Official publications have an uncanny tendency to be both weighty and dreary. “The Shanghai: Our Stories 1978-2008” that the Shanghai Municipality presented to a visiting Indian delegation last week was neither. Through a series of archival and contemporary photographs and individual stories of ordinary people, it captured the magnitude of the change that has engulfed the city. In 1978, Shanghai was not very dissimilar to Kolkata — overwhelmed by overcrowding, waterlogging, traffic chaos and endless waiting at railway stations; today’s Shanghai is marked by world-class roads, skyscrapers, bullet trains, an elaborate metro network, a vibrant night life and lots of greenery. China has every reason to be immensely proud of its achievement. In less than four decades, it has capsuled more growth than experienced in five centuries. Such tectonic shifts in so small a time are bound to produce the odd hiccup. The country may often appear an inscrutable monolith to foreigners but it is not. A ride in the superfast Beijing-Shanghai train is a delightful experience; but a copassenger dubbed the Delhi-Beijing flight on the state-owned China Air the “coolie flight”. In Beijing, the burly men offering to take the tourist to a “girlie bar” go away when rebuffed; in Shanghai they are not only omnipresent all along the Nanjing Road but also painfully persistent and menacing. A prominent Chinese think-tanker told me that even the stiff, follow-theline approach of the Beijing press is in sharp contrast to the push-the-envelope approach of the Shanghai media.
These examples may well be trivial and but they underline the importance of the diversity that co-exists with the one-party, one-language uniformity that often shapes perceptions of China. The average Chinese person in a position of some importance is disinclined to wash the country’s dirty linen before an outsider. At an interaction in Shanghai International Studies University, a new media pioneer was distinctly embarrassed when asked about the quantum of political freedom —“It’s too sensitive a subject,” he replied. But then China-watching since 1949 has essentially been an exercise in deciphering codes, with Sinophiles jostling with Sinophobes.
Yet, the odd note of scepticism does not take away from the fact that today’s China, including a young generation that seeks new (but not always political) areas of self-fulfilment, is genuinely proud of the immense respect that China commands in the world today. The successful conduct of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was a coming-out party. The question naturally arises: will this bout of national selfconfidence be transformed into a variant of the old Middle Kingdom mentality where arrogance and insularity kept pace with each other?
No categorical answer is ever possible but certain trends are instructive. First, the post-1978 reforms propelled the Chinese authorities to look outwards and create a critical mass of functionaries capable of dealing with the world, and particularly the West, with a combination of both domain expertise and social skills. Initially this meant despatching large numbers of Chinese students to universities overseas. Today, this is combined with the establishment of specialist institutions devoted to nurturing expertise on different parts of the world, including India. Like the 19th century Victorians who used knowledge as an arm of economic expansion, China is developing an indigenous capacity to comprehend the world better but from a Chinese perspective. Secondly, in the first three decades, China focussed on becoming a hub for the world’s manufacturers. This was combined with the overhaul of domestic infrastructure, at a pace democratic countries will find impossible to match. However, in today’s “new normal” of more modest growth, there is a thrust towards finding avenues of overseas investment and, in the process, creating new markets for China’s expertise. For Beijing, the new energy generated in Delhi after May 2014 is fortuitous and suggests opportunities that must be grabbed enthusiastically.
For India too, China’s economic predicament provides new openings. It can either welcome China unhesitatingly without any ifs and buts or temper its welcome with a corresponding insistence that the loose ends of history also be tied up. Like China, India too has multiple options it can exercise. China has an evolved strategic culture. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to China later this year may be a good occasion to determine whether or not India has finally developed one.