By Swapan Dasgupta
The most interesting feature of the 60th anniversary jamboree in Beijing last Friday was its reportage. In a seven-column, front-page report, the editor of The Hindu (who was favoured with “ringside seats” of the choreographed event) was bowled over by the proceedings. With breathlessness that seemed a prosaic re-run of Leni Riefenstahl’s breathtaking documentary on the Berlin Olympics of 1936, he proclaimed: “China celebrated the 60th birthday of the People’s Republic in magnificent style, parading its new high-tech military prowess and showcasing its post-1978 economic development and its rapid rise on the world stage in a 150-minute Tian’anmen event that did not neglect to refer back to 20th century revolutionary history. In the process, it sent out a clear message that while the country is strong and determined enough to use all its resources to protect its interests — beginning with the “one China” imperative — what it wants above all is an internal and external environment conducive to development and the improvement of the lives of 1.3 billion people.” Phew!
The Hindu editor attached a great deal of significance to President Hu Jintao’s speech on the occasion which “left no doubt about the path along which China was headed”. Among other things, Hu proclaimed: “We must unswervingly follow the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics…and the reform and opening-up policy…The development and progress of New China over the past 60 years fully proved that only socialism can save China and only reform and opening up can ensure the development of China, socialism, and Marxism.”
The Hindu’s endorsement of China’s vision recalled a line penned by American journalist Lincoln Steffens after a visit to the Soviet Union in 1920: “I have been over into the future and it works.” In 1949, Mao took over a devastated, poor country. This year, China overtook the US as the biggest market for luxury goods. If only Mont Blanc had produced a limited edition Mao fountain pen!
The Hindu’s gush-gush was in sharp contrast to a New York Times report of September 30 which quoted Zhang Ming, professor of politics at Renmin University in Beijing, as saying: “There is no ideology in China anymore. The Government has no ideology. The people have no ideology. The reason the Government is in power is because they can say: ‘I can make your lives better every day. I can give you stability. And I have the power.’ As long as they make people’s lives better, it’s OK.” As an afterthought, the professor asked: “What happens on the day when they no longer can?”
That’s a question which has preoccupied the rulers in Beijing. Describing the arrangements for the Tian’anmen parade, Peter Foster of London’s Daily Telegraph observed things Indians, quite inexplicably, don’t. “At a time when China has more than most countries to celebrate”, he wrote, “the Party still does not dare to invite the people on to the streets to celebrate its 60th year in power. Some 200,000 carefully vetted students and volunteers will take part in the made-for-TV parade, but ‘security considerations’ will keep the common man at a safe distance. Not unlike the opening night of the Olympics, where the streets of Beijing were devoid of celebrations, it will be an impressive, but strangely joyless affair.”
In The Wall Street Journal, Gordon G Chang, author of the ominously titled The Coming Collapse of China, suggested that the Chinese Government is “deeply insecure”: “The theme of the celebration is ‘The Motherland and I, Marching Together.’ But so great is the regime’s worry about possible unrest or disruption in protest of its rule that the laobaixing — ordinary Chinese — will not be walking in Beijing’s parade. There will be no cheering crowds lining the route along Chang’an Avenue. Citizens will be kept away by a six-province security perimeter and more than a million police and ‘volunteers’ enforcing the tightest security in the country’s history. The Government has booked all the hotel rooms overlooking the route to prevent anyone from seeing the parade up close. Nearby residents have been ordered not to look out their windows or invite guests.”
Those who witnessed the Chinese panic over the passage of the Olympics torch through New Delhi will know that Chang isn’t exaggerating.
What should we in India make of these sharply divergent perceptions of the Middle Kingdom? The one which comes through from “ringside” seats reserved for the ideologically blessed is an awesome military power, goose-stepping its way into the future and proclaiming socialism. The other perception is of an entrepreneurial people in a mad rush to prosperity, slightly cynical about the Party and those in power. Both perceptions are real because China, like India, is home to a million truths.
Both images also serve a purpose. The spectacle of 50 new weapons systems unveiled for the first time by a determined People’s Liberation Army is calculated to put the fear of god into non-militarised societies. It is aimed at intimidating both the non-Han minorities within and nations who imagine that they can compete with China economically, host the “splittist Dalai clique” and, worse, question China’s imperial boundaries.
The other view of a “normal” society where people can abuse the rulers is meant to reassure democratic societies that China isn’t a latter-day version of the regime that built autobahns, won medals at the Olympics and manufactured the Mercedes Benz and the Volkswagen. Actually, placating the soft West proved remarkably easy. The Empire State Building was lit up in China’s national colours and Bejing’s Ambassador in London was given space by the bleeding-heart Guardian to prove China’s “democratic” virtues.
Money, it would seem, works wonders in the capitalist heartland. As for those States that share an undefined border with China, guns can do the talking.