Places 20 years apart

Twenty years ago this week when the student protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square ended in a violent crackdown by the Party-state in China, the government of India responded by ordering the state television to pare down the coverage to the barest minimum.

The government's monopoly over television two decades ago helped Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signal Beijing that India would not revel in China's domestic troubles and offer some political empathy instead.

The instrumentalist logic behind the deliberate decision of the world's largest democracy to turn its back on a rare outpouring of political liberalism in China was an impeccable one.

After all, Rajiv Gandhi had travelled to China barely six months before the tumultuous events of Tiananmen. He was the first prime minister to visit China after the tensions in bilateral relations during 1959-62. Rajiv Gandhi's historic trip in December 1988 did end the prolonged chill in bilateral relations. As he sought to move forward with China, Rajiv Gandhi had no incentive to undermine his new diplomatic initiative.

Two decades later, India has even stronger reasons not to view China's evolution from the limiting but popular Western ideological prism. "Democracy versus dictatorship" is surely the easiest way of remembering Tiananmen; it is also probably the laziest in an intellectual sense.

The images from Tiananmen Square 20 years ago — a lone student trying to stop the tanks of the People's Liberation Army or that of a large crowd of young

Chinese men and women looking up to a replica of the Statue of Liberty — are unforgettable. They are also profoundly misleading.

For the events of 1989 have become less salient as Chinese history accelerated during the last two decades. In India, our challenge is to understand the nature of political change in China and how a changing China is transforming our political environment.

In the past, the romanticism of our Sinophiles and the paranoia of our Sinophobes have together prevented India from developing a realistic appreciation of either China's strengths or its weaknesses.

The first step towards understanding the changes in China since Tiananmen must be the recognition that the Western propaganda has little in common with the Western policy when it comes to Beijing.

While the Western media castigates Beijing for crushing a non-violent students' movement two decades ago, the Western chancelleries are begging for China's cooperation in managing the current global financial crisis.

That the Chinese Communist Party might be the unlikely saviour of Western capitalism underlines the extraordinary economic interdependence that has taken hold of Sino-US relations since Tiananmen.

In 1989, Communist China appeared to be on the brink of collapse and its ideological legitimacy seemed to evaporate after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Twenty years later, the talk around the world is about China's emergence as a potential manager of the global financial order in conjunction with the US, the so-called Group of Two.

It is not just the CCP that has reinvented itself by discarding many shibboleths of communist orthodoxy. The Chinese youth have changed even more remarkably.

Unlike their predecessors in Tiananmen, the current generation of Chinese youth is not enamoured of all things Western and American. They are intensely nationalistic, ready to take offence at the mere suggestion of a slight from either the Western powers or China's Asian neighbours.

In recent years, the young patriotic Chinese have set alight the web-world amidst perceived insults to the motherland more than protesting against the injustices of the political system at home.

All this however does not mean China has solved all its political problems. Far from it. Change, indeed, is inevitable in China. The question is, when and how this change might unfold. What are the factors catalysing and retarding China's inevitable political evolution?

As the CCP forgets Marx and promotes the traditional Confucian values, many Sinologists argue that the sources of Chinese political development must be found in its own long history and the recent structural changes in its society.

They also insist that simplistic theses — "capitalism versus communism" and "democracy versus dictatorship" — might help frame the issues nicely but offer little insight into the rumbling of the tectonic plates underneath China's overt calm.

If this assessment is right, India is rather poorly equipped to cope with the changes in China. For all its rhetoric about "Asian solidarity" and its enthusiasm for the old "East versus West" paradigm, India has made little intellectual investment in knowing China. Barring the Foreign Office, few Indian agencies have trained their cadres to either learn the language or master the politics of China.

In the US, hundreds of colleges teach Mandarin and Chinese studies. In India, you could count such institutions on your finger tips. While China hosts thousands of foreign journalists, only a handful of Indians are part of that list.

Unlike in 1989, India cannot and does not filter the Indian media's coverage of China. That is not of great help though. Many of us will continue to get the Chinese names wrong; our political classes have no contact with the Party elite in China; there are few direct flights between Delhi and Beijing; and our civil societies remain disconnected as ever. Although trade between the two countries has boomed, there is no corresponding increase in the contributions of our corporate sector towards our collective understanding of China.

Twenty years after Tiananmen, China has changed unrecognisably. And its weight in the international system has expanded rapidly. What has not changed much is India's deep ignorance about China.

Whatever the choice we might eventually make on China — emulate, befriend, or balance — we need to invest and generate the national capacity to understand what makes the great civilisation next door tick.

The writer is a professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore express@expressindia.com

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