|China and India: Oh to be different|
By Pallavi Aiyar
China had it all planned out. Or so it seemed. With the Beijing Summer Olympic Games only a few months away, the flashy sports stadiums, the world's biggest airport and kilometers of extended subway lines combined to serve as gleaming testaments to the country's dramatic material progress. Efforts had even been made to transform Beijingers themselves for their Olympic debut, from surly communists suspicious of foreign barbarians into smiling, service-oriented folk welcoming "foreign friends" to their city in English.
But as the events of the past few days have shown with protests against Chinese rule of Tibet spreading from Lhasa to parts of Gansu and Sichuan provinces, Beijing has been caught unprepared in its ability to deal with dissent. It is this inability, moreover, that will prove to be the country's greatest vulnerability going forward; its Achilles' heel as it strives for great power status.
As Beijing desires the Olympics to demonstrate, much in China has changed in recent years, often at a dizzying pace. The successes in poverty reduction are an awesome achievement. Beijing in 2008, with its slew of vertiginous skyscrapers, flood of fancy cars and array of malls boasting the most luxurious of luxury brands, is a far cry from the capital city of Mao Zedong suits and bicycles in the not so distant past.
However, while much has changed, China's response to the events in Tibet is also indicative of how much remains unchanged. The official response to the protests in Lhasa and elsewhere, the most serious in two decades, do not indicate the discovery by Beijing of "Olympic-new" savvy ways of crisis control. Instead, the Chinese people and the world have only been subjected to the same old tired responses officialdom resorts to given any sign of discontentment among the Tibetan population.
This is a response that essentially amounts to a denial of any fundamental problem. The elements are familiar: a scapegoating and vilification of the Dalai Lama, a refusal to grant any legitimacy to Tibetan disaffection and an insistence on the myth of elemental "harmony" among all "Chinese" people, including Tibetans.
This denial of legitimate differences is ultimately the greatest difference between China and Asia's other major rising power, India.
Indians who visit Chinese cities are invariably awestruck by the infrastructure. They look at the silken-smooth multi-lane highways with barely concealed envy, no doubt comparing them to the pot-holed clumps of tar more familiar as roads back home. They marvel at the relatively orderly flow of traffic on the broad avenues, unobstructed by stray cows. They remark on the absence of slums and beggars on the streets.
China has not only built cities that are almost impossibly modern from an Indian point of view, it has also provided jobs and opportunities for upward mobility for millions of migrant workers from the countryside.
China's economic achievement over the past 30-odd years has in fact been unparalleled historically. However, a point usually unrecognized by Indians impressed by China's glitter is the fact that so is India's political feat.
China's southern neighbor's democracy is almost unique among post-colonial states not simply for its existence but its existence against all odds in a country held together not by geography, language or ethnicity but by an idea. This is an idea that asserts, even celebrates, the possibility of multiple identities. In India, you can and are expected to be both many things and one thing simultaneously.
Your correspondent is thus a Delhite, an English speaker, half a Brahmin, half a Tamilian, a Hindu culturally, an atheist by choice, a Muslim by heritage. But the identity that threads these multiplicities together is at once the most powerful and most amorphous: she is an Indian.
India's great political achievement is thus in its having developed mechanisms for negotiating large-scale diversity along with the inescapable corollary of frequent and aggressive disagreement. The guiding and perhaps lone consensus that forms the bedrock of that mechanism is that in a democracy you don't really need to agree - except on the ground rules of how you will disagree.
In direct contradistinction to China, India's polity has flourished precisely because of its ability to acknowledge difference. The very survival of India as a country, given the scope of its bewildering diversity, has been dependent on the possibility of dissent.
India is a country of 22 official languages and over 200 recorded mother tongues. In this "Hindu" country, there are more Muslims than in all of Pakistan. The country's cultural inheritance includes fire-worshiping Zorastrians and Tohra-reciting Jews. With no single language, ethnicity, religion or food, India is quite simply, implausible; yet marvelously, it isn't. It is a country without a language, without a center, lacking singularity except in being singularly diverse.
In China, regular lip service is also paid to the country's own, considerable diversity. During the National People's Congress' annual session, for example, delegates representing China's multiplicity of minorities swish around the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in their "ethnic" dresses. Beijing regularly talks of the religious freedoms enjoyed by the country's Buddhists, Christians and Muslims.
But in fact, the fundamental tenet of China's political philosophy is not diversity but uniformity. This homogeneity does not only extend itself to the tangible, such as architecture or the system of writing alone, but also to thought.
Even in the modern China of the 21st century where there are more Internet users than even in the United States, those who disagree with mainstream, officially sanctioned views outside of the parameters set by mainstream officially sanctioned debate, more often than not find themselves branded as dissidents - suspect, hunted, under threat.
The insistence on "harmony" as the only reality and inability to admit genuine differences in interest and opinions between the peoples of a country of the size and complexity of China is ultimately the country's greatest weakness.
Talk of political reform in China continues to be bound by the "harmonious" parameters set by Hu Jintao, the president. The idea is that everyone's interests and opinions are to be balanced and resolved without conflict.
Oppositional politics with the clash of argument remain anathema. Consensus for the good of the whole nation is the way forward, we are told.
To imagine that these pious prescriptions will be adequate to address growing tensions within Chinese society as it evolves and changes is foolhardy. The interests of the laid-off worker and multinational executive are divergent, as are those of the real estate developer and the city-dweller about to have her home destroyed to make way for a mall.
These are conflicts that need to be acknowledged so that effective mechanisms for their resolution can then be identified.
As the recent protests have demonstrated, despite over 50 years of suppression and "patriotic education", a strong strain of resentment against Beijing's rule continues to simmer in Tibet. During this time period the region's economy has benefited from Chinese-developed infrastructure, literacy rates are also on the up and health care has improved. Nonetheless, large swathes of dissatisfaction with Beijing's policies persist.
For China's authorities to simply deny the reality of the problem, blame all tension on an exiled leader and insist that the majority of Tibetans couldn't be happier with the Communist Party's harmonious policies, is self-defeating.
Given this stance whether or not the Chinese authorities react with "leniency" towards the protesters, the damage to their reputation internationally is assured.
Looking ahead to the Olympics and beyond, China would in fact do well to look to India, the neighbor it usually scorns as poor and chaotic, to understand the strength that acknowledging differences can provide.
Harmony is a laudable goal, but sometimes a little dissent is the mark of a truly healthy society.
Pallavi Aiyar is the author of the forthcoming book, Smoke and Mirrors: China Through Indian Eyes, (Harper Collins, April 2008.)
(Copyright 2008 Pallavi Aiyar.)