Hope is my mind’s secret fear.
Hope is my heart’s sacred courage.
Hope is my life’s daring experience.
– Sri Chinmoy on Hope
During the last week of June, a group of Nepali lawmakers from the Tarai plains travelled to Dharamsala to meet the Dalai Lama. Apparently, the visit was more political than religious, and a hint of conspiracy has since hung around the sojourn. Immediately upon their return from the political pilgrimage, these ‘heretical’ lawmakers were summoned to Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal’s residence and given a dressing-down, reportedly in the presence of a Chinese diplomat. Nepal told them that the act of meeting the religious head of a significant Buddhist sect was tantamount to shaking hands with a notorious abductor and ruthless killer. In the aftermath of these events, the Nepali Foreign Ministry reiterated, for the zillionth time, its commitment to the ‘One China’ policy. Along the same lines, the Home Ministry expressed Nepal’s commitment towards maintaining friendly ties with neighbouring nations, promising to not allow Nepali territory to be used as a venue of protests against them.
The reaction in Kathmandu to this seemingly insignificant visit shows the intensity of the fear of China’s possible displeasure causes in the capital cities of Southasia. Powerful nations of the world are also extremely careful when it comes to dealing with the Chinese bugbear – last year, fear of China made Japan snub the Dalai Lama when His Holiness travelled via the airport Narita to address a group of scholars assembled in the southwestern city of Fukuoka. Despite their lip-service to the cause of human rights and democracy, rarely will a Western government risk inviting Beijing’s displeasure by being overtly supportive of political dissent within the sprawling territory of the Celestial Empire. But the dread of the Chinese dragon in Southasia is mixed with an element of expectation – as if the regimes of the Subcontinent believe that Beijing could be a possible saviour in time of crisis, and needs to be constantly courted.
Since the Chinese Empire never managed to cross the Himalayan divide, Southasians have little or no knowledge of the steamroller Han hegemony. On the other hand, memories of Western colonialism have been magnified manifold due to what is often perceived as its constant posthumous interference. Dhaka gets irritated every time the Western media carries alarming reports about the rise of Islamism in the backwaters of Bangladesh. Colombo hates being tweaked for human-rights violations and war crimes in the northern areas. Americans are building a brand-new USD 736 million fortress of an ‘embassy’ in Islamabad, the second biggest in the world after the Vatican City-sized US enclave in Baghdad. Pakistanis realise the significance of this imperial outpost and writhe with discomfiture whenever US strategic analysts hyphenate their ‘nuclear power’ nation with the failed-state lying west of their borders.
For the left-leaning intelligentsia in Kathmandu, ‘imperialist’ is a euphemism for the US, whereas ‘expansionist’ invariably means India – the two powers they portray as the main ‘enemies’ of the sovereignty, independence and self-respect of Nepal. Even in establishment circles at Bhadrakali and Singha Durbar, headquarters of the military and bureaucratic authority respectively, the Western countries are resented for what they demand in return for financial assistance. Similarly, the domineering presence of India is a constant irritation. In comparison, the Chinese, who are always there whenever military supplies get difficult to obtain from elsewhere, look like benevolent angels. Consequently, Beijing has been the default ‘strategic security partner’ for almost every government in duress in Southasia, except in India. And no other country since the collapse of the Soviet Union has offered so many academic scholarships for the progenies of Third World leaders to study medicine and engineering. For the power elite of Southasia, the dragon is indeed benign – even if it twists its tails once in a while to repeat the mantra: China is One.
Despite this outward solidity, the Middle Kingdom suffers from deep insecurities. Mandarins in Beijing continue under the vehement belief that the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century sapped the energy of their ancient civilisation. The Rape of Nanking (1937-38) humiliated it further, damaging the image of invincible empire permanently. During its recovery, the pioneering republican and fiery revolutionary Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) re-imagined the lost empire as a nation state. Despite his imperial pretensions, Mao Tse-tung merely modified and changed the Kuomintang’s order of priorities. The old ‘Three Principles’ – nationalism, democracy and people’s livelihood – remain in place. Mao simply integrated them with his notion of ‘creation through destruction’, presumably the strategy of choice for a defeated nation to build anew from the wreckage of the past through sacrifice and penance.
Unlike its earlier imperial avatar, the Chinese nation state feels vulnerable in the face of the humiliating experiences of recent history and the challenges posed by the contemporary world. For the assertive but nervous babus in Beijing, China is like a hand with five fingers: the Han, the Manchus, the Mongolians, the Uyghurs and the Tibetans. More ominously, these mandarins believe that Taiwan was created in conspiracy to keep China perpetually on its knees. Similarly, the Tiananmen protests of 1989 were blown out of proportion in order to embarrass a state on the rebound. Fear is bad enough in smaller nation states – it makes flailing North Korea build more missiles, prompts poor Pakistan to acquiring nuclear weapons, and forces Saudi Arabia to host kafir troops on its shores. The anxieties of a giant produce anomalies of monumental proportions.
A response to this prevailing fear strategy, a favourite means of ensuring territorial integrity, has been a push for demographic domination by the Han in all the provinces. If that threatens the Manchus, Mongolians, Uyghurs and Tibetans, so be it. Pandering to the prejudices of the Han majority – over 92 percent of population – is the safest way of keeping simmering dissatisfaction among the majority community under check. A senior Chinese intellectual once confided in private that President Hu Jintao has immense respect for the Dalai Lama from his days as the chief of the Communist Party in Tibet, but he cannot go beyond a certain point to accommodate the spiritual leader for fear of antagonising Han settlers in the high plateau.
The Chinese hubris too has a long history. Smug in the knowledge of having been discoverers of gunpowder, printing technology, ceramics and paper, the Qian Long Emperor told George III during George Macartney’s mission in 1793 that China had nothing to learn from the West. The new emperors of Beijing now believe that they have nothing to teach either. That too is hubris, though of a different kind – it makes them smug, diffident and belligerent, all at the same time.
Today, the West does not know what to make of a fire-breathing dragon that runs like a panther, flies like an eagle, walks like a rhinoceros, slithers like a snake, hunts like a tiger and remembers everything like an elephant. In the middle of this worldwide recession, the redoubtable Forbes gushed that there was a ‘V-shaped recovery’ when China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced that its annual gross-domestic-product growth at the end of the second quarter was 7.9 percent, up from the 6.1 percent of the first. China’s foreign currency reserves of over USD 2 trillion, its huge market, ever-expanding infrastructure and stable pool of relatively meek and cheap labour continue to attract adventurous investors, just as gold and silk allured traders to its shores in the past.
China is communist, but not the new Soviet Union. It is Oriental, ‘Asian’ in the newspeak of Lee Kuan Yew, but not just a giant Japan or Korea. It may be an empire-in-the-making, but quite unlike the Germany of William I. About Russians, Winston Churchill once said in his inimitable prose, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Perhaps this also explains the seemingly erratic behaviour of Chinese leaders more than anything else. And it is just this that makes Southasian leaders tremble with fear even as they look up to Beijing with expectant eyes: Chinese national interests are perceived as harmless for the sovereignty, integrity and independence of the smaller states – the size being relative to India – in Southasia.