Thinking about urbanisation in China and India.

Mr. Chen, pictured below, is part of a group of migrant workers from Sichuan on whose backs a sweeping wave of urbanisation is spreading across Hainan, a rich island province in China’s south that is being promoted as a tourism paradise.

I was reminded of him when I read this interesting piece by Ashutosh Varshney in the Indian Express, titled “Moving to the City”, looking at urbanisation in India and China. I recommend reading it in full, here.

Varshney is an authority on India’s urbanisation experience. His last point is interesting:

"The Chinese government appears to be saying to its rural folk: we promise you a manufacturing job, but you are not free. In contrast, India is telling its rural citizens: you are free to move, but we can’t promise you a job."

It is an interesting suggestion, but I think a bit too black and white. We had an interesting exchange on Twitter : see https://mobile.twitter.com/#!/ananthkrishnan/status/239189806142345218 but it isn’t the best medium for such a conversation. I hope to meet him when he’s next in Beijing.

As he points out in our conversation on Twitter, freedom to move is constitutionally guaranteed in India. In China, migrants lose access to social benefits when they move out of their hometowns. But I wonder, does it matter on the ground? In India, how many migrant workers can, in any case, avail of access to low-cost housing and decent healthcare? Migrant workers in China have to pay for healthcare in cities, but when they do, I have to say, they receive better social services.

As Varshney’s piece points out, China’s urbanisation rates are far higher than India’s. That is because China has made a policy decision to move people out of the countryside. In the long-run, the government envisages less hands on the farm, bigger plots of land and more mechanisation.

Is it a model that India can follow? If we are to create a future for our farmers in urban India, how equipped are our cities? Or, can we make agriculture viable enough to follow a different path, and is that sustainable in the long run? Does it make sense to have a disproportionate segment of the population continue to be employed in a sector of the economy that contributes less and less to the national income? Difficult questions and a debate central to India’s future. Alas, it is rare to find it being discussed in the media. Varshney’s piece was a much needed addition to the debate.

It is important to also remember the costs of China’s urbanisation and the sacrifices borne by people like Mr. Chen. As I reported recently, inequality in China between urban and rural areas is rising . The urban-rural income gap, in 2011, was 68 per cent higher than in 1985. The simple solution, according to many Chinese economists, is to boost social spending and ease Hukou restrictions. Easier said than done with ballooning deficits for local governments.

I wonder how Mr. Chen would respond if I posed Varshney’s question to him. Would you choose to be “free” to move - according to the Consitution, at least — without the guarantee of work, or “unfree” but with a job? I think I can guess the answer.

People’s Daily silliness and skin colour (in)sensitivities

The English-language website of the People’s Daily carried this rather strange slideshow yesterday, titled “Indian beauties wearing jewelry”

You can see the full slideshow here

This appeared on the PD’s English website. For a media organisation that is the Communist Party of China’s most important mouthpiece, the People’s Daily tends to run bizarre/irresponsible/plain silly features that defy common sense.

This slideshow had the not-so-sensitive line: ”Indians have black skin and wearing gold jewelry can highlight this feature.” The piece went on to add: “Indian women wearing gold earrings and necklaces can be spotted everywhere. Even those little girls who beg along the roadside with an unkempt appearancehave a god nail in the nose. “

I know better than to dwell on the People’s Daily’s silliness. Chinese media can be mind-numbingly insensitive. Xinhua, the State-run news agency, ran a ridiculous feature not so long ago wondering how celebrities would look “If hot stars were blackened”. Xinhua had the good sense to later delete that slideshow. The WSJ has a good piece about it here

Am I offended by the People’s Daily article? As an Indian living in Beijing, I’ve become less shocked by Chinese utterances on skin colour. But I have to say I think its more insensitivity and ignorance rather than bigotry or racism (not that that makes it a lot better). I’ve heard people say, “You Indian people look so handsome…. although you are so dark!”.

It must also be said that in my experience at least, Chinese tend to have overwhelmingly positive attitudes towards Indian people — as attested by numerous visitors from India I’ve met here who have said the same, too — and usually can’t stop gushing about Indians’ “big eyes” and sharp features. Young Chinese love Bollywood stars. (The slideshow too didn’t appear to have a malicious tone, stupid insensitivity notwithstanding).

The Indian media — ever hungry for the sensational — jumped on the People’s Daily slideshow. The Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) headlined a report picking up on the one offensive sentence. It was titled: “Indians’ black skin highlights gold jewellery: Chinese Daily”. (IANS, funnily enough, doesn’t even have a correspondent in Beijing, but files seven or eight daily reports with a Beijing date-line! Another reason why you should be careful about what you read in the Indian press ;))

The Press Trust of India followed up the IANS piece with a similar report, which was carried in several Indian newspapers today. See here

There were 739 comments on the IANS piece on the Times of India website — see here .The comments are pretty awful — the Internet tends to bring out the worst in people. The operating rule seems to be, ‘My bigotry can outdo yours!’. Not that racism towards Chinese/Asians is new to the Indian Internet — Venky Vembu has a good piece on that here  (which also talks about my tweets from a while ago on the racist comments on Twitter directed at the Chinese badminton player Wang Yihan when she played India’s Saina in the Olympics). We in India aren’t far more enlightened when it comes to skin colour too: read this great report by Sowmiya Ashok on a growing culture of intolerance to students from Africa.

This kind of insensitivity, no doubt, has no place in China or India. Still, I think the whole thing has been blown way out of proportion by the way it was reported on by IANS, who fixated on that one sentence and made the report seem as being directed maliciously at Indians (which I don’t think was the case).

It’s unfortunate because it leaves Indian readers the impression that everyone in China is bigoted about Indian people, which, from my own experience here, clearly is not the case. I’ve felt nothing but warmth. Insensitivity to people of darker skin does exist, but I think with the younger generation that’s fading away too. A lot of it is ignorance, which of course doesnt make it excusable, but a lot of older Chinese have never met foreigners — the reform and opening up only happened three decades ago.

Does an idiot sub-editor at the People’s Daily website who had a hare-brained idea for a slideshow, done in terribly bad taste, merit coverage and discussion in Indian national newspapers? I don’t think so. But if you’re a news agency that is only after eye-balls (and with little regard for the implications and consequences of your writing), you’ll arrive at a different answer.

Getting started.

This is an effort that is coming two years too late. I’ve been meaning to get a blog going ever since I moved to Beijing — a scrapbook to fill with my impressions about living in China and reporting from this country, an assignment that came to me in 2009 when I moved here to report for The Hindu.

The past three years have been incredibly challenging and enlightening — so much so that I feel, as many visitors to this country tend to, that I understand far less about this place than I thought I did when I moved here. The more you learn about China, the less things make sense. 

In this time, I’ve travelled across more than 20 of China’s provinces, and covered a wide variety of stories, ranging from a memorable trip across the Tibetan plateau to spending Ramzan in the old Silk Road town of Kashgar.

Filing reports for a daily newspaper has its plusses and minuses. The job can be exciting and breathless. However, the formats and rules of news reporting can be restrictive, both in terms of the issues you cover and the way you present them. I want to use this blog to go beyond the stories I cover, to present a more immediate impression of the people and places I report on.

The biggest negative for me about this job, with its daily deadlines, is it rarely gives you time to reflect. Twitter, where I perhaps spend way too much time, has made this problem a lot worse. The medium thrives on snap judgements and sweeping, often shallow, debates. It discourages reflection. The main reason I’m starting this blog is that I hope that it encourages and pushes me to do a lot more of that.