Oith memories of 1962 still fresh in Indian minds, President Xi Jinping’s statement to the current 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress that China must be able “to easily organize military operations, create a secure environment, to deter and control risks and conflicts, and to win regional wars”, is a bad omen because we have no idea what China will do.
Our public understanding of China is woefully inadequate. What little we know about our giant neighbor comes from books, mostly written by retired diplomats. These reinforce India’s perception of China as a difficult country to manage. Several recent books have attempted to lift the curtain to better understand China’s domestic and foreign policy. Think of Nirupama Rao, a former Indian ambassador to China, The fractured Himalayas: India Tibet China 1949-1962by Natwar Singh My Diary from China 1956-88AS Bhasin Nehru, Tibet and China or Vijay Gokhale Tiananmen Square: The Making of a Protest. Also add to the list the 2020 book by Ananth Krishnan, India’s Chinese Challenge: A Journey Through China’s Rise and What It Means for India. Krishnan’s appreciation of Chinese history, reinforced by his travels through China and his interactions with many Chinese, including dissidents, and interviews with many Chinese, gives us a balanced account of a proud, deeply troubled and insecure country, with its people, despite all its material prosperity, enduring relentless surveillance and control by the Chinese state.
For even deeper accounts of China, however, we must look west. The West, unlike India, has been engaged with China for decades. For all their rivalry, over the past four decades Chinese students have studied in their thousands at top universities in America, Europe and Australia. In many of these universities, they constitute the largest foreign presence. Likewise, several fine Western schools and universities are present in China where Western journalists and experts, fluent in Mandarin, have studied China over the decades. Their works are the most reliable we can get our hands on. The latest from Hong Kong-based academic Frank Dikötter, the acclaimed author of Mao’s Great Famine: The Story of China’s Most Devastating Disaster 1958-1962is one.
His well-written new book, China after Mao: the rise of a superpower (September 2022), is widely acclaimed for the depth of its research based on data and archival materials that are no longer available to scholars. Dikötter’s book shows how badly China is managed economically, how difficult its rise is and how its long-term stability is compromised, in particular due to the actions of a reinforced president, Xi Jinping, the ” president of everything”.
China’s rise to superpower status, second only to the United States, is real, however. Dikötter’s story should therefore be read with Mark Leonard’s 2008 book, What does China think? and another by Chinese-American economist Yukon Huang’s Solving the China Riddle: Why Conventional Economic Wisdom Is Wrong (2017).
Leonard and Huang both point out what Dikötter underestimates: the fact that China, however inadequately, thinks well and that its spectacular economic success – perhaps one of the greatest in human history – is the result of well-thought-out political measures.
China’s economic transformation may be running out of steam. Its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been draconian and its population is in decline exacerbated by its longstanding one-child policy. Another major failure appears to be an opaque state-controlled economy which, among other things, has led to the dramatic collapse of its real estate sector, with a single builder, Evergrande, $300 billion in debt.
China’s long-term economic outlook is certainly poor, but not so much because of its over-leveraged construction sector. China’s economic policies have led to a huge and unbridgeable urban-rural divide, leaving more than 600 million Chinese impoverished and precarious and mostly out of sight. Stanford University development economist Scott Rozelle, who has spent decades researching China, reveals this in great detail in his book (co-authored with Natalie Hell), China Invisible: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China’s Rise. According to Rozelle, China’s long-term outlook is bleak, mainly because most of its population, contrary to popular perception, “lacks the skills to move up the supply chain”, with 70% of its unskilled and unfit labor force. more than manual labor.
With so many books on China coming out with such frequency, anyone interested in the country would do well to start with renowned historian Michael Wood’s wonderfully illuminating and entertaining book, The history of China: portrait of a civilization and its peoplerevealing China, its warts and all, while unhesitatingly pointing out Western and Japanese depredations of the country through the 19th and 20th centuries, a period the Chinese bitterly recall as their “century of humiliation”.
Thanks to this book, written for a popular audience, we can better understand why the Chinese behave the way they do, and read other writers to better understand a country that Indians need to know better and engage more. widely, as the West does. .
The writer teaches public policy and contemporary history at IISc, Bengaluru. Views are personal.