Would You Wish to be a Chinese in China?

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?


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8 Responses to “Would You Wish to be a Chinese in China?”

  1. Vinod Says:

    I prefer the freedom to voice my opinion even if it gets ignored by the authorities than a quiet submissive life to the authorities while having circumstances go my way.There’s a reason why life in Singapore seems soul-killing even though one has material comforts and convenience of all sorts here. Assuming I’m in a position of authority, I prefer being challenged in my position than having sychphantic yes-sirs work for me. It follows that my answers to the questions raised in the blog post are self-evident.

  2. Sakuntala Says:

    I have visited China and have some first hand perspectives — there is more to life as a human being than just a high rate of growth or economic dominance. To have one’s access to websites curtailed or barred, to be unable to travel to receive even a Nobel prize, to be told how many children one could have, these are dimensions of non-quantifiable strands of life that are just as important as security in terms of basic needs, or money earnings… given a choice, I’d stick to Bangalore (whatever my complaints about the way the city is going) rather than Beijing

  3. SouthAsian Says:

    Vinod/Sakuntala: As always, there is an inherent bias in such exercises that stems from the problem of missing observations. Those who are marginalized in society don’t get to participate in experiments like this and their voices remain unrepresented.

    The first scenario is relatively easy to answer. The second scenario (the attempt to put ourselves in the place of the marginalized) presents the real intellectual challenge.

    If one is yet to be born, the probability of where one would end up is proportional to the existing distribution in society – a high probability of being dead before the age of five, an 80% chance of being malnourished, a 40% chance of remaining illiterate, a 75% chance of living with less that $2 per day, a high chance of being physically or psychologically abused. And if one escapes all this what if one has virtually no prospect of survival except by being a yes-person?

    Faced with these prospects how would the unborn reckon his or her choices? Should the choice be China where most of the above are not at issue, where with survival and dignity not being the major concerns of day to day life one might have the wherewithal to fight for a better future for one’s children?

    • Vinod Says:

      SA, faced with those prospects it would be Chinese in China for me. I can have a voice only if I’m well fed and well-nourished.

  4. Arpita Chatterjee Says:

    I quote ‘I am a fortunate South Asian who is far from the bottom of the South Asian social and economic hierarchy.’ – equally or even more applicable in my case – in fact several of my friends feel that is why I am still in music. (Apparently if I had to really rough it out on my own, I would never have given up that newspaper job 25 years ago & I would therefore not have time for music.) The point of relevance here – I therefore don’t think I am qualified to make a statement. I’m grateful for the opportunities I get/got and quite happy being what I am, where I am, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy with the way things are! I wish I knew how to change things – I’m doing what I can in my own way, that’s all!!
    I’m really interested in the responses received, though – I get the feeling that it would be an eyeopener.

  5. SouthAsian Says:

    Amartya Sen elaborates on this theme with comparative data and argues why an exclusive focus on economic rate of growth is so misleading. Even the absolute value of GDP per capita misses many critical aspects of development – Bangladesh has half the GDP per capita of India yet exceeds India on almost all social indicators that matter to human life.

    Quality of Life: India vs. China


  6. Vijay Vikram Says:

    Perhaps this essay can answer the question posed by this post: http://theamericanconservative.com/pdf/darwinism-china.pdf

  7. SouthAsian Says:

    Why India Trails China – an opinion by Amartya Sen.

    “The hope that India might overtake China one day in economic growth now seems a distant one. But that comparison is not what should worry Indians most. The far greater gap between India and China is in the provision of essential public services — a failing that depresses living standards and is a persistent drag on growth.”

    “For India to match China in its range of manufacturing capacity — its ability to produce gadgets of almost every kind, with increasing use of technology and better quality control — it needs a better-educated and healthier labor force at all levels of society. What it needs most is more knowledge and public discussion about the nature and the huge extent of inequality and its damaging consequences, including for economic growth.”


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