By Rakhee Bhattacharya
Dawn was breaking just when I was finishing the fresh cup of green tea. By the Chinese time, it was 6 O’clock in the morning. The China Eastern Airlines flight was readying for touchdown at the airport at Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province of China. The plane was packed to its capacity – there were mostly Chinese and Indian business people
This was my first visit to China as a member of a delegation from the Government of India to interact with Chinese academia to explore the avenues and prospects of mutual cooperation between the two most populous countries of the world. But the Kunming airport almost took my breath away – not only was it vast, but even at this early morning hour we could feel the tremendous vibrancy and movements of people all over. The rush in fast food outlets in the airport at that early morning told us about the busy schedule of the people. We were received by the representatives of Chinese government
as ‘distinguished guests’, and were welcomed through red carpet through their VIP exit. A clean, well-decorated and massively constructed airport dazzled my eyes, in stark contrast to the filth and chaos of the Kolkata’s international airport I had just left.
We had gone there for a two day conference on ‘K2K’, or Kolkata to Kunming Forum, initiated between the provinces of Yunnan and West Bengal in the year 2004 to search for a connection in economic and cultural spaces. Every year this forum meets across the border, and in 2010 the forum arranged its meeting in a small town of Yunnan province, Dehong. So we took another domestic flight from Kunming to reach Dehong in the afternoon the same day.
I was excited to be in China. My knowledge about this nation was only through my reading, only as an outside observer. I had read about things like
their centuries old civilization, the Confucian culture and his teaching, the imperial history, communism and finally the economic modernity and mighty military power.The country has survived and passed through tumultuous transitions.
It was the country about which Chairman Mao once said that the people here were a blank sheet of paper on which he could write the words of socialism. He indeed had made a Herculean effort to transform China. He has rewritten the history of China since 1949 and provided food and basic necessities to its large hunger-striven and unequal society, could give reasonable amount of redistributive justice to its suffered society, but had taken away the freedom of
mind and speech of his people. And not only that, his wrong policies had resulted in the death of at least 30 million people from hunger, starvation and State persecution.
In the later phase, after Mao’s death, the policies of economic liberalism was adopted under the guidance of Deng Xiao Ping, which had transformed China within a fee decades in such a way that the country could no longer be recognized as the old China, and the world could no longer ignore this new China. It appears that with its newly acquired economic and military, this Century is going to be China’s century for the world. The world looks with awe and envy at this new China, which flexes its economic muscle all the time. The so- called ‘China factor’ has entered the strategy and policies of all powerful nations of the world today So there were enough things to attract me in this nation and to allow me to get an insider’s view during that brief sojourn of mine.
Dehong is a small picturesque town of Yunnan province whose beauty and landscape is manicured perfectly to attract tourists and travelers. We were escorted by car through the lovely paved roads of Dehong to a five star hotel, whose mammoth size at the first site has made us spellbound. Since then, for the next three days we have had numerous opportunities to see suchenclaves of prosperity through the super-structures of multiplexes and high rise buildings which is the Chinese way of development, and one cannot definitely miss glitters and dazzles all over. I was impressed by the people, who work hard in an immensely regulated and disciplined system under a single-party authoritarian regime.
The conference was on expanding possibilities of bilateral economic and cultural horizons between Yunnan and West Bengal under the pan-engagement programme of India and China, the two modern super powers of Asia. It was one of my many international exposures, where I was startled by their structured speeches, one-track agenda and their set programmes. There was not a slightest deviation from that.
Added to this were their splendid banquets with the display of sumptuous food and gala cultural evenings. There were around twenty five courses of food in each meal having awesome fishes, fresh vegetables, meats of various varieties, and how could I resist my temptation of tasting the fried insects and fried honey bees! Above all my platter could not get away without sticky rice, which I adore being a daughter of Sylhet. The people I found were wonderful and warm and one had to be moved by their hospitality and charmed by their
youth and beauty as well.
But that is not all about China, beneath such structuralism and display, there lies the other China, where people wish to share and emotion to express, but are utterly restrained by the regimentation of their thought. No matter how hard China tries to hide such facts, but the world is aware today about the astounding degree of displacement and denial there in the name of development. The Chinese slums and poverty is no less than a scourge than
in any other developing nation in the world, the gap between the rich and the poor is also awfully large just like India. But the only difference is that, their miseries are concealed and our miseries are revealed.
They are voiceless under an autocratic regime and we are vocal in democratic space. I could fortunately make few friends in this short span of time and Cheng was one such very sweet lady, who is a scholar in the Yunnan Development Research Centre. She was all along with us and I have had several opportunities to hear her views as an insider of China. She was candid to express her anguish and annoyance about the lack of freedom of speech in her country, she expressed her anger against the ruthless one-child norm in her country, which denies the innate feeling of a mother, and she showed her concerns about the growing delinquency among youth and large-scale corruption inside the government of China.
We travelled across the province and went up to a small town called Ruili, which borders Myanmar. And while going to Ruili, we actually travelled through the historic Stilwell Road, which was built during the World War II to connect India, China and Myanmar for military purpose. This was in ancient times also a part of Southern Silk Route, which carried ideas, people, trade, and religion connecting India’s Northeast. I was overwhelmed to be in such historic place and then was fascinated to see the degree of similarities that still exists amongst the ethnic groups of Yunnan province and that of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh of India’s Northeast, the area which is familiar to me due to my research exposure. I could correlate many aspects of Northeast India’s ethos which reflected in the footprints of this Yunnan region, lying in the southwestern part of China and geographically so close to India’s Northeast. The ethnic communities like Tai, Singphos, Lisus, Tangsas, Noctes, Wanchos, Khamtis, and many others still have their cultural roots and connectivity across the border. Their habits, customs, cloths, foods, legends are remarkably similar. It was sheer territorial boundary drawn by the colonial rulers for their own interests that had painfully turned these neighbours into awkward strangers.
I was surprised to discover that twenty six different ethnic groups exist in Yunnan province, leaving aside the other parts of China. Their distinct identities are hidden behind the Pan-Chinese identity with Maoist communism and Mandarin language. Their diversities in terms of society, culture, religion, ethnicity, language, and traditions are no less variant and vibrant than in India, but are barely encountered in the world forum.
So the fear that was lurking at the back of my mind was how long China could continue this journey with such unchallenged political suppression, which made such heartless trade-off by marginalizing and oppressing the aspirations of regional identity, and by concealing the pain and misery of its have-nots. The state and its power remained supreme in China’s journey of communism and much important than any individual and his liberty.
Can recognizing Liu-Xiaobo’s work and conferring him the Nobel Peace prize by the West be a step forward within China and for its people to hope for a new life with freedom of speech and expression? I have no answer, but at the end of my journey, I felt claustrophobic and wanted to fly back to my sweet home. While saying adieu to my Chinese friends in the Kunming airport, I quietly hoped and dreamt a future for these wonderful people to have a freer space, where their minds will be without fear under a free sky to create another mighty nation of China the world would like to see.
The writer is a Fellow in Maulana Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Visiting Lecturer in the Department of South &
Southeast Asia, University of Calcutta.