The first—and only—time I met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in 2006, in Beijing. At the time I was a journalist based in the Chinese capital and Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat. His whirlwind tour around China, a country to which he became a frequent visitor, had a singular focus: special economic zones (SEZs).
Modi’s eyes shone as he described his visit to Shenzhen, the southern city that was China’s showcase SEZ. “My goal for Gujarat SEZs is to create exactly that kind of world-class infrastructure and to attract that kind of investment,” he enthused. I had well understood his excitement. Shenzhen’s shimmering skyscrapers and multi-lane highways induced infrastructure envy in just about every Indian I knew who had witnessed them.
In 1980, Shenzhen had been a tiny fishing village with a total population of 24,000 people. By the time of Modi’s visit, it was home to five million citizens, boasted the second busiest container port in China, and enjoyed the highest per capita disposable income in the mainland.
Shenzhen wasn’t alone in its rags-to-riches life story. Its fortunes had been replicated up and down the eastern seaboard of China, where low wages, abundant labour, and investment-friendly government policies had transformed the ostensibly “Communist” country into an unrecognisable behemoth of state-led capitalism.
The China I reported from between 2001 and 2009 was ascendant; a land of superlatives; a miracle of manufacturing might. It came to boast the world’s biggest dam, the largest airport and museum, and the highest railway line. I saw 700-bed hospitals being erected in a week. There was something preternatural about the country. It was as if a manufacturing superhero had been plucked out of the pages of a Marvel comic and was now striding across the world with outsized footprints, filling it with exports.
China’s metamorphosis from a poor and largely agrarian nation of bicycles and bullock carts into the factory of the world took place within a rather compressed, 25-year-long period. It was not organic or gentle. It was revolutionary and violent in speed and scope. And yet unlike other revolutions, it was neither bloody nor did it entail an overthrow of the ruling power.
Jobseekers’ avenue China’s ‘reforms’ have opened up opportunities but widened gaps
Instead, this was a revolution that was directed by the ruling authority, the Communist Party of China (CCP), itself. From the late 1970s onwards, the country’s leaders dismantled the party’s former ideology of Communism and discontinued the practice of Maoism. They embraced the market with a fierce determination. Privatisation of state-owned enterprises (SOES), labour reforms which transformed the ‘iron rice bowl’ as the lifetime employment system in SOES was known, the creation of SEZs, export subsidies and massive investment in infrastructure development were some of the hallmarks of this new orientation.
As with all revolutions, there was a high cost to pay. What was one of the most egalitarian nations in the world, at least in official commitment, now saw yawning inequalities open up. Millions of workers from SOES were laid off with little or no social security cover. Property that used to be taken away from the rich for redistribution to the poor was taken from peasants and given to real estate developers. Rampant corruption and vanishing provisions for education and healthcare had deleterious, often devastating, consequences for large swathes of society.
As was usually the case with the CCP, there was eventually a calibration of its policies. Measures were being taken to slow down the environmental degradation, protect labour and provide some new social security nets. There was a difficult and often imperfect attempt at balancing continued controls with liberalisation. The movement of labour within China, for example, was gradually loosened but still managed. Private property was introduced in cities, but peasants remained unable to buy and sell agricultural land. As a result, even when migrant workers from the countryside failed to find adequate employment in cities they had a small plot of land to return to.
The more time I spent in China, the clearer it became that easy or stark conclusions with regards to the country’s present, or future, were wrong-headed. China’s ‘reforms’ meant that the economic gap between a migrant worker and a well-heeled industrialist was larger than anything that would have been possible under Mao Zedong. The migrant workers who kept the mainland’s factories humming efficiently laboured under tough conditions and were often discriminated against.
Yet, they now had the kinds of choices—of employment, travel, personal life—that had been denied to their parents. They also had some opportunities for upward mobility as opposed to the static future of the Mao era. I interviewed 20-year-old girls who had transitioned from the shop floor to secretarial roles. One went on to set up her own business.
When I had tried to discuss the nuances of China’s ‘successes’ with Mr Modi, he abruptly lost interest. Since he had just visited SEZs, I asked about whether he had investigated how the Chinese managed issues surrounding the appropriation of land from farmers to develop these zones. Such inquiries were “outside the purview of his visit”, he said dismissively.
(Jakarta-based Indian journalist Pallavi Aiyar has written two books on China—Chinese Whiskers and Smoke & Mirrors: An Experience of China. Her most recent book is Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from a Europe in Crisis.)
Modi perhaps isn’t the only one, everyone who visits China and is dazzled by what it has ‘achieved’ forgets the reality of the suppression of dissent in China (Lingering Taste of SEZwan Cuisine, Sep 1).
Narendra Apte, Pune
What was the point of this piece by Pallavi Aiyar? That Modi will fail since he lacks the skills required or that the creation of sezs will be disastrous for India?
D.L. Narayan, Visakhapatnam
>> Hey genius!! You have got imitators!!!
Don't be jealous.
>> No good to squeal like a stuck pig ...
>> No good to squeal like a stuck pig ...
Hey genius!! You have got imitators!!!
>>>A very good observation but Modi is not up to it unfortunately.He does not have the education to make his visionary like Nehru
Have you even heard what Fareed Zakaria had told after his interview with Sri Modi? BTW, if you don't know, Fareed is a star Journo of CNN admired world over. And he considered Modi like this after interviewing him -
"Narendra Modi is among the sharpest I have met. I underestimated him. He is very smart, intelligent and focused. He is very driven and has a long term agenda. He wants to be a statesman at the world stage. He is a man who looks to the future and not into the past,"
I am a fan of Zakaria and listen to his GPS regularly for his intelligent insights into complex global issues. If such an intelligent person like Zakaria has an opinion like the above, its better you shake off the Islamic blinkers, the standard accessories most Muslims wear, and follow some intelligent persons like Zakaria and do some real introspection. No good to squeal like a stuck pig rationalising your backwardness as due to Hindus and the whole world working against you.
A very good observation but Modi is not up to it unfortunately.He does not have the education to make his visionary like Nehru.He knows and belives only on mantra for all the ills of the nation.Rapid industrialization as he tried in Gujarat though it only kept his state between 9 and 14 place in many ecnomic indicators.It is too late to learn and change and he will only pursue the same path with disastrous consequences for India.He will certainly camouflage under communalism and only the people of India will have to judge better to their destiny.
Parthasarathy Shakkottai >>> Federal balance is: (FISCAL DEFICITS -TRADE DEFICIT) = NET PRIVATE SAVINGS. An amount = 25% of GDP will boost the GDP tremendously. Unfortunately, Modi does not understand fiat currency economics!
Sir, Could you please care to explain in more detail to a lay man like me what is "fiat currency economics" ... Thank you ...
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