IN a couple of recent public comments, Prime Minister Imran Khan referred to drawing lessons from China. Can we learn from China, given the uniqueness of its historical experience, cultural and civilisational outlook, political discipline and command economy of a one-party system and national cohesion? Are there areas where China’s example offers relevance?
China’s experience of the last century has no parallel. The intellectual fervour and debate for national revival and renaissance gripping China’s urban centres at the turn of the 19th century appeared richer than what I observe in present-day Pakistan. Maoist heresy describing peasantry as the storm centre of China’s Marxist revolution, the Long March and 12 years of experiment before 1949 in socialist reform and governance by communist cadres, made possible by the anti-Japanese war in the heartland of China between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, had prepared the first generation of Chinese revolutionaries well to give a new direction to China.
The first 15 years of the Chinese revolution brought about four major accomplishments: universal education, female participation in the workforce, organised employment of population, and above all, changing the traditional mindset of the masses to instil a confidence that they were the masters of their own destiny. They can ‘move mountains’, and there was an inexorable progression in human affairs. Compare this to the confusion and crisis that pervade minds in Pakistan. For models, we look backwards, and not forward.
Never before has a human society achieved so much development within the span of one generation.
The Cultural Revolution created disastrous turbulence, unleashed by Mao in the name of ideological cleansing. Fortuitously, he lived long enough to put the genie back into the bottle. He protected Zhou Enlai, the urbane éminence grise of the Chinese revolution, and rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping, the architect of modern China. Deng built on the four accomplishments of the revolution and reoriented society with calls for the ‘Four Modernisations’ and ‘Opening to the West’, and thus set the course for the miracle of China’s rise. Never before has a human society achieved so much development within the span of one generation.
In 2003, a Chinese minister told me that there were more than 40,000 US-Chinese joint ventures operating in the country. Today, nearly 400,000 Chinese students are attending American universities mostly to study the sciences. China has been the top beneficiary of globalisation. Such open interaction demands self-confidence and vision at the national level which will be resisted in Pakistan by our increasingly xenophobic security, religious and social concerns.
Imran Khan has a charisma untainted by corruption. This asset by itself will not measure up to the challenge of a transformation of the quality of China’s experience. But his motivational appeal can help shape a signature contribution in setting the direction for the normal functioning of the country that frees the energy of the people for progress, development and a better future. Here one can find some relevance in the early experience of China.
Just to illustrate the point, the decade of the 1950s saw mass mobilisation in China to construct reservoirs, canals, aqueducts and embankments to overcome the twin menace of cyclical droughts and floods, and to ensure food security. Simultaneously, there were campaigns for literacy, agricultural organisation and population planning. These efforts involved both the party cadres and the Peoples Liberation Army. For instance, the latter opened lands for Chinese settlers in the Dzungarian basin (northern Xinjiang), an area almost half the size of Pakistan.
The PTI agenda includes many sound plans. However, for clarity it is well worth pointing to a few ideas for directions which can have a consequential long-term impact for the good of society.
Purposeful universal education can be one goal. This will require large-scale teacher training and upgradation of primary and secondary schools with an emphasis on science and technology and civic responsibility. I was delighted to visit in Islamabad two campuses of The Science School, with commendable standards, started with individual initiative and government help. Madressahs need to teach science and skills so that the three million enrolled students can have an opportunity to participate in national development.
The second is large-scale grass-root water management encompassing small-scale reservoirs, water filtration and treatment plants, clean water, cleansing and dredging of waterways and drainage. We need to modernise the usage of water in the agricultural sector which will also boost the allied low-tech industries. Speaking of agriculture, I recall from years ago a response to my query by a pioneering Belgian investor who said, “Ambassador, have you seen the physical map of the world? How many places can you find on the map with such vast stretch of plains and availability of water? I have risked my capital because I see great potential in your country.”
Third, afforestation and environmental awareness have become an imperative for coping with future challenges such as climate change. The PTI has plans for countrywide tree plantation and clean neighbourhoods. Clean renewable energy, including cascade power generation, ought to be integral to this effort.
We can add to this catalogue and draw upon a wealth of practical experience from China and other countries. Progress in these sectors essentially depends on education and mobilisation of resources at the local levels rather than on foreign inputs and high-tech. The effort will generate employment and can dovetail into any government developmental plans. It is not a substitute for mega projects or FDI or for setting up industrial zones under CPEC or reforms for improved governance. It is also not under discussion that China is the most reliable source of investment and advanced technology for Pakistan.
There is a caveat, however, to achieve any of this. We must help stabilise Afghanistan where the conflict is not only destroying that country but continually debilitating Pakistan too. Also, with prudence and firmness, we must counter fanaticism, obscurantism and militancy which, regardless of the professed motives, inflict the greatest damage on the host society.
The writer is an author and a former foreign secretary.
Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2018