Friend and Foe

Bharat Jhunjhunwala

About 20 years ago a press officer of the Chinese Embassy in Delhi sought a meeting with me. She asked me at the end of the discussion whether I thought China was India’s friend or foe. I replied “foe.” There the exchange ended. Yet we must understand the strengths of our opponent if we have to win against them. At present China is being internationally derided for crushing democracy in Hong Kong. This anti-democratic tirade started with the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. Since then US experts have been predicting the imminent collapse of autocracy in China. They have held that there was an irreconcilable contradiction between market capitalism and autocracy. Capitalism needed freedom to grow while autocracy required restricting that same freedom. However, these predictions have been utterly disproven. China has become world’s number two economic power while maintaining an autocratic state.

Political scientists say that the fundamental ingredient of governance was “legitimacy.” Any system works as long as people consider the rulers to be legitimate. The form of the particular system was not important as long as the people considered it to be legitimate. And, it seems, the Chinese people do consider the autocratic state to be legitimate. The Edelman Trust of the United States publishes an annual report on governance. In their 2020 report they have said that, according to a survey done in October-November 2019, 90 percent of Chinese people have trust in their government. In comparison, 81 percent people in India and only 39 percent in the United States had trust in their governments. Further, 59 percent people in China fear that they may be left behind in the march of humankind. In comparison 73 percent people in India and 55 percent people in the United States feared so. More numbers of Indian people are afraid that their government will take them into the dumps.

Another study done by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance at the Harvard University has surveyed the governance in China from 2003 to 2016. Here I am giving figures from 2011 to 2016 only since these overlap with the ascendance of Xi Jinping who is considered to be moving fast to create an absolute autocracy. Harvard University has said that 61 percent of the people considered their local governance to be kind towards the ordinary people in 2011. This increased to 74 percent in 2016. Forty-five percent of the people considered the local bureaucracy to work for the rich in 2011. This reduced to 40 percent in 2016. Forty-four percent of the people considered their local bureaucracy to be concerned with the difficulties of ordinary people. This increased to 52 percent in 2016. Thirty-two 32 percent of the people said that local bureaucracy imposed illegal taxes and fees in 2011. This reduced to 23 percent in 2016. It is clear that the bureaucracy has become more benign during the reign of Jinping.

An article published in the New York Times says that Deng Xiaoping started to reward bureaucracy for ushering in economic development. They were ranked and promoted on the basis of their performance in securing economic prosperity. Thus, the “ossified bureaucracy,” says the New York Times, was transformed into a “capitalist machine.” In recent times Xi Jinping has added criteria such as social harmony, environment protection, public service and happiness of people. Clearly, the Chinese Government is meeting the expectations of the people even if it is autocratic.

Now, let consider the views of our tradition regarding democracy. Yudhishthira says in Chapter 108 of Shanti Parva of Mahabharata, “Differences among the top people of democracy is the cause of destruction.” Question then is this: Why is it that the United States is, in the words of New York Times, is “exporting” democracy when it is not delivering within America and China is doing well without it? Here too Yudhishthira comes to our aid. He says, “The best of the persons in a democracy get controlled by enemies due to differences in their inner thoughts.” Again, “Enemies control a democratic country by creating differences among the best of persons.” These teachings suggest that the United States is exporting democracy to countries like India so that they can create differences with India and control India. Our democracy, if we hearken to Yudhishthira, may be the route to disintegration of our sovereignty. We should, therefore, not blindly assume that democracy is the best. Let us not forget that democratic India and autocratic China were economically at par in 1981. Today autocrat China has far overtaken democratic India. We must be careful in accepting American diatribes against China because American assessment of the perils of Chinese autocracy has proven utterly wrong. I must admit here that I had also thought in the nineties that Chinese economy will flounder, However, my logic was that Chinese dependence on exports to the West will create trouble for that country if and when the Western economies go into a recession as they indeed did in 2008. I too have been proven wrong on that count. Instead of floundering with the American economy, China has successfully overpowered its rival.

These perils of democracy notwith-standing, it is also true that democracy has been the foundation of development of mankind. The common man gets mental freedom to think and act. Every citizen is free to explore her potential and this leads to inventions that have transformed our lives in a positive direction. The likes of steam engine, electricity, nuclear power ad jet airplanes are all products of democracy, not autocracy. The challenge before us, therefore, is to adopt the free thinking environment of democracy along with the pro-people ambience of Chinese autocracy. We need to take two steps in this direction. One, our rulers must have deep conversations with the Opposition instead of deriding them. Dialogue leads to commonality of views and, as Yudhishthira says, the chances of internal division leading to destruction are minimsed. Two, we need to transform our bureaucracy the character of which appears to be exactly opposite to that of China. The loot by Indian bureaucracy is destroying every facet of our lives. Our politics is getting focused on reservations rather than on economic growth because people want their share of the loot by getting government jobs. Our education system continues to sell certificates because highly paid teachers and professors do not have any compulsion to teach. Our economy is going down since the Fifth Pay Commission because wealth of the country is being used to pay high salaries to government servants rather than investing in space research. The combination of deeper democratic dialogue and accountability of bureaucracy can beget us both mental freedom and economic prowess.

[Formerly Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru]


Vol. 53, No. 13, sep 27 - Oct 3, 2020