Friday, July 06, 2007

Adelaide Festival of Ideas: The Elephant and the Dragon

Last night's opening session of the Festival featured a panel of five speakers discussing the economic (and, to a lesser extent, other) futures of India and China. There was broad general consensus that neither country is going to sweep ahead into world domination the way some people are predicting, and that, to paraphrase the Federal Leader of the Opposition, everybody needs to take a cold shower.

The general view, agreed on in particular by the calm and softly spoken Joseph Cheng and the ebullient Ramachandra Guha, was that in terms of global power and superpower there will be no shift to a different unipolar (or bipolar, as during the Cold War) world but rather an expansion into a multipolar one, with different kinds of power -- economic and other -- distributed across a number of different countries and regions.

Though the point was made several times that 'China and India don't get on' and that therefore talk of some future 'Chindia' alliance probably wasn't to be taken seriously, Cheng and Guha (as representatives of their respective countries) weren't letting this get in the way of a visible mutual respect that clearly deepened as the session progressed and turned into one of the little things that make these occasions so memorable: watching some kind of developing interaction on the stage that doesn't have anything directly to do with scheduled program but, in a small human way, brings the whole thing to life.

Guha, when introduced, bounced up to the mic as though on springs and made an electrifying beginning by reminding the audience that 'In five weeks from now, the 15th of August, India will have spent 60 years as an independent country.' (Well, it electrified me; it may seem like 'history' to the young folks, but 1947 was the year my parents got married and the person I was sitting with, the admirable Morag Fraser -- a member of the Festival's Advisory Committe from its inception -- was already a toddler.)

He went on to read out various prophecies by mostly British journalists and historians that had been made over the decades since 1947, repeatedly predicting that India would fall apart into a failed state: 'For the first five decades of our independence, Indians were told that we were going down the tube ... The Indian elite is now wallowing in a sea of self-congratulation.'

Guha and Robin Jeffrey, a Canadian scholar from Canberra via Chandighar, Sussex and Melbourne, had what were for those of us who have never been to India some quite eye-opening things to say about the diversity of that country from state to state: India has twenty-something different languages, written in ten different scripts, which seemed to amply justify Guha's praise of the way the Indian government manages at a national level to hold the country's 'shambolic' federation together.

Guha and Jeffrey also both made the excellent point that in the face of this diversity, with holders of high office in the Indian government included Muslims, Catholics, Sikhs and at least one Untouchable Hindu, it was bemusing to see the Australian government's attempts via the proposed citizenship test to impose some kind of official monoculture.

The usual format of these panels is one speaker after another followed by audience questions, but Peter Mares introduced and then skilfully facilitated from the Chair an intermediate stage of conversation among the speakers that brought out some of the most interesting remarks of the evening. (All who ever take or aspire to take the chair at festivals and conferences, take note: this works, provided you're well-prepared.)

What emerged from this stage was the closest thing to a disagreement that the panel produced all evening: asked about China's environmental problems, which is Mares' own specialist area of expertise, Cheng replied that there was a new awareness at government level of this issue and of the necessity to do something about it urgently; it involved, he said, some revivification 'not so much of Confucian but of Taoist values', of living peacefully and in harmony with nature -- 'and this is an implict criticism of Maoism.' Colleen Ryan, the Australian Financial Review's China correspondent, politely disagreed: 'The pollution there is just tragic. They're killing their population.' (She may have been referring to this.)

Panelist Philippe Legrain had talked with a scepticism belying his 33 years about the imponderability of the future, concluding that 'Predictions about the future are a mug's game', which made me think of Emma Thompson's hysterical turn as the Hogwarts Professor of Divination, Sybil Trelawny (of which we will be seeing more within a week when the new movie comes out), and did seem, considering the theme of this year's Festival -- 'Which Way to the Future?' -- to be a bit of a cold shower in itself, albeit obviously true.

But the most cheering thing anyone said all night came from Joseph Cheng: 'Over the next 20 years China and India just want to have a peaceful environment in which to concentrate on domestic modernisation.' Amen to that, I thought.

Broadcasts and podcasts via Radio Adelaide.


Oz said...

Joseph Cheng is right, particularly in the case of China.

I don't know why everyone thinks China is going to be a huge threat to everyone. They're more concerned about maintaining stability and trying to deal with the problems of corruption, pollution and growing discontents about inequality.

Their foreign policy seems to mirror Confucian values such as how they're embarking on huge gifts and economic deals to third world nations (which are greatly in their favour) like how Imperial China used to do in the East Asian region.

The only issue that could really bring conflict, that of Taiwan is more about 'face' than anything else (something which is emphasised at a personal level as well).

One thing I've noticed is that in most of the commentariat there hasn't been much talk about India other than in terms of economic ties while there has been an almost exclusive focus on China. Maybe it's because China has the more unifying Han Chinese culture whereas India is more diverse. Still it seems like a bit of an imbalance.

Fyodor said...

China may not want to start any fights right now, but that doesn't mean it won't in the future. In recorded history we have never had a decisive shift in strength between great powers without the kind of geopolitical friction we commonly call war. If you think China is a pussycat, consider their playtime in the Sudanese sandpit:

Just as it's hysterical to decry China as an imminent threat, it would be equally foolish to state it won't become an enemy, and a very scary one at that.

sam coleridge said...

i wonder, though, fyodor, if the climate might mitigate onset of conflict (pun only semi-intended) given the potentially devestating consequences facing us - esp. if lovelock is right! and both india and china have massive social policy issues facing them before any likely or plausible onset of colonial foreign policies take hold.

still, you're right to point out that china would make a dangerous enemy if it chose a path of conflict. let's hope it takes heed of it confucian roots and sees a peaceful future for us all...

Fyodor said...

Thanks, Sam. I was increasingly certain I'd killed the thread.

Your comment about the coming Warmageddon is ironic, as it's China's rapid industrialisation that's expected to contribute disproportionately to that particular Bete Noire du Jour. Long-term planning about anything with global implications now has to take into account China and its dynamic future.

On your hopeful last sentence, I'm sorry to disappoint you but Confucianism isn't a particularly peaceful ideology. Moreover, it's a struggle to identify much that's Confucian about China's rapacious embrace of capitalist growth.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Sam! Last time I saw you I was sitting round a ouija board. Someone on Larvatus Prodeo (JPZ?) was talking about you just the other night, suggesting that 'Christabel' would make a great movie, but IIRC you didn't ever really finish it (another person from Porlock?) and the plot just kind of peters out, doesn't it? Also, I'm not sure how the Christabel Metre would translate to the screen.

Fyodor, you may well be right. Certainly someone on that panel mentioned the Chinese presence in Africa and not in a nice way. (Tx for Sudan link, will check it out eventually, no time so far.)

Interestingly re Confucian values, Cheng when making those remarks about pollution and nature began to say 'return to Confucian values' and then checked himself and said 'No, they're more Taoist values, more peaceful.'

As for killing the thread, nah. Do please just comment away at will -- I'm sure everyone here knows more about this than I do, and anyway I'm too knackered from writing the posts to jump into the comments as well.

(Might it not be more likely to be a bête noire de la nuit?)

Fyodor said...

"(Might it not be more likely to be a bête noire de la nuit?)"

Have I ever mentioned that I'm deeply in like with you, Mme. Pavlova?

The answer is, "no, but I did spend far more time on that particular point than anything else I wrote, apart from fretting over whether I should use 'de jour', which has the quotidian meaning, e.g. 'Belle de Jour' - which for me means Catherine Deneuve, not sordid Essex slapper blogerotica - and not the 'current' meaning of 'du jour', i.e. 'of this day'".

Key points con jour:

1) Noire works well with nuit.

Key points pro jour:

1) Bete noire simply means "black beast", and doesn't traditionally require a nocturnal existence; and

2) "du jour" conveys the currency of the black beastiness of said Warmageddon.

See? Harder than it looks.

P.S. excellent work on the Adelaideas.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Re de jour and du jour, yes, creme de choufleur (?) and so on. Black beasts just seem to go better with the night.

'Adelaideas' is v good, but I am going to keep it hushed up -- for some reason I still don't understand, the SA government departments are addicted to wordplay and mysterious typography (the department for the Arts, for example, used to calls itself ArtSA, which led to a number of unseemly jokes, though of course it's not as funny as the new federal DIC) and they would leap upon 'Adelaideas' with yips of glee, it being at least as good as 'Womadelaide'.

'Have I ever mentioned that I'm deeply in like with you, Mme. Pavlova?'

Good, I'm glad somebody is. It'll never last, of course.

Fyodor said...

"Good, I'm glad somebody is. It'll never last, of course."

Your modesty is false and thoroughly unconvincing. You have many admirers, madame. They may not be known to you, but many are to me. We have a club and everything.

OK, we don't, but you're much appreciated all the same.