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.
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