Yes I will not be in Mumbai for a while. But that doesn’t prevent me from thinking of India (or even missing it).
I am currently in Shanghai for an 8-day trainee program on international civil servant capacity building. I am a little bit surprised here that the frequency of hearing the word “India” is higher than I expected (credits go to AIESEC?): it seems that more and more young people in China are starting to recognize India as an emerging power that deserves closer scrutiny, rather than a poor, dirty and nasty backward neighbor. But there is still a huge gap between this growing awareness and its actual accomplishment, when even the most brilliant in this country should mistake Indira Gandhi as “(Mahatma) Gandhi’s daughter”. (Unfortunately, many more may not even know who this Mrs. Gandhi is- or, does it matter?)
Among all the remote touch upon India, the mostly-talked about aspect is the over-representation of India (as well as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) in United Nations (or international organizations in general) – compared with the sheer underrepresentation of China (along with Japan and Korea). (By the time of April 2004, total number of civil servants of China was only 310 as compared with India’s 366.) In spite of the absence of rigorous empirical test on causality (or even correlation), it is still a phenomenon whose explanations are worth speculating. (While being no less interested in other South Asian nations, the limitation of knowledge only allows me to concentrate on China and India.)
The most popular speculations are arguably language and culture. The former in the sense that over-represented India adopt English as national-level official language (together with Hindi). The latter in the sense that Indian culture is more expressive (as displayed and anatomized by Amartya Sen’s Argumentative Indians), while the crux of Chinese culture rest on the belief that action speaks louder than words, as well as the merit of subtlety (han xu) and self-restraint (“To subdue one’s self and return to propriety is benevolence”- Confucius), of not articulating to the full scale.
I find no difficulty in embracing the second hypothesis. Rather, I would like to spend more time pondering the first one. People are sometimes found to disregard the significance of language by arguing that Chinese people nowadays are increasingly proficient in English. My own experience of interacting with fellow Indian students, however, shows that this is not the case. But it won’t be particularly constructive if I stop by merely resorting to (somewhat limited) personal experience. Therefore, it will be followed by a more objective assessment as for how language matters in global participation. I would basically interpret the channel into two layers, namely, language as intermediary of culture (in terms of consolidating the way of thinking) and language as complement to culture (in terms of facilitating articulation).
When it comes to language proficiency, the biggest impression I have got during my study in India is that, the English of Indian college students is still way better than their Chinese counterparts. I am not sure if my compatriots will find the observation hard to swallow, especially when- with the spread of American sitcoms and dramas- a skyrocketing number of Chinese youngsters are able to speak fluent English with perfect American accent, while the notoriously difficult-to-understand Indian accent is more often victimized as object of mockery than the Chinese accent (which already subsides in prevalence). However, I am not talking about speaking alone. I am instead referring to communication as a package: Indian students (and of course, when they hit the real world, Indian professionals) are better able to digest, diagnose and respond to the western imagination of India as well as the other way round.
While one may attribute the foundation of such profound comprehension to the legislative, administrative and judicial installment of the British Raj, such assertion is confronted with doubts when one takes into account that after the Opium War, at least half of China was also under the effectual control of, if not entirely dominated by British forces. Although the time and spatial magnitude in colonization might make a difference, the more fundamental causes, in my opinion, are media and education, both of which served to shape, sharpen and strengthen knowledge in a modern (Western) manner. The forerunners of modernization of India, or to be more precise by borrowing the profiling of Ramachandra Guha in his recent Makers of Modern India, Rammohan Roy, Syed Ahmad Khan and G. K. Gokhale were all active both in promoting modern education which used English as teaching language and in creating newspapers and journals which used English as the language of opinion delivery and debate. Unlike India where the spread of English as medium of knowledge dissemination was as wide as the usage of local languages, Chinese elite reformers at that time, while themselves proficient in English as well as many other Western languages, focused predominantly (if not absolutely) on the localization of Western knowledge.
Reflecting the four stages of China’s early modernization initiatives in light of this thread of thought, and the clue emerges quite clear. The first period of Self-Strengthening Movement (Yang Wu Yun Dong, 1861-1894) focused primarily on technical modernization, so there was naturally no need to acquire English-denominated knowledge beyond securing the capacity to operate Western-invented machines. The second initiative which got its climax at the Reform Movement of 1898 (Wei Xin Yun Dong, 1898) sought to change the political system from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy. Given its top-down elitist nature, the emphasis of Western knowledge by reformers then was more for the purpose of consolidating the political commitment of rulers than of sincerely enlightening the mass at large. As for the third stage of Revolution of 1911, while the approach was now shifted to bottom-up, it was still considered more efficient (or easier) to spread localized version of Western knowledge than to apply such knowledge directly. (Don’t forget that our very first university is barely 13 years old by then!) Even during the May Fourth Movement in 1919 when “Mr. Democracy” and “Mr. Science” were finally systematically introduced among intelligentsia, they would find English more prevalent in humanities (philosophy, literature, history…) instead of in social sciences (politics, economics, law, statistics, journalism…).
Therefore, while Chinese children nowadays are so eager to learn English (or their parents so eager to push them to) that they may start at a surprisingly low age, the “debt” of inadequate diffusion before and exclusion of English during the first 30 years of contemporary China is far from being “paid off”. I am not sure to what extent is India’s institutional choice be related to its internalization of colonial language. Nor am I anywhere close to answering how come the sweeping acceptance of English way of thinking parallels so naturally with the persistence of local languages and local ways of thinking. But one thing is for sure. While Chinese students are trying hard to grasp the essence of Hobbes, Locke, Keynes and Maine, their Indian counterparts might be ready to do so well before entering college simply because they grow up and are imbued in such an environment that is full of colonial legacy (intellectual and institutional). In this sense, to the extent that culture matters to one’s international participation, it matters through the intermediary of language.
However, the role of language may well extend beyond merely as intermediary. To appreciate the second channel, one might find it useful to conduct a thought experiment: what will happen if English were not the official language in Hindustan? What if Indians were not so proficient in English?
If we view linguistic barriers as a form of transaction cost, then logically, either one will be intimidated from asserting one’s demand, or one will continue against all odds. While in daily life the former might more likely be the case, one should be mindful that issues that are brought to international audience are usually of substantial importance to a nation. Sticking to original position is unsurprisingly assumed; negotiation, cooperation and compromise are also more willingly encouraged and anticipated; yet argumentative as Indian people are, hardly could a nation like India afford the domestic consequence of leaving the issue untouched in international bargaining! Accordingly, I suspect that India will still be quite active in international fora as they currently are, but the thought-experimented linguistic barrier might make it more difficult for the demand to be articulated and thus properly understood. Indeed, were Krishna Menon (India’s Defense Minister from 1957 to 1962 who on 23 January 1957 delivered an unprecedented 9-hour speech in the U.N., defending India’s stand on Kashmir) find it not so convenient to express his (country’s) position, the Guinness record for longest speech might be way longer!
If that thought-experiment were the starting point, then mastering the most widely-used language in the world definitely reduces the transaction cost of revealing and confirming preferences. Here this language (English) serves as a complement to the (argumentative) culture that facilitates such argumentativeness to be more loudly heard.
I have no idea to what degree do the Pakistani or Sri Lankan cultures resemble the Indian argumentativeness. However, if that is the case, then the over-representation of India might be reinforced by the similar activeness of its mostly-interacted neighbors (and vice versa) to whom the English language contributes in a similar vein. This point becomes more interesting when contrasted with the situation of China and its major neighbors (Japan and Korea), both of which are under-represented simultaneously. For an overwhelmingly long period during the 20th century, unless one is a superpower (e.g.: U.S. or the former U.S.S.R.), it is always the balance of power that guarantees regional security. Whenever such balance is tilted, unexpected or even unwanted clashes will follow. Too strong French (and English) voice versus too weak one for Germany after the First World War dragged the world into the more disastrous Second World War, while the stark imbalance between the (strong) Japanese and (weak) Chinese participation leads to the darkest period of the entire Chinese history. Of course, more academic endeavors are required to substantiate (or falsify) this geopolitical speculation.