The practice of the principles postulated by Mahatma Gandhi is manifest throughout the world. Even today when serious issues like racial discrimination, ethnic riots, and terrorist depredations are pronounced, Gandhian principles are more relevant in such dire conditions. Communist China of the 21st century is of no exception. However, Mahatma Gandhi never had a glimpse of China as governed by the Communists. The connection between Gandhi and China or the significance of Gandhism in China is rather puzzling. Many years ago, the renowned historian, Ramchandra Guha, accentuated the association of Gandhi with China.
The non-violence movement originated in Africa. In 1906, the antiapartheid government of Zanzibar in East Africa enacted the Asiatic Ordinance. Asians were deprived of the ownership of property and were coerced to carry their identity cards. Even their business enterprises had to contend with restrictions. Gandhi initiated the non-violence movement in Zanzibar as a gesture of revolt against this Asiatic ordinance. According to the facts furnished by Ramchandra Guha, 1,100 Chinese people stood beside 8,000 Indians in Zanzibar and actively participated in the Mahatma’s revolutionary movement of Gandhi, during that time.
When the Asians signed a treaty with the Government of Zanzibar in order to abolish the ordinance, it was signed by Thambi Naidu who was a representative of Tamil community and by Qin Leon, who was China’s representative. Later, many Indians and Chinese people were deported by the Zanzibar government to Madras because of the movement. While he was in exile, Qin Leon described his experience as the Asian solidarity movement. Later, Gandhi mentioned his experiences as well as the conversations he had with Qin Leon while they were in prison.
Subsequently, Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru propagated the importance of Indo-China solidarity. Lately, the people of China are increasingly interested in the philosophy and theory of Gandhism. The Mahatma never visited China. But according to the Gandhi specialist, Pascal Allen Nazreth, many Chinese thinkers visited India to meet Gandhi, before the era of Mao Zedong. They have used Gandhi’s ideals to solve problems. He even strongly criticised the Japanese for their aggression against China. According to Shang Quanyu, Professor of Foreign Studies Department at South China Normal University in Guangzhou, Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, social cohesion, environmental protection are very pertinent subjects in contemporary China.
In 1920 when Gandhi emerged as a leader of the freedom struggle, interest in his thoughts and actions became pronounced in China. The perception of the Chinese about Gandhi has undergone many changes. The interest started to decline from 1949 and then completely disappeared between 1960 and 1970. The resurgence of the interest towards Gandhi among the Chinese was traced in 1980. They even started doing extensive research on his life and work. Based on the data provided by Professor Shang, the deep interest that the Chinese have towards Gandhi can be divided into three phases ~ from the decade of the 20s to the end of the Seventies of the last century.
This long period, when Gandhism was actively practised in China, can be subdivided into two more phases. The first phase is considered from 1920 till the mid of 1950. Post the First World War, most countries were influenced by the nationalist movement. Enthusiasm for the freedom movement was noticed among the colonial states. It was during this time that the Non- Cooperation Movement, Civil Disobedience, Quit India Movement took place one under the leadership of Gandhi. The unprecedented movements, led by Gandhi, attracted the attention of the people, worldwide. The Chinese scholars were able to observe and investigate Gandhism and non-violent movements due to the geographical proximity of the two countries.
Starting from 1920 till the end of 1940, 27 books were published in China based on Gandhi and Gandhism. Further, numerous articles on Gandhi and his philosophy were published in the famous periodicals of that time, notably Oriental Magazine, China Youth, National Weekly News. Initially, the practice of Gandhi and Gandhism in China was influenced by the political contexts. The political movement in China was quite robust since the 1940s. Despite ideological differences, the Communist Party of China and the Nationalist Party of China had united to fight against imperialism and feudalism.
During this phase, India and China had the same goal to reach, i.e., independence, but the path they were traversing to reach it was completely different. China’s path was of armed revolution. On the other hand, India was following the principles of non violence. India gained independence in 1947, whereas China emerged as the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In 1920, Lenin extolled Gandhi’s role in the struggle for independence in India and addressed him as a true revolutionary. But the 12th Soviet Communist Party Congress dismissed the doctrines of Stalin and addressed Gandhi as an ally of the imperialists, in 1930.
However, even after the formation of the People’s Republic of China, the opinions of Stalin about Gandhi were endorsed by the Chinese Communists led by Mao Zedong. As a result, the practise of the Gandhian principles had lapsed. In 1940, most of the Chinese scholars had made negative remarks on the Satyagraha movement. Further, China’s war against Japan and the violent discord between Chinese Communist Party and Nationalist Party of China, Guo Mintang, relegated the practice of Gandhi’s principles amidst the storm of gunfire. The practice of the Gandhi principles resumed during the second phase, i.e., from 1950 till the end of 1970.
During the third phase, the practice of Gandhi’s thoughts attained a new height. The study or practise of Gandhi’s principles is gradually increasing in China. During the first phase, it had become somewhat static due to the political ideology. In the second phase, it was driven by the rationalists and the academics. Later, it was a victim of political concepts. It appears that in the next era, the changes that took place in the liberal policies and the political outlook under the patronage of Mao ensured the acceleration of Gandhi’s thoughts. Along with socio-economic development, Gandhi and his principles have helped the Chinese to deal with such issues as social discrimination, human rights, environmental protection, freedom of expression, corruption. The Mahatma’s thoughts are very pertinent in contemporary China.
(The writer is an expert in Chinese studies and faculty member at a private academic institution in Kolkata)