Which would you choose: India’s Democracy or China’s Harmony?

It’s hibernation time again for the duck, but I found this article so intriguing that I’m pasting it in full. Having never studied Indian politics or history and having never been there, I can’t claim to have any special insight into this comparison. One thing I do have at least some thoughts about is China’s unique vision of “harmony,” a pretty word with sinister undertones and an important aspect of the author’s comparison.

Poor, chaotic India vs. shiny, harmonious China (at least in the the big three cities, which to most of the world is China). Is the comparison fair? Could China really learn some lessons from India that would have helped them avoid the tragic debacle in Tibet? I’m wondering.

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.)

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 72 Comments

@Anonymous,

The cynical part of me asks: China’s already accused (and convicted in the minds of many) of genocide, mass shootings, and an attempt to flood Tibet with Han Chinese. How much worse could the “PR disaster” get if China actually implemented those policies?

As far as Tibet being a drain… the population of Algeria is 30 million, the population of France is 60 million. Looking at Portugal… the population of Portugal is 10 million, and the population of her African colonies is several times that.

That’s a huge, huge difference from the situation in China/Tibet. Tibetans represent 0.3% of the Chinese population! As I mentioned earlier, the city of Chengdu itself has a population 5 times that of the total Tibetan population. I suspect just the civilian police in Sichuan province could win in a shooting war.

If we want to look at analogies, based on population and scale, it seems like the American and Canadian experience with their North American colonies is much more representative.

March 20, 2008 @ 7:58 am | Comment

If, as you say, China has already been accused and convicted in the court of global public opinion, then what IYO *has* stopped China from actually implementing them?

March 20, 2008 @ 8:13 am | Comment

So what it boils down to is that the PRC people want Tibet, and none of the rest of the world is willing to step up to the plate for the Tibetan’s, so it’s the PRC’s. Bottom line. I hope, CCT, that you’re at least willing to admit that the Tibetan nationalist who is proud of what he sees as his nation, is no less objectively justified in his claim to Tibet than the Chinese nationalist, even if he is out numbered 500 to 1.
What I find particularly disgusting about the position that alot of the PRC Chinese seem to be taking, at least on this blog, is that though Tibet is part of China, the Tibetans are definitely not. They seem to just be squatters in their homes, allowed to stay at the sufferance of the real Chinese. Funny thing is, the CCP, in my mind, is taking a far fairer and more reasonable stance on this issue than its subjects.

March 20, 2008 @ 8:18 am | Comment

@CCT

Regarding the idea of Chinese allegiance, I think the realistic solution would be as I outlined in another thread, for China to renounce the CCP and Communism and embrace Tibetan Buddhism, ideally by bringing back a Buddhist emperor who would be a follower of the Dalai Lama. Then the Tibetans would have no problem declaring allegiance to China. I think this would be a win-win situation for everyone.

An additional benefit that people across the world could celebrate would be greater state patronage for the Shaolin Monastery.

The 17-point agreement is a non-starter and honestly I think you should be ashamed to even mention it. I agree it talks about autonomy, but it was signed at gunpoint, under duress. Nobody makes ‘agreements’ that way. Imagine if Japan demanded action on the 1922 treaty that guarantees their sphere of influence in Manchuria. This sort of nonsense doesn’t fly.

Two other issues:

1. Racism. You say you have worked for a multi-ethnic China. A prerequisite for that is a strong anti-racist policy, otherwise it’s all wishes and hot air. For decades everything said by ordinary Chinese about Tibetans has been so breathtakingly racist that I can’t imagine any non-Han wanting to live in the same state as these people. How can you even think about a successful multi-ethnic state without fixing that *first*? You can’t expect the minorities to take it on faith that it will change — after all they are the ones who suffer because of it.

2. Freedom of speech – are you willing to stand up for the principle that ‘I may not like what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’? This is only about speech, not actions. Are you prepared for a First Amendment that would protect the right of a Tibetan to hold up a Free Tibet poster anywhere in China, as long as he did it peacefully? Because in the context of that freedom you can start a dialogue. In the absence of it you’re just locking people up and shooting them, which doesn’t encourage dialogue.

March 20, 2008 @ 8:33 am | Comment

“Imagine if Japan demanded action on the 1922 treaty that guarantees their sphere of influence in Manchuria.”

Or indeed, imagine if the UK had demanded that HK remain British after 1997 according to treaty rights?

Oh, that’s right, they did, and the Chinese claimed that the treaty was “unequal” and therefore void. Strange how the Chinese are unable to see how the 17-pt. agreement might be considered to have been signed under duress.

March 20, 2008 @ 8:36 am | Comment

@Rohan
“Regarding the idea of Chinese allegiance, I think the realistic solution would be as I outlined in another thread, for China to renounce the CCP and Communism and embrace Tibetan Buddhism”
You think that they can just be told to embrace Tibetan Buddhism, eh?

March 20, 2008 @ 8:46 am | Comment

@Rohan
Just hand power over to a tiny minority for the sake of keeping the country together? That was kind of what happened with the Jin, Yuan, and Qing dynasties wasn’t it?

March 20, 2008 @ 8:49 am | Comment

@Rohan
Hell, better yet, let Tenzin Gyatso *be* the Huang Di, and every reincarnation after him. Then you have a rock solid dynastic succession plan. Except for the Shaolin temple thing, which I imagine they were perceive as being from a rival sect of Buddhism and burn to the ground, its a damn good plan.

March 20, 2008 @ 8:53 am | Comment

And Li Hongzhi could be the Zongli, then you have pretty much everything wrapped up. Except perhaps offering the whole thing as a puppet state to a Republic of China ruled by Lu Xiulian.

March 20, 2008 @ 8:56 am | Comment

@Lime

Well, we’re talking about commanding the Tibetans to forget their basic sentiment of nationality and become Chinese. Fifty years of possibly the most brutal occupation anywhere on the planet has not accomplished that as this week’s events show. So *assuming* that you are leaving out for now the options of swamping or exterminating the Tibetans (which are separate discussions) — then what are you prepared to offer them to accomplish their allegiance to China?

I just laid out what I think would accomplish that. I’m not saying it’s realistic in the wider context of China’s other problems. I’m just saying that would be one way to accomplish Tibetan integration into China, something that current policies have clearly failed to achieve. If you have a better idea to accomplish the same (again, leaving out the two options above, which I’m not interested in discussing) then put them forward.

An emperor would be way cool. It wouldn’t even have to be a real emperor. Just a constitutional emperor like the Queen, with a parliament behind him, would do. And, as I mentioned, the benefits to Shaolin could potentially be enormous. Just say “Emperor Taizu’s Long Fist”. Haaa!

March 20, 2008 @ 9:00 am | Comment

@Anonymous,

If, as you say, China has already been accused and convicted in the court of global public opinion, then what IYO *has* stopped China from actually implementing them?

Idealism. Some of Mao Zedong’s legacy lives on in the Communist Party, and he for one consistently railed against the dangers of “Han chauvinism”. The term is very familiar to all Chinese.

So… the vast majority of Chinese still do perceive China as a “family with 56 siblings”, with the Han Chinese as the older brother, but all other minorities equally treasured. This is a fact that should be exploited by Tibetan exiles and those wanting reforms in Tibet, but I believe they simply don’t understand it (or refuse to believe it’s possible).

@Rohan,

Is what I said above consistent with widespread racism on a personal level? Of course it is. There are many whites in Western Europe and the United States who would agree those of African descent are equal citizens and deserve equal rights… but remain racist on a personal level.

Rohan goes on to say that racism should be “fixed”. My god, I’d love to hear how! I suspect the world at large would love to know how you “fix” racism.

I’ve never turned on Chinese state television or read a Chinese state newspaper that has in any way encouraged racism. Instead, I spend every Chinese New Years Eve watching Tibetan culture on display… sure, in a somewhat cartoonish and commercialized way, but at least its an attempt to engender public affection.

The same is true of the “Splendid China” exhibits, or the national minority park in Beijing. These are held up for extensive ridicule by Tibetans in exile, mostly because they see it as repeating a political message. It is indeed repeating a political message, but it’s also attempting to increase public awareness of and appreciation for minority culture. Not an easy task in China.

You have an overly optimistic view of the Communist Party’s power. The Communist Party could no more “fix” racism instantly than it could get Chinese drivers to obey traffic laws.

And the truth of the matter is, the riots over the past week have set Chinese perception of Tibetans back 5 decades.

I mentioned before that Xinjiang Uighurs have a difficult time in inland China; many are stereotyped as either pickpockets or terrorists, and they have a hard time getting hotel rooms and catching a cab… a familiar story for those familiar with race relations in the United States. Now, I believe Tibetans will have the same challenges throughout China for the near future.

I’ll write more later, have to run.

March 20, 2008 @ 9:04 am | Comment

@Rohan
I’ve outlined my theory on how the Tibetans might be brought into the Chinese state in previous posts, but I’ll develop it a little more. I think that China should federalise, gradually if necessary. Give greater power to the provinces, allow them to select their own governments in one manner or another. If the Chinese can’t stomach universal suffrage, then allow it to be a House of Lords-esque manner. Let the landed nobles/bourgeoisie have a stake in the system, a material interest in being part of China, and they will do the work for you convincing the peasents/proles. I also think that this would help develop the provinces as they would be able to choose economic policies that best suit the regional challenges that they inevitably understand better than Beijing.
Problem was Mao was reading the wrong parts of the Communist Manifesto.

And I agree that having a constitutional monarch is way cool. It makes Japan that much more hardcore. But its kind of a history/mythology thing so to just set up a figurehead Huang Di would probably give you something more like Emperor Maximillian of Mexico than a Tenno Heika.

March 20, 2008 @ 9:26 am | Comment

@CCT

Slight misunderstanding. Fixing racism is not about mind control, but about policies. There are still plenty of racists in the US and UK, for example, but the laws are such that a person who is racially abused or racially discriminated against has strong legal protection to sue for damages.

India also has pretty weak anti-racism (or more properly anti-discrimination) laws. For example there have been cases of housing complexes making explicit rules not to rent to Muslims, or landlords in general doing the same; also police systematically harass Kashmiris working in other parts of India. This is one of the many reasons why Kashmir could never be integrated. Same deal, probably, with Tibet.

When you say that this week’s events increased hostility dramatically, that is frankly a sign that the hostility was already there and it’s just being vented. People don’t make 180 degree turns in their mentality like that. Have you read the “Jampa” report on racism in China? I don’t buy that this week really set things back — it just brought them into the open so that you could see them.

March 20, 2008 @ 9:32 am | Comment

In my newly discovered role as the sole Manchu royalist on this blog, I must ask. Henri IV famously said “Paris is worth a Mass” when he converted to Catholicism. So, is Tibet worth, perhaps, the mysterious Chin-hsin, or one of his relatives? Would any of them like to declare their faith in Tibetan Buddhism and apply for the job?

March 20, 2008 @ 10:17 am | Comment

Why Manchu? Why not dig up one of the Ming Zhu family descendents (there should be e bloody nough of them). Perhaps the Tenzin Gyatso has a neice or some other relative that could marry into the Huang Di’s family?

March 20, 2008 @ 10:23 am | Comment

OK, you’re outstripping my Wikipedia-fuelled knowledge of Chinese history here. I’ve found a “Na Lan Ming Zhu” who was a Manchu official, and a “Li Mingzhu” who is a figure skater. I’m assuming you don’t mean the second one.

March 20, 2008 @ 10:28 am | Comment

@Rohan
The Ming ‘Imperial’ family’s name was Zhu, the founder was this dude;
http://tinyurl.com/yslg85

One of his less well thought out policies was that all his descendants would be supported by the state, which was okay at first, but after 200 years and a ton of polygamy, it became quite a burden on the government’s budget. I am thinking that a guy might be able to trace some of the receipts and find a descendant of the Zhu Yuanzhong to revive Da Ming.

March 20, 2008 @ 12:20 pm | Comment

@Rohan,

LOL, I’d love to hear how you came to advocate the theory of a return to imperialism. And I’m not laughing out of mockery, I’m really just more surprised and amused.

I have to say, though, that the prospects of a return to the Qing is less than zero. No one in China is remotely interested in this. There is an active political, intellectual community in China, and returning to Imperial rule today is somewhat akin to calling on the United States to reinstate slavery. (But if its any comfort to you, some Chinese mockingly refer to the current Communist government as the “Later Qing” 后清, suggesting that we haven’t moved far from the imperial days.)

As far as fixing racism, I do believe China needs anti-discrimination laws. Now, I do believe businesses have to have the right to hire based on language fluency and education level… but ethnicity shouldn’t be a factor. But keep in mind that China’s legal system was basically a vacuum 20 years ago, as in there were no legal books to speak of.

Keep in mind that we only put a law on *marriage* and private property on the books a few years ago. Anti-racism laws, while significant, will still be a lower priority compared to the *huge* number of legislation and legal reforms that still need to flow through the pipeline.

As far as “Jampa” goes, the movie is before my time. I’d never seen it or heard of it before reading it in that report. I doubt anyone born in the ’70s or later has seen it or heard of it.

Are there stereotypes about Tibetans being dirty and lazy? Yes, frankly, there is. Note though that any sort of hostility was never widespread (until this week)… in China, Tibetans are almost as rare as pandas. I don’t know how many Chinese outside of the southwestern provinces even know one on a personal basis. Other than seeing Tibetan monks, I only know a couple Tibetans on anything approaching a personal basis.

Finally, I really need to get off the computer and get back to work. I’ve put in way too much time, wrapped up in the emotion and stress of the Tibet protests. So, none of you will hear from me frequently for the near future.

But I’ll end this on a positive note. Now that the emotional reaction have largely calmed down, there’s hints in online discussions that we’re starting to reflect on how to do better in Tibet. For example, some are beginning to argue that inviting the Dalai Lama to return is good policy. Others are discussing whether Tibetans have legitimate gripes, and what can be done about it.

I just came from a thread, for example, where the discussion was about the Han dominance in business in Lhasa, and what should be done about it. Someone mentioned (and I certainly wasn’t aware of this) that Hu Jintao had approved a large number of triped taxi licenses exclusively for Tibetans back in the mid ’80s… but only a few years later, they were all either sold or leased to Han Chinese.

I just don’t know how you fix this. We just talked about a government with policies that try to combat racism, but now do we have to figure out ways to “guarantee” only Tibetans can operate stores in old Lhasa?

And how could you *possibly* enforce that? Wouldn’t a Sichuan businessman just pay a Tibetan to act as figurehead, while holding all profits? It seems to me the only solution is education, education, and more education. But that, in turn, comes coupled with claims of cultural genocide.

Regardless, I’m out of solutions and predictions for now. But I for one am pleased to see discussions turn in a positive direction.

March 20, 2008 @ 3:30 pm | Comment

@CCT

This is really your idea, since you wanted to know how to achieve Tibetan allegiance to China. This is the answer. Anyway, good luck reintegrating into the working world… perhaps a temporary stint in a re-education camp could help ease the transition…

Now that I’ve looked it up on Wikipedia, though, I am slightly puzzled to learn that there is actually a person called Chinsin who is listed as the “current heir to the Aisin Gioro clan”, which is apparently the Manchu royal dynasty, and he was born in 1977.

This is at the very least an interesting sidelight if true and it’s odd there isn’t more information out there. Does anyone know if this person really exists or is a phantom of the web’s imagination? If he exists, is he a bicycle repairman in Chunking or something?

March 20, 2008 @ 7:02 pm | Comment

I’ve never seen it spelt like Chinsin, but I suspect you are talking about Qixin, in Mandarin spelling. He’s a calligrapher of some fame, but far less eminent than the recently deceased Qigong, who is also descendant of the same family, but perhaps a bit further off the heir lineage.

BTW, the thing with Tibetan Buddhism and Shaolin Temple is pure comedy gold. It is so much better for the apparent fact that you weren’t joking about it.

March 21, 2008 @ 10:04 am | Comment

Would I prefer India’s Democracy or China’s Harmony?

The question can be more appropriately framed as: Would I prefer to look upon hapless politicians haggling around on some non-issue while I starve by the Ganges, or would I prefer to look upon brilliant Olympic parades while I chew on my next hot dog in Beijing. I think the answer is simple.

Lens of Reason

March 22, 2008 @ 8:50 pm | Comment

As I said, I think the answer depends very much on who you are, your cultural viewpoint, etc.

One news item that caught my eye was the “Twelve Suggestions” from a group of Chinese intellectuals yesterday:

http://tinyurl.com/2y8exm

Perhaps I tend to see what I want to see in the news, but this suggests to me an affirmation of the view that a humane and civilised viewpoint does exist inside China, hidden by the enormous brutality that is expressed by ordinary Chinese and which is probably created by the stress of living and growing up in an enormously brutal regime.

That says that there isn’t really a choice. Democracy whether Indian-style or otherwise will come to China. When it does the policy of repression in Tibet will be unsustainable because it is almost impossible for most people to be schizophrenic (in favour of democracy, freedom and civilised standards in China, and in favour of repression, brutality and totalitarianism in Tibet).

I imagine most people here are not aware of the late Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, but I think he is a good indication of the advantages of living in a free society. He was a Ladakhi, so from a part of the cultural world of Tibet that by historical accident ended up in India. Like the Dalai Lama he was a reincarnation, a trulku. He served as India’s ambassador to Mongolia for ten years and was instrumental in helping many ordinary Mongolians to recover their Buddhist faith which was pretty much obliterated during the repressive decades under Soviet rule.

I’m fairly cynical about Indian democracy, but not about the freedom that is inseparable from it. Cases like Bakula Rinpoche’s are inspiring examples of the relation of democracy to ethnic differences, religion and faith, and personal freedom.

If China were ever able to appoint a reincarnate Buddhist lama as a Chinese ambassador overseas, that would be a very strong step forward, and a sign that China has broken out of its current state of benighted repression.

http://www.fpmt.org/teachers/baktribute.asp

@pmw

If you like to think so, go ahead. Good luck to you.

March 23, 2008 @ 4:59 pm | Comment

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