Book Title: India’s China Challenge: A journey through China’s rise and what it means for India
Author: Ananth Krishnan
Books on China are an international industry. Some describe its rise, its industrial prowess and military ambitions, others predict its fall, its devious ways and so on. But if you are looking for something that encapsulates all this and more, you couldn’t do better than to read this book.
The book is about the China challenge to India, in all its aspects, economic, diplomatic and military. The writer, who is from Chennai, reads and speaks Mandarin. As a journalist he has lived in China for a decade and has had the opportunity to travel widely in the country. What we get from him is the portrait of a country, quite different from the caricature we encounter in what passes off as mainstream Indian media. That is our loss, and by helping us understand China the way it actually is, Krishnan has done signal service.
The best way to comprehend another country and culture is to have a keen ear and eye, but more important, a certain sympatico with that country. Krishnan is the observer, interlocutor, but never the judge. His is the dharma of a journalist seeking to understand and transmit that understanding to his reader. It is not that he doesn’t have views; they are suffused through the book and come through clearly, without clouding the subject.
In many ways, his knowledge of Mandarin is as important as his personal drive that has helped him delve deep into various aspects of modern China, from entrepreneurs, intellectuals, dissidents and party faithful to ordinary folk. Whether it is in the nature of Chinese politics or the border dispute with India, he has made sure that we also hear Chinese voices on these issues.
In the process, we learn a great deal about the China which, in the short space of two decades, is what it is today—a Leninist state which is an exporting and manufacturing powerhouse, a growing centre of research and development, a military power with increasingly global ambitions.
Krishnan takes you through what would be a complex subject with consummate ease and lucidity. The most notable is the section on politics where he takes you through China’s Maoist legacy to the rise of Xi into the arcana of the ways in which the Communist Party of China really works. Beyond the issue of organisation and its relationship with the government, Krishnan notes, the central truth is that the party must deliver economic growth. The Communist ideology has lost its motivating energy, and the void must be filled with Xi’s China Dream of national rejuvenation, which is plain old-fashioned nationalism, which we all know is a double-edged sword.
The book does signal service in telling us that whatever the leadership may say about things with “Chinese characteristics”, at the end of the day, the Chinese are alike their counterparts in the rest of the world. They are interested in democracy, expressing themselves, art, education and politics and getting ahead in life. The CPC sees western ideas as a threat and hence the strenuous efforts to wall off the Chinese from foreign information flows.
Among the more interesting parts of the book is the description of Yiwu, a town most Indians would not have heard of, yet, it is important in their lives by the role it plays as the super-super wholesale market to all of India. The scale is astonishing and it’s not surprising that China accounts for 73 per cent of India’s telecom equipment, 82 per cent of semiconductor devices, 81 per cent antibiotics and 75 per cent of all Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients used for making drugs.
Talking of manufacturing, the key insight the book has to offer is the role played by rural entrepreneurs. In other words, China’s manufacturing miracle was preceded by an agricultural one. It is the surplus generated from the rural revolution that financed the rise of urban China.
Krishnan’s sections on diplomacy and frontiers provide important insights into Chinese behaviour. He has provided with an authoritative precis of the Sino-Indian border issues, which connects to the current period involving the clash in the Galwan River Valley and the debates over what and where is the LAC.
Completing the book, as it were, are sections dealing with Krishnan’s travels and observations of Tibet and Xinjiang on one hand, and Taiwan and Hong Kong on the other. The short and detailed portraits of people that Krishnan concludes with add a depth of sorts to the composite image of China, warts and all, that the book has given us. In his epilogue, Krishnan provides us with a useful account of the manner in which China dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic and warns that it is probably accelerating trends shaping China’s landscape towards greater political control and centralisation. However, the pandemic has also opened up questions on the weakness of the Leninist system, its culture of secrecy that privileges security over everything.
There are all kinds of lessons there, and the real value of learning about other countries and cultures is the acuity it provides us when we look at our own.
— The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi