There is a lovely story, perhaps apocryphal, that was narrated to me during a brief visit to China last week. It seems that a competition was organized for school students around the time President Xi Jinping assumed charge for the most telling and pithy description of the "Chinese dream". The winner turned to be the wise guy who summed up this national philosophy in just two words: "Black Audi."
To the uninitiated (like me), the Black Audi in China was the ultimate symbol of power and success. It was the car of the powerful apparatchiks, the successful entrepreneurs and, I suspect, even the spoilt brats who have collectively been dubbed the princelings. But all that was in the past. In recent months, according to a diplomat who guided me through the haze of China, many tens of thousands of Black Audis have been recalled by the government as part of the austerity drive following the economic slowdown and are being auctioned in lots. Many tens of thousands of mid-level apparatchiks who basked in the glory of the boom years are now compelled to take public transport to work, with the Black Audis now reserved for the truly important.
To the prophets of doom, the journey of the Black Audi from the foyer of the Diaoyutai Hotel - the rough Beijing equivalent of New Delhi's Hyderabad House - to the auction house may be a tell-tale illustration of the inherent unsustainability of China's mad rush to the top of the economic pile. However, this assessment may be an overstatement. The "new normal", as the economic downturn is officially described, may signal the end of China's irrational exuberance, but to an outsider, this appears as a seasonal self-correction, a phenomenon that was recurrent (albeit in less wholesome ways) even in the days of the Great Helmsman.
In the past 35 years, since the Chinese Communist Party turned its back on the austere revolutionary legacy of its founder, China's growth has been so rapid and far-reaching that a modest exercise in belt-tightening is likely to cause few tremors and certainly not produce any upheavals. Unlike the democracies where politicians generally try to brush not-so-good news under the carpet, at least till after the next electoral cycle, China's political system allows the leadership the luxury to take pre-emptive moves to secure a mental readjustment of expectations. Deftly handled, the "new normal" can, in fact, lead China into exciting, less-travelled directions.
Throughout the West and, indeed, in societies where global market economics sets the tone, nationalism is often perceived as a relic that is best discarded. In China, national pride is celebrated with gusto. The term, "Chinese characteristics", often added as a suffix to various worthwhile goals, is code for a celebration of nationalism that occasionally has a habit of acquiring xenophobic overtones. This is particularly so when viewing the national ambitions of Japan - a country that has not been forgiven for its pre-1945 militarism. In today's China, there is unconcealed pride at the enormous respect the country commands in the world for its economic success. The 2012 Olympics was definitely a landmark in this explosion of national pride and today there is a distinct feeling among the well-off middle classes that, for China, the sky is the limit. "If we don't have it, we can always buy it," a Chinese academic told me, only half in jest. It is entirely possible that some of this gung-ho mood may have to be tempered with the "new normal", but there is also a possibility it could be steered in other, positive directions.
Traditionally, China has been very inward looking. In part, this is a consequence of the "Middle Kingdom" mentality that perceived China as the centre of the world, surrounded by barbarians and tributary states. The revolution of 1949, ostensibly based on the principles of socialist internationalism, was supposed to have launched a new chapter. However, until Deng Xiaoping turned China upside down after vanquishing the Gang of Four, the traditional distaste for the outsider was, in fact, reinforced by the proverbial bamboo curtain. Even after 35 years of globalization, China lives in a world that is outwardly replete with international brands - it's difficult to find a shop selling traditional Chinese crafts in Shaghai's main Nanjing Road - but is inwardly self-sufficient. No doubt economics has forced a change: Chinese companies need to engage with overseas entities, Chinese students are visible in most universities of the West, and tens of thousands of Chinese travel overseas as tourists. However, the knowledge capacity building that most successful economic powers have undertaken has so far been quite uneven. With domestic consumption now reaching a possible plateau, it is more than likely that China will now have to aggressively seek new opportunities and markets overseas.
It is still an open question whether the restrictions on information flows into China and the widespread hesitation in addressing seemingly contentious issues can persist in this environment is still an open question. Certainly, the authorities in China seem particularly concerned over the possible dissemination of what it terms "malicious content" - the Cyberspace Administration of China has identified these as "promotion of cults and the dissemination of pornography or extremism". However, just as the need for a healthy moral order has been totally unsuccessful in curbing the rampant prostitution racket that stares every tourist in the face in Shanghai and Beijing - a colleague even came across a Bengali pimp - it will need greater resilience if the campaign to "reorder the online expression system and strengthen Chinese people's sense of responsibility in cyberspace" becomes an additional "new normal". For an otherwise resilient society, China appears to have demonstrated an exaggerated sense of vulnerability in dealing with unstructured rebelliousness.
In other areas, for example, China has demonstrated its willingness to accord its younger citizens in urban areas a great deal of social licence. Most of the restaurants and bars that dot the perimeter of the lakes in Beijing have live bands featuring young Chinese, many from the universities. And the Chinese clientele in the glitzy shopping malls of Shanghai are willing spenders on clothes made by the High Street brands of the West. Many of these young people may be slightly impatient with the fuddy-duddy ways of the apparatchiks but neither their fashion consciousness nor their permissive lifestyles are potentially "counter-revolutionary". On the contrary, their flamboyance - such a contrast from the shoddy drabness of Mao's China - has made China far more globally integrated, but not completely deracinated.
To say that China is at the crossroads may be a dreary cliché. Yet, there is a sense that China will sooner or later have to exercise some hard options if the type of simmering unrest that has surfaced in Hong Kong is not to be replicated. To the Western observer, all this points to the triumph of democracy going hand in hand with market economics. But the awkward truth is that China has not known democracy in the way we understand it. The Confucian ethic, as some of my Chinese guides were at pains to point out, still prevails in terms of hierarchical obedience. That isn't going to end soon, despite the unending search for personal fulfilment - witness the growing popularity of spiritualism and, particularly, yoga. The direction in which China's society evolves, it is my guess, is likely to baffle outsiders. There are no pre-determined paths of social and political evolution, and it is unreasonable to believe that China will walk down a well-travelled road.
The Telegraph, February 13, 2015