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Why China could have a difficult 2009

By Claude Arpi
February 20, 2009 14:45 IST
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The Rat Year was a glorious one. The White Paper on Defence published by Beijing a few days before the Chinese New Year states: 'The year 2008 was an extraordinary one in the history of the People's Republic of China. In that year China overcame a devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province; successfully hosted the 29th Olympic Games and Paralympics in Beijing; and greeted the 30th anniversary of the adoption of reform and opening-up policies.'

Apart from the Olympics, Beijing 'celebrated' 30 years of open policies. Nobody can doubt today that the strategies ushered in by Deng Xiaoping have made of China a powerful nation.

In December 1978, during the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Deng had explained that it did not matter whether cats were black or white (or red in that case), if they could catch mice. A few months later, drastic economic reforms started and China began catching mice.

Beijing's new mottos became 'Seeking the truth through the facts' or 'It is better to see once than to hear a hundred times.'

Even in foreign policy, winds of change were blowing. Vis-a-vis India, the Chinese leaders said that they were keen to erase the past and look at new avenues for the future. At the end of 1978, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then India's external affairs minister, was invited to visit China. For various reasons, his trip did not materialise until February 1979.

Vajpayee arrived in Beijing on February 12 and detailed talks soon began. The following day, then Chinese foreign minister Huang Hua offered a banquet in honour of his Indian counterpart. Hua declared: 'China and India have been friendly neighbours since ancient times, and many records about friendly contacts between our two peoples can be found in old Chinese books.'

The Chinese minister added: 'The Chinese government has always stood for the settlement of all disputes through negotiations on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and the Chinese government believes that all differences and disputes can eventually be resolved if the two sides make earnest efforts in the spirit of seeking truth from facts and of mutual understanding and mutual accommodation.'

That sounded like a good new beginning!

Everything moved smoothly, especially after Vajpayee replied: 'Our two countries belong to Asia. We also share the majestic Himalayas along which runs our common border. Our two nations comprise two-fifth of the human race. We are heirs of two of the ancient civilisations in the world.'

Was it the beginning of a new Hindi-Chini bhai bhai era?

Vajpayee, the great orator thundered, 'The independence of India symbolised the end of imperialism. It was followed soon afterwards by the establishment of the great People's Republic of China. These events together represented the resurgence of a new political vitality in the old continent of Asia.' The Indian minister then gave a long and powerful speech on Mahatma Gandhi and the importance of non-violence.

During the next days, consultations and in-depth talks continued; everything was finally going to end well between the two giant nations.

Deng Xiaoping even offered a package deal to solve the vexed border issue: India could keep the populated areas of NEFA (today Arunachal Pradesh), while China would continue to occupy the barren Aksai Chin. Was it not a fair deal?

However some remarks by Deng at a press conference should have triggered some doubts in the minds of the Indian delegation. While Vajpayee was speaking of peace and collaboration, Deng pointed out: 'The international situation is by no means tranquil and so is the situation in Asia. Hegemonism is now vigorously pushing its policy of southward advance. The developments in Indo-China are causing serious anxiety, and it takes the joint efforts of ail the Asian peoples to resolve these problems. Without such joint efforts, it would be difficult to achieve peace, security and stability in Asia and the world as a whole.'

In passing Deng mentioned the Vietnamese aggressiveness, however it was 'China's hope that no world war would break out again within this century.'

It was February 14.

During the next two days, friendly talks followed more banquets and speeches; everything went by the script till February 17, when some 200,000 troops of the People's Liberation Army supported by 200 tanks entered northern Vietnam. The PLA forces coming from the Kunming, Chengdu, Wuhan and Guangzhou Military Regions, had not been deployed in one day.

Was it that while talks were on about peaceful co-existence, war preparations continued? It later became known that a US KH-9 'Big Bird' photographic reconnaissance satellite had already spotted the movements of troops a few months earlier.

If one is seeking truth from facts, what to conclude? Let us look at facts.

The People's Republic of China had decided to 'teach a lesson' to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam for having overthrown the Beijing-supported Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

The 'War of Angry Cousins' as Time magazine termed it, would be brief, but bloody. The PLA withdrew a month later. Though both sides claimed victory, it is generally acknowledged that Beijing got a bloody nose in the adventure.

For India, it was a terrible shock. Then prime minister Morarji Desai immediately expressed his distress. He stated that this 'created a situation endangering international peace and security¬Ö India has always urged the settlement of disputes between the two countries through peaceful, bilateral negotiations.' It is what Vajpayee had also probably understood. Desai pleaded for restoration of peace. As a first step towards cessation of hostilities, he emphasised the need for immediate withdrawal of Chinese forces from Vietnamese territory.

Vajpayee had to leave China in a hurry.

The least that one can say is that the Chinese actions did not match their banquet words: Starting a war with Vietnam during the Indian minister's visit was not the best way to trigger a new friendship.

On his return, Vajpayee reported to Parliament: 'I myself heard of these developments late in the evening of February 17, when I was in Hangchow, through a news agency report and the international radio network. As I was not near any of our diplomatic missions, I tried to gather as much firm information as possible. When reports confirmed these grave developments, I decided immediately to cancel the remaining programme of my stay in China and sought the help of the Chinese authorities to get to Hong Kong and to return to India the same day.'

'Our serious concern at these developments,' he added, 'was conveyed to the Chinese authorities in Peking through the Chinese Ambassador to India, who was accompanying our party on the tour.'

Did India learn a lesson about seeking the truth from facts?

The Chinese are usually fond of commemorations, but the Vietnam War will probably conveniently be forgotten. The new Ox Year will witness many such 'celebrations.'

One will be on March 10, 50 years ago the entire Tibetan population in Lhasa rose against the Chinese invaders. A week later the Dalai Lama left his palace at night to take refugee in India. Since then, he is a refugee in India.

And then, there is the 20th anniversary of Martial Law in Tibet (March 8, 1989); three months later, China witnessed its student revolution which ended tragically on Tiananmen Square on June 4. Three thousand students are said to have lost their lives. Of course, there will be no official commemoration for these momentous events.

On October 1, the People's Republic of China will however celebrate with great pomp the 60th year of its foundation. Mao Zedong told millions of Chinese assembled on the same Tiananmen Square: 'China has risen.' Today nobody denies the importance of this historic event for China and the world, but at the same time, let us not forget, many important events in the modern Chinese history have been triggered by 'memorials' and this year's long list worries the leadership in Beijing immensely.

Despite the phenomenal rise of the People's Republic, all is not rosy in the Middle Kingdom and the Ox Year may be one of the most difficult of the People's Republic's 60 years of existence.

Today, President Hu Jintao only speaks of 'safeguarding national security and maintaining harmony and stability in society.' It is not an easy task, when repression is the only weapon known to him and his colleagues.

The economic crisis has also brought its tale of desperation, not only in China, but also in Tibet. China watchers agree that it could be a time bomb.

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Claude Arpi