A version of this piece appears today in Mint.
China's sustained economic boom over the last twenty-five years and India's progress since liberalisation have generated a great deal of breathless talk - particularly in the financial press - about caged tigers waking, the balance of power in the world shifting, and the twenty-first century being "the Asian century". Much of this is just hot air. Although China is now the fourth-largest economy in the world, and India not far behind, per capita income is both countries is a fraction of what it is in the developed world.
Further, both countries have followed unusual paths to greater prosperity. India's growth has been kickstarted by its comparative advantages in the IT and service sectors: we have not enjoyed an industrial revolution, and this may hurt us in the long run. China, on the other hand, is the workshop of the world, owing its growth to massive exports of consumer goods and an unusually high domestic savings rate. Its economic miracle is all the more surprising because it has managed and directed by the Communist Party, which controls the apparent paradox of a socialist market economy. Everywhere the question is being asked: can such a rise be sustained?
The French political commentator Guy Sorman has been an Asia-watcher for three decades now, and has written a series of intriguing books, including Barefoot Capitalism (1989) and The Genius of India (2001). His latest book, The Year of the Rooster (Full Circle Global, Rs.495), is an attempt to inspect the Chinese miracle from within, building on a year of travel, study and encounters with people in China in 2005, the Year of the Rooster in the twelve-year animal cycle of the Chinese calendar. We are presented not with an enigmatic, faceless China of facts and figures of the kind bandied so often in the press, but instead a people very much like us, hungry for civil and religious liberty and for responsive government, but in thrall to forces whose power they cannot contest.
Sorman follows, on the one hand, the trail of misery and cruelty left by the Party-State. The story of China, he demonstrates, is "a chronicle of everyday repression". He meets the mother of a youth who was killed during the suppression of the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989, still trying, in 2005, to get information on how and why her son died. He comes across political dissidents who have spent years in prison being tortured, and members of banned religious sects who have done time in labour reeducation centres. Some rebels dream of an armed revolution, others of a thaw ushered in by a figure in the Chinese communist party comparable to Gorbachev or Yeltsin, still others of a Chinese Martin Luther King.
Civil society is weak, for "the ability to associate outside the Party is what the Party fears the most". Thought control is everywhere. Both the press and the judiciary are emasculated, and serve as unofficial extensions of the Party. The regime even subjects the Internet to government control, and the state telephone company has developed software to censor text messages for words like "Tiananmen" and "Tibet". If matters have improved, in is only by comparison to the years of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward.
Sorman argues that the West, in not taking a harder line with China's government for its predations, has valued "trade over human rights". All of this, he contends, renders comparisons of China's growth with that of India virtually meaningless, for a narrowly quantitative analysis does not reflect "non-economic values which matter like democracy, freedom of religion and respect for life".
And even that 9 per cent growth rate needs close examination. For one, if China is witnessing an unprecented migration of labour from the villages to the cities, much of that migration is forced: China has prospered because of its human rights violations, from using people as "human fodder". Also, China's manufacturing revolution is based on a virtually unlimited supply of cheap labour; the spirit of creativity and innovation traditionally associated with capitalism is foreign to Chinese firms.
"The Party has created a labour market not tempered by law, dissent, or collective bargaining," argues Sorman. "Economists had envisaged such a scenario only on paper. Chinese leaders have shown the lcassical economists were right: the less hampered the labour market, the greater the growth. But economists never had the kind of unlimited power the leaders of China enjoy." When, in addition to a precarious legal system and an absence of property rights, one factors in political uncertainty and a looming energy crisis, it is hard to believe that China will really become the world's new superpower.
As Gurcharan Das, the author of India Unbound, writes in his foreword to Sorman's book, he was himself a believer in "the myth of contemporary China". That belief seems to be shared by a section of India's political class: witness Chief Minister's Vilasrao Deshmukh's ambition, later repeated by Manmohan Singh, of turning Mumbai into "another Shanghai". But Sorman's visit to Shanghai reveals nothing but "a façade of modernity", a soulless centrally-planned city of glitzy appearances but poor sanitation, no freedom of speech, and an insipid cultural life. Most readers of Sorman's sobering book would take Mumbai over Shanghai any day.
Sorman's piece "The Empire of Lies" can be found here, in the most recent issue of City Journal.
Here are some other contributions to the debate on modern China: "New China, New Crisis", an extract from Will Hutton's new book on China The Writing on the Wall; "Does the future really belong to China?", a debate between Hutton and the economist Meghnad Desai in Prospect, and "What's Your China Fantasy?", another debate by James Mann and David Lampton in Foreign Policy; "The Dark Side of China's Rise" by Minxin Pei, "Getting Rich" by Pankaj Mishra; "The Great Leap: Scenes from China's Industrial Revolution" by Bill McKibben; "Unmasking the Man with the Wooden Face", a piece by Willy Wo-lap Lam on the Chinese President Hu Jintao; and "China: a 'great nation'?" by the Chinese journalist Li Datong.
And two fascinating accounts by individuals of their struggles with the paranoid Chinese state: "Arrested in China" by Kang Zhengguo ("The questioner begins from the assumption that you are guilty of many, many crimes and that the police already know the details of all of them. He does not say what the crimes are; it is up to you to show your sincerity and earn forgiveness by confessing") and "Enemy of the State: The Complicated Life of an Idealist", a recent piece in the New Yorker by Jianying Zha.
And lastly, an excellent ten-part series on present-day economic and social life in China for which the Wall Street Journal won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 2007.