Understanding a Neighbour. A Book with a Difference

A new book and its launch: Ambasador Nalin Surie’s wife, Poonam has been for long an avid China watcher. She has travelled and mixed with the ‘people’ extensively. She has published her third book, China: Modernity and Tradition. On the occasion of the launch of her book, Ambassador Shyam Saran was joined by another diplomat, a former ambassador to China, Ashok Kantha, and foreign policy and global affairs strategic analyst, Dr. Raja Mohan. We bring you a brief on what was said. And, a glimpse from Poonam’s unfolding of what inspired her to write her book. The excerpts:

Shyam Saran

Many of us, in what may be called the China fraternity, our focus is so much on the foreign policy aspect or the security aspect of our relations with China and China’s place in the world that we perhaps miss out on something which is absolutely critical to understanding China, which is the overall historical context, the overall cultural context.

Also, the main actors in the drama that is taking place in China are the people of China, the younger generation in China. What do they think about their country? What are their aspirations? Some of the anecdotes that are there in this book really give you a kind of an insight into perhaps a people who have had as long a civilizational history as India. And yet we know so little about this neighbour of ours. And I dare say my experience also has been that the Chinese also know very, very little about India. .

So it is in that context that, going through this book I really found that Poonam has, in a sense, filled a very big void in our understanding of China. Because she takes a very different kind of perspective, a different viewpoint and that makes all the difference. What I also liked about the book was that at various points she does, look at the contrast between India and China in our ways of thinking, in our cultures. But there is one part which I particularly like and which greatly encourages me about India’s own future, which is that, here is a country, India, which perhaps is distinguished by its immense diversity. Its polarity, which is perhaps is its defining feature.

And she quotes Rabindranath Tagore and I think this is particularly worthy, quoting at this point of time, in the meeting of races that she has quoted towards the end of a book. Tagore says, the races of mankind will never again be able to go back to their citadels of high board exclusiveness. We are today exposed to one another physically and intellectually. The shells which have for so long, given them full security within their individual enclosures have been broken. And by no artificial process, can they be mended again. So, we have to accept this fact, even though we have not fully adapted our minds to this changed environment of publicity, even though, even though through it we may have to run all the risks entered by the wider expansion of life’s freedoms. This is Tagore, it was a hundred years ago that he wrote this.

And yet it is so relevant to our times and I think in that sense, India has perhaps precisely because of this polarity has perhaps the greatest, its greatest asset in terms of dealing with a world where no longer the shells can protect you, no longer the walls that it can separate you from others. So, in that sense, perhaps India is, at least the message that I got Poonam from your book, was that perhaps we are somewhat better placed, in dealing with the challenges as we go forward. And despite the fact that China has made such enormous, spectacular progress, what we see today is perhaps once again, a certain kind of fear, even that success has bred a certain kind of fear that you are seeking comfort again in the past. Once again, finding the world around you, somewhat threatening, and you want to, once again, start constructing your world, which is a fool’s error in a sense, because as Tagore says, it’s no longer possible to make those walls again, no matter how hard we try.

Poonam, you have actually given us given us an insight into how you have reacted to this fascinating country and its culture.

Poonam Surie

This is my third book on China. I’ve been deeply interested in China since I lived there in the early 2000s and from my frequent visits to the country for conferences and seminars till 2019. And then the pandemic struck. My interest stems from my desire to excavate Chinese society and delve into the past. The economy has been doing well, and the standards of living of the people have improved a lot. Hard work, frugality and filial piety were certainly some of the factors which helped however, society, communities, and many things have changed, and it’s interesting to delve into these issues. Makes sense to find the commonalities with its biggest neighbour India, as key challenges in the region are two countries have to a lot to learn about each other and what determines our pattern of behaviour.

Chinese society is changing in many ways, and there are many legislations between the communist party, the private companies, workers, society, and communities in both rural and urban areas. And authoritarianism is accepted as the normal, as long as the citizens are moving along the prosperous route, under the radar and control of the party.

But this change is hard to tell. We have to find in it key places this story of change and how tradition and modernity come together in curious and interesting ways to structure society. Just to give you an example, Jack Ma, the Chinese business magnet, who founded Alibaba Group, talks about the traditional philosophies. He says, strategy for the global expansion of Alibaba is based on a philosophy which marries staunch capitalist beliefs with Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, the traditional Chinese philosophies, which I have written extensively about, and at the Alibaba Global Leadership Academy, part of the curriculum was understanding Chinese traditional culture and philosophy, which are significant in areas of business management, workers, interactions, and respect for colleagues.

Arbitration and conciliations are critical in societies everywhere. Peter Drucker, the management guru, has quoted Confucianism values as management, advices, respect for each other, managed workspace, team spirit, solidarity of the community, and that profit should not be the ultimate goal, and the business should focus more on the welfare of the community. This is relevant in India as well, and brings to mind the Arthshastra on which there is a chapter in my book. So, this book, which I’ve written, has 18 chapters where I focus and deep dive into key societal challenges in Chinese society. After all, the factors of production of an economy are labour, land, and capital and productivity, and those are the foundation of the economy. Hence, delving into the mindsets of the citizens is important in order to understand the country as it is homosapiens who are the base of a country’s demographic dynamics.

The Gen Z issues, environmental concerns, religion, and its impact and used by the party state. Ageing population concerns, gender issues, materialism in Chinese society, domestic consumption and culture are being emphasized, and the culture being emphasized by Xi Jinping are all discussed in this book. I have written about Chinese society after observations and interactions with a lot of people on the streets, in conversations with my Chinese friends, monks in the Buddhist temples, people on the street and the common citizen. These observations are different from the news we hear on TV channels, mostly on geopolitics, the economy or political issues. It actually delves into societal issues. So, I have done extensive work on modern society during my time in China and my archival work, my interest in Buddhist political philosophy by actually sitting in temples with monks and listening to the shlokas and interacting with them.

A monk who knew Sanskrit spoke about many ancient Indian scriptures. I feel that commonalities could be the base for collaboration and cooperation between India and China and other Asian countries, and that could be a launching path for the future.

The Asian century, which was at one point of time of significance, seems to have lost its last. However, hopes remain. In the age of technological advancement and many other aspirations and ambitions, traditions and culture certainly see a rebooting down the modern path. There has always been a complicated line, tradition, and modernity. It is getting blurred and yet clearly making its mark as technology advances. Ancient civilizational values do come up in unexpected ways.

Modern China is a complex amalgamation of political ideologies, which are centered on the power of the leadership, wherein the private sector is curtailed by political factors and controlled by the party in various ways. Chinese governance is an evolving political structure where Marxism, socialism, and capitalism are defined through Chinese characteristics. Grassroots democracy and the rule of law are also a part of the ideology. Religion is a factor which plays a role in making people aware of their traditions and philosophies, but at the same time is being used by the party as a control mechanism by keeping a check on temples and monks. Buddhism is also billion-dollar economy in terms of tourism, which helps the party state to run the economy.

There are concerns about the ageing population in China and how the one child policy was changed to a two-child policy and then to a three-child policy, which is not a success at the moment because a lot of young people do not want to have three children. Due to many cost concerns, many young men don’t want to get married, and the party state is actually willing to pay them to get married. They are afraid that at some point, the young men will get frustrated and vent out their anger. The over 65 cohort will more than double to 400 million people by 2049, and the 85 and over will more than triple to about 150 million people. The ageing population may be a problem, but one view is that the population issue may not be as negative as it appears to be with technological progress, AI, robotic science, et cetera. Some percentage of the labour may be replaced by digital solutions, and that would change the marketplace and workspaces. According to the seventh National Census in 2020, China’s population of youth aged 14 to 35 was about 4 hundred million, making up about 28.4% of the population.

Last year, youth unemployment hit a record high of 20.4% of 16 to 24-year-old job seekers unable to find work. The Chinese, like us, are banking on the fact that the youth will work in the platform economy and would have the time to fulfil their aspiration of working in their areas of interest. Yet what we see is quite the opposite. The 9-9-6 generation, which stands for working from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM six days a week. There are young citizens, too, fed up of the rat race, the pressure cooker life and overworked. Many have decided to move to the countryside with the intention of relaxing and working on their own terms. Many have started going to Buddhist temples and helping people, and the new hashtag is the incense burning generation. Youth unemployment levels have gone up, and now young graduates suddenly prefer to be hired as they’re more adaptable and have a longer work span, and they accept lower salaries and be more creative.

Some young people are being offered the jobs of looking after the ageing population, but they are not willing to do that. Traditional mindsets, this creates a problem and extra burdens on women, which is why gender issues have taken centre stage. Traditional mindsets were about women concentrating on being mothers and managing their families. The Confucian philosophy believed that women should take on the roles of mothers and prioritize looking after their families. Women have the trouble of elder care and now are being encouraged to take on the role of mothers by Xi Jinping, with the intention of encouraging the population to increase. Many of them are doing well as entrepreneurs and managing their businesses very well. And out of the 90 million members of the CPC 29.3 million of women, and there are about 2 million female cadres serving in the Communist Party, and the government organs mostly at the grassroots level, and they make up about more than half of the central government’s new civil service recruits every year, but the Boys Club dominates the party. Only eight women have ever made it to the Policy Bureau, and half of them are wives of top leaders. No woman has made it to the Supreme Standing Committee. The All-China Women’s Federation is related to improving the status of women, but it cannot do much as it is affiliated to the CPC and works under it.

Tibetan Buddhism is being thought of as a more positive religious sect, but this is not something that the Communist Party approves. Although the government formally recognizes 5 religions, it closely monitors their houses of worship, clergy appointments, and funding. Many activities that could help to maintain or expand these five groups are banned. What is being encouraged is people’s Buddhism, which what the party state wants is that it will encourage people to help society and their communities rather than just ritualizing religion.

In proposing the global civilization initiative, Xi has advocated the importance of civilization, inheritance and respect for the diversity of world. Civilization’s modernization, he pointed out does not mean the decline of civilizations, but in fact, the rebirth of traditional culture. The global development initiative and the global security initiative are also meant to have similar aims.

China has been trying to go into a consumption led growth rather than depend on exports. Boosting domestic consumption is a part of a dual circulation strategy, one of Xi Jinping’s signature initiatives that centres on expanding the domestic market and maintaining the export market. However, new challenges have emerged, and to ensure that China can continue to grow on a sustainable basis, and to reduce dependence on external technology, the focus has shifted to innovation and domestic technology development, including all futuristic domains such as artificial intelligence, quantum cyber, robotics, green energy, et cetera. At the centre, lies a boost in domestic consumption, innovation and strengthening of human resources as seen to be of vital importance by making the younger generation aware of their own traditions and culture; the hope is that they will consume more local made objects rather than Western brands and will be aware of environmental concerns.

I hope with this you can see how relationships develop between Chinese government, citizens, religious institutions, and how they are interrelated to technological change, demographic change, environment issues and related concerns. We all carry historical baggage, and our traditional beliefs do have a significant impact on our future decisions. However, they may be rebooted to fit into the new structure of the modern world. As citizens across the globe, we have to walk between tradition and modernity, which are a factor that affects all our decisions and in our lives.

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