Prof. R Vaidyanathan (Member, VIF Advisory Board) 22 august 2014
July 2014 is an important month for global economics and China. It is the first time in recent history that China has overtaken USA in GDP [adjusted for purchasing power parity or PPP] and has become number one country in the world according to Euromonitor1. Now the order is China/USA/India/Japan in terms of GDP at PPP. Of course in per capita terms, USA has ten times more gross income than China given the population size of the latter.
Still China’s growth has been phenomenal and in the next two decades, it is poised to become numero uno even in nominal terms out running USA. This has implications for India from an Asian perspective and also we need to formulate our strategy about China. Traditionally in the last few decades, we have been looking at China using US or UK lens. This is due to the fact that we have not developed many China centers all over India. Hence we have few experts who understand their language and try to look at China with Indian glasses rather than Anglo-Saxon lens.
The major change that is taking place in China is not related to their growth rates and Three Gorges Dam and the shopping malls and Olympics stadia. That is a typical Western way of viewing China. The main change is in religious affiliation and assertion of Islamic followers and development of large scale underground Church. The middle classes have given up rice [perceived to be for the illiterate poor] and are embracing Christianity since it also helps in job mobility particularly in global companies where the heads could belong to the same Church. The Muslim population is less dispersed and more concentrated in specific locations like western part But there is also a growing interest in China about its past. The Ming dynasty tombs in Beijing which are made in marble were painted in red color during the great cultural revolution of the sixties and even today laborers are washing it to make it back in to white color without success. The guides are not reluctant to talk about it. The ten handed Buddha in the Summer Palace of Ching dynasty near Beijing has significant relationship with our idea of Lord Vishnu who destroys evil and even this is mentioned clearly. More importantly, China is opening what are called Confucius Institutes in more than fifty countries which is similar to British Council efforts but more focused on China’s ancient wisdom. . The first thing we should learn is to stop looking at China with Western glasses.
The economic boom in China has given rise to issues related to their faith/religion and associated things. First and foremost, China is facing a severe separatist [called splitters by Chinese] in their western region namely Xinjiang by Uighurs. The region is populated by followers of Islam religion and seeing unrest for the past two decades. But recently it has reached violent proportions. For instance, early last week Chinese claimed that at least 100 have been killed in disturbances in that region2. Not only that, some portion of the Uighurs has carried the battle to Beijing itself. In other words, one form of regional separation combined with Islamic terrorism has become a major problem in China. There are also reports that the Islamists are taking shelter in the Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK).
On the other hand, China is also waging a battle with “unrecognized” Church in its territory. Once a hub of Christianity, worshippers in Wenzhou fear their faith is facing its biggest threat since the Cultural Revolution3. The recent visit of the Pope to South Korea as part of his engaging Asia has fuelled concerns in China since China has its own church and does not recognize Papal authority.
“By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon,” said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule.4 But for China, both the Abrahamic religions are alien to its culture going back several thousand years. So they are trying to revive “Confucianism” by encouraging the study of it as we’ll as opening several centers to propagate it. Buddhism is their ancient religion and Hindu influences are significant.
The keynote speech by the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China- Hu Jintao to the 17th Party Congress in October 2007 – devoted a paragraph to religion. He stressed that religious people including priests, monks and lay –believers played a positive role in the social and economic development of China. Hence religion is not any more the opiate of the masses. The state controlled Xinhua stresses that there must be freedom of belief. It says that religion can play an important role in realizing a ‘harmonious society” which is the new political role of the party5. That is the main issue we at India should be interested in. A 2007 study conducted by two professors of China Normal University based on more than 4500 people concluded that more than 300 million people namely 31 percent are religious and more than 60 % of those are in the 16-40 age group. The number of followers of Christianity has increased to 12 % from a low of less than 8% in the nineties.
This last fact is interesting since a huge underground Church has developed in China and
Zhao Xiao, a former Communist Party official and convert to Christianity, thinks there are up to 130 million Christians in China.6. This figure is much more than the official figures of 21 million –16 million Protestants and five million Catholics. If the latter figure is true—which is corroborated by other like Pew Forum –then there are more Christians in China than the Communist Party membership which is pegged at 74 million in the last count.
Thus, a significant change that is taking place in China pertains to religion. The economic growth bereft of spiritual underpinnings in the context of death of Marxism is going to be a great challenge for China and India as an elder brother should facilitate orderly transformation based on our common shared ancient wisdom. Let us remember that China is also a multi-cultural and multi religious society but interested in our shared past. In the words of Hu Shih, former Ambassador of China to USA [1938-1942] “India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without having to send a single soldier across her borders.”Ship loads of Sanskrit and Pali original works taken away by Chiang-Kai-Shek from mainland to Taiwan bear testimony to it. These are exhibited in the Taipei museum even today.
Hence, India should be sending Sri Sri Ravishankar/Mata Amirtanandamayi / Swami Ramdev/ Pramukh Swami/Sankaracharyas/Vaishnavite Seers and other spiritual leaders, Bharatha Natyam experts, musicians, other artists in hundreds to China to “ Conquer and Dominate” by our soft power. We need to print millions of copies of Ramayana and Mahabharata and our Puranas and Gita and Jataka stories in all modern Chinese languages and widely make them available. The CDs of Mahabharata and Ramayana etc. can also be given free. We should start some fifty Bharatiya Vidya Bhavans in China. Actually China needs this more than USA even though all our soft power is currently on show in the USA. We should create a fund of at least Rs.1000 crore for this effort. There is a statue of Kalidasa in the Shanghai theatre unveiled by the theater academy. I do not think of any metro in India including the so called “cultural capital” Kolkata, having a statue of Kalidasa. At Kolkata, the Theatre street became Shakespeare Sarani and not Kalidasa Marg!
We should strategically recognize the weak point of China and also the need of its masses in the absence of Communism. Many a Chinese even today believe that their next birth should be in India to reach salvation. Culture and religion are not taboos any more.
There are other issues. Officially China recognizes or permits only five religions namely Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Protestantism and Catholicism7. Hence we should take steps to include Hinduism as one of the permitted religions. The Indian Government should take appropriate steps in this regard. The point is that our soft power in culture is interwoven in a tapestry form with the religion. You cannot separate it howsoever one tries it. Carnatic Music without Bhakti is neither music nor art. But our Government of all hues has never raised this issue with the Chinese.
The strategy should be to envelop China with music, dance, art, Yoga. Ayurveda, spiritual texts like Ithihasas, Gita, Puranas etc and capture the hearts of the middle classes as we have done for centuries.
The second issue is related to our own mind-set. We tend to look at China either through the Western spectacles or through local Marxist spectacles—which have more thick glasses. We need to come out of it. Even when invitations come to Indian spiritual leaders, the Government of India remains unenthusiastic and indicates its dis-interest in the false assumptions regarding China’s political orientation. The policy formulators are still living in the sixties and seventies while as China is undergoing a gigantic social crisis due to material prosperity and spiritual vacuum. Unfortunately, as a Chinese colleagueof mine at Shanghai University commented last year, “both our countries are ruled by rootless deracinated foreign educated wonders that do not have any idea of the civilizational roots or the cultural richness of our lands.” Hopefully now it should have changed!!
China is enthusiastically waiting. To quote late B K S Iyengar, the doyen of yoga, “Mr. Iyengar told The Hindu during a visit to Beijing that he saw China as a future home for yoga. When he travelled to Guangzhou to give a lecture, he was stunned to find that organisers had rented out a stadium – more than 1,300 students had come to listen to him”.8
But this is the opportunity to us since it is better to have a competitor and neighbour sharing the past cultural commonness. This will be very useful when the world is going to have two super powers from Asia unlike the conflict of last century between two super powers—USA and USSR- who did not have any shared cultural roots.
China is at the threshold of change. It is yearning for spiritual solace. Many groups and sects from Western countries [with or without permission] are trying to spread their influence and message—since this is an opportunity for them.
Are we ready to undertake such a mission?