China and India: Oh to be
different By Pallavi Aiyar
China had it all planned out. Or so it
seemed. With the Beijing Summer Olympic Games only
a few months away, the flashy sports stadiums, the
world's biggest airport and kilometers of extended
subway lines combined to serve as gleaming
testaments to the country's dramatic material
progress. Efforts had even been made to transform
Beijingers themselves for their Olympic debut,
from surly communists suspicious of foreign
barbarians into smiling, service-oriented folk
welcoming "foreign friends" to their city in
But as the events of the past few
days have shown with protests against Chinese rule
of Tibet spreading from Lhasa to parts of Gansu
and Sichuan provinces, Beijing has been caught
unprepared in its ability to deal with dissent. It
is this inability, moreover, that will prove to be
the country's greatest vulnerability
going forward; its Achilles'
heel as it strives for great power status. As
Beijing desires the Olympics to demonstrate, much
in China has changed in recent years, often at a
dizzying pace. The successes in poverty reduction
are an awesome achievement. Beijing in 2008, with
its slew of vertiginous skyscrapers, flood of
fancy cars and array of malls boasting the most
luxurious of luxury brands, is a far cry from the
capital city of Mao Zedong suits and bicycles in
the not so distant past.
much has changed, China's response to the events
in Tibet is also indicative of how much remains
unchanged. The official response to the protests
in Lhasa and elsewhere, the most serious in two
decades, do not indicate the discovery by Beijing
of "Olympic-new" savvy ways of crisis control.
Instead, the Chinese people and the world have
only been subjected to the same old tired
responses officialdom resorts to given any sign of
discontentment among the Tibetan population.
This is a response that essentially
amounts to a denial of any fundamental problem.
The elements are familiar: a scapegoating and
vilification of the Dalai Lama, a refusal to grant
any legitimacy to Tibetan disaffection and an
insistence on the myth of elemental "harmony"
among all "Chinese" people, including Tibetans.
This denial of legitimate differences is
ultimately the greatest difference between China
and Asia's other major rising power, India.
Indians who visit Chinese cities are
invariably awestruck by the infrastructure. They
look at the silken-smooth multi-lane highways with
barely concealed envy, no doubt comparing them to
the pot-holed clumps of tar more familiar as roads
back home. They marvel at the relatively orderly
flow of traffic on the broad avenues, unobstructed
by stray cows. They remark on the absence of slums
and beggars on the streets.
China has not
only built cities that are almost impossibly
modern from an Indian point of view, it has also
provided jobs and opportunities for upward
mobility for millions of migrant workers from the
China's economic achievement
over the past 30-odd years has in fact been
unparalleled historically. However, a point
usually unrecognized by Indians impressed by
China's glitter is the fact that so is India's
neighbor's democracy is almost unique among
post-colonial states not simply for its existence
but its existence against all odds in a country
held together not by geography, language or
ethnicity but by an idea. This is an idea that
asserts, even celebrates, the possibility of
multiple identities. In India, you can and are
expected to be both many things and one thing
Your correspondent is thus
a Delhite, an English speaker, half a Brahmin,
half a Tamilian, a Hindu culturally, an atheist by
choice, a Muslim by heritage. But the identity
that threads these multiplicities together is at
once the most powerful and most amorphous: she is
India's great political
achievement is thus in its having developed
mechanisms for negotiating large-scale diversity
along with the inescapable corollary of frequent
and aggressive disagreement. The guiding and
perhaps lone consensus that forms the bedrock of
that mechanism is that in a democracy you don't
really need to agree - except on the ground rules
of how you will disagree.
contradistinction to China, India's polity has
flourished precisely because of its ability to
acknowledge difference. The very survival of India
as a country, given the scope of its bewildering
diversity, has been dependent on the possibility
India is a country of 22
official languages and over 200 recorded mother
tongues. In this "Hindu" country, there are more
Muslims than in all of Pakistan. The country's
cultural inheritance includes fire-worshiping
Zorastrians and Tohra-reciting Jews. With no
single language, ethnicity, religion or food,
India is quite simply, implausible; yet
marvelously, it isn't. It is a country without a
language, without a center, lacking singularity
except in being singularly diverse.
China, regular lip service is also paid to the
country's own, considerable diversity. During the
National People's Congress' annual session, for
example, delegates representing China's
multiplicity of minorities swish around the Great
Hall of the People in Beijing in their "ethnic"
dresses. Beijing regularly talks of the religious
freedoms enjoyed by the country's Buddhists,
Christians and Muslims.
But in fact, the
fundamental tenet of China's political philosophy
is not diversity but uniformity. This homogeneity
does not only extend itself to the tangible, such
as architecture or the system of writing alone,
but also to thought.
Even in the modern
China of the 21st century where there are more
Internet users than even in the United States,
those who disagree with mainstream, officially
sanctioned views outside of the parameters set by
mainstream officially sanctioned debate, more
often than not find themselves branded as
dissidents - suspect, hunted, under threat.
The insistence on "harmony" as the only
reality and inability to admit genuine differences
in interest and opinions between the peoples of a
country of the size and complexity of China is
ultimately the country's greatest weakness.
Talk of political reform in China
continues to be bound by the "harmonious"
parameters set by Hu Jintao, the president. The
idea is that everyone's interests and opinions are
to be balanced and resolved without conflict.
Oppositional politics with the clash of
argument remain anathema. Consensus for the good
of the whole nation is the way forward, we are
To imagine that these pious
prescriptions will be adequate to address growing
tensions within Chinese society as it evolves and
changes is foolhardy. The interests of the
laid-off worker and multinational executive are
divergent, as are those of the real estate
developer and the city-dweller about to have her
home destroyed to make way for a mall.
These are conflicts that need to be
acknowledged so that effective mechanisms for
their resolution can then be identified.
As the recent protests have demonstrated,
despite over 50 years of suppression and
"patriotic education", a strong strain of
resentment against Beijing's rule continues to
simmer in Tibet. During this time period the
region's economy has benefited from
Chinese-developed infrastructure, literacy rates
are also on the up and health care has improved.
Nonetheless, large swathes of dissatisfaction with
Beijing's policies persist.
authorities to simply deny the reality of the
problem, blame all tension on an exiled leader and
insist that the majority of Tibetans couldn't be
happier with the Communist Party's harmonious
policies, is self-defeating.
stance whether or not the Chinese authorities
react with "leniency" towards the protesters, the
damage to their reputation internationally is
Looking ahead to the Olympics and
beyond, China would in fact do well to look to
India, the neighbor it usually scorns as poor and
chaotic, to understand the strength that
acknowledging differences can provide.
Harmony is a laudable goal, but sometimes
a little dissent is the mark of a truly healthy
is the author of the forthcoming book, Smoke
and Mirrors: China Through Indian Eyes, (Harper
Collins, April 2008.)