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India & China: Two Asian giants mark their darkest days

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By Hardev Sanotra 

As India recalled its darkest period 40 years ago in June, China too marked its worst days in its recent history in same the month. But the remembrance of the events 29 years ago was more in the breach here.

On June 4, 1989 tanks of the People’s Liberation Army and its personnel armed with automatic rifles shot dead hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters in Tiananmen Square. No official figures have ever been released but protestors said they had seen thousands of bodies strewn in and around the square.

The Chinese government said it had used strong force to crush a ‘counter-revolutionary plot’ which was aimed at overthrowing those in power. But the students who were protesting from April said they were seeking “more democracy” in a nation which had not seen any.

On the 26th anniversary of the massacre, there was not much of a protest at the famed square with thousands of police personnel keeping a watch for any spontaneous show of anger against the government. The army kept a vigil from the shadows. This has been repeated every year since, with the government putting in overwhelming force to keep any protests at bay.

On the last day of June, the scene at the square was of a tourist paradise. Thousands of Chinese from Beijing and elsewhere descended on the square where the biggest killings took place. But for them it was as if the massacre did not happend. Only residents of Hong Kong, China’s Special Administrative Region, gather the courage to protest every year, as they did this year, with thousands coming out on the streets.

The power of the state, and its control over the minds of its citizens in mainland China, has not reduced much in almost three decades, though prosperity has spread wide. The Chinese are afraid to talk to a journalist about what had happened so many years ago. Even those Beijing residents who could not have missed the events are cagey. Most took refuge behind a language they said they do not understand. Only if one can catch an individual were fear of prying eyes is absent, do they open up about the “monumental tragedy” that befell the country and as it being the “most shameful episode” in its history.

The protests in Beijing were triggered by the death of Hu Yaobang, an ex-General Secretary of the ruling Communist Party, seen as a reformer who lost out in an internal power struggle with the hardliners winning and consolidating their position. Students from all over Beijing came to the Tiananmen Square to register their protest.

The protests, which went on for seven weeks, made news all around the world. They also took a cue from the Glasnost or openness being spread by Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia, The students, and their supporters, built a rough replica of the Statue of Liberty, demanding that the government grant them freedom of speech, allow the press a free hand and restore workers’ say in industry. It was a powerful movement with more than a million people, according to one estimate, filling the vast expanse of the square near downtown Beijing.

At first the government made some conciliatory noises. The press was allowed to report the protests and people came to know why the protests were happening. But when they spread to dozens of other cities, ‘Paramount Leader’ Deng Xiaping, who had ushered in economic reforms, decided to show his iron hand. The market reforms earlier had led to widespread unhappiness with the system, with corruption creeping in. Hu had protested against the corruption and had wanted political freedoms to keep pace with the economic reforms.

This was not to be. Deng ordered over 300,000 troops to crush the movement. Although in China it’s called the June 4th incident in hushed tones, the crackdown started the day before. Automatic fire was heard throughout the evening and night and when dawn broke, Beijing could hardly grasp the enormity of the massacre. TV and newspapers, again under the grip of the state, reported none of the details except to deride the protests. Foreign reporters could barely begin to understand the dimensions of the deadly force used, before many of them were asked to leave.

An iconic picture and video from the crackdown showed a Chinese, possibly a farmer confronting a line of tanks. He moved to stop the tanks again when they sought to bypass him, before he is forcibly taken away by other civilians. The ‘tank hero’, as he was called, was never traced. He just vanished, just as much of the history in China has vanished, leaving behind only official versions.

Although India came to grips with its 21 months of autocratic rule by prime minister Indira Gandhi after the end of the emergency, the Chinese were never allowed to do any soul searching. Yet, in the minds and hearts of those who are old enough to remember, the events remain as the darkest chapter in their history. Yet, like any totalitarian regime, the Chinese government has been able to wipe the events of 1989 clean from the political slate and from public discourse. (IANS)

(Hardev Sanotra is in China at the invitation of the All China Journalists’ Association. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at hardev.sanotra@ians.in)

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How telecom has become driver of economic change in India

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The country's hyper-competitive telecom sector has led the revolution from the front.
The country's hyper-competitive telecom sector has led the revolution from the front. Wikimedia Commons
  • India has done well to stay ahead of the curve in the technological revolution
  • The sectoral change in productivity has been the highest in the telecommunications sector since the reforms of 1991
  • India has managed to provide the cheapest telephony services around the world

For the most part of human history, the change was glacial in pace. It was quite safe to assume that the world at the time of your death would look pretty much similar to the one at the time of your birth. That is no longer the case, and the pace of change seems to be growing exponentially. Futurist Ray Kurzweil put it succinctly when he wrote in 2001: “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century – it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).” Since the time of his writing, a lot has changed, especially with the advent of the internet.

India has done well to stay ahead of the curve in the technological revolution. The country’s hyper-competitive telecom sector has led the revolution from the front. In fact, according to Reserve Bank of India data, the sectoral change in productivity has been the highest in the telecommunications sector since the reforms of 1991, growing by over 10 percent. On the other hand, no other sector has had a productivity growth of above five percent during the same period. It is no wonder that it has also been one of the fastest-growing sectors of the Indian economy, growing at over seven percent in the last decade itself.

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Such an unprecedented pace of growth has been brought about the precise levels of change that Kurzweil was so enthusiastic about. Today’s smartphones have the power of computers that took an entire room in the 1990s, and the telecom sector has had to keep up with a provision of commensurate internet speeds and services. Meanwhile, India has managed to provide the cheapest telephony services around the world, which has hit rock bottom after the entry of Reliance Jio. This has ensured access to those even at the bottom of the pyramid.

A rise in internet penetration has distinct positive effects on economic growth of a country.
A rise in internet penetration has distinct positive effects on economic growth of a country. Wikimedia Commons

Even though consumers have come to be accustomed to fast-paced changes within the telecom sector, the entry of Jio altered the face of the industry like never before by changing the very basis of competition. Data became the focal point of competition for an industry that derived over 75 percent of its revenue from voice. It was quite obvious that there would be immediate economic effects due to it. Now that we’re nearing a year of Jio’s paid operations, during which time it has even become profitable, we saw it fit to quantify its socio-economic impact on the country. Three broad takeaways need to be highlighted.

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First, the most evident effect has been the rise in affordability of calling and data services. Voice services have become practically costless while data prices have dropped from an average of Rs 152 per GB to lower than Rs 10 per GB. Such a drastic reduction in data prices has not only brought the internet within the reach of a larger proportion of the Indian population but has also allowed newer segments of society to use and experience it for the first time. Since the monthly saving of an average internet user came out to be Rs 142 per month (taking a conservative estimate that the consumer is still using 1 GB of data each month) and there are about 350 million mobile internet users in the country (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India data), the yearly financial savings for the entire country comes out to be Rs 60,000 crore.

To put things in perspective, this amount is more than four times the entire GDP of Bhutan. Therefore, mere savings by the consumer on data has been at astonishing proportions.

Today's smartphones have the power of computers that took an entire room in the 1990s, and the telecom sector has had to keep up with a provision of commensurate internet speeds and services. Wikimedia Commons
Today’s smartphones have the power of computers that took an entire room in the 1990s, and the telecom sector has had to keep up with a provision of commensurate internet speeds and services. Wikimedia Commons

Now, this data has been used for services that have brought to life a thriving app economy within the country. So, the second level of impact has been in the redressal of a variety of consumer needs — ranging from education, health and entertainment to banking. For instance, students in remote areas can now access online courseware and small businesses can access newer markets. Information asymmetry has been considerably reduced.

Third, a rise in internet penetration has distinct positive effects on economic growth of a country. These effects arise not merely from the creation of an internet economy, but also due to the synergy effects it generates. Information becomes more accessible and communication a lot easier. Businesses find it easier to operate and access consumers. Labour working in cities has to make less frequent trips home and becomes more productive as a result. Education and health services become available in inaccessible locations. Multiple avenues open up for knowledge and skill enhancement.

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An econometric analysis for the Indian economy showed that the 15 percent increase in internet penetration due to Jio and the spill-over effects it creates will raise the per capita levels of the country’s GDP by 5.85 percent, provided all else remains constant.

Thus, India’s telecom sector will continue to drive the economy forward, at least in the short run, and hopefully catapult India into 20,000 years of progress within this century, as Kurzweil postulated. The best approach for the state would be to ensure the environment of unfettered competition within the industry. Maybe other sectors of the economy ought to take a leaf out of the telecom growth story. The Indian banking sector comes to mind. However, that is a topic for another day. (IANS)

(Amit Kapoor is Chair, Institute for Competitiveness, India. He can be contacted at Amit. Kapoor@competitiveness.in and tweets @kautiliya. Chirag Yadav, a senior researcher at the institute, has contributed to the article.)