Tale of two countries: How China rose to affluence, why Nepal is lagging behind

A national flag-raising ceremony is held at Tian'anmen Square during a ceremony marking the centenary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in Beijing, capital of China, July 1, 2021. (Photo credit: Xinhua/Liu Jinhai)

Suresh Sharma

  • Read Time 6 min.

July 1 was the day of joy in Nepal’s northern neighbor. The whole 1.4 billion people celebrated the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has remained the sole governing political party of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1949. The celebration was for extraordinary achievement and glory of the country. When from Tiananmen Square, General Secretary of CPC, Chairman of Central Military Commission and President of China Xi Jinping delivered a speech his words echoed through the walls of the country’s hard-working citizens’ residences.

And, there was a big reason for a national celebration in China.

The elderly citizens compared their lives in 1921 to the present status of affluence. They recalled the underprivileged pitiable history during the Cultural Revolution and opium wars or the Tang Dynasty and how the so-called ‘sick man of Asia’ had come a long way in achieving the unprecedented success that has become a subject of envy across the whole world.

What has happened in China today and what will happen in the days to come is nothing less than a miracle if the situation of poverty in the past is compared with the affluence of the present. People living under the poverty line fell from 98.99 million at the end of 2012 to 30.46 million at the end of 2017. Today, the torch of prosperity is being passed on to the new generations, who will pass it on to their generations who will sustain the rejuvenation of the country.   It is predictable that the new generations will further display their dedication and hard work to realize their dream of bicentennial resolution.

Tale of two countries

Nepali people participate in a candlelight vigil in support for China’s fight against the novel coronavirus during an event organized in Kathmandu, Nepal, Feb. 12, 2020. (Xinhua/Sunil Sharma)

Nepal is one of the countries that has had multiple interactions, inter-relations, exchanges and connectivity with China.  In formal diplomatic terms, our relations began to be formalized as early as the 14th century. According to historian Baburam Acharya, the first Ming Emperor was seeking to establish diplomatic relations with Nepal as early as 1384. He sent out a mission with credential papers and special presents and gifts to the Nepali rulers. Kathmandu also sent a mission to China to reciprocate their goodwill. Captain Samuel Turner mentions in An Account of an Embassy in the Court of the Tesoo Lama in Tibet about Newari (Nepali) merchants who traded with Lhasa and who had established trade links between Bengal and Tibet. Such an astounding link that distinctly validated our rich civilization could not materialize in sharing knowledge and technology between the two countries. And there are some reasons behind this.

 For one, Chinese people were experiencing decades of political turmoil. Nepal was also in internal strife and war with external forces.

China and Nepal have dissimilar political systems. Yet, they enjoyed a deep cordial relationship and this was formalized with diplomatic relations in 1955. Politically, Nepal has always shown a strong commitment to ‘One-China Policy’ and has never allowed its soil to be used for any hostile activities against China. China has always appreciated Nepal for its strong support given on major issues related to China’s sovereign rights and interests.

What made the two countries different was the economy. China continued to thrive economically. Nepal continued to lag behind economically.

No doubt, China’s economic standing in the world today is a hard-earned gain of the sacrifice of the trinity—of the party, of the people and of the military—People’s Liberation Army (PLA). China’s outstanding reforms underscore stunning economic progress signifying today’s liberal political system of ‘Chinese’ characteristics. China aims to become a ‘moderately prosperous’ nation by 2049—the dream China is surely going to turn into a reality.

On the other hand, Nepal is struggling with underdeveloped infrastructures and it is facing poverty and various other socio-economic predicaments. Frequent changes in the political system here—from 1950 to 1991 to 2006 to up until 2015—seem to have shifted the country’s focus from economic development. Even with these multiple changes in the past 70 years, there is resentment among people with the way the political leaders are running the country. Poor service delivery and widespread corruption have pushed the country backward. 

While China has been able to control corruption with its National Supervision Committee System, China’s new anti-corruption drive initiated by President Xi, by cracking down the “tigers and flies”—meaning high-level officials as well as local civil servants—we have lagged far behind in corruption control. Meanwhile, China’s example shows serving people wholeheartedly should be the fundamental principle and the purpose of any political party.

What made Nepal and China different was the economy. China continued to thrive economically. Nepal continued to lag behind economically.

The long-term vision of CPC, vision of socialism with Chinese characteristics, commitment of CPC and the leaders and people—from bureaucrats to party officials—led China toward a progressive economic trajectory, further ensuring political, social, economic and ecological advancement.  The checks and balances to control corruption, corrections of errors and people-centric consistent approaches are other keys to their success story. The Chinese want to achieve much more for their country. Chinese scholars think that they still have challenges of reducing the gap between the poor and the rich, urban and rural population, unequal development between coastal areas and the hinterlands and ensuring equal opportunity for all.

Learning for Nepal

Nepal has a lot to learn from the success stories of China.

Until 1850, protecting the sovereignty of the country was a major focus as well as a challenge for Nepali rulers, as the British, French and Portuguese colonial expansions prevailed in the region. The 104 years of Rana rule was a great setback in Nepal’s developmental journey. Nepal was stagnating while its neighbors were progressing in leaps and bounds in shaping their economy through infrastructure development, innovations and industrialization in the ‘age of machines’. 

The political system changes from 1950 to 2015 were characterized by muddy political doctrine that greatly impaired our prosperity agenda. Successive regimes failed to continue with the well-designed infrastructure development plan of King Mahendra. We failed to enhance the national financial image of the country.

If Nepal is to come out of this gloomy history, it has to pursue constructive activities and advancement in the Trans Himalaya Multidimensional Cooperation with connectivity, transfer of technology, trade, financial integration wherever possible, and people-to-people cooperation with China.

Nepal has a lot to do in various sectors including social, economic and cultural sectors, science and technology, investment, energy, trade and investment, agriculture, tourism and human resources. Through a broad multilateral and multi-dimensional approach, Nepal can build its capacity in the sectors mentioned above.

Nepal needs to expand its connectivity with the closest rail or road networks in the north and search for identifying new opportunities to link even with the Central Asian countries for enhancement of trade. Nepal’s trade with Lhasa was bigger in volume than with any other country in the 18th century.

Today, there exists a road across our northern border that connects Shigatse to Ngari Prefecture and another one stretching from Kailash Mansarovar through Burang county of Tibet, which is close to Humla. These are the strategic road links for the future, through which Nepal can enhance its connectivity with the north.

The BRI boon

Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Yu Hong (2nd L in front) and Foreign Secretary of Nepal Shanker Das Bairagi (2nd R in front) sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in Kathmandu, Nepal, on May 12, 2017. Nepal and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on bilateral cooperation under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative here on Friday. (Xinhua/Zhou Shengping)

Nepal signed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) agreement with China in 2017 but the country seems to be hesitating to reap benefits from the BRI projects. Meanwhile, some of the big powers disparage China as a ‘revisionist’ country and portray BRI as China’s expansionist ambition. It is clear that such narratives are directed at China to belittle its peaceful rise as a global competitor. Nepal should be able to examine the truth and reality of such narratives. Historically, the Chinese projects and assistance have complemented Nepal’s infrastructure development needs with no strings attached. We need not be suspicious about their intention, nor fall into the trap of the questionable narrative.

Poverty alleviation has been the greatest success story of China. As a close neighbor and a long time all-weather historical friend Nepali people can also cherish Chinese prosperity, which will surely have trickle-down effects in Nepal’s initiative of reducing poverty and boosting development. With proper investment in unharnessed national resources and by aligning our development goals with China’s initiatives of shared prosperity, Nepal can capitalize on its development potential.

Prof Alexander L Vuving, an expert in International Relations at Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, writes: “The steady and rapid expansion of Chinese power, coupled with the financial and debt crises in the United States, would spark a lively debate about the rise of China, the decline of the United States, and the future of global primacy and regional primacy in Asia.”

Poverty alleviation has been the greatest success story of China. This will surely have a trickle down effect in Nepal’s initiative of reducing poverty and boosting development.

The rapid advancement of technology and expansion of G5 will further navigate more innovative e-commerce, digitalization and other undiscovered things. The modernity of IT will trigger competitions between world powers in space, land and seas. If misused, such advancement could trigger more malign competitions and rivalry in our region which will surely have a huge implication on our development initiatives.

But by maintaining diplomatic integrity, Nepal will be able to extend possible support and cooperation to our neighbor and ask for cooperation in return in getting rid of Nepal’s development challenges.

Suresh Sharma, Brigadier General (Retired), was the spokesperson of the Nepal Army.