flinging their net far and wide, pumping almost $10 billion a year in investment in Africa, buying up petroleum assets in the Middle East or Central Asia, and even bidding for large US companies. For every failed attempt to buy Unocal, there is a successful Chinese bid to acquire IBMs personal computer business. And a long list of former US government officials have become de facto Chinese-American ambassadors, acting as intermediaries and lobbyists for business interests on both sides, starting from Henry Kissinger to Alexander Haig to Cyrus Vance.

In effect, all these shore up Chinas political and business influence in multiple ways. In fact, recently, the Japanese foreign minister himself admitted, Chinese influence was at the root of Japans problems in getting African nations to support a G-4 resolution on UN reform. China commands more influence in Africa than Japan realized, he said.

What all this perhaps means for India is that the Chinese ascendancy is much more than economic and that this will be evident in multiple ways involving people, culture and impressions. Part of the future competition between India and China will be based on whether India can develop its hardware infrastructure faster than Chinese attempts to rebuild and leverage their cultural sophistication.

The writer is editor, India Focus