‘All present is the summation of all past’: Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1883
What was considered a major drag on development: high population - or more specifically, high population densities of Chinese, living in river valleys, by many Western scholars, from Malthus down - has been turned around by the Chinese, as the necessary trigger, to release many of the technological innovations and applications that has bettered the lot of humanity, both in China and the world. Indeed, it was Ester Boserup in 1965 who proposed a ‘necessary’ link between increasing population densities and technological innovation. For example, the innovations of State and farmer organizations like flood control, soil and crop management enabled the transition from single crop to multiple crops a year. Multicropping increased China’s carrying capacity to support larger populations. Most of us are aware of China’s innovative and technological contributions to the world like silk, gunpowder, compass, alphabet, paper - much before the Western Europe managed to ‘steal’ some of these from China by way of the Silk Route.
What we do not know, is why China did not go about conquering and colonizing the world like the Europeans did, when China had the tools of colonialism: compass for navigation, gunpowder for war, and ships bigger than any known to Europe? Indeed in 1405, Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch admiral in the Ming dynasty, sailed out with 317 ship armada from China to Arabia and Africa by way of Indonesia, Java, Ceylon and India, in a series of 7 expeditions to explore the world outside China, nearly 100 years before Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ America in 1492. Zheng’s ships were 32 times larger than Columbus’ Santa Maria, nearly the size of a football field, with 28,000 crew, and separate ships for troops, horses, water, and food supply, enough to subdue any kings and emperors of that time. Zheng brought back nobles of these areas to pay respects to the Chinese emperor, as he brought back exotica like the giraffe. But the fact is that the Chinese did not stay to reign over these new lands, satisfied that their Middle Kingdom, or Zhongguo, as the Chinese call their country, was paradise on Earth and that they had really nothing to gain from other countries of the world, a smug sense of self-sufficiency.
This is a unique Chinese cultural trait: its territorial non-aggression ever since China established its present border in Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). In 1792, the Chinese emperor Qianlong dispatched General Tungthyang with 70,000 troops to stop Nepal from bullying Tibet. These troops ventured as far as Trisuli Betrawati in Nuwakot and reached the cusp of Kathmandu valley in Jitpur Phedi, the home of comedian Madan Krishna, just beyond Balaju, when Kathmandu had only 200 soldiers to defend the valley as Nepal was fighting three simultaneous battles elsewhere. But the Chinese turned back after concluding a treaty, without staying to lord over Nepal. Similar behavior was demonstrated after China defeated India in 1962 and after hostilities and incursion over Vietnam in more recent history. This is unlike the West which stayed put and tried to claim territory which they conquered in wars over the last millennia.
Besides the aforesaid elements of the Chinese model, a relatively little known element is the millennially inscribed institutionalization of meritocracy in Chinese government. Under the influence of Confucius (551-479 B.C.), meritocracy based on standardized tests of such subjects as poetry, history, and Analects of Confucius was instituted in Chinese Civil Service Exam to recruit government bureaucrats based on merit, not ideology, race, caste, or afno manche source-force. China’s two thousand years of meritocracy has successfully kept the Chinese society together and enabled massive social undertakings from the Great Wall to great irrigation and navigational canal systems to support the world’s largest populations, despite empires and political systems that have come and gone. However, Nepal’s supposed meritocracy has failed to bring all sections of Nepali society together in running the country, and instead engendered the groundswell demand for a more level playing field in the new federal constitution.
What can Nepal get out of the China model? First, it is time to seriously dump the Western and Indian models as non-deliverers of development. Deliveries of social equity, economic justice, poverty relief, environmental harmony, international peace, or the faith of people on the Nation-state over the last 60 years have been lack luster and unsatisfactory for most Nepalese.
Second, it is time to seriously look into what makes China tick, instead of summarily dismissing it, as has been wont, through Western and Indian discursive lenses. What of China model elements can Nepal adopt, a la carte if necessary, to better deliver on the aspirations of the Nepalese people at large? Faster and tangible, bottoms-up development like the swift Chinese style land to the tiller; not trickle down, phantasmagoric ‘land reform’ that one can never lay one’s finger on, even after half a century of trickle down promises.
The institutionalization of meritocracy that ensures and delivers participation of all sections of Nepali society in running the country as an OUTCOME, not an ‘opportunity’ or slippery promise; instead of overwhelmingly favouring certain groups, as has been the outcome in Nepal.
The need to put up with social pains in social learning with patience; as we say: no pain no gain. Investment in people will pay: not in waiting for a messiah big neta or political party to deliver, on the idle hopes of harvesting our proximity, to the great economic powerhouses of China and India.
This 2-part article is the result of cogitations in graduate seminars on Population and Development. For details, see http://amulyaratna.blogspot.com/Population and Development.