The great Chinese detour

Eight years after the year he chose for a forecast, it is powerful and industrial, but no longer socialist, if it ever was. Mao, in good Chinese tradition, had a great sense of history, and by extension a vision of future. In a hugely popular 1967 book, China in the Year 2001, Han Suyin, a Chinese writer, who was educated abroad, wrote beautiful English and was sympathetic to the Maoist project, had tried to project that future China in terms of the changes brought about by the Cultural revolution which was raging then. None of her predictions and those of others who detailed how the red star over China would influence its future have come true. China took a detour from its then chosen path. While the revolution devoured many of its children, the Chinese devoured the revolution after Mao left the scene. It stands tall on the world stage now, 60 years after the founding of the people’s republic, diamond hard in its idea of itself and sure of its role in the world, shorn of romantic illusions of a world revolution.  

But the revolution unleashed the energies of the Chinese. It has the third largest and the fastest growing economy in the  world now, the largest standing army, the largest educated population, an advanced space programme and all the attributes of a modern, powerful state. It dreams big and has some of the biggest creations of human endeavour on its soil. The Chinese have always been obsessed with bigness and greatness.
 China thought it was the centre of the world and built the biggest things -- the Great Wall, the Old Summer Palace of the Emperor with thousands of rooms, which was the greatest building of the earth and took many days for the British and the French to burn down. In modern China, the Long March, the biggest dam, the highest rail line, the tallest buildings, the fastest trains, the biggest Olympic show. It is being built in the mould of the past by a people whose collective imagination works in the superlative degree.
The egalitarian revolution was only a transient event in China’s long history. It awakened the Chinese spirit, but the very process weakened the ideology of the revolution. Mao perhaps realised this, he himself sat on the Manchu throne. The Cultural revolution was his last desperate attempt to salvage the Marxist idea from the torrent of the past. He failed, and the new China is reconnecting to its pre-communist past, reviving the Confucian order and drawing sustenance for future from history. Its nationalism is shaped not by the sense of commonality of the working class but by the idea of uniqueness and superiority of the Chinese nation. The Chinese emperor’s letter to King George III in the 18th century which made it clear that China has no use of trade or any other contact with the outside world because it is a self-contained world was an indicator of the Chinese attitude to the outsider. But it cannot shut itself off from the world as it did for thousands of years, and so the next possible option is to shape the world in the idiom of its historical relationships with subordinate kingdoms within the empire. If Mao wanted to paint the world red, his successors might think of reshaping the world in the image of the empire. Its past is churning its present, and the world’s future may churn in its present.

Civilisational counterpoint

India, China’s civilisational counterpoint, has taken a different course in its 60 years of freedom. Till two centuries ago, the two countries between themselves had almost half the world’s GDP. But they had entirely different ideas of themselves and ways of dealing with the world. India had allowed the world to shape it; it has a composite, as against a unitarian, nationalism; had never defined itself sharply, and possibly did not have a clear idea of the otherness of the world. It had no great sense of history. It presents a civilisational model different from China’s. In the coming decades both will come in closer contact than in the past and it is not unlikely that there will be friction.

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