Many years ago there was a movie in which the stereotypical semi-pathetic, semi-comic character was assigned a stock phrase (takia kalaam) that he repeated with regularity – kaash maiN Hong Kong meN paida hota (I wish I were born in Hong Kong). Hong Kong was a success story and thus attractive to an impecunious South Asian dropout. It was also not part of China then; no right-minded person even in the sluggish South Asia of the times would have wished to be born in the China of those days.
How times have changed. Hong Kong has been reclaimed by China and China itself is a place that dazzles most visitors. The Chinese model of authoritarian politics and market economics has begun to draw admiring attention in many quarters. In India itself, the frustrations at not being able to grow even faster are being channeled by some into a denigration of democracy and a yearning for soft authoritarianism.
It is relevant to ask then if the desire to be born in China makes sense now. Keep in mind that the issue is not about being born a Chinese; I don’t think life would be particularly different in any non-cultural sense if an Indian were reborn as a Chinese in the US today. And it is not about just being in China either; being a foreigner is quite different from being a native in China. The question to a South Asian, spelled out in its full specificity, is whether he/she would wish to have been born a Chinese in China?
Now I must admit that while I am impressed by some of the things I see in China, I would be unwilling to exchange my place with a Chinese. But I must immediately qualify that by stating that I am a fortunate South Asian who is far from the bottom of the South Asian social and economic hierarchy. What I keep noting amongst a set of people like me is that their fondness for soft authoritarianism co-exists with the belief that it would somehow not apply to them. Rather, it would only be employed to kick the butts of all those who are not moving fast enough or putting unnecessary hurdles in the way of, say, Shining India. (It is relevant to mention India in particular because it is in effect the only South Asian country that realistically sees itself in competition with China.)
The implication of the above is that there are two parts to the thought-experiment I wish to propose:
1. In the first scenario you have been born already and know your position in South Asian society today. Would you exchange positions with a Chinese occupying the same position in China? For example, if you were the head of the department of physics at an Indian university would you swap places with the head of the department of physics in an equivalent university in China? Would the answer differ if you were a janitor or a widow in India, a political activist in Pakistan, or a minority in Sri Lanka?
2. In the second scenario you are yet to be born and do not know the gender or the station or position that fate would assign you in South Asia. In other words, you have to make a choice from behind a veil of ignorance (a mental construct made famous by the philosopher John Rawls in his seminal work A Theory of Justice). If there were this uncertainty would you prefer to be born today as a South Asian in your country in South Asia or a Chinese in China?
What I wish to investigate with some rigor is our understanding of both South Asian and Chinese societies of our time. What are the strengths and weaknesses of either, what are the attributes we would like to exchange, what are the attributes we wish to acquire, what are the attributes we are willing to give up, and who are the people who are keenest on the swap.
A fondness for soft authoritarianism is fine but we should be clear about what we wish for and what it would entail if our wish were to actually come true. I hope readers (particularizing this exercise to their own countries in South Asia) would participate in this exercise to get at the issues that are obfuscated by all the loose and easy talk. When all the facets have been explored, who would it be that would still have reason to say: kaash meiN Cheen meN paida hota?