Deng Xiaoping and the new India

Tags: Op-ed
Deng Xiaoping and the new India
LUCID LEGACY: This 2007 file photo shows a person viewing two paintings by South Korean artist Kim Dong Yoo entittled Mao Zedong (L) and Deng Xiaoping (R) at Christie’s spring sale in Hong Kong
During the past five years, most news coming out of India had been negative. Most political and economic decision makers in east Asia had given up on India. Particularly during the last two disastrous years of the government of Manmohan Singh, the view gained ground that India was a hopeless case, condemned forever to low growth and stagnation. All this has changed since the elections and since the instalment of the Narendra Modi government. There are great expectations that a new India has been born and frequently one hears the opinion that Narendra Modi will be the Deng Xiaoping of India. It is, therefore, appropriate to look at a few pointers that Deng could offer the new India.

There can be no doubt that Deng Xiaoping (1904 to 1997) ranks amongst the greatest statesmen of the 20th century and that he is the most important and most successful reformer modern Asia has known. It is significant that Deng deserves highest marks not only for his economic reforms, but also for the feat of peacefully and successfully returning the former British colony Hong Kong under Chinese sovereignty. Furthermore, he proved extremely adept in adapting the Chinese foreign and security policy to the rising economic power of China. His very wise advice to the Chinese leaders was that although China’s rise to the top of world economy was a given, they should remain humble and avoid triumphalism. Equally, he stressed that China should not be pushy against its neighbours and reanimate simmering crises. His advice was to let problems rest and wait for a time when people would be willing and wise enough to agree on a peaceful solution.

It is important to recall that after the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the “great proletarian cultural revolution” in 1976, Deng found a country that was totally devastated, economically, intellectually and morally. China, in the late 1970s, was in a much worse condition than the Indian Union, which has been left by the government of Manmohan Singh. One thing is common to China and to India. Both countries have a very industrious population. If you allow people the freedom to work, to invest and to produce, the sky is the limit. In China, it was a rigid ideology that totally stifled socio-economic progress, while in India, it was a bureaucracy that continued the exploitation and humiliation of the common man as had been the norm for centuries during Mogul and British times.

An important tool to advance the socioeconomic modernisation of China was the establishment of special economic zones. These were zones where foreign companies with foreign capital and imported technology could produce exclusively for export. This was necessary to gain access to foreign capital and foreign expertise and to find markets where people had the purchasing power that was not available in China after Mao’s devastation. Of course, today China is far beyond this initial stage of reforms. However, it is important to note that the clusters of industrial excellence and of rapid economic development lie around these special economic zones. Unlike India, China had no entrepreneurial tradition at all.

Pragmatism and an end to the celebration of poverty and neglect were the two prime tools to stimulate and promote reforms in China. Deng famously said that it does not matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice. He also coined the slogan “to get rich is glorious”. The irresponsible populism practiced by the last Indian government brought the country to its knees and made sure that economic growth, which is much more essential for poverty alleviation than government handouts, was stifled. Equally, the success of the reform path China had chosen depended on a logical sequencing of the investment and modernisation processes. This has been most obvious in the enormous efforts of the Chinese government to modernise the country’s infrastructure.

However, it would be wrong to look only at the economic legacy of Deng Xiaoping. Equally important was his pragmatism in security and foreign policy matters. This pragmatism expressed in the formula “one country, two systems” proved a success in the case of Hong Kong and provided Beijing and Hong Kong with a win-win situation, where both profited from each other. Deng took great care to reduce tensions in the Straits of Taiwan. Earlier, dark clouds of potential invasion and war had been hanging over the island that is considered by Beijing to be a “renegade province”. Deng saw the great benefits for the Chinese economy in the normalisation of business and trade relations between the mainland and Taiwan. While never giving up the goal of an eventual reunification, Deng made sure that a climate of normalcy and cohabitation was created. Eventually, his posthumous reward was that the Taiwanese elected a government that shares his commitment to pragmatism. Now the Chinese and the world must hope that the successors will keep to the reformist path Deng Xiaoping had opened with considerable courage and conviction.

(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)


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