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My Tryst With Chinese 'Democracy'

20/07/2016 1:23 PM IST | Updated 22/07/2016 8:51 AM IST
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This is the last installment of a two-part series on the divergences and confluences of the Chinese and Indian ways of life. Read part 1 here.

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The highlight of my Chinese experience as part of a Visva Bharati delegation visiting Yunnan University was our introduction to "Chinese democracy". This nomenclature was interesting considering that most of the world considers democracy to be non-existent in China. Nonetheless, the term exists, and a vague idea of democracy is also referred to in intellectual circles. However, it is not considered to be as inspiring an ideal as it is in India. Having never experienced certain democratic freedoms and rights, the people did not miss them – they had internalized the system to such an extent that the flaws of it escaped them just as our own vices remain imperceptible to us.

Having never experienced certain democratic freedoms and rights, the people did not miss them...

For instance, the volunteer I was texting with informed me in the middle of the night that he was unable to locate a certain object, and that he would look for it in the morning when there was light. Confounded I asked, "Isn't there electricity in your university dormitory?" To this he replied that electricity is cut off at midnight. Being an Indian student who often stays up all night, I was surprised to learn that Chinese university students simply had no choice in this aspect. The beauty of the system was that unlike the Indian students, who would have chanted slogans and sat in a dharna, the Chinese students learned to live with it in spite of finding it irritating and inconvenient at times.

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Train to Dali, China

If you have taken overnight trains in India, and especially if you have shared your compartment with a bunch of students who are en route to their excursion destination, you have surely witnessed the breaking out of a spat or two. Usually, the rambunctious students are determined to play cards, laugh aloud and stay up all night while their sleepy co-passengers get ever more irate. Such brawls in Indian railway compartments are usually dissolved through passionate negotiations, and through reasonable sacrifices from both sides. But in the coaches of Chinese trains, the lights go off at a fixed time. None of the switches in the compartment work, not even a single reading light. So when we reached Dali, our touristy destination, at five o' clock in the morning, with sleepy eyes we stumbled back and forth in our dark cubicles, trying to ensure that we did not leave anything behind. However, to do justice to the Chinese railways, one should also mention that the trains ran on time and the bathroom lights were considerately left on all night.

In the coaches of Chinese trains, the lights go off at a fixed time. None of the switches in the compartment work, not even a single reading light.

Interestingly, on our way back to Kunming, we discovered that there is a mechanism with which the traveller may choose not to hear the music that is played from time to time. Thus, if there exists a certain "Chinese democracy", then it can be defined as something that allows its citizens to decide whether or not they want to hear a record the State has chosen for them, but beyond this, rights are frozen; when and what citizens need to be enlightened about remains the prerogative of the government. Such an overarching authority, singular and unquestionable as it is, often does manage to steer the nation in the right direction. For instance, saving electricity and encouraging a healthy sleeping pattern is by all means commendable. Interestingly, during the Emergency of 1975-77, for a brief period, a similar feat of efficiency was achieved and healthy habits were cultivated in India; even the Indian railways ran trains on times forgetting all about "Indian culture". Ridiculous as it may sound, there's a menacing undertone to trains running on time. It was said of Mussolini that he was the one who got the trains running on time in Italy. In more recent times, in the course of the US primary elections we have witnessed how a fair share of Donald Trump supporters hail him as the man "who can make the trains run on time" in his endeavour to "Make America Great Again!" It is imperative that we remember, a no-fly zone too is spread across an open sky. Whether it is in China, India, Italy or America, the absence of participatory politics, tolerance and critical discourses should alarm us. We need a freer sky, with the real possibility of a fearless flight.

In the absence of a conducive climate for opinion-making, it hardly comes as a surprise that in China even glancing over newspapers is not a common practice...

The development that makes China an economic behemoth can be attributed to the horse-power generated by the ordinary masses. The image or progress it propagates is reminiscent of the image of a horse-cart -- one drawn by blinkered horses, who trot through a track that has been laid down before them. Similarly, the government seems to be charting a path for its people, but the moral dilemma arises with the realization that people are no horses!

As India emerges in its new avatar as the fastest growing economy, to an extent it too has succumbed to a similar condition where dissenting voices are suppressed and critical opinions shot down. The sky should not merely be reserved for skyscrapers; it should encourage human ambitions not at the cost of but along with the essence of freedom.

As a result of the apparent inscrutability of the political sphere, the Chinese youth seemed toothless in their attempt to grapple with critical discourses. In India, tea-shop addas are home to people with opinions. It is in the roadside shops, bus-stop and railway stations that the "argumentative Indian" comes to life. Thus, even if you have only a rupee in your pocket, even if you are not educated in a school, you become a part of an atmosphere where ideas are exchanged and opinions are formed.

I was amused but not surprised to discover that a shopkeeper selling tiny Eiffel towers in a Kunming gift shop had no clue about the real structure...

In the absence of a conducive climate for opinion-making, it hardly comes as a surprise that in China even glancing over newspapers is not a common practice, let alone reading them. While in hotels across India you skim through a newspaper as you sip your morning tea or at least find a variety of newspapers in the lobby, the better furnished Chinese hotels housing us seemed oblivious of such a need. Thus foreign discourses seldom make it to Chinese shores. The absence of social media platforms like Facebook or YouTube, which flow seamlessly from one country to the other carrying waves of information and counter discourses, deprive the Chinese youth of an awareness of the larger world beyond the national boundaries. For instance, most of the students I interacted with were ignorant of the terrorism inflicted by ISIS or the problems of large-scale immigration to the European countries from the war-torn Middle-East. The level of global consciousness is thus effectively reduced. What we call general knowledge thus becomes a knowledge procured through specialization in China. Thus, I was amused but not surprised to discover that a shopkeeper selling tiny Eiffel towers in a Kunming gift shop had no clue about the real structure or what it signifies.

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American flag-inspired fashion on display at a Kunming shop

In Santiniketan, I have grown up seeing small shops selling tiny Tagore busts and other local crafts as souvenirs to visitors, but in China local craftsmen make global souvenirs for theirs. I disembarked from the Chinese aircraft at the Kolkata airport, wearing a 3D embossed "New York" cap purchased from a Kunming gift shop. To my disappointment the sheer irony of the situation went unnoticed.

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