-Prof M D Nalapat-
On that October day in 1949 when he announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Mao Zedong also announced that “China has stood up” after having been bent and bowed (though not broken) for more than a century of foreign domination. When Chinese Communist Party General Secretary and PRC President Xi Jinping addressed delegates of the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party for 68 years later, the message was clear. It was that the entire Chinese people, and not simply a country, had “stood up”. And it is true that across the globe, individuals of Chinese origin are experiencing a sense of pride in the reality of the PRC becoming the second most consequential country in the world after the United States.
Add to that the fact that China is on track to be the first, at least so far as the economy is concerned. Those in India who talk about ensuring “Bharatiya Pride” within the population of our country need to remember that such a feeling needs to be reinforced through economic and technological achievement in order to have depth and longevity. India is at present far behind China in both. Hence the focus of the government needs to be on implementing measures designed to ensure faster growth, rather than getting carried away by the agenda set by social media platforms.
Xi has tapped into the fact that patriotism has increased substantially within China, and is being nourished by the increased visibility and relevance of the country within the international community. A similar upwelling of fervour has occurred in Russia, this time because of military rather than economic prowess. That country has made a re-entry into Great Power status as a consequence of its deployment of just two squadrons of military aircraft as well as around 4,000 elite troops in Syria in order to destroy ISIS strongholds. This was the precise step recommended for India by this columnist in 2014, only to have it ignored by a hyper-cautious official machinery that under the Modi Government has become more powerful than at any other time since Indira Gandhi’s heyday of authority. Global leadership evolves through action rather than words, and through an acceptance of risks rather than remaining in the slow lane as a consequence of bureaucratic caution. Both Xi Jinping as well as his ally Vladimir Putin have not hesitated to take risks in the pursuance of their interests, and this has led to both becoming indispensable players in
critical global situations.
Mao saw himself as the “People’s Republic of China Chairman”. Xi Jinping regards himself (more expansively) as the “Chairman of the Chinese People”. He has reached out to the global Chinese community, specifically the Han people, and has developed programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in order to bind them together into a global collective. It needs to be emphasised that the term “Han” does not refer to a racial category as much as it does to a cultural construct. “Han” identity has been fashioned through culture, such that multiple ethnic groups have coalesced together into a classification that now accounts for 95 per cent of the population of China, and close to 100 per cent of the Chinese Diaspora.
In this context, it is relevant to examine how the composite culture of India, a matrix that goes back more than five millennia, is still largely unharnessed in the service of nationhood. As yet, school and university curricula here give far more weightage to a period covering less than 15 per cent of India's history, ignoring much of the remaining 85 per cent. Indeed, most post-1947 historians categorise ancient India and its heroes as myths, thereby seeking to block off pride in 85 per cent of our past through a focus only on the 15 per cent past that represented a picture of turmoil and servitude. It hardly matters to feel proud about.
During the period when Mao was dominant, there was a downplaying of classical China similar to the British (and Nehruvian) neglect of Classical India. Deng Xiaoping left matters of culture for later, concentrating on development, while Jiang Zemin sought to create a mix of Chinese with western culture. Since Hu Jintao took over the state, and now more so under President Xi Jinping, ancient Chinese history has been given prominence, along with respect being paid even to what Chairman Mao saw as the “feudal” past. Both Nehru as well as Indira Gandhi carried out a Cultural Revolution in India that was even more comprehensive than that was carried out by Mao in China in the 1960s. However, while the dispersed and shattered historical fragments of Classical China are being put together by Xi Jinping in order to generate the confidence that creates achievement within a people, a similar transformation is witnessing heavy opposition in India.
However, the re-discovery of whole of India’s history is essential if genuine patriotism is to become as universal in India as it is in Japan or China. Through an emphasis on the “China Dream” (which is shorthand for the revival of the period in history when China was the pre-eminent power in the world), Xi Jinping is seeking to ensure that the Han people everywhere connect with the dream and accept that his leadership is essential to achieve it. Within such a frame, what would be the position of India? Interestingly, Chinese have two contradictory but simultaneous views about India. The first is respect for something that Indians themselves seldom learn about, which is the land of philosophy and culture. The other is contempt for the way in which our country's political leadership together with its bureaucracy have diluted the potential of the people of India to such a level that only by going out of the country can they excel.
India needs to adopt a nuanced policy towards Xi’s China, avoiding the policy cage of reflexive hostility that is being urged upon policymakers in Delhi by those countries that would benefit through a climate of hostility between Beijing and Delhi. At the same time, such matters as calling even the segment passing through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor” (CPEC) should be objected to and sought to be changed. The portion of the CPEC passing through Kashmir must be termed the “China-Kashmir Economic Corridor”. Once such a change in nomenclature takes place, it would be beneficial to ensure that Indian entities and interests take advantage of the vast Belt and Road Initiative. Those dealing with foreign policy look back with 20/20 vision at such past errors of judgment as (a) refusing to actualise the suggestion by both the US as well as the USSR that India should take the seat then occupied by the Republic of China in the UN Security Council (b) joining ASEAN or (c) testing a nuclear weapon much earlier than 1974. An unconditional refusal to join is as problematic as an unconditional entry into the BRI. Participation should be made conditional on (1) that part of the CPEC passing through PoK being renamed the CKEC and (2) Pakistan giving access through its territory to not just the CPEC but also to Afghanistan, in the interests of the closer ties that enhanced commerce would bring about. China under Xi is both Threat as well as Opportunity. Our policy should be to reduce the threat to a minimum and the opportunity to the maximum. India needs the same three decades of high growth that China experienced since 1981, and in such a process, deft policy can ensure that China be of assistance rather than hindrance.
(The writer is Director of the Department of Geopolitics, Manipal University)