Of China and India: wandering thoughts from streets, boats and trains

Boats in Chongqing (L) and Kochi (R)

[2,900 words]. Ever since China began to be a major part of the global economy in the early 1990s, one of the most enduring themes in American media is the country’s rise and its future challenge to US dominance. A subsidiary theme is whether India may be on the same path to parity, with this subtheme often coming across as prayer and hope: that India, as a fellow democracy, could help the US contain superpower China.

Much Indian discourse about China in recent years has adopted this lens too. Discussion about China in Indian media (at least the English-language media that is accessible to me) tends to take on a comparative and competitive tone. A good example is this online discussion at Quora.com: Which country will be next superpower: India or China?  It is rare to see discussion about China as itself.

Of late, I have taken to asking educated Indians — living in India — what they know of China. My sense is that there is much ignorance. They know little about its history, culture and society. Without such foundational knowledge, no one can understand how China works.

That said, I have no doubt that among Chinese, the ignorance about India is also shocking.

In 2017, I happened to visit both India and China, or more specifically, two little corners of India and China: Kerala and Sichuan (plus two of its neighbouring provinces). I am acutely aware that “parachute journalism” is rightly castigated as nearly useless in understanding any country, least of all countries as large and complex as these two. I shall try to avoid making generalisations, but I am sure I will still fail. What I am hoping to do here is to share with you the thoughts I had while visiting. For what they’re worth, these vignettes point to the very different paths taken by these two countries, and precisely because they’re on different paths — rather than being on different points along the same path — comparisons of a superficial nature, as seen in the Quora.com comments above, aren’t terribly informative.

Chiefly, however, I want to encourage more Indians to visit China and see for themselves. I’ve been saying the same to Americans for at least twenty years: You cannot understand China just through American media; you have to see it for yourself.

On my recent visit to Sichuan, I met a 50-ish American woman from Southern California who was visiting China for the first time. It was near the end of her first week in the country. I posed a question to her: “What is it that you did not expect to see in China, but saw a lot of in recent days?” She slept on my question overnight, and the next morning replied, “Technology. It’s everywhere.” She added that she appreciated my question; it helped her process what she was noticing around her.

That answer reminded me of a young Canadian woman whom I met while in Kerala. She was reaching the end of her one-month sojourn, most of which was spent in Goa. She spoke gushingly of the wonderful time she had in India, with a large part of it staying in some sort of yoga ashram. “I was free from technology,” she said.

The peaceful backwaters of Kerala

Before I go on, let me pause and trot out some statistics. The GDP per capita of Kerala is about US$3,100, higher than the average for India as a whole (US$1,700). Kerala is a major source of migrant workers to the Persian Gulf countries; their remittances have been the bedrock of Kerala’s economy for some time now.

Crowd of migrant workers outside the UAE consulate in Trivandrum

Crowd of migrant workers outside the UAE consulate in Trivandrum

Sichuan on the other hand, is poorer than China as whole. Sichuan’s GDP per capita is around US$6,100, while China’s average is US$8,200. To the east of Sichuan, Chongqing has a GDP of about US$7,000 per head.

So, Sichuan is twice as rich as Kerala, but Sichuan looks way more developed than merely twice. It appears to get more development bang for its buck. Why is that so? I don’t know the answer, though inevitably one steals a glance at corruption. However, it may be more a matter of resources poured in by the central government. China’s governmental budgets are some five or six times the size of India’s budgets; China appears to be able to marshall a lot more resources for public investment.

Money

In January and February 2017, where to get cash was a daily worry. Just three months earlier, the Indian government had demonetised the 1,000-rupee note (equivalent to about US$16 or S$21). New 2,000-rupee notes were rapidly being pushed out by government printers, but they were still in short supply. Automated teller machines (ATMs) often had “out of service” signs hanging on them. Whether this was because they were broken or whether the banks didn’t have cash to restock them was hard to tell. Some ATMs were so dirty, with trash around their bases, I had a feeling the “out of service” sign had been on them since well before demonetisation.

I had to depend on hearsay to learn which brick-and-mortar branch of which bank could convert my Euros and US Dollars into rupees. One day, the rumour turned out to be true. A certain bank branch was really exchanging foreign currency, up to a maximum of €100 per person — enough to last me four days. The queue was long even though Kerala is not a state that attracts many foreign tourists. I wish I had taken a photo of that “Foreign Exchange Department”. It had colonial-style desks and a small battalion of clerks. The most advanced equipment they had was a desktop computer with a cathode-ray monitor, but that was only for the manager. Most of the clerks made do with printer-calculators, which might have been state of art around 1975.

In China, I had loads of cash, but sometimes it wasn’t of much use. One morning I had to ask a stranger: “I only have cash, so where can I buy a train ticket with cash?” The 30-ish man with coloured hair thought for a moment before replying that he did not know. “Ever since I moved here [to this city],” he replied, “I have only bought train tickets with Weixin [cashless payment]… there should be a window somewhere, but I have never seen it.”

Ticketing machines, Chengdu East Railway Station, don’t take cash

Protecting the environment

For the last twenty years, there have been unflattering news headlines about environmental pollution in China. Whole lakes have been choked with algae bloom, desertification marches apace, and in Beijing and several cities, smog reaches critical levels at times. But I remember saying to American friends ten or more years ago that this would pass. “Trust the Chinese,” I said, “they’ll soon set their minds on doing something about it, and when they do, they’ll go about it on a scale you’d never imagine.”

Back in 2010, I was surprised to see that China had banned the free issue of plastic bags at supermarkets. Solar water heaters were everywhere, even in the smallest villages of Yunnan. Electric bicycles were mowing me down on the streets of Kunming — they were so silent, you couldn’t hear them coming. As for solar photovoltaic panels, today China is the world’s largest manufacturer.

The surprise of the 2017 trip was the clean toilets. It’s breathtaking (literally!) how different it is now from just ten years ago. It’s a universe away from the doorless latrines of 30 years ago, indelibly smeared, ahem, imprinted in my memory. Sure, there are still some public toilets with lots of room for improvement, but in the museums, in the metro stations and massive eight-floor shopping malls, the toilets are at least as clean as toilets in Singapore or Europe.

On the other hand, my strongest memory of Kerala is this beach near Trivandrum, the state capital. It would have been a lovely beach if it had not been strewn with garbage. The air reeked of decomposition, yet the village elders sitting there, winding down with the end of a day, just put up with it.

Beemapally beach, near Trivandrum

Trains and ferries

Trash aside, the cities and towns of Kerala had great charm. Many railway stations must have remained largely unchanged since the British left. Sitting on a quiet platform, waiting for the train to arrive was amazingly calming.

Varkala railway station

Another languid lull I fondly remember was at a ferry pier in Fort Kochi while waiting to cross the bay to the mainland side of Kochi city (also known as Ernakulam). The ferry pier was a battered shed open on all sides. It was a good thirty minutes before the boat came, during which rain swept by, wetting most of us on the pier. In India, you get into the groove of going with elements, not fighting them. The ferry boat was not any less battered, but it was cheap — 4 rupees, equivalent to 9 Singapore cents — and did its job.

At Fort Kochi ferry pier

While there were bridges carrying vehicular traffic from mainland Ernakulam to Fort Kochi, Mattancherry and other insular districts, the ferry was still a popular route, it being more direct. Actually, there were several ferry routes criss-crossing the bay, linking one district with another. I made it a point to ride the ferries whenever I could. It allowed me to see ordinary people going about their business.

Chongqing riverbank in the early 20th Century. Photo in the Three Gorges Museum, Chongqing

In Chongqing and Wuhan, on the other hand, the ferries have stopped running for lack of business. These two cities straddle the Yangzi River and getting from one side to the other of the wide river was and is essential to their economies. Thousands of boatmen used to make a living on the water. Today, there are heroic steel bridges spanning the mighty river every few hundred metres along its length. Under the river bed are tunnels through which metro trains whoosh every two or three minutes. There’s no charm in any of this, but by Jove, there’s efficiency.

One of the many bridges spanning the Yangzi in Chongqing

Second-class sleeper carriage, Kerala

Speaking of trains, here’s a picture of a second-class carriage on the fastest-possible train between Kochi and Trivandrum. The train actually commences its journey from Delhi, about three days and nights away: thus the three-tier sleeper beds.

There’s something else about this picture that is noteworthy. The train was quite empty. Media tends to give us a stereotype of Indian trains packed to the gills, with commuters hanging on to windows and doorways, with yet more humanity riding on carriage roofs. There may indeed be such instances, but I am pretty sure they’re far from the norm. As I say, you need to visit a country to be able to see through the “news”.

In China, sleeper trains are rapidly disappearing. China now has the world’s most extensive bullet-train network, and most routes can be covered in a few hours. The trains reach a cruising speed of about 300 kilometres per hour, as can be seen from this display inside a coach.

In a carriage of a Gaotie train (bullet train), the speed is shown

Inside a Gaotie (bullet) train

Water

In Kochi, one conversation I had with a guesthouse owner was about the coming water shortage. He was very concerned that it would affect his business in the coming months. Luckily, water rationing hadn’t yet started while I was visiting, but it would soon come. Indeed, as these two articles (here and here) will explain, 2016-2017 would see Kerala’s worst drought in a century. Much blame was put on the monsoon and natural cycles.

In China, there were dams everywhere. One of the most interesting sights I visited was the water-control project at Dujiangyan (below), built in 256 BCE, controlling the water flow of the 300-metre wide Min River as it leaves the mountains.

One of the artificial channels in the Dujiangyan project of 256BCE

Besides flood control, the project provided irrigation to 5,300 sq km of the Chengdu plain — it’s still doing that today. The Chinese have had much practice at building infrastructure on a massive scale.

The next photo is of the Three Gorges Dam just upstream of Yichang city, Hubei. It’s so wide that the other end of it disappears into the mist. The boat, by the way, is entering the Boat Elevator. Yes, there is such a thing. It transfers boats of up to 3,000 tons 110 metres up and down the dam. Ships larger than 3,000 tons use the locks (not in photo).

Three Gorges dam, Hubei

To the left of the picture and downriver of this dam, you might think that the Yangzi would flow into its natural channel. It does not. It flows into another lake formed by another dam, the Gezhouba Dam.

China’s problem (at least in the Yangzi valley) is different from India’s: it is not a question of what the annual monsoon may bring, but the question of environmental impact (including seismic!) of all these huge dams and lakes.

Streets

Streets tell many stories. The next two are of shopping streets in Kerala’s two main cities: Trivandrum (population 1 million) and Kochi-Ernakulam (population 3 million).

Chalai district, Trivandrum

Street in downtown Ernakulam (mainland Kochi) near railway station

Next is a photo taken from inside a local bus in the county town of Guanghan (population 600,000), about two hours north of Chengdu, followed by one of a shopping street in the city of Yichang (population 1,3 million).

Street in Guanghan, Sichuan

Pedestrianised shopping street, Yichang

The Chinese cities look very different — more slick? — from the Indian ones, even though the Indian ones are bigger, population-wise. And the difference is: government. The things you see in Guanghan — wide avenues, zebra crossing, road dividers, air-conditioned local buses — are only possible when there is a high level of government action. Even what you can’t see — power cables buried underground, security of land tenure enabling massive construction projects — need government too. Likewise, a pedestrianised street with lanterns hanging from trees and public benches would not be possible unless a government directed it to be so.

Comparing India and China through steel output statistics, literacy rates or total railway kilometres won’t take you very far. It won’t get you much of an explanation why the numbers are the way they are. Walking the streets adds another dimension. You look and you start to think. And it soon becomes apparent that India and China do things differently. The Chinese have long had trust in government. Ambitious projects reshaping the terrain and waterways, banning cars and plastic bags, or cleaning up toilets — all seem to get done with relative ease.

Perhaps in India getting things done is more an uphill battle.

On a wall in Mattancherry

But too much government is a dubious thing, especially when coupled with inflexibility, as evident from the way dissent is handled in China. When times change and adaptability is needed, will the government be flexible enough?

In India, dissent is better tolerated.

What’s happening in the picture below is not immediately obvious, but with a closer look, you’ll see people readily boarding a police bus. It’s strange: Why would ordinary folks be so keen to board police buses and prison vans?

Police bus in Trivandrum

The answer: That was the day the public transport workers called a strike. Throughout the state, public buses were immobilised, taxis and auto-rickshaws idled. In Varkala particularly, I saw union members standing menacingly around street corners with long sticks, ready to attack any freelance auto-rickshaw driver who dared to carry passengers in defiance of the strike call. Instead of breaking up the strike, the police, to their credit, tried their best to provide a skeleton transport service.

Moribund buses at a depot

Having a less hyperactive government may also mean that in India, more of history is retained, thus the charm so easily enjoyed. In fact, you could say, more of its present too. Less is lost through hectic demolition. Communities have a better chance of staying intact; there is less social upheaval. Some have argued that in the longer term, this relative inertia compared to frenetic China, plus a greater tolerance for dissent, will translate to greater stability and survivability. I don’t know. I suppose only time can tell.

In the meantime, there is this picture:

Kuan Zhai Xiangzi, Chengdu

and this one:

Ciqikou, Chongqing

I don’t think you will find places like these in India. But in China, there are countless such “ancient streets”. Nearly every city hoping to cash in on fast-growing domestic tourism — just look at the hordes in my second photo — has built such streets and even whole districts. They tend to be crowded with people immersing themselves in the “old country”, spending money (cashless payments, of course) buying traditional foodstuffs and trinkets, or sipping overpriced herbal brews in old-style teahouses.

In its rush to develop, China has destroyed so much of its past that such theme parks are now commercially viable. In India, tradition and authenticity are everywhere. Who needs a theme park?

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