Thursday, 18 July, 2024

Two Takeaways From China

Mukunda Raj Kattel


We do what we say” was Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature quote in the Nepali media on 13th October 2019. President Xi was in Nepal on a two-day visit at the invitation of his Nepali counterpart Bidya Devi Bhandari. On conclusion of the visit, over 15 agreements were signed, including the cross-border railway project being conceived under the framework of the Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network. The five-word quote was perhaps President Xi’s answer to the doubts pervading in some sections of the Nepali intelligentsia about the deliverability of the ambitious railway project.
What President Xi has said is only partially true. China actually appears to have done far more than what it says. Its silent roar, as some Western observers put it in reference to its rapid economic development over the decades, can be heard loud and clear as one takes a stroll around Tian'anmen Square in early morning, walks some 300 steps up and down the Great Wall at Juyong Pass, some 60 kilometres from downtown Beijing, and tours around the panda breeding centre in Chengdu. The other side of the roar – I call it civilisational side – becomes clear as one interacts with erudite professors and humble trade union leaders.
It is my personal reflection of what I saw in China in the first week of September this year. It sounds emotional, but it is. What I had heard of China, on Western media in particular, was in sharp contrast to what I observed and experienced. I did not find the image of arms-twisting, angry, aggressive and scornful China at least in the few places I visited and among the people I interacted with.

Inter-varsity collaboration
I was in China as a member of the delegation that comprised professors, trade union leaders and labour researchers involved in the development of an academic programme – Master of Arts in Labour Studies, to be exact – at Tribhuvan University. The aim of the delegation was to interact with China University of Labour Relations (CULR), the premier labour university in China, about various aspects of curriculum design, research and related pedagogical concerns. The delegation also visited a few other universities that run similar programmes to explore the possibilities of inter-university collaboration in the field of teaching and research. These interactions were both impressive and enlightening. I got two takeaways from them, which I think are worth sharing.
Education and innovation appear to be central to the policy of the Communist Party of China (CPC) right from its establishment. The need of informed and skilled workforce within the Party triggered the establishment of universities, some of which as training institutes to start with. As such, the CULR was founded, in its earlier avatar as a workers’ movement, to address educational needs and skills gaps of Party cadres close to the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The need to produce trained and educated women cadres led to the emergence of the China Women’s University (CWU). Similarly, Renmin University traces its origin to the necessity to “bring up hundreds of thousands of revolutionary comrades to meet the needs of the Anti-Japanese War” as the University webpage states.
Necessity being the mother of invention, the CPC turned to universities to invent solutions to the problems facing the country. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the universities closely engaged the country’s socio-cultural and economic issues in their pursuit of knowledge. They invented solutions to the problems at hand and predicted the challenge China had to rise to based on the knowledge they generated from their interactions with the people and the issues confronting them.
If Chinese universities were not the brain behind China’s development, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the all-powerful sister organisation of the CPC, would not operate the CULR as the national labour think-tank. Nor would the All-China Women's Federation, the other equally powerful sister organization, operate the CWU as the gender think-tank in China.
If China’s development is any guide, universities must be inventive. They should be ‘problem-solving’ (walking) institutes and not just ‘problem-explaining’ (talking) centres, as in the case of our universities in Nepal. Unless our universities are able and equipped to develop knowledge and skills to address our socio-cultural and economic needs, we as the nation will continue to remain wanting and stagnant. This is my first takeaway from China.
China, we were repeatedly told, places high importance on ‘harmony’ as a way to foster peaceful coexistence both at home and abroad. Rooted in the Confucian philosophy, harmony regards ‘difference’ as a given – “as an essence of the world”, to quote a professor who moderated a session for us – and underscores the importance of uncovering commonalities within differences. Harmony so understood does not seek to achieve sameness and uniformity. It rather prizes differences that exist out there and weaves them together, through the rule of law and good governance, to create a collective bond.
At home, China has used this conception of harmony to build the synergy of differences that China needs for progress and prosperity. Globally, the conception is being pushed to transform the divided world into what China calls a ‘community of shared future,’ a community in which all nations, big and small, work for a more just, prosperous and peaceful world based on the principles of equality, non-interference, mutual trust and mutual cooperation. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is projected as China’s contribution to the ‘shared future.’

My second takeaway comes from the power of harmony. I for one believe harmony has been the other trigger of China’s rapid transformation in recent decades. I also believe it is going to be a global game-changer given the conviction and audacity with which the BRI is pursued as the bearer of harmony. An unparalleled initiative in the post-Cold War order, the BRI is going to leave its mark on the world stage despite cynicism about its viability in some quarters.

Nowhere is this conception of harmony more relevant than in Nepal today. To achieve prosperity, our national goal of the day, we must harmonise our differences. The diversity within us should be transformed into a national bond of unity by creating a level playing field for all our communities, regions, cultures and ideas to express and flourish equally. As differences interact with one another freely and without prejudice or coercion, they naturally develop a bond of commonalities that exist within differences. There is no other way. All it requires is our political architecture to completely refrain from the temptation to exploit our diversity for marginal gains.

(A human rights professional, the author is currently studying for a PhD on human rights and peace, and writes on political and social issues)