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Impressions of my visit to Beijing, Xi'an and Hohhot (Inner Mongolia), Sept. 2018

[Published as ‘The dragon breathes prosperity’

                        in The Tribune Chandigarh, 30 Sept. 2018]        



In November 1973, Dr Henry Kissinger (then Secretary of State) exchanged views with Chairman Mao Zedong on the USSR’s intention to destroy China’s incipient nuclear programme. Mao protested it was no bigger than a fly. Kissinger replied that the Russian’s worried what that fly would be like after ten years. Mao’s responded: ‘I’d say thirty years hence or fifty years hence,’ adding, ‘it is impossible for a country to rise up in a short period.’


History has contradicted Mao. His China has risen. The traditional hutongs of his youth have been leveled to become the foundations, the turtle-backs upon which balance soaring columns of skyscrapers. They are the 21st century pagodas dedicated to consumerism. Dubai may be the Disneyland of whimsical architects; Beijing is controlled urbanization at its sober best.

Unlike the Soviets who modernised their cities like Moscow and Leningrad after leafing through sample books of imaginative confectioners, modern Chinese architecture delights not simply from the grandeur of its construction but from the novelty of its inspiration.

Where else would something as inconsequential as a fragile bird’s nest transform into a concrete cat’s-cradle of an Olympic stadium? Who without a Tao-ist feel for the elements could have moulded shimmering liquid into the shape of an iridescent Water Cube?

Once, Chairman Mao and his party cohorts saw no future in their past. Today, whichever city one visits in China - Beijing, Xi’an, even Hohhot in Inner Mongolia - one is made aware that the image China projects to its visitors is of its pre-communist past. No longer do tourists have to sidestep puddles of lectures on the benefits of party-controlled Socialism or ignore the omnipresence of Chairman Mao. Today, guides speak admiringly of ancient dynasties and of dead emperors with a respect their parents’ generation reserved only for the great leader. Like the Egyptians, the Chinese market their rediscovered antiquity.

Age still has a value in modern China, for unexpected reasons. Grandparents are no longer the fulcrum of a joint family system. They are still indispensable but as surrogate parents, looking after the one-child progeny whose parents are too busy working. Time and again, in tourist sites, hotels, trains, one encounters elders tending young children, the middle generation a gap like missing front teeth.  

One sensed the effect of this generational gap after speaking to a young engineer who, now that he could afford it, had invited his village-bound grandmother to holiday with him in ultra-modern Xi’an. Or the three year old who solicitously wiped the mouth of his drooling grandmother.

Even though the state has reversed its one-child embargo, it cannot force young couples to create a baby bulge to offset the geriatric imbalance. The benefits of two separate incomes, the freedom of choices, an enviably high standard of everyday living are making couples think twice before giving birth twice.

The doctrines of the Communist Party though remain the red corpuscles in China’s blood stream. Mao’s cultism has been replaced by a quiet, firm self-restraint by President Xi Jinping. Was it accidental that out of forty television channels, only one carried a newsreel of him addressing a group of attentive officials?  Nowhere did one see hoardings of him, or hear paeans of praise for his leadership. Yet he and the party are in control, he for his lifetime. Raising 400 million of fellow citizens out of abject poverty within a half a life-time is perhaps gratification enough for any Caesar. There is no need for sycophancy to paper over shortcomings.

An envious West is determined to make China become addicted to democracy. Like opium in the 19th century, it is an import China can afford to live without.




[Published as ‘The dragon breathes prosperity’ in The Tribune Chandigarh, 30 Sept. 2018]        


30 September 2018
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