Uniqueness and mimicry in China

During a visit to Beijing in 1993, the present writer asked many residents how they would like their country to be in the 21st century. “Like America”, was their uniform response. I understood it at that time to mean the affluence of the Americans and easy access to amenities of life. I could not have been more wrong.

The term “American Dream” has been the driving spirit of the US, an expression in which freedom comprises the opportunity for success and wealth with minimal barriers against social mobility. Three weeks before Xi Jinping became the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, the economist Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times, “Does Xi have a ‘Chinese Dream’ that is different from the ‘American Dream’? Because if Xi’s dream …. is just like the American Dream (a big car, a big house and Big Macs for all) then we need another planet.” Friedman was worried that earthly resources could not sustain American consumerism adopted by the burgeoning Chinese middle class.

Xi did have his Chinese Dream in which economic prosperity was not the goal but only the means to be “like America”. With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the USA had become the sole superpower. By 2012, with its huge middle class, membership of the WTO and consequent easy access to technologyand markets, China was already striving to take on that mantle. Historical claims were with Xi. Since 100 B.C., China had called itself the “Middle Kingdom”, occupying the middle of the earth with barbarians all around it. When Mao took power in 1949, he gave China an official name that included the words, “middle glorious country”. This claim of being at the core of the civilized world has lasted for 3000 years. China believes thatits decline in the nineteenth century and the emergence of the US as a superpower with the First World War werejust blips in this long history and corrections have become overdue.

A nation lives in the thoughts comprising its culture.The physical manifestations are inadequate and mostly transient indicators of that thought. The western constitution imposed on Japan by McArthur and the adoption of western dresses, including wedding dresses and wedding diamond rings, by most of the Japanese has not changed Japan’s culture in a significant way. Japan, including its domestic and workspace culture, remains distinct and markedly different from the west. China’seternal idea of barbarians surrounding it resulted in raising the Great Wall by the First Emperor. The Iron Curtain raised by Communist USSR created a familiar echo in the Chinese mind and Mao easily fell for it, raising the Bamboo Curtain. While the USSR remained the quintessential communist state and suffered economic collapse, China modified the ideology to “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” creating the seemingly impossible capitalism without even an iota of democracy.

After Communism was adopted from the USSR, a mimicry of physical manifestations followed soon, prominent among them being urbanisation and the design of urban spaces. Large cities with high-rise residential blocks were the model for communists in the USSR and later for China. While foreign ideas are modified to fit into Chinese culture,the adoption of physical designs is not limited to mere inspiration but these are copied faithfully. When the First Emperor unified the kingdoms, he replicated their palaces outside his own capital city. Author Bianca Bosker in her illuminating book, Original copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, gives numerous examples where world landmarks have been copied in China brick-by-brick, with stone imported from the same source which supplied the original. But China’s builders did not stop at merely copying the buildings. As Bosker describes it, “Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, has constructed a residential complex for nearly two hundred thousand that is the twin of Dorchester, England, from its Poole Promenade to the cobblestone paving on the street.” In Hangzhou, there isa replica of Paris where the 108-meter Eiffel Tower forms the background for the Fountain of the Chariot of Apollo. In this city is also a version of Venice with gondolas floating on canals between buildings true to the original, down to their paint. There is a New Amsterdamin Shenyang complete with the original’s Central Station andthe windmill. Kunshan has gates of Buckingham Palace including the golden coat of arms of the British royalty. Chongqing’s New York is complete with the iconic Chrysler building and there is the “White House” in Shenzhen suburb. To leave no room for doubt, the original names are faithfully retained.

As the totalitarian party rule of the USSR attracted Mao, so has Xi been attracted to an old hegemony doctrine of the US. After the US had motivated the colonies on the American Continents to gain independence from the Portuguese and the Spaniards, the US President James Monroe enunciatedapolicy in 1823 that later became known as the Monroe Doctrine. It stated that any effort by European powers to take control of any country in the Americas would be construed by the US as “manifestation of an unfriendly disposition” towards the US. Simultaneously, the US promised not to interfere in the affairs of Europe. Mimicking this Doctrine, the new “Middle Kingdom” dug out its Nine-dash Line, claiming most of the South China Sea with additional claims in the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea. In 2017, Xi suggested to Trump, “We believe that China and the United States are countries with important influence in the Asia Pacific. … the Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate both China and the United States,” hinting that China would leave the eastern Pacific region for the US if the western Pacific was left for China. The suggestion had been discarded when Trump promoted the use of the term Indo-Pacific in place of Asia Pacific and encouraged the formation of the QUAD.

China is rarely original but is capable of scaling the physical appropriations to a grand level. It adopted Buddhism form India and raised it to a level higher than in India as Imperial religion and for much longer than it had lasted in India. In international trade, the economy of scale is the key to comparative advantage and market capture and that explains China becoming the “factory of the world”, aided by the ability to copy western designs and technologies, state subsidies and prison labour. Yet, all of this excellence in mimicry remains confined to the physical manifestation of Chinese power. In terms of thoughts that comprise its culture, Xi’s China is no different from that of the totalitarian, ruthless, and whimsical First Emperor.

Source : Daily World

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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