For the first time visitor, China comes as a complete shock. Its port city, Shanghai, the largest city in the world is like Manhattan on steroids. This extraordinary metropolis rising skywards is probably the closest thing imaginable to Star Wars’ fictional planet Coruscant. Just across the Pudong district and new Pudong area, with its extraordinary skyline, is The Bund, one of the most fashionable and elegant stretches anywhere in the world. The French Concession holds its own against any European city with heritage landmarks, cafes and shop fronts designed to dazzle. This is mainland China, not Hong Kong, and yet the glitter is as bright as any Capitalist society’s.
[quote]It may be a police state but it certainly does not feel like one[/quote]
China is criticized by the West as being a totalitarian state out to crush all opposition. This is of course true. It is a one-party state, run and operated by the Chinese Communist Party which has ruled the country with a whip for close to 65 years. Still to the casual observer, what this totalitarianism signifies is very different from what one has been led to believe through largely Western media. Instead of the under-fed and subdued masses that one has come to expect from a one-party state-dystopia, the people are healthy, active and well dressed. It may be a police state but it certainly does not feel like one. If the state is constantly monitoring its citizens, it is doing it in stealth mode.
The integration of women in the work force is extraordinary considering that this was not long ago a conservative Asian society. In the bullet trains, on the metro and in the streets, one finds as many women as men. The Blues and Jazz club around the corner from my hotel has American jazz musicians playing every night, their quality no less than similar Jazz clubs in the US. My frame of reference is always the United States of America, a country I have lived in and which I have always associated with equality, freedom and abundance. On these counts – prima facie – this ‘Communist’ state seems to win hands down. In fact I feel more at ease and at home in this place, despite the language barrier, than in the US. Somehow, despite the obvious racial distinction, my ‘otherness’ is insignificant in China, whereas it always mattered in the US. For all its protestations of freedom and claims to an open society, the US seems to fall short of China in this regard and given the NSA scandal, I am not too sure about the US’s tall claims in the first place.
Even in terms of religious freedom – my mind races back to a young Tibetan activist who gave me a pamphlet against Chinese oppression at New York’s Penn Station – the reality seems to be different. Walking from the Bund to People’s Square, I find several ‘Halal’ butchers and slaughter houses very similar to our ‘qasaais’ in Lahore. Almost every one of these has a picture of the proprietor in a Muslim skull cap with his name, Al Haaj so and so right next to it. Church bells ring all around the city and there are Buddhist temples. There are also Christmas trees everywhere. Clearly religion has not been driven out of China. Even Youtube and Facebook work perfectly in parts of Shanghai and their Chinese alternatives seem to be as robust as Twitter and Facebook.
[quote]China has achieved the impossible by successfully mixing Capitalism with Communism[/quote]
One imagines that this glitter and shine is limited to major cities. Before getting a chance to explore Shanghai, I attend an Asia Society Conference in Zhenjiang, a third tier Chinese city. The distance between Shanghai and Zhenjiang is 220 km. The train takes you there in little over an hour. The bullet train feels like an ordinary train till you calculate the distances it covers. Most people on the train commute from cities as far as 300km (i.e. more than the distance between Lahore and Islamabad) every day and the tickets are very reasonably priced. Zhenjiang, the third tier Chinese city, is full of skyscrapers. One of the Asia Society fellows from India takes a group of us to a club in the city. The energy of the place is extraordinary. It does not look or feel Communist. My Indian friend comments, “Looking at China makes me wonder why we are a democracy”. I raise an eyebrow. My friend is closely involved with parliamentary politics in India. I tell him I am disappointed. He tells me that he is too. In what? The failure of Indian democracy to deliver! We should be more like China, he says.
The Economist tells me that China faces a choice between Mao’s China and Deng’s China. From what I see in the country itself, this is a jaundiced view. The more China seems to go down the path set by Deng, the more the state emphasizes its Maoist origins. The two visions of China may seem irreconcilable in theory, but on the ground they coexist in perfect harmony. The Communist Party is not going to be unseated any time soon. Mao is honoured in China. The ideology that Mao gave China was rooted in materialism. Therefore as material conditions changed, Deng changed the orientation of the state. The average Chinese person instinctively understands this. Mao caps, statues and refrigerator magnets make for good business in China. Chinese are not impractical about anything, least of all money.
On my last day in China I find myself wondering – like my Indian friend had – whether the Chinese model represents the only hope for Asia and more particularly Pakistan. I conclude that our material and social conditions would not allow an emulation of the Chinese model. Instead one must seek to localize the lessons learnt. The success of the Chinese model has been persistence and the ability of the Communist Party to successfully transition from one generation of leaders to another and to consistently live up to the expectations of the people of China. This it has done by a periodic peaceful transfer of power under the Chinese Constitution. The government of the country has operated like a well-healed corporate machine. In doing so China has achieved the impossible – a successful Capitalist society with Communist roots – wholly impracticable in theory and yet very much a reality in modern China. This is what upsets its critics the most.