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Home > News > Specials

The Rediff Special/ Sheela Bhatt

'Absolute poverty has been wiped out in China'

January 11, 2008

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Beijing-based Pallavi Aiyar is a star reporter. Growing up in New Delhi, Pallavi studied Modern History from Oxford and did her MSc in Global Media and Communications from the London [Images] School of Economics. She has won most of the scholarships and awards worth winning when one is gearing up to become a journalist-writer. 

After working for Star News in India she shifted to Beijing [Images] in 2003 where she works for
The Hindu and a few other publications. She writes on politics, society and the developmental aspects of China for which she travels extensively within China, reporting on issues that concern the Chinese and the world. She is witness to a China shaping up to be a global superpower.

Her book on China, which is out this year, is a personal account of her arrival in the country, learning Chinese in the university and then reporting on events in China, and travelling within the country. The book mixes travelogue, memoirs and reportage.

Pallavi spoke to Managing Editor Sheela Bhatt in Beijing recently about living in China and many other things.

"I have rather gone beyond seeing Beijing and Shanghai growing. One thing we must note is that China's growth is for real. Do not get fooled by the saying that China's growth is restricted to big cities and is not there as you go into the interiors. There is a trickle-down effect everywhere. When you talk of cities -- whether it is second-tier or third-tier cities -- they are booming everywhere in China.

A lot of it is the fixed assets boom; a lot of it is about building activity. That is why you are getting crazy statistics that China is eating up one-fourth of the world's iron ore or half of the world's steel production. It is crazy to see how much China is consuming resources from around the world. Basically, they are just building, building, building and building! That is real! 

It is different question whether China's growth is sustainable or not. I think, from an economic point of view it is sustainable. The problem might come on the political front. Right now, you have contradictions between an increasingly liberalised economy and the continuing authoritarian government, which poses a whole lot of contradictions everywhere along the line. The nature of one-party system makes it very difficult for the party to correct itself.

It can correct itself in a superficial way, but it cannot correct itself fundamentally. People are becoming richer, and as they become richer they are also becoming educated. The educated class is demanding, slowly, slowly. The uneducated peasants and workers are worse-off today than they were 30 years ago. Then, everybody was poor, but everybody was equal.

In the new economy, peasants do not have provisions for healthcare, social security or education. Previously they had 'cradle to grave' employment and so on. Now, they see the gap between them and others who are very rich. There is a lot of corruption within the party. The poor are victims of this corruption and there are no independent channels to vent it.

There is no election system, they cannot even throw the corrupt guy out and bring in the new guy.

They have few temporary valves to vent out their frustrations. They don't have an independent judiciary. The party appoints people in courts. Unions are illegal except the All China Trade Union, which is again the party organisation and not an independent entity. Demonstration and strikes are illegal. So any kind of protests or fighting for your own rights is illegal.

About 25 million people have been laid off from State-owned enterprises in the last five years. You have peasants whose lands have been grabbed by corrupt officials in cahoots with real estate developers. All those buildings that you see in cities were made after giving compensation, but not so in interiors where corruption was rampant.

Discontentment is there but it is not coming out because of the political system. Until now, they were able to manage so many contradictions because they have been delivering so much economic growth. When people are getting richer, richer and richer, your mind is on money.

The moment there will be an economic slowdown, the impact will be there. After all China's growth is 10 per cent since almost 20 years. Inflation is already the highest in the last 11 years. China's environment is in terrible shape, one of the worst in the world. The ability to absorb any kind of massive shock to the system -- whether it is health, economic or environment-related -- is suspect. On other hand, I must say that China has defied our expectations in the past.

In the '80s they said the bubble will bust, but it was not true. In the '90s they said China will collapse but it did not. I give them credit. They are very wily. While they cannot fix the fundamental problem, they can fix the problem on the surface. A lot of tweaking of the system is going on.

Also, China does not have an ordinary one-party dictatorship. They are not only interested in self-promotion and self-profit. They just do not want to take; there is a genuine giving back in building of the nation. That makes China different. It is not like a zero-sum game you find in Africa. Here it is like: I take but I also build the road. Corruption is there, but so is delivery. The leadership genuinely wants China to grow. A benevolent dictatorship is taking shape in China.

While talking about democracy in China I must say that it is totally ironic to see the young, educated and urban middle class that you find in universities are some of the most politically-conservative people. Why is that? Because, they are the real beneficiaries of the reform process. As far as they are concerned, everything is getting better and better. They have all the social freedom they want.

China has essentially opened up in the social sphere. There is freedom in society; for example they can choose who they want to marry, they can choose with whom and when they want to have sex, they can choose the music they listen to, they can choose which university they want to go to, what job they want.

If there is a democratic change, this middle class in cities will be on the same footing as some peasant sitting in a village. In addition, this urban class is politically very apathetic. There is an unspoken conspiracy of silence about politics. Their parents do not talk about the country's politics at home.

I was teaching in university for two years and I saw many whose parents and grandparents have lived through the Cultural Revolution and even died, but they do not talk about it. It is taboo. They have no information on politics, democracy. There is nothing in the school curriculum. There is nothing in newspapers. What they know is propaganda, which comes to them through education and party organs. Now, they have been told that Mao was 70 per cent correct and 30 per cent wrong.

What is wrong is the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, but the young generation does not know any details of it. What they know is that during Mao's time there was deprivation. Now, things are improving, now things are better. So do not rock the boat!

China was an intensely political country. But, there was tyranny of the Revolution. At that time the individual had no choice. They could not marry whom they wanted or where to work, and they were assigned jobs in factories and farms. They were a small part of the big wheel of politics. So, for the youngsters of today, the ability to be apolitical and do the job they like is a privilege. They love it.

I used to question why they are not at all interested in politics or democracy. But considering where their parents and grandparents come from, is it surprising? As a result, the young Chinese have ended up being a socially-conservative group.

The Chinese see India as a poor and chaotic country. Some think India is the reason why China should not be a democratic country. They show here the dirty lanes of Mumbai and New Delhi -- people do not want Beijing and Shanghai to be like that.

The Chinese benchmark themselves against the US and not against India in any way. The IT sector is recognised in certain sectors and there is the Buddhist connection.

Since two decades, what has happened to the Chinese -- even poor Chinese -- is fantastic because even the poor are getting richer. Absolute poverty has been wiped out in China. Even if you go to the deep interiors, you will see the poor, but not starving people.

During Mao's time, anything that was traditional was shunned because it was associated with feudalism and imperialism. Traditional dressing, religion and food were banned under Mao. Rather, some of the traditional thing is reviving a bit.

I think, the lesson India should learn from China is that this country with an authoritarian government, which has all kinds of problems and has no independent feedback like independent media or free elections, is still doing a better job of delivering goods to its people.

In India, once the politician is elected he thinks that legitimacy is in being elected and not in performing. Here the one-party authoritarian and autocratic government is doing more for the people than the democratic government in India. The Chinese mean business when they talk about building the nation. Prakash Karat has come to China. He knows China stopped being ideological some 30 years ago.

China's best thing is that it works in its national interest and strikes a balance. It is not the George Bush [Images] mentality that says you are either against us or with us. The Chinese may make noises, but since it is in their interest, they will remain closest to the US. They are pragmatic and they know how to co-operate and compete. Indians should not take China as an enemy or as a great friend. China looks at its self-interest and is not generous about anything it does.

I find Beijing intellectually stimulating, but I do not have an emotional connection with it.

I don't find life here resonated deeply with me. It lacks something. It lacks argument. It lacks passion for ideas. In one-party system you are taught the same thing. It is against my grain. I think building roads is easier than the "project of India" to build the vibrant diverse political system that we have. I think India's political future is quite secure. I don't think there is a question mark about India's future. China is unable to deal with diversity. Moreover, the political question remains, here.

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