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Taking China to its Future is Taking China to its Past: Watchout India; By Rakesh Neelakandan

Updated: Nov 23, 2022

Image Courtesy: The Indian Express

Article 52/2022

In the beginning of this month, the Chinese supremo Xi Jinping conveyed his condolences to The President of India Droupadi Murmu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after the tragic event of a suspension bridge collapse occurred at the Machchhu river in the Morbi district of Gujarat that killed at least 135 people. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi too joined in sending their condolences across.

The Hindustan Times reported that the news of the tragedy also trended on the Chinese social media platform Weibo last Monday, and one news report on the incident was read 96 million times!

Even though this outreach is not surprising and is a measure of extending a courtesy with good intentions, the fact that it came from Xi Jinping of China has significance. Yes, Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin and many other leaders have extended their condolences on the incident. But the developments in India-China relations have been following an uncertain trajectory for some time now, which adds to the significance of the message. When the brutal clash unfolded at the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh in June 2020, the progress on the relationship front between the two nuclear-armed neighbours since then has been far from robust. Even as both sides have disengaged from most of the friction points, a silent unease marks the borders as the heavy deployment of armed forces continues.

The tragic event took place in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, and with the Assembly elections looming there, any degree of comfort, however minuscule it may sound, would be welcomed by the highest powers in the government. The following point may sound cynical, but this could be a psychological move by the Chinese leadership signalling a tactical engagement which has some strategic significance. The Chinese side may want to extend warm hands of friendship and comfort to a strong leader who is concerned about the incident and gain some goodwill mileage out of it from a tactical point of view.

While India should and has accepted the condolence and comfort, the real intent of China should not be forgotten. And if history is any guide should not nurse any delusions vis-à-vis the strategic intent, interests, and desires of China.

Mao and his great leap backwards

Quantum Leap is a phenomenon wherein many decades of advancement gets packed into mere years.

The Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), in which Mao’s China aimed to take the peasant nation from an impoverished past to a quantum-leapt-future of an industrialised nation, backfired spectacularly. Peasant communes, backyard steel furnaces, bureaucratic exigencies, terrible famine and a host of other degenerations marked the tragic era, which was only second to The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) in its degree of soul-extinguishing sufferings, characterising both eras.

Unfortunately, India had to pay a heavy price for this; as a trustworthy neighbour, China undertook a political-diplomatic-military somersault at its borders and attacked and annexed Indian territory. Millennia of peace and tranquillity were shattered, which would be followed by decades after decades of entrenchment of strategic mistrust between both nations with a permanent stand-off in the Himalayas (and now the Indian Ocean) as Mao scurried to secure a saving grace and legitimacy to continue with his iron-fist rule by excusing India to a war.

Like a magician flourishing on a stage, he succeeded in distracting the Chinese populace from the perils of the Great Leap backwards and rekindled the spirit of Chinese nationalism of which he himself was an embodiment and cemented his position as the saviour of China, Chinese people, and Chinese culture.

The question is how this age-old political trick of making the domestic populace galvanise under the extant but unpopular political leadership against an external ‘enemy’ hold warnings for India.

The rise of Xi Jinping

Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao followed on the trail after Mao’s death. But none of them were like Xi Jinping or Mao, or for that matter, they were all pro-anti-Mao, oxymoronic as it may sound. The trio were pro-Mao in that they did not demonise him as they sat down on his vacant chair one after the other and anti-Mao in the sense that they made it an opportunity to make clear, decisive, and stated departures from his legacy, erasing it completely in a way, carrying policies forward to that effect with his portrait watching over them.

But Xi Jinping, whose name is now etched on the Chinese Communist Party’s Constitution, is pro-Mao. He is, in fact, another Mao, minus the domestic burdens and challenges that Mao had to bear, making him even more powerful.

His centralisation of power and his transforming into a ‘yellow giant’ with the gravity of power concentrating in his hands have germinated the Zero-Covid policy. While hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens have been locked down in the name of this policy, it is, in fact, a learning curve for Xi. He is mass-experimenting in that his great power aspirations will come full circle. Ensuring domestic obedience and fealty is the first step towards aspiring for and carrying out international domination. The recently concluded Party Congress has provided the world with clear indications in this regard.

Learning from history so as not to be in an unfortunate position to repeat the instance, if the domestic situation in China turns bleak in terms of civil disobedience and protests, Xi Jinping will use Mao’s playbook. In other words, the great tightening of Xi if it backfires as some stray incidents suggest, the condolences extended by Xi on the collapse of the bridge at Gujarat may turn belligerent, and other Galwans may happen.

It is better to be prepared than not!

(Mr. Rakesh Neelakandan is a Kerala-based observer of Constitutional Affairs, Political Affairs and Foreign Policy & IR of nations. He works as a Content Specialist for a Dubai-based enterprise. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of C3S)

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