Thursday, August 14, 2014

“China's aims are Wealth and Power”

Says Dr. Tong Lam, Associate Professor of History, at the University of Toronto, during a talk at Kochi

Photos: Dr. Tong Lam; a village at the centre of Guangzhou

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Dr. Tong Lam was asked about the attitude of the Chinese people, towards India, he knew that he had to give a politically correct answer to an Indian audience. So he said, “Even though there are a lot of shared experiences between India and China, the people do not think of India at all. As for the Chinese media, they are focused on America and their warships. They don't see India as a major force. And among the elite, there are no good feelings, because of the [1962] war between India and China.”

Dr. Tong Lam is Associate Professor of History, in the department of Historical Studies, at the University of Toronto. He had been invited to give a talk by the Kochi Muziris Foundation in its popular 'Let's Talk' series.

In his first visit to India, Lam was taken aback by the interest Indians showed for China. “That has been a revelation for me,” he said. “India is obsessed about China's infrastructure and how they need to catch up.”

China, of course, has gone far ahead. It is the second largest economy in the world. Asked the reasons why, Lam said, “The government has always said that China has been the victim of Western imperialism. They keep saying, 'We are behind. We are backward. We need to forge ahead at all costs.' So the leaders have always talked about the need to have wealth and power, so they can catch up with the industrialised West. It is this desire that is driving China now.”

To become powerful, China went in for massive development: good roads, high-speed railways, apartment blocks, and factories. They also became the manufacturer of the world. “But, initially, investors were scared to come to China because it is a Communist country,” says Lam. “So, the government asked the powerful overseas Chinese to help. And they poured in millions of dollars. Later, foreign investors flocked in.”

And in order to move to the next stage of development, China needs a lot more resources like coal and energy. So it has gone to Africa. “But the western media has described it as Chinese colonialism,” says Lam. “However, the government, as well as nationalists, say that they are helping Africans to develop economically.”

Lam says that the western media is biased. “Not many people know that Canada has more mining operations in Africa than China, but they never receive any media attention,” he said.

And when Canadians work in Africa they receive a 'hardship' package. Which means their wages are much higher than what they would have received at home. They are also allowed to take their families to Africa. Every year they are provided first-class airfare to take vacations during Christmas and Easter.

On the other hand, Chinese managers in Africa often have a difficult time,” said Lam. “They don't get paid until their contract is over. So, if they are sent for five years, they will get their salary only at the end. They are not allowed to bring their families. And if they have to send their son to a university, they will have to take a loan from the company and pay an interest on it too.” 

Thereafter, Lam showed a series of photo slides of a large village. In the first photo, the village is shown surrounded on all sides by huge, multi-storeyed buildings. It is a shot taken at night and the glass towers are radiating light while the village looks dark. The city is Guangzhou, one of China’s highly developed metropolises.  

Usually, the state would buy up the land and develop it on their own,” says Lam. “But, in this particular case, for some reason it has remained like this. The city has expanded to the point that the village has ended up near the central business district, which is the most expensive real estate in the city. Recently, the government tried to force the people out, but they failed. So, the village continues to be owned by the villagers.”

They have turned the farmland into apartment buildings so that they can rent it out to migrant workers who come from all over China to work in factories and other industries. However, under government pressure, very few people are living in the buildings. “The villagers are now fighting to extract more compensation from the state,” says Lam.

Incidentally, during the Communist era, before the economy was opened up, in 1978, all the agricultural land was owned by the people. And the villagers, to invoke their shared Communist past, have hung up red flags.

But the government is unmoved. In fact, it has cordoned off the area with a large wall. On it there are posters which exhort the Chinese people to share the national dream of getting wealth and power, the twin propaganda campaigns of the Chinese government.

And the way China is developing, there is no doubt that these slogans have resonated with the people. If predictions are accurate, in less than two years, China will have the largest economy in the world, pushing the USA to second place. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

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