A lot of what we know about China comes from Western news outlets and books by Western authors. This holds for this writer as well. Besides authors like John Keay, Robert Kaplan, and Martin Jacques, he relies mostly on The Economistand The New York Timesto get his fill on China. Besides that, he regularly visits the websites of Global Times and People’s Daily. But is that enough? To understand such a vast country, nay, a civilization, shouldn’t he have lived there for a few years or, short of that, at least understand Mandarin?
This was among the conversation topics in a recent Clubhouse discussion titled ‘Know China’. As ApEx columnist Trailokya Raj Aryal, who studied in China and is fluent in Mandarin, pointed out, outsiders tend to ignore nuances, and much gets lost in translation. Most important pieces of writing on China are to be found on little-known Chinese blogs, he averred. The redoubtable CK Lal, invited to speak, also refrained from saying much because he said he too mostly relied on English texts to decipher China.
One topic of common interest was Confucius. The ancient philosopher is vital to understanding modern China. His emphasis on human relationships and social harmony is often contrasted with the Western obsession with individual wellbeing. Also, his adherents have no temples to visit, unlike the Chinese Buddhists and the Taoists. Confucianism is more a way of life than a religion.
Confucius has been resurrected by successive Chinese dynasties to underpin their rule, and even the modern-day Communists are his die-hard fans. There are now Confucius Institutes to teach the Chinese language all over the world and the Chinese foreign policy has a distinct Confucian whiff. In 2013, unveiling his signature foreign policy initiative, the BRI, Xi Jinping assured the rest of the world that China would never seek a dominant role in regional affairs. He instead expressed his interest in reviving the ancient Silk Route networks, linking countries anew based on “mutual support and trust”, not narrowly defined self-interests.
That many Western critics accuse Chinese leadership of using the benevolent face of Confucius to cloak their authoritarian intentions is another story altogether. Another interesting aspect of modern China that emerged during the CH discussion concerned its meritocratic bureaucracy and party system. In the selection and promotion of CCP cadres, prospective candidates are evaluated both on their intellectual breadth as well as the depth of their soft skills like their ability to get along with and persuade others. Most top-ranking CCP members have tertiary degrees, with engineering majors dominating the highest echelons. It is the presence of these technocrats that ensure things get done well and on time.
Most Chinese communist leaders are clean and efficient and collectively committed to achieving mutually defined goals, which is far from what we can say about Nepali leaders, communists or otherwise. But then the question is: Can we cherry-pick the merit-worthy aspects of modern-day China while blocking out its ugly facets? Is China’s recent breakneck pace of growth and development and its ability to lift hundreds of millions of folks out of poverty in a generation the direct result of its one-party system or did they happen despite it?
There are many things Nepal and its politicians can learn from China. Then there are the things we must avoid. But we can know the difference only by striving to understand China on our terms rather than by seeing it through Western eyes. May many more discussions on China tailored to Nepali audiences follow, in and outside Clubhouse.