Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 42

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

The interest of both Masahiko Aoki and Gérard Roland in institutional economics easily shaded into comparative analysis of economic systems, including different varieties of capitalism and socialism. Since my student days I have been acutely interested in comparative systems and their political economy. In this context like Aoki and Roland I have closely followed developments in China. When I was growing up in Kolkata the leftists around me used to say that the Chinese were better socialists than us, now in the last three decades I have heard in all quarters that the Chinese are better capitalists than us. To reconcile the two I sometimes tell people that if the Chinese are better capitalists now this is partly because they were better socialists then. This is not an entirely flippant comment. By the end of the Mao regime in middle 1970’s, before Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms started, Chinese performance indicators in basic health, education and rural electrification showed levels unattained by India even by two decades later. This gave China a head start in providing the basis of capitalist industrialization.

The two largest countries of the world with ancient agrarian civilizations, with many centuries of dominance in the world economy in the past (up to about 1800) and with impressive economic growth achievements in recent decades though with different political and economic systems, draw obvious comparison, but since 1990 the Chinese economic performance has been far superior. My first piece of comparative study of Chinese and Indian agriculture came out in the Journal of Asian Studies in 1970. Fifty years later, I was still at it, with my piece on a comparison of the economic governance systems of the two countries coming out in China Economic Review in 2020. Meanwhile in 2011 I published a book titled Awakening Giants, Feet of Clay: Assessing the Economic Rise of China and India. One abiding theme in my recent work has been that China-India comparison is not a simple matter of authoritarianism vs. democracy. While there are some undoubtedly positive features of the Chinese governance system, authoritarianism is neither necessary nor sufficient for those features. On the other hand, there are some ugly features of the Chinese system that are inherent in authoritarianism.

My interest in China goes back to my childhood. Very near our house in Santiniketan there was Cheena Bhavan, the oldest center of Chinese studies in all of South Asia. It was founded by the Chinese scholar Tan Yuan-Shan (we used to call him ‘Tan shaheb’), whom Tagore met in Singapore in 1927 and invited to join the teaching faculty in Santiniketan. He was a college class-mate of Mao, but thoroughly non-political. I have heard that in 1962 shortly after the Sino-Indian war when Jawaharlal Nehru, who was his friend, in a convocation address at Santiniketan briefly referred to the war, people found Tan shaheb openly weeping in the meeting.

I remember as a child admiring the calligraphy in the walls of his living quarters. Among his children whom I used to see in the neighborhood, his young daughter Tan Chameli (a name given by Tagore) and her brother Tan Arjun were neighbors and playmates of my best cricket buddy of those days, a feisty boy named Suryanarayan (who spoke Tamil at home but the purest local Birbhum dialect with the rest of us) and his siblings. Tan Chameli is now an accomplished artist in India. Her much older brother Tan Chung became a professor in Delhi and the doyen of Chinese cultural studies in India.

The first time I went to China was end of May 1989. Sponsored by the Ford Foundation, I was supposed to give a set of lectures to some graduate students at Beijing and also at Fudan University in Shanghai. This was a tumultuous time of student protests in Beijing. After I, accompanied by Kalpana, arrived there, I was told that my Beijing lectures (like most classes in the universities there) had just been canceled, though not the lectures at Fudan. Our tickets for going to Shanghai were for June 4. Meanwhile my hosts arranged for our visits to the usual tourist spots like the Great Wall or the palace complex of The Forbidden City (by the way, some of the most famous paintings and porcelain of earlier eras originally from the Forbidden City are in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, as I found out a few years later). But I also wanted to go to Tiananmen Square, where the protesters had camped and by then the whole world’s attention was riveted. My host professors were not comfortable with this, but at my insistence decided that on June 2nd some of the students would take us to the Square. June 1st evening Justin Yifu Lin, then a foremost young economist in China–I think TN had introduced him to me, when he was on a post-doctoral fellowship at Yale– came to see us at the Friendship Hotel where we were staying.

Justin already had a somewhat dramatic history. He grew up in Taiwan and in 1979, when he was on service as an Army Captain on Kinmen Island, just off the Chinese mainland, he dived into the sea and swam 2000 meters to defect to China, leaving behind a pregnant wife and 3-year old son.   On arrival in China he took a new name ‘Lin Yifu’ (in Confucian reference it apparently means ‘persistent man on a long journey’). He later reunited with his wife and children when he went to the US for his doctoral studies. (In 1996 when I visited Taipei to give lectures at Academia Sinica, at a dinner the well-known Taiwanese economist John Fei told me that if the Taiwanese authorities could get hold of Justin at the time of his defection, he’d have been court-martialed and possibly executed. Even in 2002 when his father died in Taiwan, Justin applied for a visit to the funeral, but he could not go as the Taiwanese army issued a warrant for his arrest).

When we saw Justin at the Friendship Hotel he was quite morose. He had been an economic adviser to the reformer Zhao Ziyang, the General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1987 to 1989, who lost out in the inner-party struggle with the Party elders, particularly on account of his alleged sympathy with the protesters in Tiananmen Square. Zhao was put under house arrest (where he remained for the next 15 years until his death). Drinking cup after jittery cup of green tea from the flasks in our hotel room, Justin told me that there was a good chance that he might be arrested too (he said his wife had already arranged a small suitcase for him to carry to jail). Later when I mentioned this in private to other economists I met in Beijing and elsewhere, they said Justin being arrested by the Chinese Government was extremely unlikely—as a rare defector from Taiwan he was too valuable an asset for the Government.

June 2nd afternoon, accompanied by 2 students, Kalpana and I went to Tiananmen Square. As we were approaching the Square, looking at the large gathering the first thought that came to my mind was: in Kolkata I had seen protest gatherings of such size many times, but what the world was excited about was its happening at all in communist China. The Square was full of tents where many students were on hunger-strike, with colorful placards and banners demanding democratic rights fluttering in the light breeze. I did not see any sign of militancy, but mostly patient persevering protests by mainly high-school and college students. I then talked to some of the student leaders with our student-guides as interpreters. I remember asking one leader who was very confident of the success of their movement, that as martial law had already been declared and the army had surrounded Beijing—how could he be sure that the army would not come and crush their protest movement? He led me to the back of the tent, and pointed to piles of shirts and other pieces of clothing spontaneously donated by working-class families who came to visit them (out of consideration that it got a bit chilly at night in the Square). He said the working classes were with them, so People’s Liberation Army (PLA) where the soldiers were from working class families would not harm them.

In another part of the Square I saw a prominent plaster-replica of the American Statue of Liberty (donated by an Arts School in Beijing), and sure enough I saw a CNN TV reporter there broadcasting to the world with the Statue in the background. I asked a student leader why they had allowed a foreign symbol for their movement, when already critics had described the students as puppets of America? He did not have an immediate answer; he huddled with his associates for a few minutes, and came back to me with a defiant answer: “We deliberately want a foreign symbol to tell people that Liberty is something alien in China”.

Looking back I often wonder if these students I talked to, weakened by their hunger strike but with innocent animated faces, survived at all when the tanks came rolling the next night (June 3rd).

I came to know later that the PLA soldiers manning those crushing pulverizing tanks were brought in from distant provinces, who did not understand the language of the Beijing students nor did they have much cultural empathy. Large-country governments usually do this. I have heard that in India to crush a rebellion in Nagaland in the north-east in the past Punjabi soldiers from more than a thousand miles away were sent; and when a Punjabi rebellion had to be crushed in the 1980’s soldiers from Nagaland were dispatched.