Earlier this week, we had the opportunity to meet one of India’s most experienced China hands. A diplomat by profession, he has served in China, speaks Mandarin fluently, and follows developments in China even after his retirement.
During his talk, he warned us:
Indian elites tend to see Chinese leaders as superheroes — as ten-feet tall men who can do no wrong. Such a view ignores the many grievous mistakes that the Chinese leadership has committed over the years. And bad memories stick for longer than the good ones.
According to him, the two big mistakes of the Chinese leadership are their treatment of the Uighurs and the Tibetans. I have two more to add to this list.
One, the treatment meted out to rural migrants in cities is fomenting a quiet unrest in several cities. The Economist has an article on the increasing discontent:
The younger generation are products of China’s one-child policy, which went into force nationwide in 1980 (although in the countryside, families were sometimes allowed two). They are among the first to suffer its unintended consequences. The one-child policy contributed to a drastic change in the sex ratio because female fetuses were aborted by parents who wanted their only child to be a boy. The ratio of boys to girls at birth soared in the 1980s, peaking in 2005, when there were 122 baby boys for every 100 baby girls, one of the most distorted ratios ever seen [..]
Among Chinese men generally, a common response to the shortage of women is for prospective grooms to buy an apartment and car before marriage—a sort of reverse dowry. One survey found that three-quarters of young women in big cities took this into account before accepting a man’s offer. Alas for migrant swains, they cannot afford such a bride price, especially in expensive cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou. It is usually difficult for people without a city’s hukou to buy government-subsidised housing there. Young migrants are therefore at a threefold disadvantage. There are fewer women of marriageable age. Those who come from their own background tend to marry richer rivals. And the men cannot compete in the marriage market by buying property.
The earnings of the youngest ones have deteriorated the most. Mr Tian looked at earnings by age. He found that the highest earners are those in their mid-30s (between 32 and 36). That remained constant in all his surveys. But there was a significant change among workers in their mid-20s (22 to 26). In 2008 these younger migrants were earning almost as much as the best-paid. By 2015, they were earning much less.
Mr Tian’s survey includes a question about where respondents place themselves in society on a scale from top to bottom. Between 2006 and 2015 the migrants he questioned gave, on average, ever lower assessments of their social position. Initially, the younger ones (aged between 22 and 26) were the most likely to describe themselves as being in the top half of society. By 2015 they were more inclined than older migrants to put themselves in the bottom half. Mr Tian concludes that those born in the 1990s are the most disappointed of the migrants he has studied [The Economist, 3rd May 2018].
The second mistake is the way China has treated its neighbours. Its arrogant conduct has turned away even potential partners over the last few decades. Nitin Pai had written how alienating a young India has been one of the biggest mistakes of the Chinese leadership.
It is widely accepted that China was the victor of the brief border war of October 1962. While Beijing did achieve its political and military objectives – of teaching the Indian government of Jawaharlal Nehru a lesson – that was a strategic self-defeat for China. Why? Because it turned a country of young people (in 1962, half of India’s population was less than 19) into believing that China is the enemy.
Unfortunately, in the past few weeks, official statements from the Chinese government and commentary appearing in official media are taking us close to another 1962 – even if no shots are fired over the Doklam region. Contrary to what Beijing might think, threats of war and reminders of 1962 strengthen India’s national resolve to stay firm. The more strident the rhetoric from Beijing , the stronger is the public opinion in India to confront China.
Half of India’s population is under 26. Almost 70 per cent of the Indians surveyed in the above-mentioned poll were already “quite concerned” about China’s growing military power and its territorial disputes with India. Whatever the stakes on the remote Himalayan slopes, they are likely to carry an imprint of China as an adversary and an enemy well into the rest of their lives. Is it really in China’s interests to alienate half a billion people across its borders for the next several decades? Will it be easier or more difficult to achieve President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” under these conditions? How does it help China if India is pushed into a tighter embrace of the United States? [SCMP, 25th July 2017]
These four mistakes need to be kept in mind when we discuss China’s out-of-ordinary development feats. Far too often, we tend to see China through a “rational actor model” lens, to borrow Graham Allison’s landmark classification.The reality is far more complex. The four mistakes show that Chinese leaders have not always made consistent, value-maximising choices. Perhaps it is our lack of knowledge about China that makes us ascribe rationality to every decision of the Chinese leadership.