There is an unceasing flood of academic and journalist writings, as also seminars and workshops, on China, with no end in sight. The irresistible attraction the country holds for governments, think-tanks and institutions of learning all over the globe is without precedent. Every bit of everything that emanates from there is dissected, scrutinised, analysed, discussed and written upon in the form of books, articles, papers, op-ed pieces, columns and commentaries. What explains this extraordinary phenomenon?
It cannot surely be China’s GDP ranking or the prospect of its heading soon for the top position overtaking the US and Japan in purchasing power parity terms. Nor can it be its huge foreign exchange holdings, nor the fact of the US being in its debt to the extent of a trillion dollars. These provoke interest but do not account for the veritable hypnotic spell cast by China.
One can only grope for an answer. If one wants to be facetious, one can repeat the answer of George Mallory who, when asked why he was so particular about climbing Everest, promptly retorted: “Because it’s there!” China is not only there, looming large like Everest, but, in many respects, fits the famous picturisation of Russia by Winston Churchill as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.
There are familiar rule books by which most countries of the world have for centuries worked out their domestic policies and economic frameworks, and played their geopolitical and diplomatic games with the outside world. But they are of no use in unravelling what China’s decision or action will be in a given situation.
For, China’s rule book is unique and its very own. It spans millennia of its own brand of evolution which combines within itself precepts and practices rooted in a self-centred, self-absorbed, somewhat paranoidal and irredentist, feudal society.
At the same time it draws on a magnificent and incomparable cultural heritage encompassing every aspect of human efflorescence: Literature, fine arts, science, kingship, statecraft and military strategy.
No other civilisation comes anywhere near the Chinese blend of vitality, resilience and self-confidence marked by a tinge of arrogance of being the centre of the world. It is this pronounced Chinese characteristic that influences its conduct in both domestic affairs and external relations. Thus, only a country like India, whose own past is distinguished by its ability to manage contradictions and complexities, can hope to understand the motivational and attitudinal reflexes of China.
The tacit tension between India and China may well be the result of both knowing too much of each other in this respect, since India, too, can claim to be the same treasure-house of tenets and traditions over as long a period as China.
The fascination for China in recent times stems from its spectacular record of reconciling the irreconcilables. A country subject to the trauma of pestilence, invasion and war over the last few centuries, and put through a misguided phase of terror and tumult in order to maintain the communist ideological purity, is now making the world sit up with awe and admiration by its economic miracles and engineering feats.
Not content with accomplishing the marvels of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s highest railway line to Lhasa, the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail link, the West-to-East power transmission project, the South-to-North water transfer project, and the five vertical and seven horizontal national motorway projects, China is shipping 6,500 miles from Shanghai to the US the whole of a 2,050 feet long bridge to be fixed, Lego-like, across the San Francisco bay.
Five of the world’s top 10 contractors, in terms of revenue, are now Chinese, with the China State Construction Engineering Group overtaking such established American giants as Bechtel.
The enigma of China has also a lot to do with the inability of analysts to figure out the working of its model of development based on what it calls “free market socialism” which, in actual practice, has made strange, though productive, bed fellows of foreign capitalists and investors, on the one hand, and the high-end policy wonks of a monolithic, authoritarian regime, on the other.