7 November 2016

Losing the gamble

Abhijit Bhattacharyya

A fresh awareness appears to be dawning on Indians owing to the formidable wisdom of the Hans of the Middle Kingdom or China. The idea is to create confusion, doubt, a sense of fear and resort to the traditional psychological war to keep China's friends and foes, rivals and competitors alike on tenterhooks. Is it an attempt to follow, nay revive, the strategic thoughts of the 6th century BC soldier-philosopher, Sun Tzu? Is it a continuation of Sun Tzu's "art of war" through other means? What better way to do it than get an enemy's man to rip the enemy?
One can fight a war without actually getting one's hands bloody if one can win over the rival's confidante and get him to spit venom on one's rival through the media. This is a mind game in which the rival is seen to score a same-side goal. This propaganda war can be pursued relentlessly for the sake of the economy and commerce. China is easily a super power when it comes to playing such games.

The Hans of contemporary mainland China appear convinced that they are the 21st century's children of destiny. They believe they have lost precious time. And hence, it is time to act. The faster they act, the better the guarantee of outperforming the rival. The bottom line is, 'We are Chinese. Keep us in good humour. We hail from the banks of the Hwang Ho and the Yangtze Kiang, the cradle of human civilization.'
Now listen to what the Hans have to say about India. As they see it, a section of the people of India think they can compete with the Hans. Hence the rabble-rousing over the boycott of Chinese goods. The Hans' argument: This is a brave idea but an unwise move. Why? This is because such a boycott could never succeed on the ground. Why? This is owing to the lopsided trade balance between India and China. India's exports to China were $9 billion while the imports were a staggering $61.7 billion leaving a trade deficit of $52.7 billion. Products from China have entered every living room in India. From the rest room to the guest room, the bed room to the drawing room, the garage to the pantry, Indians cannot stay without Chinese products. Try to end the dependence. You come a cropper.

The worst attribute of India, the Hans argue, is its endemic corruption that has invaded every single government department. This makes the idea of 'Make in India' impractical. If Chinese companies were to invest in India, it would prove suicidal for the investors because Indians are not hardworking. In any case, Indian businessmen flock to China in large numbers to buy products from China and sell them in India. And hence the extraordinary judgment of the Chinese - no matter how much the Indian authorities bark about the growing trade deficit with China, the fact of the matter is that they can do nothing about it.

There is no discounting the wisdom of the Hans Chinese. They appear to have assessed the Indian trait well. But notwithstanding this seemingly fair, objective and just assessment, they should also be prepared to hear the counter-assessment from the other side of the hill. That is, from the Indians. Will they be able to digest this perception of their characteristics?

The following is what Mao Zedong, the father of modern China, had to say about a salient feature of the Chinese State: "Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party." Precisely in this context, while commemorating 80th anniversary of the Long March, President Xi Jinping rightly reiterated the concern for building strong armed forces under the command of the Communist Party leadership. But why did the president of China have to repeat a well-established principle of the Chinese State? Is then something cooking in China, as in the case of Pakistan, where the army runs the show?

Whether something is cooking or not, reports from Indians stationed in China - who have no understanding of the gravity of their postings - are far from credible. In September 2015, President Xi announced a plan to reduce the People's Liberation Army's troop strength from 2.3 million to 2 million, the fifth reduction since military reforms began post-Cold War. Indian sources in China associate this with the president's drive against corruption, something that a non-resident Indian based in China thought was endemic in India.

Perhaps such India-baiters should realize that the mission against corruption has long been a priority with President Xi. They should also go back to the PLA's official newspaper reports that acknowledge that widespread corruption in the PLA has been seen to be threatening the efficiency of the fighting force. In fact, a newspaper editorial commented that history has repeatedly proven that if corruption is not eliminated, "we will defeat ourselves even before a war".

It is fairly well-known that corruption is high is the PLA, which handles important State matters such as appointments and promotions. In fact, a budgetary inspection in 2015 is believed to have found evidence of corruption in all departments of the PLA. The anti-corruption drive of President Xi has already claimed two high-profile targets - General Xu Caihou and General Guo Boxiong. In addition to these two senior military figures, around 14 generals are allegedly under investigation.

China is more aware of the damaging effects of corruption, which has been compared by international experts to that of conflict-affected countries such as Iraq, Nigeria and Ukraine, where corruption is a major factor behind severe failures of the armed forces. The attempts of President Xi are laudable, but the half-baked ideas of the Indians that China uses for its anti-India propaganda do justice neither to China nor to India. In fact, they can end up severely damaging Sino-Indian relations.

Irrespective of whichever way one looks at it, the fundamentals of economics are simple - if you are a producer of goods and keen on continuing with the favourable business of consumer goods in a vast, ever-expanding and profitable market, you should try to keep your consumers in good humour. The seller (China, that is) should try to create a positive impression of its apparently bona fide attempts to enhance its enterprise instead of making venomous comments through print media. No producer, manufacturer or seller nation should ever take the consumer for granted. China ought to remember the old adage that 'consumer is king' at all times.

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