A Brown Pundit Visits China

 

I spent five days in China, a first visit to the mainland.

My first visit to a country I have read about, is a mix of fact checks, search for stereotypes and surprises.

I visited two cities Shanghai and Beijing, and did not get a chance to speak to as many locals I would have liked to.

Some observations and musings from the trip.

Time to get the obvious out of the way- It is a large country and what I saw, is akin to a pothole in an ocean. None the less here goes.

The scale and quality of hard, physical infrastructure is imposing. The maglev train from Shanghai’s Pudong international airport, the orderly never-ending traffic on endless roads that crisscross Shanghai and Beijing, the extensive metro network, the omnipresent taxis- regular and via the cab hailing app and the digital ecosystem of Universal apps- WeChat and Alipay. The high-speed railway that takes you from Shanghai to Beijing- a journey of about 1300 kilometers in four and a half hours. Movement of people and information is fast. That it happens at a scale unmatched anywhere else in the world and the time in which this whole infrastructure has been built- is awe inspiring.

The state is everywhere, it is watching you from cameras in every corner but you do not see the state.  No hoardings that tell you about the Chinese communist party or of one Xi Jinping. No cops on the roads, especially true for Shanghai.  The state is unobtrusive. It knows where you are and what are you up to but all you get is the power of the state capacity- well organized and clean super cities. You live the force of state capacity but do not get to see the state.

Talking of hoardings, you do not see commercial ones nudging you to buy that new car or an apartment or the latest…. (Insert shoe/ phone/ perfume/bag). All outdoor advertising is on the facades of the stores and even there it looks understated. Miles and miles of roads without outdoor advertising takes getting use to, if one has landed from Delhi.

Labour is abundant and female participation is high. There are apps for food and groceries delivery at your doorstep. Delivery staff ride electric two wheelers, that make no sound, and sneak up on you.

Two wheelers, their riders young and old, men and women, abound. The only reckless driving seen in the cities is on two wheelers. Women work in retail and hospitality. They can be found behind immigration counters and at airport security. One place I did not see them was driving taxis. Not one, I hailed multiple taxis in both cities. Never found a woman behind the wheels. Every other job, you see them.

No overt religiosity. The Chinese have done away with the god(s). No places of worship, no congregations, no religious motifs in shops and commercial establishments. To paraphrase a local- money is our god and making money our religion. When asked how does he make peace with the uncertainties and unfairness of life, he answers- by making more money.  Make money and spend money. How do I look, what am I wearing, what am I driving and where am I living? Who needs gods.

Tech has taken care of the language barrier. Get online and use an app that translates and one can get around and engage. Even the cops posted at Tiananmen square indulge your queries.

Lots of youngsters and a few kids. From airports, railway stations to public spaces, the first line of the state machinery is young. No middle-aged potbellied cops and ticket inspectors. You can see the one child policy at work. A child with two sets of grandparents and her adoring parents. Wealth accumulated by six adults being spent on one child.

No Caucasians, no Indians and the rich of the middle east are also missing. Two of the largest cities of in the second largest economy of the world. A country whose presence is felt in every nation and the world is not visiting its cities. No sign of large expat communities. No watering joints that are popular with Americans or Europeans. The weather was not the best for tourism but who is running the Europeans factories and the American banks. Guessing they went home for the Christmas break but are the Caucasians rare or what. The Africans are invisible. Not one African face in 5 days in China’s oldest and biggest cities. Not one.

China is a great example of what state capacity can do. A densely populated country that has been around for millennia, has transformed itself within four decades without hitting the jackpot of a natural bounty. Those running the country did not seek wisdom of the crowds by holding elections/referendums. The economic transformation was forced upon its people. Economic prosperity in exchange of political choice. The state derives its legitimacy from outcomes. That it does not indulge opposition does not make it unaccountable. The nameless and faceless bureaucrats who have built China in the last 40 years- no noble prize-winning economists or Chicago University professors there, have lifted millions out of poverty and within a generation delivered a quality of life most of us will never experience. The scale of transformation is unprecedented in Human history and as an Indian, one cannot but admire and grudge it.

What I would like to know is how they got an ancient civilization to let go of its past, how did they bulldoze consumerism and materialism through societal networks that had evolved over centuries- how did they do away with God.

What did the Chinese Communist party do to retain legitimacy as it pivoted from ideas like collective farming to allowing a tech and finance led millionaire class to flourish within a generation. Perhaps another trip calls.

Is the Chinese model replicable and should we try and replicate it in India.

The Chinese model is not unique and they are not the first ones to pull it off. Sustained economic growth for long periods has always needed some kind of labour and financial repression combined with protectionist trade policies.  All the developed economies of today have indulged in both at some point in their growth trajectory.

Letting a small set of people decide the economic fate of millions is high risk strategy. If the elite are not good enough, the scale of failure is catastrophic. China from 1949 to 1979 is a good example of the magnitude of that disaster.

The result has too many variables we do not understand to give us a templet. Which brings us to the process. In India the state gets it is legitimacy through the process of its election. To forego that for a bet that the unelected elite will deliver on outcomes- think of the political party you loathe and now think of that party always being in power and is unable to deliver on outcomes. Let us stumble along I say.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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mrx
mrx
5 months ago

Eh, I consider India much more analogous to the EU than to China. In homogeneous societies, collective action is much more effective.

Var
Var
5 months ago
Reply to  mrx

Diversity is a Spectrum and China on that spectrum is closer to India than it or either are to Europe.

There is no place on this planet that’s more diverse than India (when excluding Africa as singular Unit which is not unfair condition).

Despite having National Linguistic Policy since 50s, China barely crossed 80% use-case of Standard Mandarin nationally only about 15 years back. They are still not fully high 90% even now. And this is just proficiency not actual on ground use case, where regional dialects/languages are still alive, people are just better Multi-Linguals now.

Genetically sure as even Razib has mentioned many times that Chinese are closer to each other than peer populations elsewhere. But that is hardly relevant here in this context since in practical sense of everyday lives Socio-Cultural-Linguistic and Political aspects matter on question of Homogeneity-vs-Governance Challenges.

And then there is Scale. Because it’s not that significant if Papua New Guinea has highest LDI (linguistic diversity index), what matters is what the number of humans are on ground who speak that other language/dialect because that is what creates the Governance Challenge to be overcome.

Only on context of Fragmented State-dynamic is Indian history somewhat similar to Europe but that is just 1 facet, not the totality of everything.

Besides it’s not like China didn’t have their own long cycles of Fragmentation. Heck they are still in 1 such cycle even now with PRC-RoC thing.

mrx
mrx
5 months ago
Reply to  Var

India is more diverse than Europe when taking into account caste variations, and probably equally diverse when it comes to linguistic distinctions across the length of the subcontinent. China is significantly less diverse on both axes.

But that is hardly relevant here in this context since in practical sense of everyday lives Socio-Cultural-Linguistic and Political aspects matter on question of Homogeneity-vs-Governance Challenges.

Anthropologically, the genetic markers are a proxy for social relations between groups though. It’s hard to talking about “protecting our women” when 99.9% of the population cannot really be considered “your women” since you can’t marry them.

mrx
mrx
5 months ago
Reply to  mrx

*It’s hard to talk

mrx
mrx
5 months ago
Reply to  Var

I didn’t mean to imply that China wasn’t diverse. But some 90% of Chinese do identify as Han, so in that sense they are a more proper nation-state compared to India or the EU.

Md. Gandhi
Md. Gandhi
5 months ago
Reply to  mrx

What makes India even a proper state? We all just seem to be pajeets loaded over a common country-cart by the brits.

Var
Var
5 months ago

Wealth accumulated by six adults being spent on one child.

This is the other side of that 1-2-4 China Demographic Doomism. 4-2-1 (4 Grandparents, 2 Parents giving to that 1 Child).  
Besides in practical reality, only about 35% of the Chinese population was affected by having 1 Child, the rest had more (due exceptions, minorities, different Rural-Urban rules, & someone having the kid anyway and either paying a fine or not even that).

What I would like to know is how they got an ancient civilization to let go of its past, how did they bulldoze consumerism and materialism through societal networks that had evolved over centuries- how did they do away with God.

Religiosity is Spectrum and China was already near Less Religious even in historic timeframes (context of Religion & State power balance).  

Century of Humiliation & early 20th-century Civil war further alienated Chinese society from metaphysical. This is why Cultural Revolution had so much Sticky-Power because the society for decades was already pissed at Traditionalism (which was blamed for keeping China in a sorry situation).

Then the reforms and policies in the 1950s did the rest. Like Women’s Equality bills. Land reform was also Real unlike in India. 

The Old was reneged upon & forsaken, both by the State and by the Society at large & this wasn’t a CPC only thing, society by that point was primed for this. The State just supercharged it.

What did the Chinese Communist party do to retain legitimacy as it pivoted from ideas like collective farming to allowing a tech and finance led millionaire class to flourish within a generation.

Pragmatism and not Dogmatism to Ideology. Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents is such an example.

Dogmatism (of whatever form/kind) is always Regressive. There is no such thing as a Good Form of Dogmatism.

Is the Chinese model replicable and should we try and replicate it in India.

US Exceptionalism is Universal, Absolute, Eternal and Inalienable norms.  
Chinese Exceptionalism is they’re Unique and no one can copy their System/Approach.

Reality is of course “somewhere” in the middle (though not absolutely dead center).

Chinese Model in macro terms IS replicable because they themselves are using the Japanese/Asian Tigers model, tweaked heavily and supercharged for their Scale. 

Letting a small set of people decide the economic fate of millions is high risk strategy. If the elite are not good enough, the scale of failure is catastrophic. China from 1949 to 1979 is a good example of the magnitude of that disaster.

1949-79 wasn’t Really a Disaster of the Scale that’s supposed to be evocated here. More Indians died in this timeframe in abject poverty and poor conditions than in PRC. And PRC had the context of starting off from a worse position in 1949 than India had post 1947. So where does that put the Magnitude of the Indian Disaster (since for something to be deemed a Massive Disaster a Frame of Reference is contextually must).

Besides, without the Mao era reforms, there would be no Deng era to take advantage of the result of those earlier reforms (like the Highest Female Labor Force Participation Rate of anywhere in human history, till Vietnam beat that value recently).

In India the state gets it is legitimacy through the process of its election. To forego that for a bet that the unelected elite will deliver on outcomes

This is why in System theory terms a Governance System like Democracy is a Cowardly approach. Because it’s predicated on the Fear of the Worst-of-Humanity.

Chinese System (and even their history accounts for this) acknowledges that Humanity can be nasty (Legalism basically says Humans are Born Evil, though other Chinese philosophies also had counter views but this point is relevant because in practical terms Legalism never went away in China) but the Chinese System also is much more Fearless & Daring. 

It acknowledges Humanity is also capable of producing Elite talent who are simply Better than their peers. And giving them enormous amounts of Power to Govern the State.

So even if this approach leads to more Cycles (up-down), the net effect is that in the long-term they come out ahead because the UP-Cycles are so massive that they cover the damages/stagnation of Down Cycles. While Systems like Democracy has fewer Cycles but the development speed is slow/stagnant even in their UP-Cycles (since the System has no incentive for it to be fast, its only concern is Stable Power Transition and System-Survivability) and hence across generations it will fall behind the Chinese like Systems despite them having upheavals. 

This doesn’t mean All Chinese-like System will always be successful automatically. One still needs other pre-requisite, i.e. Competent Leadership.

Only when these 2 pre-requisites (Leadership & Right System) are satisfied does a State thrive. There is no exception.

Dave
Dave
5 months ago
Reply to  Var

>1949-79 wasn’t Really a Disaster of the Scale that’s supposed to be evocated here. More Indians died in this timeframe in abject poverty and poor conditions than in PRC

This is……questionable to say the least. The horrors unleashed during the ‘cutural revolution’ cannot be washed away by simply pointing to ‘poor conditions’ in India. Do you have any sort of data to back this absurd claim up?

Var
Var
4 months ago
Reply to  Dave

It’s not only not absurd but reality.

Amartya Sen various works often covers this topic, like in Hunger and Public Action.

Besides one doesn’t even need that, a simple calculation using Infant Mortality Rate and Poverty metrics (and basic common sense talking with elders in the family) makes it clear and obvious.

Far more Indians died in India in worse abject conditions than did in China in 49-79 timeframe, despite China being objectively far far worse off at starting points (1947-1949 for both new States).

And morally speaking, Accidental calamity over short timeframe (which is what GLF was, a sporadic 3 year mess that was accidental due to various compounding factors, yes including State Incompetence among those List-parts. CR was more socio-political and less worse than late 50s famine situation) is objectively less Worse than Intentionally Malevolent situation that existed in India over a far far longer timeframe of decades (since everyone, society & leaders, knew what was happening and yet it persisted till early 2000s. Indian poverty and infant mortality metrics only became “Digestible” from utter insanity by 2000).

So yes, “Disaster” is contextual and timeframe is part of that context. If some dire situation lasts decades, that is de facto Intentional acceptance by People and that State. THAT is Disaster of actual horrifying scale. People just find it hard to comprehend because Time-scale of decades is hard for people to comprehend.

Last edited 4 months ago by Var
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