Mind the red signs

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China’s hardening stance springs from its own internal conflicts

Prem Shankar JhaPrem Shankar Jha 
Senior Journalist

THE STORM that is building beyond India’s northwestern borders is matched — and could be surpassed one day — by the one that is brewing in the Northeast. This is the steady worsening of its relations with China. New Delhi has done its best to play down the scare caused by the media’s highlighting of Chinese troops’ occasional intrusions into what we consider our side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). It has pointed out, correctly, that since the LAC has still to be delineated in several places, some ‘intrusions’, by both sides, are bound to continue.

Strength of arms Serried ranks of the Chinese army on parade outside Beijing
Strength of arms Serried ranks of the Chinese army on parade outside Beijing
Photo: Reuters

But the fact remains that in the past four years, the hitherto quiet border with China in Tibet has become an unquiet one. According to a September 4 article in the New York Times, there were reportedly “270 border violations and nearly 2,300 instances of ‘aggressive border patrolling’ by Chinese soldiers” in 2008. Beijing has become increasingly insistent that the whole of Arunachal Pradesh is a part of China, and that Tawang, which had been specifically exempted from any border rectification plans during the 12th round of Sino-Indian talks on the border issue, is ‘one of Tibet’s most sacred monasteries’. China has built up its infrastructure, surveillance and quick response capabilities in the border region to the point where New Delhi has felt compelled to reverse its post-1993 policy of reducing and pulling back its troops along the LAC and has reopened airfields and reinforced troop deployments.

New Delhi is at a loss to understand the sudden change in China’s behaviour, which began only days before President Hu Jintao’s visit to India in 2006. Its reflex action has been that of all animals when they sense danger – to lie as low as possible and rely upon its camouflage to escape notice. Unfortunately, this strategy is not working. As a result, every fresh action or declaration by either country is locking both more firmly onto the path to confrontation.

This strategy will not work because China’s hardening stance has almost nothing to do with the border itself, but arises out of conflicts within the Chinese state that have made it more politically insecure not just in spite of, but possibly because of, its dazzling growth. The first of these is Beijing’s failure, so far, to assimilate its larger minorities into the Han civilisational state. I have used the word civilisational intentionally, because what the Chinese state means by assimilation is nothing less than a willing adoption of the Han cultural identity and an acceptance of its absolutist power structure. China has 55 ethnic minorities but, as the flare-ups in Lhasa and Greater Tibet in March last year and the Uighur-Han conflict in Xinjiang this year have shown, it has so far failed to assimilate the two that matter most.

The Chinese leadership strenuously denies this failure. It points to the trillions of yuan that it has invested in both provinces in roads, industry, tourism, modern schools, hospitals and dispensaries and, most recently, the Tibet railway. These investments have created hundreds of thousands of jobs. It therefore blames reactionary elements like Islamists and the ‘Dalai clique’ for inciting trouble.

What Beijing is only now coming to realise is that economic development does not necessarily lead to political contentment. The French, American and Russian revolutions, or for that matter the Indian freedom movement, were not started by the poor and destitute, but by an emerging new middle class. Something similar is happening today in Tibet. Chinese intelligence sources themselves pointed out that the March 2008 uprising was planned by seven organisations that had little or no direct link to the Dalai Lama’s establishment. Most of the members were young and not particularly religious.

China’s problems have been complicated by its introduction of Han Chinese in very large numbers into both provinces, so much so that they now make up the majority in Xinjiang. This has deepened alienation, because even educated Tibetans and Uighurs, who have accepted Chinese rule, are regularly discriminated against in the award of jobs. Today Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, is booming but the Uighur quarters are basically slums.

These minorities matter not because of their size — by the most generous estimates, Tibetans number no more than six million and the Uighurs less than a million — but because they inhabit two-fifths of China. Today this twofifths of the country is under something close to martial law.

Had the rest of China been tranquil, Tibet and Xinjiang would only have been headaches, not threats to Beijing. But rapid economic growth has created and rapidly widened cleavages between the rich and the poor, the rural and the urban residence permit-holders and party cadres and peasants, at an equally rapid rate. Today China has the second most unequal income distribution in the world and is seething with political unrest.

President Hu Jintao admitted as much when, to prepare the way for his “Socially Harmonious Society”, he allowed the publication of annual data on the rise of ‘incidents of mass protest’ (confrontations between the state and people) in 2006. The data showed that in 2005 there had been 87,000 such protests. Since then the data have become unreliable, but even the Chinese Blue Book on the state of society has admitted that the numbers have continued to rise and that the protests have become much larger and more violent.

China’s leaders therefore find themselves in a difficult situation. Political accommodation with the Tibetans and the Uighur, the only reasonably sure way of ending their alienation, could open the Pandora’s box of demands for a wider sharing of political power not only from other ethnic minorities but from within the Han mainstream as well.

The only antidote that the leadership has for the rising discontent is to fan the patriotism of the Han Chinese and of the new, burgeoning middle class. The world caught a glimpse of this budding hyper-nationalism after NATO (i.e., US) planes accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war in 1999. But it got a much better view when Tibetans protesting against their oppression before the Beijing Olympics were deluged with hate mail on the internet and confronted on foreign university campuses by organised Chinese student demonstrators waving the Chinese flag.

Beijing first mobilised nationalism to legitimise a regime that was in danger of losing its grip immediately after the Tiananmen uprising. Today, an aggressive hyper-nationalism has taken firm root in China’s new middle class. But nationalism is a fast-burning fuel and has to be constantly replenished. The Chinese state is, therefore, a dangerous state. It is growing ever more powerful abroad but ever more insecure within. Till Beijing screws up the nerve to make concessions on autonomy to its minorities and democracy to its Han majority, the temptation to draw on nationalism for legitimacy will remain.

INDIA LIES directly athwart Beijing’s path for the latter ascribes its failure to assimilate Tibet to New Delhi having kept the Tibetan political identity alive in India. Since this is now a part of history and is one of the acts that Indians are rightly proud of, there is nothing India can or should try to undo. But it may still be able to ease the tension between Beijing and the Dalai Lama and between Beijing and New Delhi in other ways.

India’s instinctive reaction to Chinese aggressiveness has been to lie low to escape notice

The most important would be to persuade the Dalai Lama to confine his proposal for genuine autonomy to just the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and not insist upon including large parts of four other provinces which traditionally comprised Greater Tibet. It is this demand — which Beijing considers ‘splittist’ — that made it (or gave it the pretext to) reject the Dalai Lama’s proposals summarily in April 2008. By remaining silent on this issue while it is floated from Indian soil, New Delhi has unintentionally made itself a party to the suggestion.

This impression needs to be corrected, not as an olive branch to the Chinese, but because India would no more accept such a proposal, in Kashmir for instance, than China. But what is more important, were the Chinese to resume talks with the Dalai Lama on this basis it could initiate a move towards greater stability and genuine peace in the entire region.

(This is the second of four articles that deal with the challenges before the Indian nation)

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