Electric China – Part II
In preparation for my China visit, I had immersed myself in Mao: The Unknown Story, a riveting biography by Chang and Halliday. I was eager to finish the book while still in India – it is banned in China – and truth be told, the prospect of a midnight knock on my hotel room door made me think twice about lugging the book along. I chose the harmless autobiography of Naipaul’s editor instead.
The Unknown Story paints a devastating picture of the man whose sphinx-like face stares at you from every Chinese currency note. In short, Mao, if death had not intervened, would have destroyed and obliterated the country otherwise known as China, and would have killed even more people than the 70 million he managed to through his twisted policies. Mao was a poet – as I learnt through this masterful work – which goes on to prove that only bards can cause so much devastation through their creative writing; prose writers are slight and inconsequential in comparison – let Arundhati try and convince people to embrace anarchy, ultra-Left ideology, Marxism, and collectivisation as effectively as Mao. (Wait a minute…)
Here is one of Mao’s early poems, when he was young and impressionable and merely crystallising his thoughts and ideas that would later compel his people to eat each other in desperation during the great famine that followed the great leap forward.
Sorrow, piled on my pillow, what is your shape?
Like waves in rivers and seas, you endlessly churn.
How long the night, how dark the sky, when will it be light?
Restless, I sat up, gown thrown over my shoulders, in the cold.
When dawn came at last, only ashes remained of my hundred thoughts.
Not bad, is it? Which is why it came as a surprise a few hundred pages further down in the book, when the same genial rhymester said this:
“Do unto people what you would never do unto you.”
He may be praised to the skies in Chinese schools, worshipped at politburo gatherings, but the naked truth is that Chairman Mao’s imprint on China is now but a watermark on her currency notes. It is unthinkable that all this economic progress would have happened under his keen eye and nod. Max Plank once famously said: “Science proceeds, funeral by funeral.” So do nations that are burdened with the legacy of beatified leaders who see progress only through their narrow eyes and narrower viewpoints. Sooner or later people start worshipping their leaders and stop following them. For China to become the future it was crucial that Mao became history first.
I am in Tianjin, a city of 14 million that I hadn’t heard the name of a few weeks ago. It has a GDP per capita ($ 15,000) higher than any other city in China, higher even than Beijing and Shanghai. And no one I met before or since my visit to China knows of Tianjin. Seeing the city up close, strolling through its malls, parks and public squares, I find it hard to believe that an incredibly prosperous metropolis is for most Indians a KBC trivia! Figuring out this conundrum is not easy, and hours of skull-knocking makes me conclude that unaccounted, unimaginable, disposable, disposed wealth is to blame.
An Indian city, you see, is unique; its USP is its culture, the crumbling state of its buildings, the distinctive architecture, the civility of its residents, the mishmashed display of its filth and opulence. Every city, from Allahabad to Mysore, has a peculiarity, a certain buzz that makes it unique and different from other cities. Its people display a range of skin colour, facial features, dress codes, spitting acumen, road wisdom, eve-teasing expertise.
With wealth though, comes parity, comes uniformity – everything glistens, one building shines just like another, one road is as smooth as the next, every car is an Audi. Wealth erodes individuality. Tianjin is like Beijing is like Shanghai is like Hong Kong, from the airports to the railway stations to the bus depots, from the cars and the buses on the roads to its manicured street flora to the glowing shopping malls. Wealth, money, gold, possessions, they are the great equalisers. When the belly of its residents is full, the city ceases to have an underbelly. And Tianjin glistens just like one more studded diamond in the Chinese tiara. It’s all the same to you after a while. Beauty begets boredom.
The buildings are immense – when they are not tall they are impossibly wide, like the Tianjin Museum or the Tianjin Convention Centre. But the beauty, if you must, is state-orchestrated, like East Germany on steroids.
Cities take a long time to develop, to gain a spirit, a smell. Cities are not made in a decade, they crumble and rise, they don’t gush up like oil or sprout like mushrooms. But this one has. I sit beside a man-made pond and wonder what Corbusier may have thought of all this. Would he have approved, or mumbled his dissent? There is something unnatural about man-made beauty. Of course, I state the obvious, but I feel beauty must not be defined, it must remain, as they say, in the eye of the beholder. For if man discovers the formula, every building would be Taj Mahal, every car a Beetle, every phone an iPhone, every music system a Bang & Olufsen, every book The Old Man and the Sea. Every couplet would be Ghalib’s and every poem a Madhushala.
Tianjin, like other rich Chinese cities, has human movement under a tight leash. The Chinese migrant gets what is called a Hukou work permit, clasping which he may come and work in these great cities, but when the work is finished, when the building or the highway is completed, he has to return to his village for him to avail of all the benefits that come with the Hukou, like buying property or car or healthcare. But, having tasted blood, witnessed the uber-rich, walked the pall-malls, travelled on bullet trains, what will he do there – stretch out on a charpai under the generous shade of a Banyan tree?
Hukou is what Shiv Sainiks dream of, and it is what every one of those 800 million Indians trying to survive on 20 rupees a day dreads. Our cities may be filthy, roads pot-holed, trains and buses packed to the rafters, water contaminated, electricity truant, but our cities are for each one of us. What is more inhuman: to let a family of 10 erect a tarpaulin tent on a Mumbai pavement and eke out a living, or to watch them die a slow death in their drought or flood-hit village in Bihar or Assam or Rajasthan?
It is the tragedy of our nation to be still grappling with such questions 65 years after independence. What perhaps is more tragic is that in China no one can grapple with such a question.
The hapless villagers, a thousand miles adrift of Beijing and Tianjin must simply wait for their turn, must suffer till the time they are rescued by the state and made to gallop on the GDP per capita wonderhorse.
The clamour for democratic rights and freedom of speech will not come from cities like Tianjin and Shanghai and Beijing. These cities have been made revolution-proof. Here they are all driving Audis and buying Burberry and skating their evenings away. No stomach is empty, no mind fervent. No one here will jump up and down on the grapes to produce any wrath. They are happy and content and eager to make more money.
There will be no Tiananmen in Tianjin.
The Chinese know this and they are moving steadily westwards and into the interiors, to numb the next lot with jaw-dropping wealth and prosperity.
When you come down to it man needs very little. What he needs is bread on the table, a happy job, a happy wife, happy kids (singular in China). He needs a solid house, a change of clothes, and a welcoming bed. He needs freedom from the tyranny of elements more than freedom from the tyranny of corrupt leaders. Any dictator who doesn’t understand this is staring down the barrel of a point-two-two. With all our freedom and democracy and human rights, we have failed to provide to 800 million of us what the rest take for granted. 800 million! These 800 million don’t need Google and Facebook and Twitter freedom, they don’t need Planning Commission white papers, they need a place to shit without being seen, they need a tap to fill their jerry cans without having to walk miles, they need a roof over their head, a right to life.
India which is so proud to not be China, so proud to not be a dictatorship, so proud to be a vibrant democracy, should provide these simple needs or tattoo this: 清除贫穷 on her forearm. It means Garibi Hatao.
All these sky-scrapers, these gigantic museums and great halls, must need great maintenance, not to mention air-conditioning. And walking around, I notice that every flat of a housing complex has a split a/c jutting out from its balcony. The power consumption of a Chinese is five times more than that of an Indian (85 watts per person) but four times less than an American (1400 watts per person). Still some years to go, then, before the Las Vegasisation of the developing world is achieved. That’s the thing about the Yanks: good or bad they always set a precedent. In showing the world the glowing side of Capitalism they’ve made hypocrites out of us. How can one complain of mining and forest-cutting and at the same time use a mobile phone or an expressway that cuts travel-time by half? How can one argue against consumption, knowing that it is directly responsible for providing employment to millions? My tattered leather belt, that I am reluctant to replace, is keeping a tannery worker in Kanpur away from his square meal. My refusal to double my collection of 10 shirts prevents a family in Bangladesh from building a roof over their shack. Consume! Consume! Which is exactly what the Chinese are doing. The idea is to have in one’s wardrobe 50 T-shirts, one of which, to do your bit for the world, may carry Bapu’s quote: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”
At the conference dinner, a thousand participants strut around appropriating hors d’oeuvres and expensive wine, while the Chinese Pavarotti embraces a large invisible balloon in front of him and renders his take on La traviata. The musical fountain is running wild like scared rabbits and the acrobats are balancing bone china on their fingers and toes. One can easily forget that 100 Chinese have perished in an earthquake this very morning in Yunnan province and more than 100,000 evacuated from their homes. But the only “minute’s silence” is what follows after every magical performance.
Taking in the Eastman-coloured water jets and naughty spurts, you realise that China is that toast where butter has been applied only in places. Some areas are rich and fat while others plain toasted, awaiting the richness and the fatness. The butter-knife is approaching though, and fast, and butter will be spread evenly soon. It is only the bravado of the provincial Chinese to be taken in punch after punch – Russians have that too – that makes them see through their torrid day and welcome the next.
China, unlike the European powers that attained greatness through blood-money of the hundreds of countries and cultures they subjugated, hasn’t a single colony it can fool and loot. Its wealth comes from that craving of the Chinese people to see their nation as a developed nation soon. But what next, after BBC and CNN declare it to be “developed”, what next? The Chinese don’t know. Maybe then they would start meddling in other people’s affairs like the Americans do with great aplomb. Presently, all they want to do is make money, and chuckle at the hypocrisy of the Western nations as they come asking for help and prostrate before the new master. Not one whimper from these supposed upholders of Human Rights, not one mention of Tibet or Tiananmen – they only have cars and perfumes and haute couture to sell. As Kulbhushan Kharbanda put it so succinctly in Lagaan: “Ye goray log baap ke sagey nahin hotay…”
At the posh factory we are taken to, hundreds of Chinese men and women in shower caps play around with tiny metal objects, assembling them on the slow-moving conveyor belt in front. The guide informs us that iPhone5 and GalaxyS3 batteries are being assembled. The workers don’t even look up, not a whisper between them. Every two hours, we are told, they can take a 10-minute break. There is a constant hum in the hall. The workers are all used to it. It is the hum of money.
The conference is over and all of us are carrying new ideas to save the world inside our conference bags. My stay in China is at an end. Air China flight 947 to Delhi is crowded – so many Indian faces, so much facial diversity that it is soothing to the eyes after a week of similitude. I am going back to my filthy corrupt country that I love, and my Chinese experience has convinced me that India, too, will get there, only that it will take that much longer. That it’ll be that much harder.
China has her own problems, problems that aren’t apparent to a casual visitor, but it has achieved one thing that is indisputable – it has taken over the mantle from the West, the mantle of Capitalism, and it has tried to hide it by coating it with a veneer of Communism. But it is easy for people to see through this coating, to be able to smell Chanel and taste Chardonnay and ride Audis, and I feel the token spoonful of communism will soon be rejected by the masses; it will be consigned to that same dustbin of history that’s overflowing with the Soviet and the Eastern Bloc and the Pol Pot experiments. And once the veneer is gone, what will shine through from this part of the world would be free enterprise and make-do democracy, possibly in that order.
The plane touches down on the desi tarmac and like programmed-paratroopers we place our hands on the seatbelt buckle, searching for that hard to decipher backward tug of the plane that’ll grant us the freedom to shoot up and wrench open the overhead lockers. Two students are stuffing Air China pillows in their backpacks and the air hostesses look away. They know their land is now rich and they can afford it.
Image Source- [http://www.flickr.com/
Image Source- [http://www.flickr.com/photos/galexkeene/5315150339/]