CURRENT ISSUE JUNE 30, 2003
COVER: CHINA ESSAY
Who's Afraid of China
The paradoxical power. An exclamatory nation. And a secret society. The ancient land of the East where wise men in pigtails guarded the secrets of knowledge for millennia. Where emperors with celestial mandate reigned in sprawling isolation. Where Revolution swept through the countryside like a morning deluge. Where the sacred edicts of the supreme revolutionary, the Great Helmsman, were immortalised on the biggest graveyards in the history of totalitarianism. Where Marx with Chinese characteristics grinned from McDonald's. Where comrades read Confucius to keep order. Where the supermarket hides the super gulag. Where the intelligence of silicon is more valued than the mind of the citizen. China is more than a one-dimensional dazzle-or dread.
So let us too read tea leaves.
The world is busy reading statistics to romance China, the most favoured marketplace: the revolutionary wasteland that has morphed into an economic powerhouse; the China of record-breaking indices in development that has to be emulated by every other wretched country in the Third World that aspires to have a place in the global economy. And it continues to be celebrated by op-ed prophets as the model state for Asian values: How Democracy Denies Freedom to the Man in the Shopping Mall. Fettered citizens are invited to buy happiness-"I'll make you happy" is an old communist conceit after all-in the free market. Their every movement watched by the keepers of wisdom, a doddering band of brothers. The dictatorship of the proletariat is still a necessary condition for the market as well as the man. It ensures that future is bright, free of "counter-revolutionary viruses".
Does it really?
The projected majesty of the Middle Kingdom allows no such questions. It evokes envy and fear. The most populous nation on earth-1.3 billion and growing-with the largest army at the disposal-the PLA, "the mighty pillar" of the proletariat-and with the fastest growing economy is destined to take over the world one distant day. The echo of "the thunder of the East" will reach the entire West. Will the dragon intimidate its neighbour India and swallow up the tiny "renegade province" called Taiwan? This is China as oversized awe, as a cultural alternative to Adam Smith, also a cultural manipulation of Marx-what has come to be known as socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is stepping into a country as forbidding as this. The idea of China is such a seminar-worn subject that it has been used ad nauseam to show the Indian rate of non growth. Should the leader from the world's largest democracy be swayed by the dictatorship of social capitalism? Should he-not the chosen one but the elected one-feel intimidated by all those opaque comrades who are not obliged to report to the people? And mesmerised by the market? He should not.
The rising China is an artificial project, sustained by paranoia, and fear of its own people. Mao may have taken refuge in souvenir shops or in framed memories in the Forbidden City. Somewhere in the market, still, his ghost roams, uninterrupted. "I stand for the theory of permanent revolution. Do not mistake this for Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution. In making revolution one must strike while the iron is hot-one revolution must follow another, the revolution must continually advance..." The chairman struck hard. What had started from the Yanan caves as a sub-rural revolution metamorphosed into a sanguineous madness. First the Great Leap Forward. It was the people's republic's first display of economic ambition, its irrational urge to catch up with the West-and it killed 30 million, almost 5 per cent of the country's population then. Even Stalin could not achieve such a revolutionary feat, and no one would. Then the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution ... and all those slogans of the era: Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom and a Hundred Schools Contend; Bombard the Headquarters. Mao, the amateur poet from Hunan, always had a lyrical camouflage to hide his bloodlust. Even in his loneliest despair, he saw the Land of Hibiscus (a literary allusion to his homeland) "illuminated by the light of dawn". Few children of revolution suffered from such poetic justice.
Deng Xiaoping would take charge of post-Mao China as victim and redeemer. A victim of the Cultural Revolution, the much-maligned "capitalist roader" would turn out to be a sorcerer who would put Marx in the marketplace and do wonders. Today's China is largely his China, the China of special economic zones, the China of Shanghai high-noon where getting rich is truly glorious. On the dawn of June 4, 1989 in Tiananmen Square, Deng's China unravelled itself. It was a revelatory moment: don't take the bargain in the marketplace to the political arena. The massacre was justified as a rejoinder to a rebellion that "wanted to overthrow the state and the Party". The students were asking the Moderniser only for the last modernisation: democracy. Deng, the victim of the Cultural Revolution, took revenge on his own personal history. He published the paperback edition of the Cultural Revolution. It was not entirely accidental: the students' ideal, the Goddess of Democracy, resembled the Statue of Liberty. Some Chinese wanted something more than Big Mac. Deng, China's most famous bridge player, didn't want the market to be contaminated by the viruses of "bourgeois liberalisation".
The realm of the private has no place in the market, and that is why the gulag is a necessary companion to the shopping mall, and that is why questions are not appreciated in take-away happiness joints-the party still has the copyright over the conscience of the shopper. Marx would never have anticipated this; nor would have Mao. The new communist rulers of China will lose everything if they lose the market. It is not that the market needs them. Not really. It is the other way round. It is hardly the Red Book that provides the script of salvation. It is the scrip that matters. The new rulers, mostly the chosen children of Deng, are technocrats for whom the party ensures some kind of life insurance. The party is with the rich, and China is still the countryside, poor and wretched. The much rhapsodised China, the economic superpower, is a poor rich country. And in today's China, the life of the ruling communist, the legatee of a revolution that echoed even in the villages of Kerala and West Bengal, has no historical value. It has only market value. Deng, the Long Marcher, was the first one to realise it. He turned that knowledge into an existential credo for the state. Jiang Zemin, the comrade who succeeded him but didn't grow into a cult like Mao or Deng, didn't deviate. Hu, the new leader, knows that he too can't afford to change the course.
It is such knowledge that keeps the leader on the edge. Permanent revolution has long ago graduated into permanent paranoia. China is a nation eternally scared of viruses, mostly western and counter-revolutionary. And lately biological. The latest China the world saw was the China with a mask. A new virus haunted the kingdom-and that mask was real as well as metaphorical. The metaphorical mask covered the secret tremble. It covered the truth as well-for a while. Was SARS China's Chernobyl? The nuclear leak gave new thrust to glasnost and perestroika. China doesn't have a Gorbachev, and the People's Republic is not a revolutionary carbon copy of the Soviet Union. Mao's revolution, all said, was not a palace coup. And there was no market revolution to supplement Marx in Soviet Russia. Is it then eternal celestial mandate for the Middle Kingdom? The road from the market usually doesn't lead to the communist's favoured destination. Demands too grow along with the market-the comrades can't forever contain them with tanks and truncheons. The future as seen from the Forbidden City is not all that bright. China is a nervous power.
So Vajpayee, another wise old Asian from another ancient land, is stepping onto the red carpet with a new value system-least scared, but capable of scaring the hosts.