The Communist Party of China (CPC) marked its 100th anniversary on July 1, 2021. Among the thousands of celebratory events taking place is a ballet by the National Ballet of China depicting two famous Chinese myths. In one, a 90-year-old "foolish man" named Yugong achieves the impossible mission of removing two huge mountains to create a pathway for villagers to get connected and also to increase land under agriculture. In the other myth, Nuwa, a compassionate goddess, protects humanity from catastrophe by mending a hole in the sky caused by a war between the God of Water and the God of Fire.
These puranas or mythologies shouldn't be dismissed as bunkum. They exist in all cultures and civilizations, and have inspired countless generations to accomplish incredible missions. India, like China, abounds with them. The Holy Ganga owes its puranic origin to King Bhagiratha, who is believed to have done tapasya (penance) for a thousand years to seek Shiva's help in bringing the river from heaven to earth.
Even critics of communism will have to accept that what the People's Republic of China has achieved since its founding in 1949 under the leadership of Mao Zedong, and especially since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping boldly redirected its progress with reform and opening up, is of mythic proportions. Emerging from a "century of humiliation" (1839-1949), in which foreign powers (mostly Western, but also Japan) attacked, fragmented and occupied China, and recovering from self-inflicted wounds, China has metaphorically moved mountains to march along the path of prosperity and all-round development.
At its birth, the People's Republic of China was poor, ravaged by imperialism and civil wars. Today it is the world's second-largest economy, and well on its way to toppling the United States from the top perch before 2030. With each passing year, it is gaining more strength to shape the new global order.
Its infrastructure is superior to that in Western countries. Consider this. High-Speed railway (speeds of over 250 km/h) started in Japan in 1965. Several European nations began soon after. China's first high-speed railway was in 2007. By the end of 2020, its total length of 37,900 kilometers is more than two-thirds the combined high-speed railway in all the countries in the world. It has now prototyped a maglev train with speed of 600 km/h.
Two more startling examples show China's epic achievements in the last four decades since China's implementation of reform and opening up. According to the World Bank, more than 800 million people have been lifted out of absolute poverty since 1978 – the largest poverty reduction in such a short time in human history. When Xi Jinping was elected as general secretary of the CPC Central Committee in 2012, China still had around 100 million people living below the poverty line ($1.9 per person per day). He had vowed then that China would become completely poverty-free by the end of 2020. Last December, he declared the goal had been achieved. To meet this goal, CPC mobilized the energies of the entire Party, the entire economy, and the entire society. More than 3 million Party members were sent to rural and remote areas to implement an innovative "targeted poverty reduction" programme, which involved accurate identification of each poor family and each poor village, and implementation of a focused and sustained strategy to comprehensively improve their lives and livelihoods. Xi said, "Ensuring that poor people and poor areas will enter the moderately prosperous society together with the rest of the country is a solemn promise made by our Party."
This is not propaganda. As a frequent visitor to many parts of China, I have seen how the quality of life of common people has risen. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who had experienced rural poverty first-hand when he was a young grassroots CPC worker, has visited more than 80 poor and backward areas for inspection of China's version of Garibi Hatao campaign. In this context, is it unpatriotic to ask: How many poor villages has our own prime minister, who claimed he was once a poor chai-seller, visited in the last seven years?
Second example: in economic growth, national defense and technological prowess, China has been far more atmanirbhar (self-reliant) than India. When China first emerged as the "factory of the world" in 1990s, the usual comment in importing countries, including India, was "China maal, sasta maal, kharaab maal" (Chinese goods are cheap in cost, cheap in quality). But China, in the past 10 to 15 years, has ascended the quality ladder so fast in manufacturing and services that a major part of its exports are now hi-tech and value-for-money. It is now on its way to becoming a global leader in artificial intelligence and other technologies of the future.
China is far ahead of India in space research. In May 2021, it successfully landed a probe, Tianwen-1, on Mars with a rover. In June, it sent three astronauts for a three-month mission on a new space station. They performed spacewalks and carried out repairs and other scientific operations. Since 2003, China has sent 11 astronauts, including two women, into space. India has sent only one – Rakesh Sharma, who rode on a Soviet spacecraft way back in 1984. Four Indian astronauts are currently undergoing training in Russia for Gaganyaan, which is aimed to take off before 2022 to mark the 75th anniversary of India's independence.
China impresses not only with its bullet trains, beautiful airports, skyscrapers and Made in China exports, it has some of the world's best universities, museums, art galleries, public libraries and sports stadiums. China soon will have more foreign students studying in its universities than the U.S. It spends far more on culture than India. Comparable to India's district headquarters, small Chinese cities have incomparably better concert halls, parks, community care centers and tourist attractions. No wonder, in 2019 (before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic), China attracted 66 million foreign tourists, compared to India's 18 million.
Talking about parks, here are a few stunning facts from a recent report in The New York Times. China spends huge annually for creating new public parks. It has achieved a five-fold increase in urban green spaces since 2001. Shanghai added 55 new parks last year, bringing the total number of parks in the city to 406, and it plans to build 600 more in the next five years. "The average Chinese city now rivals New York in publicly accessible green space per person. The latest 14th Five-Year Plan calls for building 1,000 large parks around the country to encourage physical fitness." Let's not pooh-pooh the importance of parks, green spaces and forests. They are as essential for human health and happiness as roti, kapda aur makaan (food, clothing and shelter).
Among the newly-built parks in Chinese cities are those near creeks and rivers, which were once highly polluted. For telling contrast, let's look at the Mithi River in Mumbai, Shanghai's sister city. It flows like an open drain, flanked by slums in the heart of India's financial capital. In 2005, it flooded after a deluge that killed nearly 400 people. Eight years ago, my colleagues at the Observer Research Foundation in Mumbai did a comprehensive study showing how the Mithi and its environs can be transformed. The study was submitted to the government of Maharashtra, which appreciated it but, beyond cosmetics, has done little to change the ugly reality.
After the degradation of its environment caused by rapid economic growth, China has prioritized restoring its "blue skies, green mountains and clear rivers," in line with President Xi's call for transition from "industrial civilization" to "ecological civilization." China's renewables now account for 40 percent of its total installed capacity. (China's renewables capacity is 850 GW; India's 93 GW.) It is the world's largest producer of renewable energy, with over double the generation in the U.S., its nearest competitor.
Most Indians, including Indian politicians and policymakers, are not paying adequate attention to China's progress on multiple fronts, mainly because of the widespread anti-China sentiment in our country. But any visitor, especially those with some historical understanding of how poor and backward China was until decades ago, can see that common Chinese now eat better, reside in better habitat, have access to better education and healthcare, and live longer than the previous generation. They do have their own social problems, but they believe in the "Chinese Dream" and are confident that life for the future generations will be even better. The "Great Rejuvenation" of the Chinese nation is not an empty Party boast. It's happening.
The author is the founder of the Forum for a New South Asia.