Asia beyond India – Exploring China and Korea (Part 1)

In February 2016, things didn’t quite go as planned with my employer in Australia and when life gives you lemons, you ….do what? You make lemonade. So my wife (Farnaz) and I decided to take the opportunity (the time between changing jobs) to fulfill our common dream, that of visiting China. Korea was the icing on the cake because we were almost certain of not receiving our visa in time, but we did!

For an Indian, China is an important country for a number of reasons. It’s huge, has a lot of people, neighbours us, and shares many cultural similarities because of Buddhism. Buddhism travelled from India through Tibet to China, and continued its east-ward journey to Korea and Japan. Each of these places modified Buddhism a fair bit by incorporating their local cultural practices in the framework of Buddhism. This travelogue (especially the Chinese part) contains as much of an analysis of China as a modern nation as a record of our travels.

China is around 4 times larger than India; it is very big! However, most of the ‘real’ China is concentrated in the east, in a region which is roughly a 4th of China, making the population density very similar to that of India. This also means that the challenges they face(d) in the eastern part are (were) very similar to those faced by India: that of poverty, population pressure, corruption, water scarcity, low levels of education, environmental degradation etc. In India, it is commonplace to do two things: bash the Chinese growth model, and compare ourselves with China (continuously saying countries like China and India). Both of these are fallacies and I’ll explain why. My most important submission is that you really need to go to China to know more about them and their tremendous achievements in the area of infrastructure development, population control, urban planning, poverty alleviation, and education.

I’ll break down this travelogue into 3 parts to make it easier to read. In the first part, I’ll focus almost entirely on my analysis of China as a country with special focus on analysing things from an Indian perspective. The second part will have the city-specific travelogue of China and the third will have the Korean travelogue.

All that China has achieved in the last 3 to 4 decades of economic growth is truly commendable. The challenges they faced were of a similar magnitude, if not more severe than, to those faced by India. In addition to the social and economic problems, it was also long exploited by European powers. In fact, even before the Europeans did what they did best (loot), the Japanese invaded China several times. Almost all major monuments and historical places in China have been rebuilt because they were destroyed by one or, in some cases, both of these marauders. In 1949, the stage was set for what we know as today’s communist China. Mao Zedong (Mao) was at the center of this mass revolution that changed the face of China (and the world in many ways) forever.

Without going into the details of the revolution (it is well documented elsewhere), let’s see what has happened in China in the last 3 to 4 decades. To summarize their approach, the Chinese govt. decided to sacrifice the happiness of one generation of people to become the world’s most powerful country, which it is today. Indians jump at such statements and point out that this approach itself is unacceptable to Gandhian India, where supposedly, the rights of every individual triumph the authority of the state. However, based on my experiences, I argue that this is just an academic point. The fact is that India is one of the poorest and least developed places on earth, with basic essentials of life such as potable water, toilets, electricity etc. being luxuries for more than 500 million people in the country.

The point is that the poorest of the poor, whom we seek to represent through our Gandhian ideology, are anyway living the lives of destitutes and don’t have much more to lose. They don’t care about democracy or autocracy or socialism or communism. They want to see a tangible difference in their lives, which democracy, especially in the Indian context, has failed (and will fail) to bring. We have been very liberal with the time we’ve invested with our model of polity (70 years is a long time), and things haven’t really improved for the most part of the country. The usual premise that somehow being the world’s largest democracy is an achievement is hollow. Democracy, again in our context, is a system where fools vote for fools, and the latter ensure that the former stay fools so that the cycle continues, as it has.

In communist China, people who are supposed to govern do just that, and do it well. Not for one moment am I saying that it is a flawless system, but between two flawed systems, I recommend choosing the effective one. Also, I am not recommending copying the Chinese model in it’s entirety, but there are certainly many things we can directly borrow and others that we can customize to suit our situations. Their idea is that let us govern and do our work, and we’ll let you live your usual lives and do yours. In a country as large and diverse (not as much as India, but still very diverse), there are way too many speed bumps if you try and please everybody. The sheer efficacy of the Chinese model of governance should be enough for Indians to realize that they are being conned.

Now some experiences to help explain this further. As you read through this analysis, I want you to remember that we are talking about China, not the USA. China, just till a few decades ago, was an extremely impoverished country. And therefore, you must compare it to nations such as India when we talk about their growth and achievements. Chinese infrastructure is just breathtaking. They are very clear that without massive investments in infrastructure, nothing else is attainable. And when I say Chinese infrastructure, I am talking about 19000 km of high speed rail. Shanghai and Beijing, the two largest cities, have more than 18 metro lines and in excess of 200 stations each. Beijing has some 6 ring roads around it. There are high speed rails from all major cities to all other cities. We rode the train on multiple occasions, but most notably from Xi’an to Beijing (1235 odd km) in 4 hrs 27 mins. A similar journey in India by the fastest train would take 16-17 hours. All train stations are seamlessly connected to airports and city-specific metro stations. They are transit hubs, not stations. 3.2 billion people use Beijing’s metro each year.

We travelled across 6 cities and did not see a single road that wasn’t 4 or more laned. Most were 8 to 16 laned. They even built a road to the base camp of Mt. Everest in a matter of months (brushing aside protests from Tibetans). Signages, markings etc. were flawless. Now, do note that the people there are not flawless drivers by any stretch of imagination, but when you build such infrastructure, you start moulding the driver behavior in a positive way. You can’t expect a rickshaw driver in Bombay to follow lanes because there are none. Large parts of rural China remain ‘underdeveloped’, but situations where people don’t have power or water are unheard of. No statistic can better capture China’s rise (and it’s perseverance) than the fact that China used more cement in 3 years (2011 – 13) than the US did in the entire 20th century. It is just unbelievable. How did they do this? Where did they get the money from? How did they implement such massive projects at this pace? Where did they get the expertise from? These are some of the questions that India must answer ASAP.

I didn’t expect much in China in terms of cleanliness, but in my opinion, it was extraordinarily clean for being what it is. Places which had literally millions of people on the streets were as clean as those with nobody. Again, the Chinese masses aren’t as clean as the Europeans, but the streets are all clean. There are garbage bins every 10 meters wherever you go. Also, there is an army of street cleaners who do their work diligently every single day. When Farnaz got angry looking at someone spitting on the streets or throwing some garbage, I gently reminded her that she is in China. It is so clean that you forget you are in China and expect the people to behave as if you were in Scandinavia. These sort of shifts in the behavior of people take generations, but the Chinese have done an exceptional job on this front, and where they are lacking, they are efficient at cleaning.

The urban planning in terms of housing, industrial parks, special economic zones etc. is also straight out of a simulation game. They know exactly where they are and where they want to be. In the Museum of Urban Planning (Shanghai), you can see exactly what they have done and what they seek to do in the next decade or two. For example, pollution and environmental degradation is a massive problem in China. But the govt. knows about this and has such detailed plans (from afforestation to sewage treatment to electric cars) to tackle the issue. It is clear that they have consciously ignored the environmental aspect while pursuing their industrial growth. Also, their focus on improving the lives of their people is very clear and articulated at every opportunity. None of this is to benefit individuals or corporations.

Accountability in governance is another noteworthy achievement. Again, we know about the corruption problems China faced, but the important thing is so did they. Their measures and approach is so structured that day to day corruption is almost zero now. Accountability is fixed in such a severe manner, that if you don’t do your job well (as a public servant), you’ll be fired (or even killed depending on your offence). Corruption is punishable by death. When you go to railway stations or museums, the security apparatus is so comprehensive that it is just like an airport. The guards are so attentive (yet courteous) and take their job very seriously. After all, if I manage to smuggle some sort of contraband past them, the first thing that the govt. will do is fire them and even possibly execute the accountable people (guards, their bosses etc.). A famous example is that of a dairy company that was charged with adulteration in their baby products. Proven guilty after a probe, their CEO was executed. We’ll never know if the CEO was part of the racket, but the Chinese viewpoint is that he SHOULD have known even if he didn’t, and therefore the buck stops with him.

Though language was a barrier, most people (and we spoke with lots of people) were friendly and respectful. You do get a few stares from curious strangers (especially in smaller towns), but nothing compared to what a white woman would be subject to in India. On a lighter note, some people also took pictures with us (most because of my beautiful wife), which was a welcome surprise for an Indian. Also, the fact that most people are usually so preoccupied with their mobile phones that they have no idea about their surroundings, helps with this staring problem which is so prevalent in India. Also, we didn’t encounter a single instance of anyone trying to con us; not even taxi drivers. Usually, people only seek compensation for the effort they’ve put, but of course you do have to haggle with shopkeepers in local markets etc. (the only place I’ve witnessed where you don’t have to do so is Korea!).

The reason that the Chinese authorities take exception to street protests etc. is also much clearer to me now. They are clear that such protests are mostly politically motivated and that nothing constructive ever comes out of them; in fact, they are almost always obstructionist in nature. Goes back to what I mentioned earlier: the people should do what they are supposed to (live their lives) and the governance apparatus should do what it is supposed to (make lives better), and boy do they do it well. As far as the constant cringe about ‘having your say in decisions’ goes, the urge to have your say becomes far less pronounced, if not entirely absent, when good governance is consistently delivered. In fact, isn’t this what people want: to outsource governance to others so that they can spend time doing what they want to. China is a perfect example of this approach. Don’t confuse the stifling of free speech with the lack of redressal mechanisms. If there is something wrong (from choked sewers in your neighborhood to corruption at your local govt. office), there are systematic ways for you to seek redressal. The only major limitation is that you can’t go and protest against the govt. (the state) as that is basically considered a waste of energy on your part and on the state’s, wherein it’d have to invest precious energy in engaging with you.

Another important aspect of China’a governing ideology is its state-mandated policy to underplay their achievements. To put it briefly, their national policy is ‘shut up and get to work’. This is what they’ve done diligently for the last 4 decades and look where it’s got them. This is very pertinent from an Indian viewpoint, where we have a very bad habit of gloating about petty achievements. Doing so causes two problems: first, it sets our standards too low and makes us complacent, and second, it unnecessarily sounds warning bells in the international community (many of whom might be competing or hostile countries). I must point to some examples here. My favorite one is the Bandra-Worli sea link and the Mumbai Pune expressway, which are both petty projects by any standards (let alone Chinese), but for the last 10 to 15 years, we keep talking about them as if we are the first nation in the world to make a 5 km long bridge or a 90 km long highway. Don’t get me wrong, they are important projects, but they are no achievements. The moment we accept that it is an achievement, we concede that we are only capable of only doing so much.

I cannot explain in words what 19000 km (which is slated to increase to 25000 km by 2020) of high speed rail means. We don’t even have 1 km yet, and I don’t foresee us having even a single high speed line till 2040 (actually I am not in favour of investing in high speed trains in India at this moment). Similarly, China is thinking about linking Kashgar, an occupied city in Xinjiang province (east Turkestan) with high speed rail as it has Lhasa. Then they are constructing a road from Kashgar to Karachi (through PoK) to cement their grip on the region and render India’s claims to PoK completely irrelevant.

They have also used their infrastructural prowess to resolve territorial issues. When you have billions of dollars worth  projects in parts of the country that don’t really belong to you (Tibet and Xinjiang), you are basically leaving such a strong imprint of your identity in those regions that to the world, they would eventually seem indistinguishable. The reality is that even in their own museums, neither Tibet nor Xinjiang feature in their history. In fact, Tibet rightly features in the India and south-east Asia section! But who dares question China on their claims over Xinjiang and Tibet?  And eventually, these peoples would also integrate with China as it would be in their interest to be citizens of the world’s most powerful nation. Does Google map dare show these regions as disputed territories as it does with J&K and Arunachal Pradesh? This is NOT because China has a powerful military (we are powerful enough if it was about military strength). It is about their strategy, a game of chess that they are very good at. Every move is thought through with its implications, counter moves and perceptions.

Another favorite example is about China vs. USA. Recently, Obama made a statement in the US senate that the US is the most powerful country in the world and that no one even comes close. Now, even if they are (actually China is probably more powerful, but for simplicity, let’s say US is and China is number 2), being number 2 wouldn’t be a bad thing, would it? But you would NEVER hear the Chinese leadership say anything on these lines (that they are number 1 or 2 or have a 56 inch chest etc.). You never hear about unilateral actions from them against other countries, even though they can. This is all very well planned and strategized. Democracy or not, India must learn how to keep its head down and focus on the tasks at hand for the next 30 years. Recently, in an interview, Dr. Raghuram Rajan, the RBI chief in India, also said that India should avoid thumping its chest.

A last submission on these topics. The Chinese political leadership is so systematic in the way leaders are chosen. When you study their model closely, you realize that winning an election is meaningless. Lalu Prasad, Arvind Kejriwal, SAS Geelani, Adolf Hitler all won elections. Popularity means nothing. Capability means everything. Their systems ensure that the most capable people, who have worked at different levels of the political establishment make it to the top Moreover, they have a system that every decade or so (don’t quote me on the number), where they  completely change the top brass of the CPC leadership and replace it with younger leaders. On the other hand, democracy ensures that Karunanidhi, V. S. Achuthanandan, Jyoti Basu etc. continue to lead the country even past their expiry dates. Also, because leaders in the CPC change often, there is no question o cult or dynastic politics either, which harm the nation beyond measure.

Their centralized command over the country ensures that decisions can be made, differences can be resolved, promised can be delivered and above all, the country progresses. Without such an approach, you’d spend decades discussing uniform civil code, Babri Masjid, cow slaughter, J&K, Maoist crisis, reservations, JNU, RSS, VHP, Owaisi and Pakistan, with no focus on population crisis, water crisis, unemployment, law & order, corruption, dysfunctional judiciary, complacent bureaucracy, ineffective police force, and a non-existent infrastructure.

Anyway, let’s end this serious discussion here and board our flight from Sydney to Shanghai, our first destination in China, in part 2 of this travelogue.








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