Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 45

by Pranab Bardhan

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

It is difficult to discuss politics openly and intensively with my Chinese friends, but I have some general idea of their political views and how to differentiate their politics. For example, Justin Lin, with a Chicago doctorate, seems to have slowly moved from conservative or mainstream economics to be in recent decades an advocate of interventionist industrial policy tinged with Chinese economic nationalism. Yingyi Qian is more of a liberal economist, and is wary of Chinese ultra-nationalism which is rampant now. Another bright liberal economist in the same vein is Chengaang Xu, whom I have known since his London School of Economics days and later in University of Hong Kong. Discussing with, and reading, Yingyi and Chengaang I have come to appreciate the unique combination that China has accomplished between political centralization and economic decentralization. Another economist with whom I have profitably discussed the Chinese economic and political system is Yang Yao, currently the Dean of the National School of Development at Peking University. On the basis of these discussions and further thinking on governance issues in China I gave a lecture at Renmin University in Beijing in 2018. Xiaobo Zhang, the editor of the international journal China Economic Review was in the audience; he persuaded me to write it up and he published the article there in 2020.

Some years back Yingyi had introduced me to the veteran economist Wu Jinglian, one of the major architects of market reforms in China; he presented me with his book Chinese Economic Reform and told me (this was around 2010) that he thought the Chinese case was turning into one of crony capitalism. His sharply expressed opinions have often landed him in trouble. During the Cultural Revolution he was persecuted (including being beaten up, his mother’s home ransacked and half of his wife’s head shaven by Red Guards). Again in recent years hardliners have tried to discredit him as a US spy in state-controlled public media for his pro-market stand. “I have two enemies,” he said in a 2009 interview with the New York Times, “The crony capitalists and the Maoists. They will use any means to attack me.”

Some of the more intellectual opponents of the market reformers are with groups like what is called the New Left in China. I came to know two of the leading figures in the latter group, though they themselves do not like the New Left label (particularly with its Western association): Wang Hui, professor of literature and history, and Cui Zhiyuan, professor of public policy and management, both at Tsinghua University. Their position seems to be against free-market capitalism as well as capitalist democracy, and in favor of more egalitarianism and social justice (understandable in a country that has moved from being one of the most equal to one of the most unequal in the world within just two or three decades).

I met Cui a few times when he was a student at Chicago of my friend Adam Przeworski, the well-known political scientist, and also when he later taught at MIT. Even though Cui was in Political Science, I found him very well-read in Economics. For some years he has been a supporter of capital-labor partnership in the governance of the firm on the lines advocated by my Cambridge dissertation supervisor, James Meade. He has also advocated Meade’s idea of Social Dividend (a form of Universal Basic Income).

I have met Wang Hui in Tsinghua and one time in Delhi. He is one of the foremost scholars of Chinese intellectual history. In a discussion about the state I found him pointing out that among many large empire-states in recent history the Chinese state has been rather distinctive in more or less keeping its territorial and bureaucratic integrity even when the empire ended—compare, for example, the aftermath of the dissolution of the Ottoman or the Austro-Hungarian empire around the time of the First World War with the end of China’s last imperial dynasty (the Qing dynasty) shortly before. This continuity in Chinese territorial sovereignty, Wang points out, has some implications for understanding the nature of the rise of China in the current period. This also has implications, I thought, for the continuity of tyranny in Chinese history, including the harsh suppression of the cultural autonomy of Tibetans and Uighurs.

I remember reading the 1992 book by the historian W. J. F. Jenner, The Tyranny of History, where he describes one of the basic tenets of Chinese civilization as “that uniformity is inherently desirable, that there should be only one empire, one culture, one script, one tradition.” This is where I believe lies a basic difference in the historical legacy of the Chinese and the Indian civilizations. India celebrates diversity in spite of all the messiness, fragmentation and chaos this entails. My Chinese friends when they go to India are often shocked by the near-anarchic disorder of everyday civic life in India. Throughout history the Chinese have had a dread of disorder (wěnluàn), which has been used to legitimize repression. The idea of checks and balances, separation of powers or independence of judiciary is quite alien to Chinese political culture. (A Chinese professor told me that even when liberal scholars in China think about governance reform, independence of judiciary is almost never uppermost in their mind).

In 2010 Wang Hui was invited to the same conference in Delhi on Social Democracy as I was. I have mentioned before about this conference organized by Sonia Gandhi at Nehru Museum. At this conference I gave a talk on Universal Basic Income (UBI) for India, where I showed that, unlike in rich countries where this may be too expensive, it is possible for the Indian government to afford a decent basic income supplement for all citizens, if it has the political courage to reallocate some of the existing subsidies that are currently enjoyed by the better-off people. I originally got the idea of UBI from my discussions with my Belgian political philosopher friend, Philippe van Parijs, who had been its major advocate for many decades. He recently told me after listening to my arguments that just as Marx expected the socialist revolution to come to advanced countries of Western Europe (Germany, England), instead it came to relatively poor countries (Russia, China), similarly maybe UBI which he thought about for rich countries, may first be feasible in poor countries after all.

Sonia Gandhi was seated at the conference round table just next to the person after me. All through the conference she was taking copious notes, but was mostly silent. Wang seemed to like my talk, but what struck him particularly, as he told me later, was my intervention at a different session. Someone at that session asked me to give my views on decentralization. In view of Sonia’s proximity at the table, I decided to take that opportunity to provoke her. I said, somewhat exaggeratedly, that decentralization had very little chance in India–none of the political parties, starting with Sonia Gandhi’s own Congress party (then ruling India), seemed to believe in decentralization of power even within their own party, everything was decided by the top party leadership in Delhi —how could you then expect them to implement genuine decentralization in the country’s governance structure? (Sonia did not respond to that in the meeting, but in the next coffee break she was rushing somewhere, but stopped near me, silently shook my hands, and went away, presumably indicating that she was not completely disapproving of what I said).

In the next session Yogendra Yadav, an important political scientist in India (now also a practitioner) took up the same theme in even stronger language. Wang Hui was startled by such straight talk and criticism in front of a top political leader. I told him that this was nothing extra-ordinary in India. (That was more than ten years back. I wish I could say that with equal confidence about India today!)

In their search for an alternative non-Western modernity, the so-called New Left people in China have sometimes been accused by their liberal critics for complicity with the repressive state. Wang, for example, told me that he was not very keen on the activities of Chinese dissidents (he did not name them but the most famous dissidents in recent history included the late Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 and was imprisoned until death, and Ai Weiwei, the artist who was imprisoned in 2011 and now in exile). He thought the dissidents mainly played up to a western audience, but were not in tune with what was really going on inside China and the real problems that afflicted the lives of common people.

Some Chinese literature has also reflected opposition to market reform and the resultant inequality and venality among people, and to the kind of moral wasteland that the frenetic capitalist development has brought about along with a consumerist society run amok. This can be seen, for example, in a best-selling novel like Brothers by the writer Yu Hua, a close friend of Wang Hui, where the protagonist is a town scoundrel turning into a top national entrepreneur. This kind of theme is, of course, not unfamiliar in India—for a rather strident depiction of this in the literature in English one can cite the Booker Prize-winning novel by Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger. But the pace of capitalist development having been much faster in China, one can see why the depiction in Yu Hua’s novel comes across as even bleaker, more brutal and grotesque.

In general my personal preference in literature is usually more for sad novels rather than angry ones. (Recently I had an occasion to tell Aravind Adiga that I much prefer his earlier, less well-known, piece of fiction Between the Assassinations, where the fury is less strident, instead there is more nuance and aching sympathy, along with an all-enveloping sadness). In a different and more general context the well-known Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid said in a recent interview, “We live, we die, this infuriates us—but far better that it saddens us, and that we find ways to honor and transcend our sadness”.