A civilisational rivalry

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Observations on India and China in the modern world by TANVEER AHMED

During a recent trip to Beijing for a work related event, I was lucky enough to meet the Indian ambassador to China, Dr Jaishankar. He was an eloquent, well spoken, worldly man with a Japanese wife. When I asked him about issues between India and China, he made an interesting observation about civilisational rivalry.

According to the Ambassador, Chinese people look to India as one of the few people who have a historial tradition that stretches back even longer than their own. Indians built towns, developed languages and mathematic systems well before their corresponding Chinese dynasties, and even earlier than any corresponding developments in the
Middle East.

A significant part of Chinese pride dwells in the majesty and the depth of their history. Henry Kissinger writes in his book On China that the Chinese have always felt that they were the so called ‘Middle Kingdom’, which was essentially the centre of the universe and destined to rule the world. It was, in part, this arrogance that contributed to the Western domination of their lands for hundreds of years, as they refused to accept that they had anything to learn from anyone outside their borders. This thinking has since changed: however, they were hardly alone in thinking in insular terms, and perceiving their own history and culture as exceptional.

A relevant question for Indians to ask, is ‘what is the correct place for such a rich history, and can it be both an advantage and a detractor?’

India is not China. In fact, India is arguably even tougher to govern as a nation. When the Chinese leader speaks, for example, almost everyone in China can understand. The vast majority of the country is
of the ethnic group Han Chinese.

When the Indian leader speaks, however, it is a different matter. This is because only a quarter of the population can understand if he or she speaks in Hindi, with perhaps a fifth if the speech is in English, and tenth if it is in Tamil, and so on. India is in many respects an accidental nation, due to English defined boundaries.

Nonetheless, despite the language barriers, India has a distinct advantage over China. This relates to the population of India being able to engage in the global economy, due to its natural comfort with the English language. This high-quality spoken English by Indian graduates is the reason that multinational corporations are more likely to use quality Indian labour, even if it is for relatively menial work, such as call centers.

But as ex-Singaporean leader Lee Kwan Yu says in his book of speeches and interviews, Indian bureaucracy and regulation remains one of the key detractors of the country’s growth, which dilutes the country’s advantages elsewhere.

But could the rich history and tradition be another detractor from China reaching its development potential? For example, a key challenge for Chinese leaders is how to instill a culture of innovation within a Confucian tradition that venerates authority and hierarchy. Individual risk taking, and alternative thinking is not only difficult, but is often punished through intense conformity. Damaging gossip, for example, can be a
powerful tool of enforcing such conformity.

Similar issues may exist among Indians who too strictly maintain a traditional mindset. A common criticism of Indian workers applying their skills abroad is that they are excellent workers when told what to do or given a set of instructions, but weak when there is a need to take initiative or generate new ideas.

To what extent this has to do with an ancient culture is debatable, but a deep reverence for tradition and conformity are certainly contributors.

All communities from cultures distant to the dominant Anglo-Saxon variety must contend with the right balance of tradition and modernity. It can be a painful balancing act, which can cause conflict with children or a sense of loss about one’s past. In America, leaders of the Indian community have made no secret that they look towards the powerful Jewish community to help strike the right balance between tradition, community consciousness with career, and business savvy.

It is important to be aware of one’s past. Just as my patients can’t entirely make sense of their lives without understanding their past, thefast developing countries of Asia canlose a moral and cultural balance if they lose a sense of their history and culture. But a weighty, old civilisation should not be rested upon for its own sake, or usedas a tool of misplaced arrogance. It should be like a rudder or an anchor, helping to steer the ship through the turbulent yet promising waters of modernity and beyond.