In Susan Sontag’s story “Project for a Trip to China,” when the narrator is invited by the Chinese Government on a trip to the country, she is consumed by the prospect of her long-cherished aspiration coming to life. “I am interested in wisdom. I am interested in walls,” Sontag writes, “China [sic is] famous for both.” Like the narrator in Sontag’s story, I have always been fascinated by China. Neighbouring India, the country where home is for me, China has, in recent years, captured the world’s imagination like no other country.
This is not at all surprising. China’s GDP, after all, has roughly grown at an average of 10% in the last 4 decades. The country has lifted 850 million people out of poverty. Its economic model, market-based socialism, and its political model, constitutionally sanctioned single-party rule, makes it a deeply interesting location to study.
And so, when in January, the opportunity to visit China as part of a delegation of Rhodes Scholars presented itself, I knew I wanted to partake in this experience. When we landed at the Shanghai Pudong International Airport, the first thing that struck me was that at the immigration counter, after we swiped our passports, the fingerprinting machine gave me directions in clear Hindi about the method of verifying my identity. That experience was a harbinger of the fact that China was not going to be like anything else that I had thus far experienced.
The trip itself consisted of a panoply of experiences that helped us acquire a fuller appreciation of Chinese society in all its dimensions. The one insight, however, that those experiences made manifest to me was the paradoxical nature of the Chinese growth story. Even as we marvelled at the large skyscrapers dotting the Shanghai skies, a law professor at Tsinghua University, where we were staying in Beijing, got suspended for continually criticising the Chinese Government. Even as we dined at fancy restaurants and met China’s business leaders, we were continually reminded of the fact that the fruits of China’s growth have not yet reached the millions of Chinese people not inhabiting the elite spaces which we visited. Even as we engaged in frank and difficult questions with proponents of the Chinese model, many of us struggled to access the social networking platforms and news engines that have become a regular feature of our lives.
For me, my impression of China was best summed up by Mark Wu, a Harvard Law School Professor and American Rhodes Scholar of Chinese origin who we met in Beijing. China, he said, moves two steps backward even as it moves 3 steps forward.
I am conscious of the fact that my view is a ‘hot take’, especially as an Indian whose country, even as it has been a hotbed for liberal democratic values to thrive, has not attained the kind of economic growth that China has. It is only to ‘salve’ my conscience about India’s unrealised potential, some may think, that I am calling the Chinese growth story a mixed bag when it has in fact been as much of an unmitigated good as the rise of other countries which fully subscribe to the democratic way of life.
And yet I think that to say China has its own weaknesses, as all models of governance do, imperfect as they all are, would be to set up a false equivalence. The contrast between the Chinese model and other democratic models, as Noah Feldman notes in a different context, goes back to a debate between Plato and Aristotle. Plato thought that a Philosopher-King should be given a free hand to make policies that suit the circumstances, unconstrained by rules which can be a hindrance. On the other hand, Aristotle recognised that the worst excesses of human governors can be checked only if their discretion is constrained by a sound set of laws. Most societies which have grown in an equitable and sustainable way over the centuries have adopted the latter model.
While the Chinese model may have ensured that China does not remain at the periphery but is at the centre of global affairs, I do think that it is the exception which proves the rule. In other words, the fact that China has grown the way it has, while other countries which have followed its model have not, only establishes the general unsuitability of this model for durable and equitable growth.
The trip had its lighter moments, too. During a talk that we attended by a noted venture capitalist in Beijing, he repeatedly noted that Indians are skilled but lazy, unlike the Chinese. I cleared my throat loudly at this, which elicited laughter from everyone in the room. When I once lost my key in my room and found it hard to explain the situation to a local receptionist, as she was not proficient in my language and I in hers, I reduced it to: “Roomed locked; key inside.” Once, when I asked a representative of a venture capital fund if the fund would invest in a business engaging in corrupt practices, she was immediately asked by someone how the session was going. “It’s going alright,” she replied, and added without losing a beat: “the questions are beginning to get more sensitive.” When I asked my friend Kumeren if the Great Wall of China wasn’t magnificent, ‘It’s okay,’ he replied anticlimactically.
I was also deeply saddened by the fact that we did not come across anyone with a visible disability at the places we visited: Subway stations, shopping malls, airports, university campuses, restaurants. In a country with a disabled population of 85 million – larger than the population of the whole of the UK – this was emblematic of the sequestered lives that many disabled people live in China. As the Financial Times puts it, the disabled in China have to learn to ‘make a sound’.
In conclusion, that China will emerge, if it hasn’t already emerged, as a leading global power in our lifetimes is incontestable. This trip provided us with a rare glimpse into what that rise will mean for China and for the rest of the world. One hopes that it was only the starting point of what will be an enduring relationship for many of us with the country.
Rahul Bajaj (India & Linacre 2018) is a first-year student studying Law at Oxford University. Rahul has his own blog titled 'Is It Just Me Or.... The Chronicles of an Oxford student and Rhodes Scholar' which you can read here.