Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai

SUBARNO CHATTARJI

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IN its pursuit of economic prosperity and desire to belong to an increasingly globalized world, Indian policy-makers and politicians continually evoke the example of the ‘West’. Although Europe is a part of that western model, the primary template for all the virtues of modernization and its attendant joys is the US. A 2005 Pew Research Center global poll (the Global Attitudes Project) found that Indians were the most enthusiastic and positive about the US, in sharp contrast to skepticism and cynicism in the UK, France, Spain and Germany. This positive attitude is evident in the proliferation of what is perceived to be quintessentially American lifestyle icons in India, ranging from shopping malls to designer labels, from Ruby Tuesday to the television sitcom ‘Sex and the City’.

The fascination with all things American is reflected in media coverage which includes not only politics and sport but celebrity trivia emanating from Hollywood. The focus on America is intertwined with awareness that there are countries in geographical proximity to India who are closer to the dream of realizing the American utopia and who are far more integrated into the global trade, economic and power systems than India is.

An earlier generation of Indians in the fifties and sixties was hopelessly envious of the Japanese; in the eighties it was the Asian tigers that showed up the inefficiency of India’s economy; and now the object of competition as well as standard of comparison is China. This essay looks at articles in The Times of India dealing with China as well as one internet portal during the Chinese premier’s visit in April 2005. I will be looking at articles published in 2005 only. I have limited the time frame to ensure focus on some primary issues raised by the media coverage rather than be swamped by the volume of that coverage. Indian media’s obsession with matters Chinese is not, of course, limited to 2005 and the issues dealt with in that year are available in articles published earlier and later. However, 2005 was also perceived as an epochal moment in Indo-Chinese relations primarily because of the visit of Premier Wen Jiabao and that may help foreground certain hopes and anxieties that underlie India’s response to China.

 

While there are innumerable China specific articles, it is important to emphasize the extent to which China functions as a constant frame of reference in pieces that are about India’s politics and concerns. A special two-page report on the completion of one year by the present coalition government, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), ‘Worldly-wise India is happy making new friends’, lauded the government for its foreign policy initiatives. It would seem from the article that India is a pivotal player in world politics. ‘China is wooing India, the US is wooing India, so are Japan and Asean, and the Pakistanis are coming in droves. Surely something is going right.’1

Despite the importance of the US in a largely unipolar world, a fact acknowledged by the ten-year Indo-US defence pact signed in June 2005, the order of countries mentioned by Bagchi is not entirely without significance, as she indicates later in the same analysis: ‘China is clearly the feather in the cap. A boundary settlement is just over the horizon and with galloping trade acting as ballast, the Sino-India relationship now has a foundation of trust. If the 21st century belongs to Asia, both India and China will accommodate each other, even as they seek domination. The Indian foreign office is dealing with China with a sophistication that has managed to make strategic partners out of strategic competitors.’2 The boundless optimism of this sentence encapsulates some of the problems and desires that are reflected in most media reports emanating from India.

The boundary settlement, to take the most vexed problem between the two countries, is not really ‘just over the horizon’. There is an assumption here that the ‘ballast of trade’ will offset competition and historical memory, as well as the complexities of the border negotiations. The hope is not entirely false as over the past decade China and India have been willing to proceed with trade ties and allow questions of territory to be taken up later. Indeed China’s recognition of Sikkim as an integral part of India and India’s reciprocal gesture regards Tibet indicated that progress can be made. There are, however, no facile solutions and the border dispute is at the centre of a future of (dis)trust and cooperation between the two countries.

Bagchi’s use of the word ‘wooing’ along with its coy matrimonial connotations, places India at the centre of attention, the reluctant but powerful regional (and perhaps world) power that must be courted assiduously. Bagchi also highlights in passing a theme that recurs in media reportage: that India and China seek both accommodation and domination. The subtext of this is that the two are equal partners, an illusion that most of the Indian media sustains quite ably.

 

The economy and economic facts are a major point of comparison in media reports dealing with the two countries. Achievements or non-achievements are constantly weighed against the Chinese model. For example, an article on the visit of Wal-Mart’s President and CEO, John B. Menzer, to India in May 2005 detailed the excitement triggered by his desire to shop for food and dairy products for his behemoth chain. ‘After Indian textiles, apparel, jewellery and household products, it could well be basmati rice, gulab jamuns, vegetarian cheese, and spices that could find their way on Wal-Mart shelves in global markets.’3

At an obvious level Menzer’s need is for cheaper goods and the buzz is created by India’s ability to export primary products to Wal-Mart. One aspect of the new global economy is the ways in which older trade patterns persist whereby poorer countries export raw materials in exchange for precious foreign exchange and/or aid. Indian corporate leaders are justifiably proud of their new ventures into foreign manufacturing markets, but their share is puny.

 

As Bhushan pointed out, ‘It [Wal-Mart] sources products worth $1 billion from India. In comparison to China that’s small, from where it sources products worth $18 billion.’4 Not only is this a damning comparison that puts the visit and its hype in perspective, it also omits the fact that a major part of products sourced from China are manufactured goods, not primary products such as rice and spices. The divergence in manufacturing is also evident in the number of people employed in that sector in the two countries. ‘In 2005 India employed just seven million people in the formal manufacturing sector, compared to more than a hundred million in China.’5

The accompanying table enumerates differences between India and China (all data is for 2006 unless otherwise noted).

 

China

India

Population

1.31 billion

1.09 billion

Median age

32.7

24.9

Population growth

0.59%

1.38%

Infant mortality

23.1/1000

54.6/1000

Life expectancy

72.6

64.7

Literacy rate

90.9% (2002)

65%

Total GDP (PPP* in trillions)

$8.2

$3.7

GDP per capita (PPP)

$6,300

$3,400

GDP growth, 2005

9.3%

7.6%

Manufacturing (% of GDP, 2003)

39%

16%

Labour force, millions

706

406

Export goods and services (% of world total, 2004)

6%

1%

Percentage living below $1/day

16.6%

34.7%

Electricity consumption (kilowatt hours/person, 2003)

1, 379

435

Internet users (per thousand people, 2004)

75

32

Aircraft departures (2003)

946,000

264,000

Railways (miles)

44,675 (2002)

39,289 (2004)

Percentage of roadways paved

80% (2003)

63% (2002)

* Purchasing Power Parity.

Sources: CIA World Factbook, International Monetary Fund, Foreign Policy, Deutsche Bank, World Bank.6

 

India’s discomfort with China’s manufacturing base was indicated in another article, ‘China far ahead in textile exports’, that dealt with an area in which India is supposed to have a world presence. The article was surprisingly candid about India’s inadequacies in the face of the Chinese juggernaut. ‘We were never in the running for the first place,’ said an official. ‘We aim to come second and we are on track.’7 The only hope seems to lie in protectionist measures taken by the US and EU against the Chinese ‘deluge’. ‘In the wake of the two rounds of quota curb announcements by the US against China this month (May 2005), Assocham (Association of Indian Chambers of Commerce) said India’s textile exports could increase by 50% to those two major markets.’8

Unable to compete, Indian traders give up on the free market and hope that old fashioned trade barriers will help them, which as Pranab Bardhan pointed out, is a ‘sign of Indian defeatism.’9 This is a clear acknowledgement of non-parity and the projection of China as a threat which has to be contained by bigger powers – the US and EU. In its use of the term ‘deluge’ and its alignment with the US and EU the article, perhaps unwittingly, taps into dominant western anxieties about the threat represented by China’s economic clout.

 

In this identification Indian media follows a pattern established by the media in the West. The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Washington Post are just some prominent media entities who have over the years heightened western fears of being swamped by cheap Chinese goods. These representations find their counterpart in academic discourse such as Samuel Huntington’s harping on the challenge represented by China and in political discourse such as Donald Rumsfeld’s characterization of China as a threat to regional security (June 2005).

Underlying these iterations are older patterns of fear related to a period, particularly in the US, when Chinese were both necessary as labour for the Pacific Railroad and despised as the yellow hordes who would overwhelm and contaminate Anglo-Saxon purity. The Chinese were portrayed in popular culture and political discourse as drug-abusing, cheating heathens and their entry into the country frequently referred to in terms of a deluge or pestilence.10 In the 21st century older racist appellations applied to an immigrant community and people are now transferred to encompass the ‘deluge’ of Chinese products which are the metonymic representations of the new yellow peril. In India the fear of Chinese immigration was nonexistent but substituted particularly since 1962 by the dread of invasion. By appropriating these western stereotypes Indian media representations participate in an egregious discourse reflective of national inadequacies. The rhetoric also reflects the difficulty of acknowledging the economic gap between the two nations.

 

Indo-Chinese relations as reflected in political and media discourse in India move between extremities, from the bonhomie of ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai’ (‘India-China are brothers and friends’) to extreme suspicion, and they are not helped by factors such as India’s granting asylum to the Dalai Lama or the 1962 war. There is an acute and simultaneous sense of competitiveness, parity, and inferiority, available most obviously in the realm of information technology. India’s prowess in software and its burgeoning presence in business process outsourcing are acknowledged the world over. Wen Jiabao visited Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, before New Delhi, a sign of the importance that China places on India’s IT industry.

The numbers, however, give the lie to India’s claim as a global giant whether in terms of computers per capita, internet penetration, or share of the world market. Narayan Murthy, founder and CEO of Infosys, the first Indian IT firm to register on the New York Stock Exchange, reminded the industry at home of its paltry presence on the world stage. For example, while India has 99 million telecom users, China has 650 million; India has 15 million internet users, China 94 million.

 

The next category of comparison and national heartburn is the importance of and integration into globalized trade frameworks. Foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows into China are a constant source of envy and amazement, so much so that some media reports attempt to argue against the facts. An Indian internet portal www.rediff.com carried an article by Rajeev Srinivasan, ‘India v China: Startling Economic Facts’, wherein Srinivasan argued that although India may be somewhat behind in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) or FDI, China had cooked its books and the situation is not that bad.

The idea that the Chinese communist government is inherently untrustworthy and economic indices emanating from such sources are grossly inflated is an old one and has been in circulation in the western media for quite a while. Srinivasan cites several such sources ranging from The Economist, Time and Newsweek to the San Jose Mercury News. The titles are indicative of their content: ‘China: how cooked are the books?’, ‘Workers wasteland’, ‘A dragon out of puff’.11 Srinivasan cites with approbation an opinion piece in The Asian Wall Street Journal, ‘India and China: Asia’s tortoise and hare’ where the author Bruce Gilley writes:

‘North Asia’s colossus appears to be a paragon of efficient government and high growth. Its South Asia counterpart seems mired in political stasis and sluggish growth. That view is propagated most forcefully by western investment banks and multinationals, and eagerly embraced by Chinese nationalists and disaffected Indian intellectuals. Yet it is a gross misreading of the comparative achievements of the two countries. A closer reading shows that, in the last two decades, India has done better than China both in social and economic progress and in the expansion of rights and freedoms.’

Gilley has correctly identified craven Indian ‘intellectuals’ – India’s greatest liability – as those most eager to embrace the views of Chinese nationalists. In other words, ‘secular progressives’, Nehruvian Stalinists, JNU-ites and Marxists. Unfortunately for them, they are wrong, as Gilley goes on to demonstrate in the rest of his article.12

 

According to Gilley and Srinivasan it turns out that China inflates its FDI inflows and India underreports its own. Apparently fifty per cent of the FDI in China is actually flight money, Chinese money being rerouted. As a result it turns out that instead of a gap of about $40 billion the difference is much less. In Srinivasan’s words: ‘Therefore, the reported FDI for India is considerably less than the reality: thus, in fact, on an apples to apples comparison, India’s FDI goes up to $8 billion or so and China’s comes down to $20 billion or so: roughly proportional to their nominal GDPs. So it is not the case that India has done frightfully badly in FDI.’13

 

The article is a wonderful combination of factual arm twisting, patriotic jingoism, and intolerance. Gilley’s conflation of ‘Chinese nationalists and disaffected Indian intellectuals’ is eagerly expanded by Srinivasan to blame the pet hate groups of the political right in India ‘"secular progressives", Nehruvian Stalinists, JNU-ites and Marxists’, as if they alone are to blame for the inefficiency, corruption, mismanagement, and bureaucracy that plague Indian industry and economy. There is a bridge here between Chinese communism and its godless Marxist counterpart in India, represented in particular by Jawaharlal Nehru and the university named after him.

Srinivasan concluded: ‘Indians also have no reason to be overawed by a mythical Chinese success story. That is the intent of this essay, to urge Indians to not blindly follow China’s example. This is a real danger, because India’s "intellectuals" are uncritically starry-eyed over China.’14 India need only rid itself of starry-eyed intellectuals and its inferiority complex vis-à-vis China will be sorted. Srinivasan wrote a series of articles for rediff.com and his brand of rhetorical defence is part of the discourse of intolerance and racism noted earlier.

While Srinivasan represents an extremist, untenable, and factually dubious portrait of the relations between India and China, there is another line of defence that the Indian media frequently projects. This is the fact that India is a democracy and China is not. In an op-ed piece in The Times of India, Ashutosh Varshney, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, trotted out the old rhetoric of India’s democratic advantage over China. Varshney’s is a sophisticated argument stating that although China has short term advantages over India, in the long term India has certain institutional advantages over China in the economic and political sphere. ‘Of the many differences in economic institutions, two stand out: world class firms have emerged in India, but not in China; and India’s capital markets are significantly more developed.’15

Varshney cited the authority of Lee Kuan Yew, the father of Singapore, to bolster this belief. The greater advantage, however, is political. ‘The odds are,’ Varshney wrote, ‘that Chinese communists will face a societal challenge in the next decade or so. A society that has gone through a market-based annual growth rate of 7-8% for nearly three decades is almost certain to witness the emergence of a vigorous middle class. Can one imagine a quiescent, 400-500 million strong middle class for long? […] Sooner or later, China’s communist rulers will have to face the prospect of a middle class unrest.’16

 

Predicting the future of nations as complex as India and China is always hazardous, but the trajectory of Varshney’s formulation is interesting, in the ways in which it posits an inevitable clash between the middle class and their rulers, perceiving that class as an engine for societal change. In India’s case it is evident that internal economic liberalization and globalization have led to a burgeoning middle class that is increasingly conservative in its political and religious outlook. The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coincided with the growing clout of the middle class (the main votaries of the BJP) and the besmirching of India’s fabled democracy by genocidal religious riots and bigotry in the public sphere.

 

The rise of fascism in Europe in the 20th century was ably aided by the middle class in Germany and Italy. To perceive the middle class as an agent for societal or pro-democratic change in a post-industrial, globalized world seems optimistic. Varshney’s is a comforting argument but he too ignored the obvious and seemingly insurmountable problems that beset India’s economic and political institutions. While India has an enviable institutional framework for everything ranging from poverty eradication to laws that will protect the elderly against their ungrateful children, there seems to be an almost total disconnect between the framework of laws and institutions and their functioning.

The institutionalization of corruption and communalism, the poor infrastructure – roads, power generation, airports, ports – that continue to hold up economic development, massive poverty and inequity, and almost total lack of social security networks are just some of the problems.17 Even an astute economic analyst such as Pranab Bardhan, who concludes his article with justified caution about ‘looking at deeper social and historical forces than simply referring to an aggregative comparison of an authoritarian and a democratic political regime’, asserts that ‘China is far behind India in the ability to politically manage conflicts.’18 Bardhan compares the Chinese government response to demonstrations in Tiananmen Square with India’s almost continuous handling of dissent.

In this comparative frame Bardhan forgets events such as the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the Babri Masjid demolition, or the 2002 Gujarat riots (to mention just a few recent blots on the Indian democratic horizon), and thereby falls back upon an implicit valorization of democracy over authoritarian government. That India’s management of political conflict has created its own unsavoury history of violence, abuse and insecurity seems to be overlooked. China too faces its share of poverty and inequity as a result of the rapid economic growth over the last two decades and the dismantling of communist economic structures.19 When the Indian media carries stories and analyses trumpeting India’s democracy, one wonders how that in itself is an advantage over China or any country. Is the dichotomy and choice between democracy and what Varshney calls the ‘communist monopoly on power’?20

 

The Indian media casts the differences in these terms and often overlooks endemic problems within India, casting aspersions on China’s human rights records and smug in its own democratic virtue. While the Chinese paradigm is omnipresent it is seldom analyzed for models that India might emulate. The economic boom in China has created inequities but it has the advantage of a revolutionary past which emphasized social equality and literacy, among other aspects of social capital.

To cite Pranab Bardhan again, ‘China has one of the world’s most egalitarian distributions of land cultivation rights that has followed the decollectivisation since 1978 (the size of land cultivated by a household is assigned almost always strictly in terms of the demographic size of the household). In most parts of India for the poor there is no similar rural safety net; and the more severe educational inequality makes the absorption of shocks in the industrial labour market more difficult (to the extent that education and training provide some means of flexibility in retraining and redeployment). […] It is in this sense that it may not be entirely flippant to state that compared to India the Chinese are better capitalists now because they were better socialists before: the egalitarian base has made the shocks of transition to capitalism more bearable.’21

 

China also has a solid manufacturing base which powers its growth. India seems to be attempting to leapfrog over and ignore dire problems (such as poverty, illiteracy, female infanticide) and create a globalized utopia for its middle class.

Gautam Adhikari’s op-ed piece, ‘Dancing their way to Oz’, was emblematic of this desire for an utopic future that blithely erases the uncomfortable present in the very enumeration of that present. He listed the discomfiting facts: ‘A majority of people lives on less than two dollars a day, with a quarter of the population scrounging for subsistence daily on less than a dollar. India figures way near the bottom of the United Nations’ quality of life chart, barely above sub-Saharan nations. A third of the population still can’t read or write after more than half a century of independent growth.’22 Yet these facts can now be discounted because young India is dancing its way to ‘individual dreams of a happy life’ and even if this is illusionary, ‘illusions must not be dismissed out of hand’.23 Perhaps these illusions of democracy, human rights, and moral capital sustain the media in its continuous comparisons with China.

 

Footnotes:

1. Indrani Bagchi, 15 May 2005, p. 12.

2. Ibid. China’s importance in the public imagination in India was also indicated by a Times News Service Poll across eleven cities. ‘In response to a question on which was the bigger achievement of the government – sustaining economic growth or improving ties with neighbours China and Pakistan – the economy took a backseat, with 59% voting for better relations with China and Pakistan.’ Shankar Raghuraman, 15 May 2005, p. 12.

3. Ratna Bhushan, 16 May 2005, p. 19.

4. Ibid.

5. Edward Luce, 2006, p. 49.

6. Henry Chu, 2006, p. 1.

7. Priya Ranjan Dash, 21 May 2005, p. 9.

8. Ibid.

9. Bardhan, 2003, http://globetrotter.berkeley. edu/macarthur/inequality/papers/BardhanCrouching.pdf

10. See Renny Christopher, The Vietnam War/ The American War: Images and Representations in Euro-American and Vietnamese Exile Narratives, 1995, Chapter 3.

11. See The Economist, 14 March 2002 http://www.economist.com/world/asia/displayStory.cfm?story_id=1034342;

Time, 17 June 2002 http://www.time.com/time/asia/covers/1101020617/cover.html;

The Economist, 13 June 2002 http://www. economist.com/surveys/displaystory. cfm?story_id=1164570&CFID= 5099256& CFTOKEN=4ce53d8-e3eeede8-8eb3-4126-8129-2846eef576d6

12. Rajeev Srinivasan, 26 July 2002.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ashutosh Varshney, 9 June 2005, p. 14.

16. Ibid.

17. An aspect of this inequity is indicated by Edward Luce, 2006, p. 52: ‘India produces about a million engineering graduates every year, compared to fewer than 100,000 in either the United States or Europe. However, India’s literacy rate is only 65 per cent whereas China’s is almost 90 per cent.’

18. Bardhan, 2003.

19. See, for example, Pallavi Aiyar, ‘In China a problem of plenty’, 22/06/2006, http://www.thehindu.com/2006/06/22/stories/2006062204011100.htm

20. Varshney, p. 14.

21. Bardhan, 2003.

22. Gautam Adhikari, 16 May 2005, p. 18.

23. Ibid., p. 18.

 

References:

Gautam Adhikari, ‘Dancing their way to Oz’, The Times of India, 16 May 2005.

Indrani Bagchi, ‘Worldly-wise India is happy making new friends’, Sunday Times of India, 15 May 2005.

Pranab Bardhan, ‘Crouching Tiger, Lumbering Elephant: A China-India Comparison’, in K. Basu, P. Nayak, and R. Ray, eds. Markets and Governments, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003. http://globetrotter. berkeley.edu/macarthur/inequality/papers/BardhanCrouching.pdf

Ratna Bhushan, ‘Wal-Mart CEO visit triggers hopes among food, dairy cos’, Business Times, 16 May 2005.

Renny Christopher, The Vietnam War/The American War: Images and Representations in Euro-American and Vietnamese Exile Narratives. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1995.

Henry Chu, ‘Rising tiger chases soaring dragon’, Los Angeles Times, 1 May 2006.

Priya Ranjan Dash, ‘China far ahead in textile exports’, The Times of India, 21 May 2005.

Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India. Little Brown, London, 2006.

Shankar Raghuraman, ‘Never mind the promises, it’s a job well done’, Sunday Times of India, 15 May 2005.

Rajeev Srinivasan, ‘India v China: startling economic facts’, 26 July 2002. http://www. rediff.com/news/2002/jul/26rajeev.htm, downloaded 1 June 2005.

Ashutosh Varshney, ‘China faces uncertain future: India’s democracy holds long-term advantages’, The Times of India, 9 June 2005.

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