Monday, November 20, 2017

Friends at odds, not enemies


          I was in China—the country of Dada Xi—early this month to participate in an international seminar organized by one of the few most influential think tanks busy helping reshape the policies of our neighbor for past few years. It was immediately after recently held 19th congress of Communist Party of China (CPC) that I visited the country and found the general socio-political environment charged with the admiration for Xi Jinping, the president of China, who, during the party convention, had arose to a status that only Mao Zedong enjoyed before him.

          I left for this visit in the backdrop of news stories in Indian media highlighting China’s hostile attitude in Dokalam and the role it has been playing to block the United Nations (UN) declare Masood Azahr a global terrorist, One Belt One Road (OBOR) has been another cause of concern. The topic of Xi’s newly acquired political strength had also been attracting a lot of apprehension in Indian media with experts giving their opinion about its negative impact on India.

          My interest, as a student of international relations, in the mysterious, but visibly cute, personality of Xi Jinping inspired me to explore the fact that why the people with so many restrictions imposed on their freedom of political ideas, social activities and democratic rights have such a huge liking for ‘Dada Xi’? My interaction with people from different walks of life in China erased my impression about certain things. Firstly, it is not a fact that common people, as well as scholars, in China are so regimented that they do not freely express their opinions even during one-to-one talks on the issues related to domestic political scene and social environment. I found them freely discussing the need of having more and more windows of communications in their one-to-one chat with me. Secondly, common people in China do not see India as an enemy country and scholars also strongly feel for a greater need of cooperation between India and China at all fronts and admire the age old cultural and trace ties between our two countries. Thirdly, younger generation in China is more attracted towards India than any other country.

Chinese President Xi Jinping made a high-profile visit to the birthplace of China’s Communist Party in Shanghai on 31st October with his colleagues from the new Politburo Standing Committee. China’s seven most powerful men flew by private jet from Beijing to the memorial site where the party held its first national congress more than 96 years ago. The grey brick building in the tree-lined former French Concession was where Mao Zedong and 12 other delegates met in secret in July 1921. At that time they were representing 57 members of China’s fledging Communist Party, which is now the world’s biggest political group. Two days after the Standing Committee members took the oath, swearing allegiance to the party and all of its decisions, in the building where CPC took birth; I also visited the place to have a feel of changing political and social climate of the country we are competing with.

Rapid and visible consolidation of power by Dada Xi is in last five years is something needs to be understood. It is primarily because the former leader, Hu Jintao had been trying unsuccessfully for his ‘socialist harmonious society’ concepts. China has always been a place where strong leaders are liked more than the liberal ones. In an increasingly pragmatic post-Deng China the people like result oriented leadership. The late 2013 round of reforms announced by Xi, were not revolutionary, but they were evolutionary enough to have made an impact. I could also sense that what Chinese like the most about Xi that he is one who appears outright confident.

I was told a story that how but people have been calling him unofficially Xi Dada or Big Xi (Uncle Xi) for quite a few years since he came and how when he nodded to this in an official event people completely fell in love with this moniker. It was game-changing  Scholars also fondly mention about his visit to Mexico in 2009 when he was Vice President and the speech he delivered there impromptu with language that was extremely easy and equally powerful. This was a huge contrast to the official speak-immersed Hu who was still the president. Chinese have a strong feeling that Xi is implementing the rule of law in the country in a more structured way. His crackdown on corruption stories also making him popular by each passing day.

          I did not find signs of any prospects of a radical change in the system of Xi’s China. Politically it will remain ‘China’; economically it will become a clearer carbon copy of liberal Western democracies with the passage of time; and, socially it will be as conservative to open the windows to the world as it had been until now. The principle of continued leadership under the Communist party, conviction to the core ideology and typical Chinese characteristics will still play an important role. No Xi can think of deviating from the path set by the forefathers of China.

Mao-era system is still detrimental for some people and one can sense resentment on such issues. For instance, people from Harbin cannot go to Hong Kong as individual travelers whereas people from Beijing can. The world's second-largest country by GDP still has a restricted visa system for its own citizens. Visa waivers are still unheard-of except for a handful of countries outside. One can find young people feeling uncomfortable with such restrictions. Another aspect is the Internet control which younger generation finds illogical. But scholars will tell you that how important it is to have ‘our own instruments of internet communications’ for China.

Xi is a person with full of personal charisma. His love to soccer is almost known to everyone in China, which shows he is close to civilians. When Xi once visited a steamed buns shop and had breakfast with customers, event changed the perception about him and one would find people with the stories about how much Xi cares for ordinary masses.

    Xi is a tough leader compared with past presidents in China. He used to work in the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). His still showing the great interest in military affairs as a president is something Chinese people like strongly. I could watch a full documentary in my hotel room about Xi’s visits to inspect the army wearing military uniform with people waving to him with big enthusiasm.

          Contrary to common belief, that strengthening of Xi is not in the interest of India, I would say, it is only with Xi in China that India’s scope of sizable improvement in relations is possible in a structured way. I stressed on the fact during my formal interaction with Chinese scholars that our two countries are suffering from trust deficit after Chinese aggression in 1962. This not only hurt Jawahar Lal Nehru who felt ditched but disturbed the sentiments of the entire Indian nation. I explained that unless major efforts of healing are made from Chinese side, there are less chances of improvement in Indo-China relations. I also made it a point to make them understand the urgent need for a positive initiative from Chinese side.

I sensed that overdose of ‘nationalism’ purely for political reason is equally an unwelcome phenomenon with Chinese people as it is with Indian people. I told the Chinese scholars that their country must share more and more information with India, should refrain from being secretive or coy and let Indian people know you because it's very difficult to trust an unknown commodity.

To make China realise the futility of unnecessary hypes on the issues such as border disputes and a seat to India in United Nations Security Council, Prime Minister Narendra Modi must also adopt more and more non-conventional and non-governmental methods. In my opinion, he needs to tilt a little the direction of the Sabarmati-swings towards informality. Only then the expectations emerged from Modi sharing the swings with Xi at Sabarmati after only three months of his taking over as prime minister will yield results. India had given such a grand public reception to any Chinese leader in past six decades after Zhou En-Lai when Xi visited us in the third week of September 2014. Why are we letting the goodwill generated from this visit go into oblivion? Most of us think of pride as self-centeredness, conceit, boastfulness, arrogance, or haughtiness. The time has come when we drag ourselves out of this. Are India and China enemies? I think, we are friends at odds.

Author is a senior journalist and the national office bearer of the Congress Party.

No comments: