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OP-ED: Does the Dhaka elite care to know much about China?

  • Published at 11:55 pm July 13th, 2021
shanghai china
Aircraft fly in formation in Shanghai, marking 100 years of the Communist Party Reuters

Do many of the wealthy elite just want the bridges and ports to be built? Is there no greater ambition?

What is China to the masters of the universe in Gulshan? Is China a friend, a foe, a source of foreign aid, a real strategic partner to work with, a threat to be contained, a colossus that cannot be ignored but can be disliked while being accessed like an ATM machine?

Currently, it is all very basic, practical, and commercial. The medium term objective should be Bangladesh aiming to export $7 billion a year to China to wipe out the annual trade deficit. It has privileged access to that vast market, but how does Dhaka expect to achieve this? How does it encourage the transfer of production processes from Guangzhou to Chittagong? Where is the plan and roadmap? Businesses have narrow, very specific contacts, mainly importing capital equipment, inputs for the textile and garments industries, etc, but there is a need for more.

For a deep, strategic relationship to be constructed, it has to go beyond business and the over-the-counter foreign ministry level. It must morph into what is mystifyingly called track II diplomacy (and much more too) where businesspeople, intellectuals, the middle classes, culture aficionados create links delving into history, civilizational connections, education, and art. That is, if a 180-million strong Bangladesh wants to grow into a significant power.

Saarc without India?

Some, if not most, Dhaka think-tanks get that Bangladesh needs China. Last week, China oered a framework for Sino-Bangladeshi relations: a) Broadening anti-pandemic cooperation, b) speeding up action on the Belt and Road Initiative, c) working together on coping with climate change, and d) promoting a multi-lateral world, rather than a US-led unipolar arrangement.

Clearly, the pitch is mainly economics and development, but also a “peaceful rise” of Bangladesh.

Alongside this, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has also pushed for greater south-south cooperation, where China, for a little while longer, remains a developing country.

The launch on July 9 of the China-South Asian Countries Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Centre should not be underestimated. India, Bhutan, nor the Maldives were absent, even though their presence was solicited. That is why it has been dubbed Saarc without India. Or is it a genuine platform to share China’s experience on how it lifted 850 million people out of poverty? East Asia helping South Asia like the US did to Western Europe and Japan after WWII? Why believe one and not the other?

Do we know much about China?

In the 1920s, it probably made sense to be clued up on Richard III and Hamlet. In the 2020s, how many in Baridhara or Banani have heard of the Three Kingdoms or Journey to the West?

Almost no one knows about China’s Christian-led Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s to 1860s -- the same period of the “Sepoy Rebellion” and American Civil War -- but with up to 30 million casualties. The egalitarian ethos of the Taiping Rebellion was recognized and praised by the Communists three generations later. The Ming and Qing dynasties would probably confuse some magnates in the wealthy condominiums of Dhaka.

A century ago, the US went on to eclipse Europe. Anti-colonial freedom movements studied the US -- the pre-eminent economic power from the 1910s (and the USSR too). It would have been odd to not want to know about the US Civil War, war of independence, Munroe Doctrine, social and economic structures, coast to coast railroads, industries, genocide, and racial discrimination.

When Japan wanted to industrialize in the 1870s, it sent large teams to Europe to learn about everything, from military to manufacturing to urban development. China in the 80s and 90s studied Germany and its more advanced East Asian neighbours. There was a hunger to assimilate knowledge.

Bangladesh might want to do the same with China today.

Too many South Asian elites feel a diet of fear-mongering pieces on “China’s assertiveness” is sufficient to understand the next America.

How many have delved into English-speaking Chinese media merely to get an idea of what they are saying? South Asian elites abhor state-affiliated media if it is Chinese, but are intensely relaxed if it is the BBC and what was once the “Empire Service.”

What prejudices, feelings, attraction, hate, fear, loathing, apprehension, or admiration have been cultivated inside the heads of the powerful? In the (virtual) dinner table and Zoom chats, does the elite try to sift through the propaganda, conflicting views, and objectively learn about China? Does it, should it, ignore the keyboard martial warriors in Delhi and make up its own mind on Beijing?

If you think Gulshan Avenue is going to become like Singapore’s Orchard Road anytime soon, and the country beyond Uttara the next Thailand, then where will the capital, technology, skills, markets, and security come from?

Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst. @liquid_borders.

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