FOR 5,000 years, Chinese imperial dynasties exploited their subjects. It is now the turn of the underlings to return the compliment. Chinese are no more self-conscious than the former Soviets when resurrecting their imperial past, reliving past glories, even deifying autocrats. It is as if Russian and Chinese history had been buried in a shallow grave, waiting to be unearthed.
A century has gone by since 1918, and the Russians have disinterred the bones of Czar Nicholas II and his family, canonising him as a saint. They have converted the Kremlin and Tsarskoe Selo (outside St Petersburg) into shrines where Romanov relics are on display as reliquaries.
If the Chinese had an equivalent of the Russian Orthodox Church, masses would be read today in Beijing or in Guangzhou as they are in Moscow and other Russian cities. Traditional worship of emperors transformed into allegiance to the Communist Party, without the incense burning and knee-scraping rituals. Places of worship in China exist, populated by a handful of faithful Buddhists and ageing Muslims.
How has China been able to transform itself from a fiercely xenophobic country into a modern magnet? How has that iron lotus opened itself to a terracotta army of tourists and businessmen? What happened to that unquestioning adherence to Chairman Mao Zedong’s communist catechism?
How has China been able to transform itself?
Images of the great leader exist but only in Tiananmen Square, or in museums, or on stalls offering Mao badges as souvenirs. Ask about Premier Zhou Enlai, and your host’s eyes will mist over. Mention the modernist Deng Xiaoping; his name evokes an appreciative smile. And President Xi Jinping? His re-election ‘for life’ in a gerontocracy says it all.
Unlike many nations, the transformation of China has not been linear nor sporadic but radial. Every part of China has developed simultaneously — education, infrastructure, industry, social amenities, nuclear capability, technology. And everything works, from the ubiquitous hot water dispensers to the funicular cable car in the Badaling section of the Great Wall, to the bullet trains that fly at a speed that would tire Superman.
Chinese cities are humiliatingly clean. Russian prospekts were swept each dawn by elderly war widows. China is kept spotless by silent shifts of unobtrusive cleaners.
One witnessed a Saturday outing before the October holiday week when the whole of China goes on vacation. Waves of out-of-town visitors (more local than foreign) tramped through the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace. There must have been 250,000 in all, give or take 10,000. Yet, there was not a single scrap of paper or a piece of waste visible anywhere. Except one — a small red Chinese flag. A gesture by that ineffable mandarin Premier Zhou Enlai came to mind. During a visit to Karachi in 1956, he spotted a Pakistani flag that had fallen to the ground. He picked it up, dusted it, kissed it, and put into his pocket, next to his heart. How could one not emulate such a teacher?
Flies are as rare as failure in China. Within a few years schoolchildren will be shown specimens of flies as examples of an extinct species. Over 10 days spent in Beijing, Hohhot in Inner Mongolia and even in the open butchers’ shops in Xi’an’s Muslim quarter, only one fly was spotted. Even that must have been swatted by now.
Germophobia is not a compulsive disorder in China. It is now part of China’s national DNA. If there is anything compulsive in China it is urban development. The Chinese have converted the traditional image of a crane (a symbol of longevity and peace) into a mechanical one, hovering, silhouetted against the sky atop countless high-rise apartment buildings.
In a Xi’an market, a stall owner makes his money selling facsimile currency notes for use at schools. He should find himself another product. All China pays its bills by touch-tapping mobile phones that use Alipay and WeChat. China talks to itself without being eavesdropped by Google or WhatsApp.
Pakistan, even after an uneven 70-year-long relationship, is still regarded as China’s iron brother. The Chinese choose tactfully to ignore signs of rust. CPEC is referred to as the Karakoram Highway once was — an enduring connection between our two countries, an unstoppable, irreversible giant leap forward.
The Chinese are too sage and experienced not to have anticipated a rethink of expensive CPEC projects by our new government. They have announced their willingness to give Pakistan the projects it wants. They are waiting for Pakistan to decide what it needs.
The Chinese are used to waiting. They waited 99 years to reclaim Hong Kong, and 400 years for Macao to rejoin. They are still waiting for the island of Taiwan. Chinese patience is proverbial, but not to be taken for granted, even by a younger iron brother.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, October 4th , 2018