These days, reports and commentaries about India in the east Asian media have provided a depressing picture. While the gang-rape itself was horrific and the revulsion people felt about inefficient policing and incompetent politicians was and is justified, we should not forget that in these hours of national shame, India also showed greatness. Like every human being, every nation has its dark corners, its failures and its deficiencies. The crucial question, therefore, is how nations deal with backwardness and evil.
A large part of the justified public anger in India is due to the frustration about the slow pace of reforms and improvement. Again and again politicians have promised remedial action only to let the rot continue. When an atrocious crime draws the attention of the general public like in the case of the rape in Delhi or of the shooting in Connecticut (US), political leaders are quick to catch on to the public uproar, only to soon lapse back into party political bickering and the defence of narrow interests. Public protests are a nuisance and disturb the cosy political games that are played in the circles of power. When scandals start to afflict the reputation of the political class and threaten careers, there are the regular calls for the media and disgruntled citizens to exercise restraint. Instead of dealing with the real causes of a disaster, many would like to shoot the messenger who brings to light what is hidden in the dark corners.
A free and responsible media as well as a functioning civil society are the key institutions that help a nation deal with its darker sides and to remove obstacles against progress and reform. In a time of crises and also in the latest case of the gang-rape in Delhi, India has shown a swift and powerful reaction by the media and civil society. Delhi may be maligned as the “rape capital”, but it is also a capital with a remarkable population, where people make their anger known and selflessly rally to protest against the powers that be. This is in great contrast to other Asian capitals.
The world tends to compare the two emerging powers, India and China. Most experts get excited about the impressive economic growth and modernisation in the Middle Kingdom. Recently, the news came that China had inaugurated the longest high-speed train line in the world. Once again, the gap between India and China widened even further. However, when looking at a country and its potential for improving the quality of life for its people, one should not only observe the material assets. There is more to life than glittering skyscrapers and ultramodern airports!
In November, China got a new leadership. Like ten years ago, there is hope that the new generation at the helm of the Communist Party will finally implement long overdue political reforms. Irrespective of all the impressive economic modernisation, China’s political system is stuck in the one-party totalitarianism that had been established in 1949, when the Communists took power. While there may be small signs of change, the media is still under the firm control of censorship, there is no rule of law and there is no civil society to speak of.
Everybody in China knows that widespread and endemic corruption is a cancer that threatens the very survival of the People’s Republic. The billions of dollars that are stashed away abroad and at home by family members of leading functionaries are one of the dark secrets of China. Occasionally, a courageous journalist dares to focus some light into these obscure corners. If there is a serious threat to the top leaders, the police quickly intervenes. People are not allowed to assemble for public protests and are forced to rely on social media. However, the police apparatus is doing everything to stifle the internet and works overtime to keep up with new technologies that challenge the information monopoly of the Party.
While Japan has a functioning democracy and operates within the confines of the rule of law, its media is much tamer and civil society traditionally acts much less aggressively than in India. There were public protests against nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster and particularly younger Japanese took to the streets to call for a definite closure of all nuclear power plants. But the bulk of the mainstream media never really uncovered all the unsavoury truths about mismanagement at the atomic power plant and about governmental incompetence in dealing with the crisis. The bureaucracy keeps a tight control on society and there are many unholy alliances between government and powerful economic interests.
It is understandable that India feels sad and ashamed about what happened to the unfortunate woman in Delhi and to many other women around the country. Much needs to be done to change the fate of Indian womanhood for the better. At the same time, it is also appropriate and justified to show pride about the greatness of India, whose lively civil society and courageous media are shining examples for other countries in Asia and in the world at large.
(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)