Monday, October 11, 2010

The Evil Empire

It is painful to call one of the most economically successful countries in the world an evil empire. But consider this
...freedom, equality, and human rights are universal common values shared by all humankind, and that democracy, a republic, and constitutionalism constitute the basic structural framework of modern governance. A "modernization" bereft of these universal values and this basic political framework is a disastrous process that deprives humans of their rights, corrodes human nature, and destroys human dignity. Where will China head in the 21st century? Continue a "modernization" under this kind of authoritarian rule? Or recognize universal values, assimilate into the mainstream civilization, and build a democratic political system? This is a major decision that cannot be avoided.
Thus speaks the apparently infamous Charter 08 penned largely by Liu Xiaobo (the 2010 Nobel peace prize winner) and signed by, by now, thousands of people. The complete text of the charter is here. It calls for more freedom and an end to single party rule in China. And for this, a document, nobody in India, Western Europe or the Americas would glance twice at for subversive ideology, the Chinese Goverment has jailed Liu Xiaobo for 11 years! Perhaps I have a small mind that cannot grasp big ideas -- but a 11 year jail sentence for penning this Charter? The perfidy and viciousness of the Chinese Government does not stop here. The New York Times reports
The wife of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, was allowed to meet with her husband on Sunday at the prison in northeastern China where he is serving an 11-year sentence, but she was then escorted back to Beijing and placed under house arrest, a human rights group said...
Even private parties are not safe
On Friday night, the police detained 20 bloggers, lawyers and academics who gathered for a celebratory banquet at a private room in a Beijing restaurant. By Sunday night, 10 guests had been released, according to a prominent activist, Zhang Zuhua, another of Charter ’08’s main authors. Three were given eight days in detention for disturbing the peace, and seven have been escorted out of Beijing, Mr. Zhang said.
To me, these are the classic signs of an evil empire -- a powerful one, capable of doing great damage, to itself, to its people and eventually to the world. And yet, is China unique in this? Aren't there other countries equally intolerant of dissent? Then why does China get all the flak?

One of the favourite positions of the left liberal Indian establishment is to point out that we, or rather the Indian Governmemt is equally intolerant of dissenting opinions. They point to our practice of meeting unarmed protesters (or armed only with stones) with live ammunition, in Kashmir, the North East and elsewhere. And indeed, our policy (if indeed we have a coherent one) in this regard is seriously condemnable. But to compare Indian attitudes to dissenting opinions to the Chinese one, is to my mind, unadulterated balderdash. Government policy, not just in Kashmir but on everything from the economy to the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme faces daily and virulent criticism, not just in the mainstream press but also in gadfly magazines like Tehelka. And while there are occasional half-hearted attempts to harass such agencies, nobody seriously tries to throttle free expression any more. Sixty three years of a free press (and a bad 2 years of emergency) has meant that dissent is firmly entrenched in the Indian psyche and a Government can only interfere with it at its own peril. Include opinions in non anonymous blogs and you see an even more extreme and at times hysterical level of criticism. I think a comparison with China is laughable and just plain odious. At the same time, strong publicly expressed public opinion has meant that frequently the Government is forced to take cognisance, whether on Kashmir or on the Right to Information Act or on the Commonwealth Games or on a hundred other subjects.

Th other issue is about China's unique position. After all, countries like Burma (Myanmar), North Korea, or even the tin-pot desert kingdoms living off their oil, aren't exactly epitomes of democratic governance. In fact to my mind, they are worse. China today has made enormous progress, in eliminating poverty, improving education and the material wealth of its people, in its infrastructure. Its economy is a challenge to the rest of the world, which is beating a path to its door, to do business with it. And that is what makes China so much more dangerous, than those countries I mention above. In their need to do business with China, virtually all countries from the US to India are willing to overlook China's by now abysmal record of human rights. China has the potential for setting the agenda with other countries, on its own terms, and that bodes ill for the future.

Update: If you think I am prejudiced about China, maybe this Op-Ed by Paul Krugman will convince you. He is talking of the Japan China 'tiff' but the idea is the same. If I am prejudiced, then at least I am in good company.

Update 2: The Pakistan Government has come out in strong support of the Chinese position on the Nobel Prize. How does the Government of Pakistan manage to be on the wrong side every instance? And amusingly, the only Indian newspaper to report on this is the Hindu :-)


vbalki said...

In China we have a really dangerous adversary. I doubt if our usual laid-back, bumbling responses will work in the case of China. But we're giving it a good try. The last time I was in Kochi, I tried to find an authentic dish from Kerala in a supposedly ethnic restaurant. After a couple of suggestions of his got summarily rejected by me as fakes, the waiter triumphantly produced what he asserted was a genuine malayali dish: "Gopi menjuryan":-) Take that, Xing-hao Ping or whatever!

Anant said...

IMHO, The Hindu which I described once as the thinking Indian's newspaper, or at least wants to be such, needs to sort out who it wants to write for and why. I remember some time ago, Prachanda was on the front page of the paper for several days in a row, while price rise etc., were relegated to other pages. Now, think of the average reader of the paper, who after reading about the latest lecture on the Ramayana in Mandavali, wants to find out what is important in his or her life, and finds dollops of fundas on Prachanda! What is the point of this? Educate us, OLO.

vbalki said...

@Anant: The Hindu is an Indian reprint of Xin-Hua. About a couple of years ago, I carried out a small experiment. There was some hot issue (I can't remember right away which one it was), and I managed to read what 5 diferent newspapers had to say about it: The Statesman (Delhi), The Hindu, New York Times, London Times and Washington Post. I also read what Xin-Hua, the official Chinese news agency, had to say about it. To my dismay, the editorial in the Hindu (a special centre-page article written by Ram himself) was a remarkably faithful copy of what Xin-Hua said, and this was almost the exact opposite of what all the others said. I finally stopped subscribing to the Hindu after this instance.

Rahul Basu said...

Anant: But this post is not about the Hindu!!!