Buddha versus Honda

Asked what he desired most now that he had his new apartment, the young Chinese businessman slowly and fervently breathed the word “Honda’‘. The incantation summed up much of what is contradictory and unresolved about personal aspirations in China, the country’s long-term ambitions and the nature of Western investment in the Peoples’ Republic.

Leading business people in all the advanced states are players in the great drama of the Chinese economy. That drama is also unavoidably a political one, particularly as the Chinese regime is fixed on the formula of rapid economic growth and firm political control as the mutually reinforcing elements that will ensure its continued existence.

Yet there is a simple problem about mass consumption in China, which is that it cannot work beyond a certain point, if Western standards of such consumption — and they are the only ones we seem to know — are applied.

The head of the United Nations Environment Programme, Klaus Toepfer, told a meeting in Australia last month that the Chinese aim of quadrupling the size of the economy in the next 20 years is unsustainable.
China does not have the resources — and nor, in many resource categories, does the rest of the world.

We have been hearing stories like this about China for 20 or 30 years, including predictions about its potentially impossible demands on the world’s grain supplies. It is true that grain yields may soar.

And yet, while events often do not bear out worst-case predictions, the difficulties associated with Chinese economic growth are obvious.

Politically, the problem is that, with or without more formal democracy, managing a society with such a bewildering array of up-and-down winners and losers is a taxing business.

Assuaging successful groups who have lost ground or who are not advancing as swiftly as they had expected may be as hard as coping with those who have suffered from economic change or have gained little from economic growth. And, if the standard of living achieved by some of the population cannot be generalised to the majority, because of resource and environmental constraints, the strategy of growth plus control in the end must fail.

The Chinese government, with the left side of its brain, is looking at ways to reconcile growth with such constraints, and weighing policies that might enable it to avoid the pollution, waste and environmental damage that development has brought in other countries.

But, with the right side of the same brain, it pursues the older objectives of big industry, big army, mechanised agriculture, huge water development schemes, and Western material standards for its citizens. In this it is not too different from other countries, but the scale is so immense that failure would have global fallout.

The party, meanwhile, acts swiftly to suppress discontent or opposition whenever it takes an organised form, even if it is as indirect as that represented by the Falun Gong movement. Falun Gong is not Chinese religious life at its best. But China’s older faith traditions should be drawn on by its rulers rather than excluded.

For one thing, they teach moderation. Ten thousand Miles Without a Cloud, Sun Shuyun’s fascinating book on the 7th-century Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang, is also a reflection on her own life, that of her family, and on modern China’s choices. She recalls the Maoist saying, “However much we can dream, the land will yield’’ — a bold statement of determination, or a foolish defiance of nature.

Her relatives’ lives were disrupted and their happiness compromised, in pursuit of the unreal ambitions of the Chinese state and party at the time.

“We were told,’’ she writes, “that when everyone’s material wants were satisfied, we would all be happy. It did not occur to me to doubt it; we were lucky if we were not hungry. I did not know that Buddha’s path is called ‘the Middle Way’, avoiding the extremes of luxury and deprivation.’‘

China, it might be argued, is in as much need of the wisdom of the Middle Way as it ever was.

The political crisis in Hong Kong is, at one level, a special case because of its unique status, which many Hong Kong people felt was threatened by the introduction of new security laws.

But the Hong Kong protest was also about the poor performance of the man China picked as chief executive, about unemployment, mishandling of the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic, inadequate progress towards fuller democracy and, more broadly, the city’s relative decline since its incorporation into China.

The ideal combination of freedom and efficiency that people in Hong Kong want is sought elsewhere in China. It may be that an authoritarian state that has banked on achieving legitimacy through prosperity can, in the end, decide on limits and reconcile its citizens to those limits without provoking upheaval.

Yet, although democracies are not very good at restraining human desires, it would seem there is a better chance of decisions being accepted if they follow free discussion of the objectives, pros and cons of different forms of economic development.

And perhaps the Buddha is a better guide than a Honda. — Â

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