An Imploding China? How soon?

Enough time has passed to dwell on bit of the back story of the recent Dharamshala Meet to discuss religious freedoms. The controversy generated by the withdrawal by India of the visa to the most famous Uyghur dissident outside Xinjiang or, as its majority Muslim population would have it, ‘East Turkestan’, Dolkun Isa, may have been by design. More interested in the publicity for his cause than attending a far-off conference Isa, according to insider sources at the conference, may have maneuvered GOI into cancelling his visa by granting an interview to the German media on the eve of his departure for Delhi, intended to draw Beijing’s attention. Isa was confident that a perturbed Beijing would insist India honour the Interpol notice, something the Modi regime wouldn’t have done, if Isa hadn’t gone public with the issue in the first place. Another Uyghur dissident Ilshaat Hassan, on a tourist visa, attended the Dharamsala do w/o ruffling official feathers on either side, even as he railed against the Chinese oppression of his people at the conference.

India could, of course, have preempted such a situation from developing had it followed through on its visa and welcomed the Uyghur nationalist with or without fanfare rather than peremptorily cancelling the visa and handing Beijing a major PR victory. But by now, however, we should be used to GOI preparing the mud for China to hurl at New Delhi’s face. And so rather than leaving it to Isa to not attend the Meet at Dharamsala, the Indian govt chose not to brave Beijing’s ire, and did what it did. It says something about India’s reputation, that has spread far and wide, for cravenness when confronting China that even the slight pressure of Zhongnanhai spokesman reminding New Delhi of the Interpol red corner notice was enough to buckle the Narendra Modi regime’s knees. The correct response should have been to advise President Xi and his government, in the most ringing terms, about the democratic compulsion of respecting political dissidence — something alien to the Communist system in China, and about (as stated in an earlier post) individual states being free to respect or not Interpol’s red corner notice where political dissidents are concerned. No major democratic country, incidentally, does otherwise. India has now proved to the world that it is the exception. What Beijing needed to be told in no uncertain language was that political dissidence is not terrorism, and dissidents are not terrorists, except in China.

The significance about the Conference at Dharamsala is that it is the seat of HH the Dalai Lama, who however else he may have failed the “Free Tibet’ cause, has used his moral weight to legitimate and sustain in the world the Tibetan opposition to Beijing’s policies of forced assimilation and cultural genocide. He is a one-man army that has kept China at bay for the last 65 years. So Xi will not have the courage to ask, as Stalin did the pope, “How many Divisions do you have?” because he knows only too well the power of this holy potentate to destabilize Tibet.

Beijing can’t wait to see the Dalai Lama pass from the scene and one can almost see a succession of Chinese leaders tear their hair out and rails in frustration as Jean Anouilh’s Henry II famously does against the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?!” Except, the Dalai Lama has been too restrained, not been meddlesome enough, in the affairs of Tibet. His nonviolent “Middle Path”, while beefing up his moral heft has left those among the Tibetan Exile community in India cold because of his refusal to sanction, leave alone encourage and instigate a violent uprising in the Tibetan strongholds in Lhasa, and in the eastern Kham region (of the Gansu and Yunnan provinces). The bulk of the youthful Tibetan exiles in India want India to train, arm, and launch them in guerilla operations behind PLA lines in Tibet and elsewhere. The irony is that, like Beijing, the young Tibetans too are waiting for this incarnation of the Dalai Lama to vacate the scene.

Tibetan and Uyghur militancy is still an outlier phenomenon for China. Not so the domestic political dissidence in that country. What the political dissidents in mainland China are desperately searching for is a Dalai Lama-like figure of irreproachable character and highest integrity, a moral heavyweight, in fact, to lead the Movement to unseat the totalitarian Communist regime in China, one who preaches and practices nonviolence as the means to compel the autocrats in Beijing to cede power to the Chinese people. One of the leaders of this Movement, who attended the Dharamsala Meet, is Yang Jianli, the US-based Chinese dissident who in 2010 accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the winner Liu Xiaobo, the jailed Chinese human rights activist, literary critic, teacher and principal author of the ‘Charta 08’ a manifesto for the gradual shift in the system of government from one party rule to a multi-party democracy along Western lines.

In a remarkably honest assessment of his own political stance and the evolution of his thinking, Liu has asserted that “My tendency to idealize Western civilization arises from my nationalistic desire to use the West in order to reform China. But this has led me to overlook the flaws of Western culture…. I have been obsequious toward Western civilization, exaggerating its merits, and at the same time exaggerating my own merits. I have viewed the West as if it were not only the salvation of China but also the natural and ultimate destination of all humanity. Moreover I have used this delusional idealism to assign myself the role of savior…. I now realize that Western civilization, while it can be useful in reforming China in its present stage, cannot save humanity in an overall sense. If we stand back from Western civilization for a moment, we can see that it possesses all the flaws of humanity in general….If I, as a person who has lived under China’s autocratic system for more than thirty years, want to reflect on the fate of humanity or how to be an authentic person, I have no choice but to carry out two critiques simultaneously. I must: 1. Use Western civilization as a tool to critique China. 2. Use my own creativity to critique the West.”

Liu is increasingly believed by the dissident community in China and the sympathetic Chinese diaspora all over the world, aided and abetted by CIA, of course, to be the moral centre their Movement has long craved. As a first step, they are seeking his release from incarceration. His potential for trouble is why Beijing will never let him out. One Dalai Lama appears too much for China to handle. Contemplating several of them in addition — Dolkun Isa as an Uyghur clone of the great Lama, and to have Liu directly challenging Communist rule would be sufficient to induce conniptions in the politburo.

Per Yang, there is enormous turmoil, largely invisible because it is roiling the society below the placid surface of Communist China. But flash crowds collect in city centres and in Tiananmein Square in Beijing to protest, commemorate anniversaries of the 1989 unrest, to show their disillusionment with Communist rule. So, if Yang Jianli is to be believed the Chinese state is being hollowed out from the inside because of its eroding legitimacy among the people. This situation will only worsen, because an imprisoned Liu Xiaobo will be a greater problem for Beijing as he is a “prisoner of conscience”.

For all this to amount to anything meaningful, however, will take a lot of doing and time. But Chinese dissidents are convinced that the point when a new order replaces the old is nearer than it might seem to outsiders. That is a comforting thought, but not one India should base its policies on. Maozedong didn’t flinch when 10 million Chinese died in the great dislocation and famine of the mid-Sixties. Xi is unlikely to be troubled by Liu Xiaobo and his Gang of democracy lovers because the central power in China has always been ruthless in bludgeoning those who have stood in its way. Recall that brave soul who stood in front of the tank on June 4, 1989, in Tiananmein Square, daring the crew within it to run him over, and by sheer force of his will pricked the conscience of the crew, compelling that tank to go around him. That protester was never heard from again and remains unidentified to this day.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, civil-military relations, domestic politics, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, guerilla warfare, Indian Army, Internal Security, society, South Asia, Terrorism. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to An Imploding China? How soon?

  1. Satvinder Singh says:

    Nice analysis Mr Karnad. However, one feels that the way forward to even think as to how to proceed further calls for some action. Amongst many strands that the strategy ought to co ordinate one that’s essential is the ability to game one’s possible course of action. It calls for strategic level national gaming center on lines of what Boeing has for the US establishment to try and make sense of likely results of their chosen response. At least this crystal gazing will open the eyes of our decision making in realizing the gaps in our abilities, processes and risk taking. Never going to be easy considering the fact that MEA feels it has the divine right to conceptualise, implement and change if required the Indian response to all events across the board. Politicians need to understand that if we want to become regional power then they ought to demand from military to shift gears and get out of status quo conservative approach to application of hard power.

  2. Singh says:

    Ultimately, many forces will have to converge for us to liberate & de islamize Uttarpatha (xinjiang) & both pakistans.

    Tibet in addition to this, obviously.

    Economic is a big one, military industrial another.

    As we build naval capacity & focus on food security via raising rural incomes, I think we are on the right path.

  3. ravinder says:

    I agree with your and Satvinder’s views. Our MEA needs to have nerves and a steel spine. China does not take our permission for giving arms and nuclear technology to Pakistan. The plain truth is that China is not our friend. How then can we call them our strategic partner defies logic. India needs to get its political, diplomatic and military act together lest it be steam rolled into submission by an increasingly assertive China.

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