There is worldwide admiration for the remarkable economic transformation of China during the last 30 years. I recall that precisely three decades ago, when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China, its capital Beijing and the port city of Shanghai were sleepy cities, with people largely travelling around in bicycles. In contract, anyone visiting China over the past decade has been struck by the bustling traffic, frenetic construction activity and huge skyscrapers dotting the skyline. Never in recent history has a country experienced such a remarkable economic transformation, so rapidly.
But, every coin has its two sides. The Biblical saying that “Man does not live by bread alone,” rings true in China, if one carefully assesses the costs paid by the people of China, in the absence of democratic and religious freedoms, during this period of remarkable economic transformation.
One has to travel from Hong Kong on China’s east to its western corner in Xinjiang to understand the impact of modern communications and mobility on personal behaviour and perceptions, in these two far ends of China.
The collapse of the Soviet Union inevitably led to the return of religious freedom in Moscow’s Muslim-dominated Islamic republics, bordering Xinjiang. This religiosity had an immediate impact on life in Xinjiang. Islamic conservatism and traditions in Central Asia inevitably affected the lives of people in Xinjiang. What followed was a bloody Han Chinese repression of Xinjiang’s Muslim Uighur population and attempts to change the ethnic composition of the region.
While the world looked on, unwilling to say anything for years about the happenings in Xinjiang, the truth can no longer be hidden or glossed over. Barely a week ago, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published details of a huge number of ‘Internal Chinese Files’. These files reveal the extent to which China has gone, not only to assimilate Xinjiang’s Muslim Uighurs, but also provide details of how an estimated two million Uighurs are forced to live in camps, compelled to speak exclusively in Mandarin and wear Chinese attire.
In these specially constructed “camps,” the Uighurs’ captors have guidelines that “effectively serve as a manual for operating the camps”. The camps are run ruthlessly. Children are separated from parents and face a vigorous programme of indoctrination, while their captors even determine when to “let detainees see relatives, or even use toilets”.
How has the world reacted to these developments? Earlier this year, 23 countries — led by the US and its allies such as Germany, France, Japan and Australia — addressed a letter to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), calling for the Council to urge China to close down its “camps” in Xinjiang.
China, in turn, persuaded 54 countries — including Russia, the Philippines, Venezuela, Serbia, Myanmar and Pakistan — to address a joint letter to the UNHRC, praising China’s “remarkable achievements in Xinjiang”.
China effectively proved that it could do one better than the Western world when it came to defending its interests in the UNHRC. While 27 members of the UNHRC backed the US-led resolution, 54 toed the Chinese line. Even China’s Central Asian neighbours like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (all fellow Muslims sharing borders with Xinjiang), lacked the courage to condemn Chinese actions against their ethnic kinsmen. Saudi Arabia, too, signed letter praising China’s “remarkable achievements” in Xinjiang. Even Saudi Arabia’s arch rival Iran — which pontificates profusely on Jammu and Kashmir — has looked the other way and praises Beijing.
China’s economic clout and political outreach now effectively safeguard it against criticism from virtually all the Islamic countries in its western neighbourhood.
China’s problems are not confined any longer to Xinjiang on its western border. The latest flashpoint is the not-yet-fully integrated Hong Kong, handed over to China after British Colonial rule ended in 1997.
Hong Kong has evolved differently from the mainland. It is a multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-cultural society, which cherishes its diversity. Over 40 million mainlanders visit Hong Kong annually and breathe in the fresh air of democratic freedom. China is, however, carefully strengthening its stranglehold over Hong Kong. The clash between democratic freedom and the rigid one-party rule of the mainland was inevitable. The Chinese-nominated Chief Executive of Hong Kong was predictably caught in the crossfire between the mainland’s Communist autocracy and Hong Kong’s free-wheeling population.
Over the past six months, Hong Kong has experienced a virtual shutdown as thousands of its protesters directly face off a professional, well-armed and well-trained police force. Despite warnings by Beijing, the protesters have remained undeterred in voicing their demand for greater freedom, as they stood against a now-withdrawn legislation for extending the power of courts in the mainland to residents of Hong Kong.
The grit and courage of the protestors has only been matched by their organisational capabilities and the readiness to sacrifice for their cause. The Chinese are in a quandary on what to do, as both Taiwan and Hong Kong are striking examples of how economic growth and prosperity can thrive in a democratic society.
The US and its European allies have lauded the calls for democratic freedom in Hong Kong. The US Congress enacted legislation imposing sanctions on Hong Kong officials, including the Hong Kong Police, who undermine democratic freedom. Democratic activists in Hong Kong welcomed the US Legislation. President Donald Trump, now exceedingly keen to sign a “trade deal” with China, was left with no option but to endorse the proposed congressional legislation.
China’s warts and moles now stand exposed. But it would be totally wrong to presume that China will head the way that Gorbachev’s Soviet Union went. China has immense civilisational resilience and now has an economy that can challenge the US. The Soviets used to describe Mao as a “Great Han Chauvinist”. Xi Jinping would no doubt be described privately, in Russia, in similar terms.
China will now inevitably move towards a more assertive role, both regionally and internationally. There may be concerns in the “Middle Kingdom” about people in Taiwan and Hong Kong quietly making common cause to challenge mainland hegemony. While Taiwan has developed an expertise in dealing with Beijing’s assertiveness, people in Hong Kong should not get carried way by professed American love for democracy.
India will hopefully carry on with a harmonious mix of imaginative diplomacy, firmness, defence preparedness and a readiness to explore avenues to benefit from China’s economic and technological strengths.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan