Searching for Utopia: Why it's not wise to copy China

Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv VisvanathanNov 17, 2018 | 13:40

Searching for Utopia: Why it's not wise to copy China

The Indian elite today suffers from inferiorities that are intriguing. Oddly these inferiorities are refracted through a lens that reflects a contempt for our own people.

It almost feels that the one pollution ritual the elite wishes to perform is a distancing from the people. Our people are seen as an archaic, dirty, illiterate, ungovernable. The elite never asks what makes this group such powerful votaries for democracy. Instead, it now feels democracy is the reason why we are backward. Democracy, it argues, retards governance and order.


The elite wants that the presence of the argumentative Indians is restricted to salons and drawing rooms and not the maidans and public spaces. In fact, democracy itself becomes a pollution ritual where the elite has to get contaminated by the masses.

The elite wants that the presence of the argumentative Indians is restricted to salons and drawing rooms and not the maidans and public spaces. (Photo: PTI)

Sino imperialism

The Indian elite has found a talisman in China. China represents the successful, masculine, assertive, decisive, a society feared and respected. It is not the Chinese civilisation the elite respect but the current Chinese regime.

One of the things the elite in India has wanted is not respect of its people but respect of the other regimes. If it cannot be authoritative, it wants to be authoritarian, like the Chinese. This need for respect hides the fact that the Indian elite is completely implicated in the American way of life. Every secretary and politician flaunts the fact that his children spend their time in US universities. They themselves advertise loudly the stints that they spend almost servile in Kennedy School, IDS Sussex or even the Salzburg Seminar.


A trip abroad becomes a thing to be sought for like a decoration. China envy thus stems from two sources, our contempt for our own people and our servility to the western elites.

Chinese authoritarianism has become a substitute for white imperialism as a model of the global era. Yet the need for authoritarianism is not knee-jerk. It marks the Indian reading of the current situation. Firstly, they realise that the West is not really interested in India except as an exotic location or as a market. Second, they realise that in an everyday sense the Chinese commands rankings, which we don’t.

Erasing idealism

The fact that no Indian University has been ranked among the top 200 is a source of national mourning. The Chinese have created a termite-like science that we are desperate to follow while abandoning the creativity and autonomy of our own systems. The fact that the Chinese collectivisation of science may not produce a Raman, a playful Krishnan or a Chandra does not bother us as we confuse productivity for creativity and rankings with classical excellence.

Despite violating every ethical and democratic norm, the Chinese exude success while we smell of failure. We are now proud of Modi not because he is a sanchalak, but because he exudes the style of a Chinese commissar. The smell of success tinted with awe and fear is what we envy regardless of the price paid in suffering. I think India’s elite feel that Modi as a minor Trump is its first global success. It also feels that its alleged involvement in the global world isolates it from India. Even a side-kick’s role or an extra’s part in Davos is presented as a cameo performance in India.


It is not just that we have lost faith in democracy, I think there is a deeper erosion of values. Deep down we no longer behave like a civilisation, as a vital ecology of values. We see science or democracy in instrumental terms, as means for upward mobility. Values get commoditised so even civilisation is now commoditised as part of a tourist trade. It is this breakdown of values at the top, the idealism that once talked of nation-building and character building as isomorphic activities, of Gandhi as an everyday experiment that has been erased.

The real challenge that China raises is forgotten. China represents an authoritarian model of development. It is a nation state that has forgotten that it was a civilisation and India is imitating this. Our real task is to out-think China and we can only do so if our democracy and our civilisation values become inventive again. China has no problem interning a million tribals as an administrative solution to an imagined law and order problem. We seem to have no compunctions creating a Gulag for 4 million people in Assam thinking that being stateless and homeless deprives them of any claim to be human.

It is not the Chinese civilisation the elite respect but the current Chinese regime. (Photo: Reuters)

Celebrate democracy

The Chinese have a contempt for suffering and suffering is built into the banality, the imperatives of development. Our elite is desperate to follow this convinced, that Bhopal or Narmada Dam would never have been a problem in a hand state like China. Our elite is contemptuous of the softness of democracy. The only moment of respite was the IT phase where Indians scored globally till the Chinese infested the American university “by hearting” US in a way India could not.

Our way is the way of values, diversity, decentralisation, and non-violence. We need to celebrate our pluralism without reducing it to a meaningless multi-culturalism that sanitises differences without the authenticity of dialogue encounters. India needs a new confidence where our confidence in ourselves evokes our once classic debates on nationalism a century earlier. The real task of our elite is to create the thought experiments that will enable us to out-think China and create a new Indian and Asian dreams.

For this, we will have to sustain our great dissenting imaginations and burrow deeper into a civilisational unconsciousness without letting it be an extension of the orientalist apparatus.

Out-thinking China and outflanking America while understanding the limits and possibilities of both, is our real task. This involves not a resurgence of fundamentalism but a return to fundamentals, a comparative study of our societies which will enable us to capture our own genius.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Last updated: November 17, 2018 | 13:40
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