China Diary: First Impressions

Monish Tourangbam, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, Karnataka & South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow, Stimson Center, Washington D.C.

As an academic actively teaching and writing on issues of international relations and geopolitics, visiting the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has always been a priority on my bucket list. So, when an opportunity came to visit the PRC, I embraced it with an open mind, with an intention to listen, observe and learn. A trip spanning less than two weeks is hardly an adequate time to even start scratching the surface of a country that is often associated with opacity. Hence, these are mere first impressions that in no way can be seen as definitive impressions.

One is often struck by the geographical nearness of China to India, and yet the political distance, in terms of a complex adversarial and competitive relationship, and divergent political systems. But this feeling, I suppose, is not surprising for anyone interested in the vagaries of geopolitics. Geographical contiguity or even cultural sameness, for that, matter do not necessarily translate to mutual understanding and cooperative behaviour. At the same time, any adversarial relationship or a friendly one between two countries, is also not cast in stone. The nature of relationships is dynamic, and in that sense, one can discern the dimensions of interdependence in India-China relations that calls for adroit management, and not a zero-sum game approach.

Driven across the streets of some major Chinese cities, the indicators of China’s economic development are too visible to be missed. The grand visions of the Chinese political leadership reflect a sense of China’s future that will impact not only the Chinese people, but global trade and commerce. The urban development models along with advances in industrial and post-industrial hubs in China has the ability to overwhelm one’s senses but also leaves a lot of questions to be answered in terms of their societal and human impact. Unlike in other more transparent, maybe chaotic, democratic societies, China does not seem to be open to debating and discussing the darker/greyer sides of its glitzy high rises and mindboggling mega infrastructure projects.

Any short-term visits to Chinese community centres reflects a sense of projecting the benefits of Chinese people pulling in one direction, as opposed to democratic societies, where attention to individual pursuits acquires attention as well. The question of finding a general will out of individual wills, and the search for the best form of governance, and which one suits which kind of society is an enduring one and something to which I have no answer.

There is certainly an attempt to show how China is combining the traditional and the modern, how China is taking care of all sections of its society, in building a “harmonious” and “inclusive” society. This sense of “harmonious” co-existence and “inclusiveness” in the domestic governance of Chinese society is something that the Chinese leadership wants to project in its pursuit for leadership of the global order. As Western countries, more particularly the United States, debate the fall of the “liberal world order”, there has been a simultaneous debate on how China under the leadership of Xi Jinping has shown intentions to lead the global order. There is a constant effort to project how China’s leadership of the global order, and the “Chinese dream”, as opposed to “American hegemony” and “American dream” will lead to a win-win scenario for all in the international community.

At the centre of this grand vision is the ambitious but controversial ‘belt and road’ or ‘one belt, one road’ initiative (BRI). India’s decision to boycott the Belt and Road Forum in China earlier this year has certainly rattled the Chinese leadership and China’s strategic community seems keen to understand India’s perceptions of the BRI and probable India’s responses. Anyone visiting China at this time of the year would not miss the importance accorded to the coming 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), significant in terms of witnessing the rise of Xi Jinping and a sort of personality cult developing around him. There seems to be a palpable keenness in China to know how the international community would view the Party Congress and its implications. In China, one is witness to a projection that the CCP is the most important aspect of Chinese political life, that the goals of the CCP are the goals of the nation, that the future of the CCP is the future of the Chinese people and only under its leadership will the Chinese achieve and sustain a harmonious society.

And, last but not least, a generational shift could be discerned in China. The millennials in China show behavioural patterns of belonging to a China that has arrived, and is on its way to becoming the largest economy in the world, and probably the most influential agenda-setter in the international system. However, there is also a narrative overtly projected that China never aspires to be a hegemon or a superpower. Is China’s promise to refrain from the hubris of power mere rhetoric or something credible? If it is to be the latter, then China has its work cut out. It needs to be more transparent in its strategic intentions and to be more accommodative of the concerns of other countries, near and far.

The author was part of a visiting delegation of Indian scholars to China in September this year.

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