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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2007 > October 13, 2007 > China : Where is the Red Star?

Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 43

China : Where is the Red Star?

Tuesday 16 October 2007, by Nikhil Dey


[(Last week the Chinese people observed the fiftyeighth anniversary of their Revolution that transformed the face of the country in a short span of time. But what is the present reality in China? A well-known social activist explores.

The only thing that is ‘communist’ in China today is the name. That is my overwhelming impression at the end of a ten-day visit to the People’s Republic of China as part of an official youth and panchayati raj delegation from India. Despite expecting to see it, China’s booming economy, its remarkable growth rate, its great strides in infrastructure development in the cities and on the highways has left a lasting impression. But the trip to China was a learning drawn primarily from the things less talked about, the sights not seen, the people we did not meet. Eventually, we all realised towards the end of the trip that our challenge was to chase elusive information, and to be able to mentally break free from the prefabricated guided tour of hotels, banquets, formal meetings, presentations, and showcased sites that had been planned for us.

If the objective of this trip was for the people of the two countries to meet “people to people” as it were, then much more will have to be done to achieve this objective. The marked reluctance of our Chinese hosts to encourage, or even allow such interactions were an obvious hurdle. As a result, much of this trip was spent looking at buildings (many of them impressive in different ways), travelling between places in a bus or aero- plane (where our companions were primarily our fellow delegates), attending banquets and elaborate meals (again we primarily met ourselves), and listening to presentations or guides where personal interaction with the Chinese people was almost impossible. The rare instance where this interaction was facilitated or possible, it flowered and became the emotional highpoint of the trip.

Two examples show the great potential that exists. First was the interaction between students from India and the National Aeronautics and Astro-nomics University on the 14th afternoon in Nanjing. In a short period of three-four hours the young people demonstrated how language and distance can be so comprehensively overcome, and emotional bonds can be forged. It also showed the Indian delegates how much warmth and goodwill there is amongst the ordinary Chinese for India and Indians. After playing games, walking, talking, eating, and finally dancing together to a modernised Bhangra, the strength of these meetings was obvious. Two-three young Chinese even shed tears when the Indians left after dinner that night—perhaps an indication of the eagerness that exists in China to meet the outside world.

Tears were also shed (this time on both sides) when the Indians parted from the two Radio China reporters who accompanied the team till the last day. Strong friendship and bonds had been struck during the ten days the two young journalists had spent with us, and the physical distance that still exists between the peoples of the two countries came home as the Indians left for India.

If this was an illustration of both the potential and existing barriers to personal interaction, the interactions with people who were experts in their fields were even more difficult and challenging. Once again, our Chinese hosts took us to predetermined places with packaged presentations, and interactions that were superficial at best. The power-point presentation made on the day we arrived (June 7) at the Beijing Economic Development Zone could have been done anywhere, including at the hotel or even in a room in India for that matter! A young woman made the presentation, and having invited questions, proceeded to side-step every one of them. We were driven 45 minutes to the entrance of the Economic Development Zone, shown a power-point at the visitors’ centre, and promptly driven back to the hotel. We saw nothing of the economic zone. Obviously, this didn’t help answer any of the questions we had about our own controversial Special Economic Zones, purportedly inspired by and modelled on China.

The experience at the employment exchange of the All China Youth Federation at the morning of the 14th in Nanjing was similar. We heard a ‘set’ presentation, got superficial answers to our questions, and when I asked them for a copy of the contract they require employers and their beneficiaries to sign, they said that would give it immediately. But despite repeated reminders all through the rest of the trip they failed to give us a copy. They have now promised to send it by fax, but it seems very unlikely that the document, innocuous as it is, will arrive at all. Clearly the Chinese authorities only tell you as much as they feel you need know.

On the other hand, the unexpected, but welcome, trip to Dali and Zhou Cheng village was an example of how much could be gained in understanding China and its systems, if the delegates are given a little more detailed exposure to their own areas of specialisation and interest. Thanks to the insistence of Mani Shanker Aiyer, the Union Minister for Panchayati Raj, a visit was organised to the local government office of Zhou Cheng village. Although we were all aware that this would also be a model village, in all probability showcased for us, at least it was a genuine local government office. Just by being there for two hours, we were able to arrive at some understanding of governance structures and processes at the local level. The (Panchayat) office also served as a party office. One important function was “family planning”, which was the first room we were taken to in this impressive looking panchayat office. The room plastered with charts told the story of how the one-child norm/policy is enforced in China. This was a village of the Bai “ethnic minority” and therefore they had a concession—they could have two children with a minimum four-year gap between the two children.

We had heard about the concessions that were given to minority communities but in the Panchayat office we realised that the concession was restricted to two children, and not the family’s choice as we had heard earlier. It was also clear that the population control norms were strictly enforced. Heavy penalties, loss of jobs, even confiscation of land would be the possible consequence of violating the norm. Abortion was therefore quite obviously legal and “heavily subsidised”!

That it was not free, was the first in a series of shocks we got about government programmes for the poor and the marginalised. Nothing was free. We learned during the discussions, and while walking around the village that crèches, schooling and health had some amount of subsidy but were certainly not free. Even the poorest had to pay something. The old-age pension being offered was pathetically low: 8 RMB (Rs 48) per month for those above 60, and 15 RMB (Rs 90) per month for those above 65. A single street-food meal in Bejing or Nanjing, for instance, cost between 5 and 8 RMB. Even land regulations were changing. We were informed in our meeting that the equal distribution of plots of land for cultivation was now being altered by encouraging farmers to consolidate into larger plots by ‘buying over’ the rights to farm their neighbour’s land. As even farming moves towards contract farming and corporatisation, it is clear that Mao’s “iron rice bowl” in Communist China has shattered.

The meeting in the “Panchayat office” was interesting. The local government official and elected village leader made presentations. They emphasised the economic growth rate in the area, how the village had integrated itself in tourism— the number one money spinner for Dali , and how they were encouraging entrepreneurs to set up their own businesses. The presentation was followed by some questions from the Indian Panchayati Raj Minister, who introduced the rest of us in the Indian delegation present in Dali, and invited us to ask a couple of questions.

Who was the boss between the three authorities in the Panchayat? The party, the elected head, the bureaucrat? How many staff did the Panchayat have? How much of the tax revenue, that was collected locally, was kept by the Panchayat, and what was its power to hire and fire? What were the Central Government programmes that were implemented by the village government? How often were elections held? How many people were elected? These were some of the questions asked, and answers this time did seem to come.

It was clear that those answering were not as practised in evading questions, and that some effort was being made to give us answers. We were all (about twenty of us) seated round an oblong conference table. The fact that this particular local government office was well endowed, was evident from the conference table and chairs as well as the two-storied building which had rooms built around a square courtyard open to the sky.

The answers themselves were fairly direct. The elected head of the village council drew up proposals and plans, the Communist Party leader amended and approved, and the government official implemented as per the rules and regulations. Seven staff were appointed by the government, and salaries for five elected representatives were also provided by the government. Other staff could be hired by the “Panchayat ”from its own resources. The Q&A session was called to a halt because we were told it was time for lunch. But the last request from one of the Indians had been to meet some of the villagers. The Minister had also earlier said that he would like to walk through the village, and we had said we would like to see the local government run school and hospital.

As our hosts kept urging us to leave for the hotel to eat, the Minister insisted that he would first like to take a short walk through the village. This was reluctantly agreed to. We were off walking out of the office onto the road, and then into a lane, the Minister in front and the whole entourage following. The Chinese officials watched quite nonplussed as the Minister chose his own route almost as if he were in India on an unscheduled visit to a village!

This village, on the outskirts of Dali, was in a fairly well-developed area, almost urban, with a lot of money from tourism. As a result, we saw fairly large pucca houses, well-made roads, and few very poor people. However, we did see the village crèche—a nice large three-storied building with brightly coloured children’s paintings on the outside wall. It was a Sunday; so the crèche was closed. We were informed that the children were given three meals a day. However, despite it being a government crèche, parents had to pay 100 RMB (Rs 600) per month as fees. This is a large sum of money for any poor person in China.

The story in the hospital was similar—a nice clean building, well staffed , but medical treatment with user fees which varied according to income. There was a transparency list stuck on the wall showing government subsidies of one-eighth to one-fourth for medical bills paid by the people who had been sent to referral public hospitals of the area. The amount that people had to pay ranged from 300 RMB (Rs 1800) to 5000 RMB ( Rs 30,000). How could the poor afford this?—we wondered.

What the Chinese officials did show us as their examples of progress, that is, the economic zone in Beijing, the ethnic “village” in Nanjing, Hauxi “village” on the Nanjing-Shanghai highway, were a superficial look at stops on a development tourism tour. In fact the two villages had almost nothing that even illustrated genuine village life. The ethnic village turned out to be a caricature of the lifestyle of the minorities of China. The architecture of the ‘model’ homes was certainly interesting, but would have been better displayed in an ethnographic museum. The rest—dressed up tribals, their periodic dances, mixed with amusement park gimmicks and shops selling cheap popular replicas—made this seem like ‘Dilli Haat’, ‘Appu Ghar’, and ‘Chokhi Dhani’ rolled into one. For China’s three per cent minority population, this form of preservation of culture leads to a fear that they might eventually be reduced to such amusement parks where they become curio pieces for tourists from the rest of the country and other parts of the world. The trip to Dali, on the other hand, had given a small but far more natural glimpse into the lives of the Bai minority who inhabited the area. Hauxi village was not a village by any stretch of the imagination. There seemed to be nothing rural about it, and strangely enough, apart from the guides who were taking us round, and the people serving food in the visitors centre, it seemed to be quite uninhabited.

We saw a park with statues of animals, dragons, bells, and communist leaders of yore. Only tourists were in the park. We saw a lively variety entertainment show performed by pro-fessionals hired from outside. We talked to a few of the people working in the garden. They told us that they were bussed in from outside the village, worked during the day for wages of RMB 20 per day, and left in the evening for their homes. Where were the village residents? Where did those who lived in these huge fancy villas work? If it was as managers in manufacturing units around, it would have been very useful for us to see some of those units. Where, for instance, were all those goods produced that were flooding the Indian market as well as markets around the world? What were the modes of production, the working conditions, the impact on the environment, the effect of facilitation by the government, the relationship with the market? Were any of these manufacturing zones akin to Special Economic Zones? These were some of many of the unanswered questions we returned to India with. It would have been of immense benefit to the purpose of mutual exchange to have seen the process, rather than the showcased end product of all these efforts.

What struck us as extraordinary in the course of the entire visit, was the invisibility of people in the most populous country in the world.

But one learns even from what one is not shown. We did also get a glance into the real China while driving through the cities and looking beyond the barriers on the side of the highway. The conversations with our Chinese chaperones, and the few ordinary Chinese some of us managed to meet, gave us a real feel of their warmth and helpfulness. Some of us did manage quick visits to fruit, vegetable, and meat markets which were as lively and distinctive as a haat or subzi market is in India. The very impressive infrastructure in all the places we visited was undoubtedly real. But so was the poverty that could not be entirely hidden away. We saw ragpickers rummaging through the rubbish just outside the fancy IT park we were taken to in Nanjing. The English language China Star carried a story on its front page on the day we left Shanghai, about hundreds of children being rescued from the bondage of brick-kiln owners who were making them work eighteen hours a day on buns and water. There was news of a Chinese Minister being sentenced to death after being found guilty of corruption in giving drug manufacturing licenses. One could feel the all-pervasive presence of the Communist Party, and palpably feel the fear (some called it respect for authority) it evokes. But, while looking out for signs of a communist state it was all too evident that the principles of communism were being abandoned. Even the rhetoric was missing.

India and China face many similar challenges—large scale poverty with tremendous growth rates. It is good to appreciate China’s success in the infrastructure development and manufacturing sectors. But it is also good to appreciate the strength of democracy, the power of our RTI (Right To Information law), and the scale and ambition of our National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). In many ways, I came away convinced that India showed more signs of socialism than China, and given our own capitalist ambitions, that is surely saying a lot. In the few conversations I had with interested Chinese, they expressed their wonder at the conception of an NREGA. A Right To Information Act of the kind India has is unimaginable in China today. To conceive of a meaningful support for the poor combined with a commitment to democracy is a creative objective on a grand scale. Sometimes looking at India from abroad brings out the strengths and blessings. In our imperfect democracy there is much to be thankful for. Quite rightly, we spend most of our time analysing our own shortcomings. A flawed communist state does not excuse a flawed democracy. One of India’s greatest strengths is that we can talk about the failures. When you first acknowledge and then address the failures, there is always the hope that you will overcome them. By visiting each other, China and India, can work towards understanding the strengths, and recognising weaknesses, of the respective systems. If we improve the quality of our exchange, we will certainly come closer to the objective of mutual understanding and mutual benefit. As the two countries hurtle along with high growth rates and many related problems, open exchanges, and frank sharing of experiences would be of immense mutual benefit for the “two great and ancient civilisations, with a long history of peace and friendship”.

The author is a leading activist of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) working in village Devdungri, post Barar, district Rajasamand in Rajasthan.

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