The Big Daddy In China

Something peculiar and unprecedented is happening in perhaps one of the most advanced capitalist countries of the world – the People’s Republic of China, run by a totalitarian, one-dimensional and powerful regime led by the Communist Party of China. And it is certainly not a ‘Second Cultural Revolution’ which degraded and ravaged the lives of millions, including the educated youth, intellectuals, communists, literary figures, writers, musicians and artists, and veteran party leaders, among others. Besides, anything remotely western, including western classical music or literature, was abhorred and condemned.

The cultural revolution was implemented in the cities, towns and vast rural countryside of China, between 1966 and 1977, with Mao Tse Tung at the helm, and unleashed by the notorious ‘Gang of Four’. The gang was led by Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, also a former actress.

The ten-year project was enacted by the party cadres with devastating consequences, ostensibly to clean the party and society of ‘reactionary and bourgeois elements’, to resurrect the ‘original principles’ of Mao Tse Tung Thought, and to re-educate the educated youth and intelligentsia in urban areas and compel them to go and work for extremely long spells in rural countryside. All those deviating from the stated goals would be severely punished. President Xi Jinping was a student then; it is reported that his father, a committed party official holding important positions, too, was hounded and purged.

In the current circumstances, when it comes to the reality behind the Great Wall of China, it all seems trapped in a haze and maze of multiple contradictions, but no one really knows the real running story behind the iron curtain with total clampdown on freedom of expression and news. So much so, even the social media and internet is under State control. Indeed, an indiscreet or adventurous blogger, however anonymous, might land up in serious trouble if he-she, inadvertently, or otherwise, ruffles the feathers in the ubiquitous Chinese establishment. Undoubtedly, Big Brother is always watching.

However, something totally out of the ordinary is currently happening in China, which, till the other day, was celebrating its huge capitalist profit machine inside and outside the country, and, which had, since Deng Xiaoping, openly flaunted and encouraged the rise and rise of infinite private property and wealth, even while mass disparity and inequality was kept bottled-up and camouflaged by the iron fist of a dictatorial State apparatus.

Check out the bizarre events which have unfolded with its share of shadowy mysteries in recent times. It’s mind-boggling, and uncannily reminds of the dark memories of the cultural revolution.

Since the last two decades, top actress, director, pop singer and big business tycoon, beautiful billionaire Zhao Wei, has been a beloved of the country, a superstar bigger than the biggest names in Hollywood. Indeed, after capitalist reforms were ushered in the late 1970s, she had emerged as a national icon of the new ethos in China. Her films would gross millions in box office hits and her versatility and range as an actress was considered brilliant and kaleidoscopic.

Also known as Vicky, she was the catalyst behind award-winning and super hit movies, millions of her music albums were sold out across China and abroad, her big-time investments included hi-tech and entertainment ventures, while her fan-base almost hit the 100 million mark on Weibo, China’s microblogging site.

She was hailed with innumerable awards, and her personal earnings outstretched unimaginable heights. Her popular movies include, Lost in Hongkong, Hollywood Adventures, Red Cliff, Painted Skin, Dearest, Shaolin Soccer, My Fair Princess, Love, among others. She has been the main model of Fendi, the Italian fashion house, in China.

Besides, she was known to be a close buddy and partner of ‘Alibaba tycoon’, Jack Ma; she and her husband were apparently initial investors in Alibaba Pictures, with a $400 million stake, in 2015. It’s dark irony, that even Jack Ma seems to have suddenly lost his lustre in the eyes of the current dispensation in Beijing.

What is happening in Xi Jinping’s new China with its sudden new doctrine of ‘Long-term Common Prosperity’ with a deadly crackdown on big business, hi-tech companies, celebrities, top TV shows, and social media-online activities, especially among the young, therefore, acquires both sinister and mysterious overtones. And there are no two-minute answers, like Chinese noodles.

Zhao Wei has suddenly been banned in China, and no one knows why! Her name and references to her has been eliminated from social media platforms, film and television credits, from the media and social media: all the highly popular stuff associated with her iconic status in the film or television industry, including chat shows, have vanished into the blue, including from live streaming sites.

Another famous actor, Zhang Zhehan, has been banned as well. His name has been removed from the social media. One apparent mistake he has done is that he was seen in pictures visiting the Japanese shrine for those who died in the war: the Yasukini Shrine. Zheng Shuang, another box office hit star of the highly successful television serial, ‘Meteor Shower’ has been fined a whopping $46.1 million for tax evasion.

Online gaming has been strictly stopped, especially among the young, and severe restrictions have been imposed on the entertainment industry. Celebrating celebrities and ‘fandom’ too is a strict no-no these days.

Chinese authorities have openly announced that tax evasion by the rich and the celebrities will not be allowed – but China observers are wary of such quickly shifting high moral ground. These manifest signs of high morality in a country which has been brazenly celebrating its unbridled capitalism and economic conquests at home and abroad since the rapid economic reforms ushered in by Deng, are often too sudden, unpredictable and lacks rationality.

According to The Economist (October 16, 2021), ‘‘It is also true that the rich and famous are under harsher scrutiny than they have known for decades. Tycoons and film stars have received painful reminders that they enjoy their success at the party’s pleasure. Some have lost fortunes or seen careers ended for defying China’s leaders, or for provoking public opinion with displays of swaggering privilege. Others have hastened to donate money and time to patriotic causes. New rules ban effeminate actors from television and curb how many hours youngsters spend on video games. State power is now invested in one man, Mr Xi, in a way not seen since the Mao era. Whether issuing textbooks on Xi Jinping Thought to six-year-old children or using smartphone apps to ensure that officials study Mr Xi’s wisdom, the leader’s sternly paternal presence is felt in every corner of life…’’

Come September, even while the personality cult of Xi Jinping seems to be integral to the newest ‘manufactured consent’ across China, a new and interesting phenomenon has emerged at the grassroot level. Primary schools in China now have classroom indoctrination with ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. ‘Xi Yeye’ (Grandpa Xi) is looming large in the text books for pre-primary schools also. The tiny tots are too being told to listen to what Grandpa Xi is telling them.

The immortalisation of Xi Jinping, it seems, perhaps repositioning him as ‘President for Life’, is on – at full swing and fast forward – these days. Indeed, with his half-twisted, half-smile, hiding an indecipherable mind, only Grandpa Xi really knows – what he really wants.

Return To Status Quo Ante On Tibet Govt In Exile

A few weeks ago, in a sober and low-key ceremony on account of the pervasive and raging Wuhan Virus, Penpa Tsering was sworn in as the democratically elected Sikyong or the President of the Dharamshala based Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the Tibetan government in exile.

From the time results of the elections were declared in mid-April 2021 to the swearing-in ceremony on May 27 and even thereafter, messages of felicitations have poured in from parliamentarians across the world, Tibet support groups, international bodies and institutions. Notably, the US State Department, parliamentarians from EU countries, Canada and from Japan and Australia – 3 of the 4 Quad member countries- and Taiwan’s Foreign Minister sent congratulatory messages to the new Sikyong.

However, there was no official media reportage on the election, the swearing-in ceremony, or message of felicitation to the new democratically elected Sikyong from political leaders, officials or organizations affiliated to the Indian government.

The conspicuous silence is evidently in line with the classified directive issued by GOI in a letter dated Feb 22, 2018 that was circulated to all offices in the Central and State governments. The letter imposed restrictions in the form of an “advisory” to all Ministries/Departments of the Government of India as well as State Governments not to accept any invitation or participate in any function organized or hosted by the CTA. It was issued on the eve of the then Foreign Secretary’s visit to China citing the reason to be a “very sensitive time in India-China relations”.

Speculations on the underlying reasons for the issue of the referred letter made by a stunned CTA, Tibetan community in exile and many China/Tibet experts varied.

Some believed that it was a condition to pave the way for Prime Minister Narendra Modi – President Xi Summit in Wuhan that followed in April 2018.

Some said that it was to persuade the Chinese to change their position on Masood Azhar being listed as a terrorist by the UN.

A few opined that it was to get China’s nod on India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

One assessment suggested that it could have been a mere pique at the undisclosed visit of a senior representative from the Dalai Lama set up to China ostensibly as part of their back-channel negotiations for the resumption of dialogue between the two sides.

Whatever the considerations at that time were, the revised policy guidelines were in line with India’s genuine desire to continue to build on the goodwill generated during Xi’s parleys with PM Modi in Ahmedabad. It was a significant step taken by India to bridge the “trust deficit” coming in the way of improvement in bilateral relations.

However, India’s efforts to build mutual trust were brutally undermined in May 2020 by the pre-meditated and brazen display of deceit and deception when an aggressive and expansionist China diverted troops to occupy territory previously not under its control in Eastern Ladakh.

It blatantly violated painstakingly negotiated bilateral agreements, confidence-building measures, protocols and understandings. The “trust deficit” which India sought to bridge actually widened due to Chinese duplicity.

Meanwhile, the international situation has also undergone significant changes. The Biden Administration has signalled its inclination to abide by the Tibet Policy and Support Act.

It made an unprecedented gesture in publicly extending greetings to the CTA on the occasion of the Tibetan New Year. It has indicated a steady and firm resolve to reconfigure its relations with China to one of “strategic competition”.

China is viewed as being bent on disrupting and defying the rules-based international order and threatening peace and stability. The Quad has galvanized. The EU has frozen a massive investment agreement with China.

Internal repression in China is getting more focus than ever in the recent past. Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Hong Kong and Taiwan are gradually gaining renewed global attention for a variety of political and strategic reasons.

Under these circumstances, an urgent need is felt for a substantive reappraisal of India’s relations with China across the board and with Tibet in particular.

Many ideas have been mooted in the strategic community as a befitting political riposte. These range from India abandoning the One China policy, to awarding the Dalai Lama with the highest civilian honour, to the Indian government expressing support for all the decisions taken by the Dalai Lama in the matter of his reincarnation, to welcoming the 15th Dalai Lama as an honoured guest of India.

While all such suggestions can be discussed on their merit and efficacy, the lowest hanging fruit is the quiet unpublicized burial of the February 22, 2018 directive and return to status quo ante in relation to interaction with the CTA as it prevailed since 2011.

At that time, in an astute and far-sighted move, the Dalai Lama approved the devolution of all the administrative and political powers vested in him to democratically elected Tibetan leaders.

The Government of India viewed this in a positive light. The former Sikyong, Lobsang Sangay, was invited to attend PM Modi’s oath-taking ceremony in May 2014 along with other Heads of Government.

Contacts and interaction with the Dalai Lama and Sikyong at the highest political levels, albeit unofficial, continued. This was despite China conveying her objections to India for permitting the CTA to carry out their legitimate functions and pursuit of religious activities.

A return to the pre-February 22, 2018 policy will send the right signal about India’s determination to shun any notion of appeasement in its relations with China as the latter continues to play hardball on border negotiations.

It will be a small but significant step to bring the Tibet issue back on the table. It will have the desired effect in the Tibetan community in exile and within Tibet in the form of tacit support to the CTA’s international advocacy efforts to resume Sino-Tibet negotiations. It will also indicate India’s willingness to join the call from the wider comity of democratic countries in this respect.

The time to shed any perceived ambivalence on the Tibet issue is now. The time to restore the status quo ante on India’s policy towards the CTA, and the Tibetan community is here.

(The author is former Special Secretary, Government of India, Cabinet Secretariat – ANI)

China, The Artless Dodger

China’s military transgressions along the Line of Actual Control with India might have brought immediate tactical territorial gains, but it has lost a lot more strategically in terms of trust and goodwill. Beijing’s responses have also reinforced the fact that its leaders are perennially unrepentant, even though their hands have been caught figuratively in the cookie jar.

This is evident in the comments that emanate from China over the bloody border confrontation on 15 June in Ladakh. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on June 19, “China hopes that India will work with us, follow faithfully the important consensus reached between the two leaders, abide by the agreements reached between the two governments, and strengthen communication and cooperation on properly managing the current situation through diplomatic and military channels, and jointly uphold peace and stability in the border areas.”

The subtext is noticeable here and in just about every other official statement. “India, you work with us. Show that you are being cooperative. Do your bit to uphold peace because we already are.” The patronizing tone implies that China is blameless, that Delhi must be the one to repent. This smug self-righteousness is readily apparent in Beijing’s dealings with India, in its interactions with South China Sea claimants, and against anyone who displeases it in even the slightest way.

Yet many countries around the world are growing frustrated and angry with China’s continued bullying, its “innocent” denials of responsibility, and its blatant trampling of international treaties and norms.

Take its treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, for example, with more than a million imprisoned in concentration camps where they are brainwashed and many perform forced labor. China initially refuted the existence of any camps, before eventually euphemistically calling them “vocational training centers” once the proof was irrefutable. Even today, too few governments and international bodies are forceful enough in decrying one of the grossest abuses of human rights in modern times, and of China’s brutal cultural genocide.

Nor was it enough for China to merely possess Hong Kong, for it had to make the city harmless politically and to emasculate its citizens of any aspirations to power.

China has become an Orwellian police state too. A study by Comparitech revealed that it is home to 18 of the world’s 20 most monitored cities in the world. More than half the globe’s surveillance cameras are in China, with 567 million cameras predicted to be there by 2021. Beijing alone has 1.15 million cameras, averaging out at 60 cameras per 1,000 people.

China’s arrogance has been on full display during the COVID-19 pandemic. Chairman Xi Jinping failed dismally in his initial handling of the outbreak, as the clumsy Chinese Communist Party (CCP) apparatus sought to suppress the truth and protect Xi.

Richard McGregor of the Lowy Institute in Australia recently penned an article, saying, “China’s failures in the early stages of the crisis, and in the overseas propaganda campaign it later mounted, were baked into the CCP system. So too was the extraordinary mobilization of the country’s resources to enforce lockdowns and stop the spread of the virus. Success and failure are two sides of the same CCP coin.”

China boasts that its political system is superior, pointing to the dismal handling of the pandemic by countries like the UK and USA. Xi himself claimed, “The effectiveness of the prevention and control work has once again showed the significant advantages of the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics.”

Yet this is a patently false analogy. Many democracies such as Taiwan and New Zealand handled the outbreak in exemplary fashion; the pandemic’s rampaging effects are more a reflection of the competency of individual governments rather than the victory of authoritarianism over democracy.

Interestingly, for some weeks in the center of the crisis, Xi disappeared from public and delegated responsibilities to Premier Li Keqiang. This is rare for a messianic leader who likes to take credit for everything that happens in China, but it illustrates how he was under intense pressure and was distancing himself if things went worse. He only reappeared upon the cusp of victory to gain the credit.

Everything in China is subverted to just one purpose, to bolster the CCP’s standing and to legitimize the leader. The party fears the will of the people most of all.

McGregor thus noted: “Despite outlasting the Soviet communist party as a governing entity, the CCP still frets it will fall through the trapdoor of Chinese history, in which the glorious rise of dynasties has inevitably been followed by their corrosion and corruption, and then collapse. The CCP, in contrast to other fallen communist parties, has pledged to break out of the dynastic cycle by incessantly reinforcing a focus on political awareness and loyalty to President Xi and the party.”

Xi’s COVID-19 remediation strategy was essentially threefold: pump money into job creation; censor any dissenting views; and redirect anger with an appeal to nationalism. After restraining coronavirus, China soon pursued a two-pronged propaganda campaign at home and abroad. Beijing deliberately played down other countries’ donations as it fought the coronavirus, but proudly trumpeted its own efforts as aid flowed in the opposite direction. However, the latter’s “facemask diplomacy” backfired when it peddled inferior products and the realization hit home that China was ultimately responsible for spreading the disease worldwide, decimating national economies and personal livelihoods.

Most informative of all was China’s hardline belligerence regarding the origins of the virus. Officials accused the USA of starting it, for example. China also castigated Australia for seeking an international enquiry into COVID-19’s origins. It resorted to the same old canard – China is innocent and certainly does not deserve vilification.

China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” proved particularly self-defeating too. The country’s refusal to admit failure and its denial of responsibility turned many against China. Humility is absent from the CCP, for to admit failure is intolerable for authoritarians.

This type of arrogance is captured in an obsequious Global Times opinion piece criticizing the West for blaming China for nurturing COVID-19. “Lies told a thousand times remain lies. In the face of an unknown virus, no government is prepared enough. But the important thing is we admit our limits and faults, and join hands to fight the real enemy.” These words were being aimed at the West, but there was no hint of irony that they applied more accurately to China’s actions.

Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University of China, admitted, “The aim is to promote the Chinese political system as superior, and to project the image of China as a world leader in combating a global health crisis. But the problem is, [these efforts] have failed to recognize the complexities that have emerged on the global stage during the pandemic, and they are being done too hastily, too soon and too loudly in tone, so there is a huge gap between what is intended and what is achieved.”

A report from the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a think tank of the Ministry of State Security, was leaked earlier this year. One segment stated, “Beijing faces a wave of anti-China sentiment led by the United States in the aftermath of the pandemic and needs to be prepared in a worst-case scenario for armed confrontation between the two global powers.”

Indeed, relations between Beijing and Washington are at their lowest ebb for years. Many Chinese believe the US has a poor impression of their country, and that they are being unjustly demonized. They also feel the USA is rather pushy, and cannot believe that Washington would launch a trade war and impose such stiff tariffs. The fact that both the Republicans and Democrats are somewhat united in their stance against China is rather unprecedented too, although it is not coincidental that the USA is in electioneering mode right now.

Confronting China has, in many ways, become the one organizing factor in current US foreign policy. This can be seen in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent statement on the South China Sea, and a strongly anti-CCP speech on 23 July. Even if President Donald Trump has only a single term in office, it is difficult to conceive of a dramatic about-turn in American foreign policy.

Perhaps unwittingly, Xi has made China a prime target. And who has come out on China’s side? Despite what it regards as generosity under its Belt and Road Initiative, China is receiving little tangible sympathy for its “suffering” at the hands of the USA.

All the above factors are forcing China to rethink its understanding of and relationship to the USA. Many are advocating that their country return to the past policy of keeping a lower profile. Yet this seems unlikely, for Xi retains three key aims: comprehensively modernizing China with the CCP at the helm; reunifying Taiwan; and making China powerful globally.

A number among the patriotically-crazed Chinese populace were advocating that China should invade Taiwan, as things are already going so badly with the USA anyway. However, cooler heads believe such a move would be far too costly and risky, and that energy would be better spent on “national rejuvenation”. Even Qiao Liang, a hawkish retired air force major general, posted on WeChat recently, “This impulsive way of decision-making based on determination or confidence (more of a spur-of-the-moment) without regard for self or external constraints is misconstrued as patriotism, which is actually harmful to the country.” Qiao posited a longer-term strategic view was needed for China.

A good portion of the CCP’s legitimacy comes from increased prosperity. Xi and his cohorts are terrified at the prospect of millions of unemployed, for this will fan social unrest. As long as people are making money, they believe their position is secure. Now they feel vulnerable, as many of the country’s 149 million self-employed business owners and 174 million migrant workers are losing their incomes.

Xi’s response in a time of testing is to double down on existing policies and to issue rallying calls to gather around the flag (which he, of course, is holding aloft). At the 19th Party Congress in 2017, he was already proclaiming, “The banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics is now flying high and proud for all to see.”

Xi recognizes the struggle is now becoming harder, but he always knew this would be so. Back in 2013, Xi warned for “a fairly long time yet, socialism in its primary stage will exist alongside a more productive and developed capitalist system … [There will be a] long period of cooperation and of conflict between these two social systems” before China has “the dominant position”.

“Socialism with Chinese characteristics” decrees that modernization must be led by the CCP acting in the interests of the “overwhelming majority” of the people. Leninism would teach that free markets and free elections lead to rule by selfish elites, so China’s rejuvenation relies on the CCP protecting the people from both. Of course, it can be easily argued that China is ruled by a selfish elite, for China’s bureaucratic heart numbers only about 3,500-4,000 personnel, each of which is screened by the party center.

Xi perhaps fervently believes capitalism will die out and that socialism will ultimately prove victorious. But more than that, he yearns for moral recognition from the rest of the world that his way is right, something that his “community of common destiny for mankind” will make patently clear to all.

What the rest of the world would really like is a conciliatory approach from China, but “conciliation” is not in Xi’s lexicon. It cannot be, for the future of China hinges solely in Xi’s godlike hands, or so the CCP’s narrative goes. That is why China must behave as the “artless dodger”, deflecting blame and reveling in self-aggrandizement.