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Twenty-first Century China

23 Feb 2010 by Dr Ruth Kattumuri|, Co-Director of Asia Research Centre and India Observatory

This article article originally appeared in the Oriental Morning Post in Chinese. See 中印注定是对手吗|.

The developments evident in Beijing and Hangzhou during my recent visit to China were fascinating and impressive. As I cleared an efficient immigration and stepped into the country, Beijing airport spanned out before me seemingly like a 21st Century Forbidden City. The maintenance of the airport, one year after Olympics 2008, was impeccable, with attention given to aspects not seen anywhere else. The commitment, pride and grandeur with which the Forbidden City was built was also evident in the scale and architecture in today’s China.

Mao’s vision of regaining China’s fu qiang (wealth and power) is reflected in its immaculate infrastructure and architecture as well as in the country’s remarkable growth in the last 40 years. Since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, Chinese GDP has grown 16-fold. The greatest contributor to Chinese growth since the 1990s is domestically funded fixed investment used to buy machinery or construct buildings and infrastructure, roads and bridges. As a result of the $586 million stimulus, about 75% of growth this year has been achieved through state-led fixed investment (Foreign Policy online, 28 September 2009). As the third largest economy in the world, China has reinvented itself as a global innovator in technology and science. 200 million people have been lifted out of poverty and basic literacy is almost universal (Time 2009, 174, 12, pp. 18 - 23). About 206 million children attend primary and secondary schools, 21 million attend universities and an estimated 300,000 study abroad every year. The country now holds $2 trillion in foreign exchange. It is the first major economy to recover from the recession and China is leading the world out of it.

Nation building is taking place on various fronts and the country is investing in the development of a world-class university system. Zhejiang University in Hangzhou grew out of the Quishi Academy founded in 1897 as one of the earliest institutions of higher learning in China. After over 100 years Zhejiang has developed into a comprehensive research and teaching university, and it is also one of the first group of universities that have been given top priority for development by the Central Government. Its newest and largest campus also comprises of a beautiful artificial lake; a 400-year-old traditional house relocated as its art and cultural lair; and a canteen that can cater for 20,000 students at one time.

The hospitality and warmth of people was endearing. My flight to Hangzhou was engaging in the midst of all the lively adults and children. The enthusiasm and energy of young people in Hangzhou was indicative of the vast potential for the country’s future. The curiosity and desire of young people to be part of ‘One world One Dream’ seemed insatiable. For example, they are influenced by reading on the internet about young people volunteering in the west and some of them were taking time off and enjoying their volunteering efforts to teach children in rural areas. Some young people I met chose to return to their home towns, after graduation from universities in US and Europe, in order to not only enjoy the quality of life afforded by close knit families, but also to contribute and be part of the success in their country. Many Chinese are also choosing to return to their country after successful careers in the West to participate in the exciting process of growth in their country.

The Beijing Olympics served as the coming out party for 21st century China. The “Bird’s Nest”, drawing inspiration from Chinese ceramics, captures Chinese traditional grandeur with its modernity. It shines in the night as a Golden Crown interspersed with the Royal Red in the expanse of the Olympic Green. The Crown reflects the successes and achievements of a Nation, which is taking on leadership for ‘One World One Dream’. The Olympic Green comes alive at night, with orchestral music wafting out from the performances in the organic Water Cube where 25 world records were broken by swimmers at the 2008 Olympics. The additional utility of the Green was evident at night when it turns into a thriving public space with people arriving in busloads as well as families taking a walk and relaxation after dinner.

Today’s Communist Party has proven itself to be adaptable and open to borrowing elements from different countries and political systems. The people exuded confidence as well as a sense of freedom wherever I went.

China has achieved tremendous growth, and it has a long way to go. Working together with its neighbours is expanding the opportunities for development. China and India have been great civilizations. Currently the two most populous countries in the world, they are also the fastest growing economies and are seen as the rising powers of the 21st century. Indian and Chinese culture and society remain unique due to their tremendous history. Together they are great Asian powers undergoing dramatic changes in a development process in which they have much to learn from each other. Co-operation between the two countries offers both the opportunity to regain their global positions evident in their historic grandeur and wisdom.

The historic exchanges in trade and culture are easily evident between these two essentially Asian people. The Lingyin Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in Hangzhou dating back to 328 AD, was founded by an Indian monk during the Eastern Jin Dynasty. The Indo-Chinese links were evident in the famous Leifeng Pagoda in Hangzhou that was originally constructed in 975 AD. Archaeologists recently unearthed silk, jade, bronze, leather out of the underground cellar; and most famous of the discoveries was a bronze Buddhist statue on a lotus base and an iron box surmised to contain spiral hair of Buddha. The statues of lion sentinels, is another representation of the exchanges with India. The sprawling historical homes of the wealthy trading community in the south Indian town of Chettinad were decorated with beautiful Chinese tiles.

Today leaders both in Beijing and New Delhi are promoting better co-operation. China has replaced the US as India’s largest trading partner. Chinese are visiting India to learn English and study IT. Chinese firms are securing contracts to build India’s golden triangle and infrastructure. Feng shui Rakhi’s (given by a sister to her brother during a traditional festival in India) are being sold in Delhi. Indian businesses are setting up offices in China. Indian Universities are beginning to engage with the Universities in China. Marriages between Indian and Chinese partners are also on the increase.

India and China have each celebrated their 60th anniversaries and their achievements are significant. They also face several challenges in the path of their growth and development. Both countries are poor by global standards with millions still living in poverty. Achieving low-carbon growth is a major challenge for the two countries. A memorandum of understanding was recently signed in New Delhi for collaboration on renewable power and energy-efficiency projects, which can be mutually beneficial (Bloomberg online, 22 October 2009).

India and China have chosen very different routes of development. Both being former great civilizations, the 21st century now offers the opportunity to regain their global positions. A great deal is to be achieved through co-operating in the process awaiting them.