China's arguments about India have nothing to do with a desire to see democracy achieve success by offering suggestions for improvement. Rather, the objective is to create doubts about its efficacy itself.
Jabin T Jacob
The Communist Party of China’s (CPC’s) mouthpieces now regularly carry reports of elections being held in different parts of the world. The criticism both overt and subtle that is found in Chinese analyses of these elections reflects the CPC’s insecurities and the desire to promote its own model of politics and development to the rest of the world.
How are the Chinese looking at India’s current general elections?
The first and foremost concern for China is, of course, of what policy any new government in New Delhi will adopt towards Beijing. It is fair to say that few of the many expectations of the India-China relationship in the economic sphere that were raised by Narendra Modi’s taking over as Prime Minister have been met. Modi had an image as the ‘businessman’ Chief Minister of Gujarat who had actively sought and received large-scale investments from China.
However, none of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s economic promises made during his first state visit to India in September 2014, including the setting up of two industrial parks in Gujarat and Maharashtra or $20 billion in investment over a period of five years, have materialised. ‘Make in India’ has received plenty of lip service from the Chinese but not enough money. Of course, tensions and differences have seldom been far from the surface despite a variety of attempts to put the relationship back on even keel.
Therefore, from the Chinese perspective, the results of the Indian general elections are consequential. Unlike in 2014, Beijing surely understands that no matter who comes to power, China can expect a continuation of difficult relations with India with the only question being of how capable New Delhi will be of maintaining a sustained focus on foreign policy in general, and on China, in particular. For the moment, though, the Chinese are being blasé about it and pretending that ‘regardless of the election results, China-India relations will keep developing in the future no matter which party is at the helm of affairs.’
Next, it is worth examining Chinese commentary about India’s elections itself and by implication, about its democracy, for what it says about how the Chinese perceive its strengths and weaknesses.
A cartoon titled ‘India’s slow election’ has the picture of ballot box upon a snail that is on a long, winding road to the finish date of May 23. As cartoons go this is one of the less offensive ones that can be found about India. Yet, it not just suggests slowness in the time taken to complete India’s elections and the announcement of the results but also that Indian democracy itself is slow in delivering on its promises.
This view is spelt out in greater detail in another article titled ‘Can Indian elections bring good governance?’ Right off the bat, the author claims that the ‘aim of the election and whether the elected leader will lead India to modernization… have been sidelined’. Instead, he says ‘the focus is on whether the right election procedures framed by British colonizers… are followed.’ Not only is the statement hopelessly inaccurate, it also suggests that the Indians have achieved nothing by themselves and that their democracy being of Western origin is also, therefore, not appropriate for India or any other developing country.
There are many in India itself who would agree with the Chinese author’s constant stress on ‘efficient government’ and ‘efficient governance’ and wonder along with him if there is ‘something wrong with the system’ and if ‘good government’ can be produced ‘in cultures which are different from the West’. Similarly at Davos this year, Fang Xinghai, vice-chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission was quoted as predicting that the West would not see India ‘as a like-minded democracy for long’.
These Chinese arguments have nothing to do with a desire to see democracy — remember, China too claims to be a democracy — achieve success by offering suggestions for improvement. Rather, the objective is to create doubts about its efficacy itself.
The argument about the difference between Western culture where democracy is supposed to have been born and Indian culture which apparently simply blindly adopted it from the British is to create a case for India aligning itself more closely with the Chinese argument of ‘Asia for Asians’. What follows logically then is the argument of the so-called ‘Asian values’, which valorizes respect for authority and hierarchical order in society and thus justifies strong, one-party rule, which will offer ‘efficient’ government.
India’s democracy and its largely free and fair elections and the uncertainties they throw up, however, strongly challenge the ideas China’s communists have about order and stability, of ‘harmony’ in society and politics as represented by one-party rule.
The Chinese, therefore, see themselves in nothing less than ideological conflict with Western and Indian democracy. So, the effort is constantly to undermine an incipient ‘Indian model’ of a developing country that despite similar social and development challenges as in China manages to provide its citizens both civil liberties and economic development.
Jabin T Jacob is associate professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, and adjunct research fellow, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He tweets @jabinjacobt. Views are personal.For more Opinion pieces, click here.