How China sees the worldChina will use Buddhism as soft power while moving towards global domination.
Last week, as the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party convened, there was keen global interest in what was happening there, the likes of which had not been seen before. Of course, there was the obvious, President Xi Jinping got elected for a historic third term, and now he has a new team that will chart the course in times of great geo-political turmoil. The last decade led by President Xi resulted in China becoming the global competing force against the United States. However, the decade also exposed the divisions within the US created by President Trump, the United Kingdom being caught in the Brexit maze and Europe being impacted by Covid and now the Ukraine crisis.
President Xi, as I wrote in Unleashing the Vajra, became the custodian and delivered his version of globalisation as the UK allowed him to do so at the World Economic Forum meet in January 2017. More academic study is required on China, and not the sort of narrative that The New York Times likes to present, a lopsided view of the challenges China faces; but rather a more nuanced understanding of a country that has planned for decades to take the global centre stage in the years to come.
Reading on China
I just finished reading How China Sees India and the World by former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran, which is one of the most fascinating books I have read. Saran can read Mandarin, has much experience in diplomacy there, and continues to be the eternal student on China. He presents views that are not only useful for us to understand China from the perspective of India, but from the region and the world as well. There are three things he has written that we must ponder upon.
First, there is the importance of the written word in Chinese culture with emphasis on calligraphy and imagery. In contrast, Indian and South Asian cultures are about the written word with oral traditions being passed on from generation to generation. Therefore, China has a "visual" culture while in India and South Asia, it is "aural". He has written, “This difference in their civilisational trajectories has had its impact on how the two cultures perceive the world around them and how they interact with one another."
Second, it was Buddhism that connected China and India, and it was the exchange of scholars that led to a repository of Buddhist studies being built in China. Chinese records suggest about 3,000 Indian monks and teachers travelled to China in the first millennium to propagate Buddhism. China created its own “Buddhist Universe” which was limited to its own territory. The Buddhism practised in Southeast Asia came from India. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds. I have also written how China will use Buddhism as soft power while moving towards global domination in key sectors by 2040-50. As China's ageing population increases, with an estimated one-third of the people being over 60 by 2050, it is likely that spiritual engagement will increase too. We have also seen in the past five years how visuals of Buddhist practices have become more acceptable in China with even the president engaging in rituals and the events being broadcast live.
Third, Shyam Saran talks about how China considers "India as teacher by negative example", a perspective that I had never heard of before. The argument is that during the Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856-60, Indians were seen by the Chinese as "street-side enforcers of British rule"; and second, there was "deep resentment of the prominent Indian traders in cities like Shanghai who flaunted their wealth, gained mainly from the opium trade". So, India became the "worst case scenario" for China. China also sees India as a country under Western influence and has never regarded it as an independent state.
Fourth, one of the key issues we all miss when we think about China is how they built up a such a prominent education system in a short span of time. It has now produced scientists, innovators and thinkers in quality and quantity. This perhaps not only created their biggest comparative advantage, but also a homogeneous world shared by Chinese across the country.
While I continue to argue in my writings how India and China will be natural allies in this Asian century, the cracks that remain between the two countries can be understood well through this book. We are stepping into a China that has come under President Xi’s rule for a third term. Analysts see his new team pushing the agenda of global dominance through technology, and they do not expect confrontation with the US to slow down. They want to lead in future technologies, be it electric vehicles, communication platforms or artificial intelligence. They will work on currency next as they seek global dominance through their digital currency, like the US dollar did with physical currency. China shut the country to outsiders during the Covid-19 pandemic. The world is watching how they will move as they open up. Whether they will see the world differently is a billion dollar question to which we are all looking for answers.