A peaceful riseA new development model based on cultural values is expected to emerge in Nepal
China, a giant economy and an emerging powerful nation-state, has a lot to offer to its southern neighbour Nepal. The very political structure and cultural milieu of Nepal makes China a major partner in both development cooperation and socio-cultural exchanges. China’s strong cultural values contributing to its national identity and global respect have gained worldwide respect, and boosted its soft power and cross regional diplomacy. Its concept of mianzi or face, where importance is placed on social recognition, has enhanced its global acceptability.
Nepal can now relocate itself in the larger context of soft power as a key instrument of mulin zhengce (good neighbourhood policy). How does Nepal go about it? And what are the key challenges? Nepal needs to recall and renegotiate with its philosophical, cultural and religious roots transient across the Himalaya to China. The close interrelation between Buddhism and civilisational Confucianism and Taoism can become one of the subtle common grounds.
China, with its 90 percent Han Chinese population and remaining 10 percent divided into dispersed ethnic groups like the Miao and Tibetans, is largely a homogeneous society with a greater intermix of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Yet there is no declared state religion. This, along with a one-party based polity, brings an element of convergence in its national identity and uniformity in its global approaches. On the other hand, Nepal, with its diverse castes, creeds and ethnicities and Hinduism as the declared state religion till sometime back, is an apparently heterogeneous society with a huge degree of divergence from food habits to dialects to religious orientation. This is topped by a multiparty-based fragile democracy. These two distinct characters actually inject contrasting political cultures and socialisation processes in these two nation-states.
It is against this backdrop of differences in the formation of nation-states that China and Nepal have used different sets of tools of statecraft that bring development, peace, freedom, democracy and stability in their respective countries. This was adequately reflected in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s address to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China last October. He said, “Now the needs to be met for the people to live a better life are increasingly broad. Not only have their material and cultural needs grown, their demands for democracy, rule of law, fairness and justice, security and a better environment are increasing.” The very assertion of ‘their demands for democracy’ adequately displays that even in China the term democracy is renegotiated amid its own socio-cultural milieu and perspective of political economy.
Nepal, on the other hand, is a country trapped in two centuries: A crucial part still hovering around 16th-century characteristics of socio-cultural practices and cross-border hobnobbing, and some features of development and people’s aspirations veering round the 21st century. An aspect of this is reflected in Nepal’s coveted national agriculture heritage and practice of traditional agricultural systems and medieval ways of production. On the other hand, one can witness increasing adoption of Western culture with jeans, Coke and newer varieties of cultural intrusions and religious practices.
The recipe for change
According to social psychologist Richard Nisbett, the geography of culture plays a significant role in shaping the thoughts of people. In Chinese cultural heritage, guoqing—special national circumstances caused by three striking factors like frequent institutional turnovers, political innovations and international exposures—have remained intertwined and interactive agents of change. All these have, in fact, been the major determinants of a robust Chinese business culture and resilient negotiating style. The One Belt One Road Initiative is once again guoqing in the form of soft power.
Chinese business negotiations continue to be heavily influenced by the people-centric philosophies of Confucius and Lao Tzu, and their core values of collectivism, honour, respect, obedience and harmonious relationships. China’s unique guoqing adds another layer of complexity to negotiating behaviour by shaping the decision making process politically and setting the tone for doing business with foreigners. These negotiating skills and tools put Nepal in an enviable location both because of its ‘yam between two boulders’ diplomacy and policy of equidistance between the two giant neighbours. It is in this context that Nepal needs to learn from China’s guoqing when performing business in tourism and promoting the unique identity of the country.
David Landes in his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations has written that the success of national economies is driven by cultural factors more than anything else. He found that thrift, hard work, tenacity, honesty and tolerance are cultural factors that make all the difference. Sociologist and political economist Max Weber said that social attitudes and values have the decisive say on which economies will succeed and which ones will fail.
Culture for soft power
For a landlocked and least developed country like Nepal, cultural diplomacy as an instrument of foreign policy, therefore, could go a long way both in promoting its national interest, curtailing acrimony within and outside the country and nurturing mutual admiration and respect from the two neighbouring giants. The very nature of Nepali civilisation makes its cultural diplomacy a key element in the global agenda of convergence through cultures. It makes conversation and dialogue much smoother and warm. The Nepali variety of Buddhism-Hinduism-Christianity could be a unique blend that actually intersects Eastern with Western and Northern with Southern at the global level.
Nepali politicians and diplomats have never put this ‘strategy of culture’ to the test because of lack of conscious institutional nurturing and fragmented foreign policy orientation. More often, the protracted political instability witnessed in this country has been used as a justification for not developing cultural tentacles as its long-term potent instrument in achieving foreign policy goals. For instance, in the equidistance policy, it is never culture but geo-politics and political alliances that have figured prominently. With the arrival of much needed political stability following the conclusion of the recent elections, it is high time that Nepal as a federal democratic state used this cultural strategy because it is deeply ingrained in and affiliated with its history, practices and discourses.
The four key elements in Chinese culture—contextuality, correlativity, complementarity and changeability—are still at work today. They constitute the cornerstones in the making and conduct of its foreign policy. On the other hand, with the advancement towards the modern era, Nepali foreign policy advocates have tried adopting many newer instruments and strategies that actually erode the roots of culture that lie in Nepali soil. Nepal as a nation with an abundance of natural resources, though adequately reflected in its religio-cultural and societal practices, hardly finds a place in the canon of its limited cultural diplomacy. As the people await a more stable and progressive Nepal, a new model of development based on the indigenous core of cultural values is expected to emerge. As a Chinese saying puts it, everybody is responsible for the rise or fall of the country. A peaceful rise of Nepal can happen only when it recognises and reorganises its cultural system and utilises its cultural values.
Bhandari is a research scholar in the Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University, China