Of late the Chinese leadership has been modifying its Marxist political goals from class struggle to social harmony, defining itself against disorderly democracy (like India?s), permanent revolution (like the Cultural Revolution) and the premature pursuit of glasnost before perestroika which resulted in the break-up of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Harmony is a Confucian ideal, and characterised China'spre-communist feudal hierarchical order. In their initial iconoclastic enthusiasm Chinese communists sought to expunge Confucian mores and institutions from Chinese society: Mao ferociously attacked the large kinship clans founded on Confucian family norms which could form loci of resistance to his radical reforms. He smashed clan concentrations and substituted mixed urban communes or rural collectives to create loose groups of individuals answerable to the state and its representatives rather than to one another. Today, China is looking once again at its earlier traditions, and faced with the disruptive and inequitable effects of globalisation, hopes to use Confucian harmony to rationalise and manage the growing differences between the affluent, the burgeoning middle-classes and the poor, and also between mainland and minorities.
Historically, China'speriods of strong centralised rule were interspersed with warlordism and chaos, also she has an ingrained fear of disorder, associating freedom with chaos, and ?democracy? with the uncontrolled barbarism of the Cultural Revolution. Even by the Platonic definition of democracy as rule by the demos or mob, the term does not apply to a situation where a totalitarian government unleashes and directs rampages and group killings of its own citizens.
The break-up of the Soviet empire in the last century with Ukraine, the Baltic and Central Asian states regaining their independence and East European nations breaking out of the Soviet sphere of influence, served as a salutary lesson to China, fearful of the threats to her own imperialism in Muslim Sinkiang, Buddhist Tibet, Inner Mongolia and her sensitive relationship with Taiwan.
Mark Leonard in What Does China Think? contends that Chinese rulers feel threatened by any form of public association not directed by the state?a fundamental right that is guaranteed in most democracies. The mobilisation of students and workers at Tiananmen appealing for reforms was seen as a threat to the state; the Falun Gong, initially encouraged for its benign social impact became the object of vitriolic abuse and persecution once its capacity for mobilisation became evident, albeit for purposes of tai chi and meditation. Anxiety about the restive Uighurs in Sinkiang is also high: China succeeded in getting the USA and UN to declare the East Turkestan independence movement a terrorist group (in exchange for support for the war on terror). Not surprisingly the Chinese state is scared of Tibetan Buddhism, which, despite the destruction of thousands of monasteries and persecution of even more monks, remains, as recent events have shown, a potential factor for mobilisation. Hence the clumsy attempts by an atheistic government to appropriate the symbols and incarnations of Tibetan Buddhism that has stubbornly survived prolonged persecution and attempted indoctrination. China has yet to learn to live harmoniously with its minorities.
Whatever triggered off the recent riots in Tibet the Dalai Lama has held the Chinese themselves responsible. The scale of unrest which has spread to Sinkiang, even if squashed with customary Chinese ferocity after the Olympics, will remain a benchmark in the consciousness of her minorities, and, as the Dalai Lama believes, in the minds of the million or so Chinese followers of Tibetan Buddhism. It will also upset power equations within the Politburo. The Dalai Lama believes that harmony can only be achieved through loosening the system. Multi-ethnic societies cohere better in a democratic set-up than in an illiberal repressive regime. Moreover any giant authoritarian state has problems of size and imperial overreach: it may implode.
The Indian government'sresponse does not reflect the country'soutraged public opinion, not only because of its CPM allies but because of its consistently pusillanimous dealings with China. It gingerly plays the ?Tibetan card? in border negotiations or timidly appeals to Beijing to be kind to Tibetans. By contrast, China has confidently and successfully objected to the Vice-President'smeeting with the Dalai Lama and demeaningly woken up our ambassador in Beijing in the middle of the night to protest anti-China Tibetan demonstrations in New Delhi. That plus the exclusion of India'sdelegate on the foreign diplomatic team that was allowed to visit Lhasa has ensured that India will create safe passage for the Olympic torch, albeit down to three miles from the usual thirty. That is a victory of sorts for the Tibetans. The international community'spressure on China to talk to the Dalai Lama is still met with the condition that the latter first perjure himself by saying that Tibet and Taiwan were always integral parts of China, i.e., she is not serious about talks and only playing for time till the Olympics are over and she can revert to her old intransigence.
One cherished long-term scenario for China is that economic liberalism will lead her towards democracy, and also create more spaces for her provinces and minorities. Immediately trends point in the opposite direction: Leonard points out that with her growing economic clout and military muscle China is moving inexorably towards establishing an alternative to the western political and international order. She prefers a fascist to a liberal capitalism mediated by Confucian values of order which reject democratic freedoms and the UN system with its theories of universal human rights. This political model reinforced by rigid definitions of national sovereignty is immune from the critiques of human rights and environmental groups, and projected as an alternative international system for Asian and African despotic regimes.
A more proactive way to upgrade the situation by addressing the security and environmental fears of China and her neighbours together with genuine autonomy and cultural and religious freedoms for her minorities would lie in working for the neutralisation and de-nuclearisation of the plateau through patient diplomacy using the model of Austria'sneutrality which was guaranteed after World War II by UK, France, USSR and the USA. By the terms of the Austrian Peace Treaty any attack on pacified Austria immediately brings the Allies to her defence. Similarly Tibet'sneutrality and security could be guaranteed by her concerned neighbours and the world'sbig powers, to create a fire-break or buffer amongst conflicting national interests. This would enable China and India once again to live in peace. The Dalai Lama has advocated a zone of ahimsa comprising Cholka Sum?the entire Tibetan region of Kham, Amdo and U-Tsang. This would require the consent of all surrounding powers and the world'ssuper and hyper-powers.
At Strasbourg in 1988 the Dalai Lama gave a call for a regional peace conference to discuss his proposal for a zone of ahimsa: this could be revived and actively pursued. If the task appears daunting one has only to remember that the Austrian deadlock was broken through dogged perseverance, patience and diplomacy going through over three hundred and fifty meetings.
For Tibetans the race is against time: the Damocles sword of Chinese immigration hangs over their heads: the longer the wait the greater chances of marginalisation and destruction of Tibet'senvironment and culture. But history does not follow a predictable linear path, and we may recall an incident from India'shistory when at the very beginning of the last century Aurobindo Ghose gave a call for ?purna swaraj?, or full independence for India. The Indian National Congress was then just a deliberative body and the British Empire sat securely over nearly two-thirds of the globe. Aurobindo was surely dismissed by his contemporaries as a misguided enthusiast. After many turns of fortune both in India and the world, none of which could have been predicted in their detail on the day of that call to freedom, India finally got her full Independence, on the day Sri Aurobindo predicted, his birthday?15th of August 1947.
The cultural logic of a nation and a people that has a past and a present is that it will have a future: the current task is to keep the door open for that future to emerge.
(The writer is director, ML Sondhi Institute for Asia-Pacific Affairs and can be contacted at [email protected])