Gaining Power, Losing Values

By Pankaj Mishra, the author of “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 22/11/06):

PRESIDENT Hu Jintao of China, who arrived in New Delhi on Monday to consolidate ties between the world’s two fastest rising economic powers, can feel comfortable that at least one protester won’t be troubling him.

When China’s prime minister at the time, Zhu Rongji, visited Mumbai in January 2002, Tenzin Tsundue, a young Tibetan, scaled 14 floors of scaffolding to unfurl “Free Tibet” banners outside his five-star hotel. Last year in Bangalore, Mr. Tsundue appeared on the roof of a 200-foot tower just above the building where Wen Jiabao, Mr. Zhu’s successor as prime minister, was meeting Indian scientists. From there he threw pamphlets at bystanders, shouting, “Wen Jiabao, you cannot silence us.”

This year, however, Mr. Tsundue has been silenced, although not by Chinese leaders. Invoking a penal code established by India’s colonial rulers, the Indian police have imposed a travel ban on Mr. Tsundue. He is not allowed outside Dharamsala, the Himalayan town where the Dalai Lama and many of India’s nearly 100,000 Tibetan refugees live. This week he is under constant surveillance by armed police officers.

Pre-emptive arrests of and even police assaults on Tibetan protesters are not new in India. But the government’s gagging of a well-known writer and activist like Mr. Tsundue raises questions about the moral values that India and China, the emerging superpowers of the new century, are likely to embody.

Both countries have mollycoddled Myanmar’s extraordinarily repressive military rulers, which hints that neither is likely to let the human rights of the Burmese get in the way of trade. China’s growing relationship with Sudan suggests that even genocide may not interfere with the supply of raw materials to China’s perennially needy manufacturers.

Upholding business interests above all in its foreign policy, as in its domestic policy, China at least appears to be internally consistent. The gap between image and reality is greater in the case of India, which claims to be the world’s largest democracy, with an educated middle class and a free news media.

And yet fundamental rights to clean water, food and work remain empty abstractions to hundreds of millions of Indians, whose plight rarely impinges on the news media’s obsession with celebrity and consumption. The country’s culture of greed partly explains why a woman is killed by her husband or in-laws every 77 minutes for failing to bring sufficient dowry.

Pundits in India deplore, often gleefully, American excesses in Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and the inadequacies of the American news media in the run-up to the war in Iraq. But the Indian news media has yet to carry a single detailed report on the torture and extrajudicial killing of hundreds of civilians in Kashmir over the last decade.

Chinese nationalism is a tamed beast, occasionally unleashed by the Communist leadership to stir up mass protests against Japan and America. But in India, religious nationalists have run wild in the last 10 years, conducting nuclear tests, menacing minorities and threatening Pakistan with all-out war. In 2002, members of a Hindu nationalist government in the state of Gujarat, in western India, instigated and often organized the killing of as many as 1,600 Muslims.

Free markets and regular elections alone do not make a civil society. There remains the task of creating and strengthening institutions — universities, news media, human rights groups — that can focus public attention on the fate of the powerless and oppressed and spread ideas of human dignity, compassion and generosity.

This task is never perfectly realized. But at least in the United States, many liberal institutions have vigorously pursued such goals, even as successive governments have made their pacts with various devils around the world.

For Western nations to criticize Chinese investments in Africa or Indian overtures to Myanmar may seem hypocritical in light of the West’s history of ruthlessly exploiting Africa while appeasing its brutal dictators. But, as La Rochefoucauld pointed out, hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

However tainted in practice, the idea of virtue cannot be discarded in policymaking. By treating it with contempt, the ruling elites of India and China may soon make the world nostalgic for the days when America claimed, deeply hypocritically, its moral leadership.