‘Mao Tse Tung, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping are dominant figures, but even their times have seen factionalism and rivalry within the party’
China’s internal situation remains its biggest concern 32 years after the Tiananmen Square protests, says former Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, the author of the book “The Making of a protest: A diplomat looks back”.
In an interview to The Hindu he says President Xi’s challenges are similar to the past, but circumstances are different. Excerpts:
Your book “Tiananmen Square” focuses on the growing unrest amongst students in 1989, but also focuses on the divisions within the Chinese Communist party that led to protests. Do those divisions still exist, under President Xi Jinping?
One of the myths is the sense among many in India that China and the CCP is a monolith, with one leader, one chain of command, and 1.4 billion people following that leader. Any study of the CCP would show the severe factionalism within the party at different points in history. Mao Tse Tung, Deng Xiaoping and currently Xi Jinping are dominant figures, but even their times have seen factionalism and rivalry within the party. It is just that the Chinese system is closed, media can’t cover these issues, and so we don’t get to see it.
Do you see any similarities between today and that period during the Tiananmen protests?
The one similarity is that both Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping share the same vision, that China must be led by the Communist Party, and that the authority and dominance of the party in political terms must not be allowed to be diluted. As a result of China’s growth, the West which looked upon China as a sort of cash cow in 1990, now sees China as a bit of a carnivore, waiting to devour them. Because the fact is that China is not only the world’s second largest economy now, and in some ways, a true challenger to the west’s domination of technology, equipment, manufacturing, and so on. In 1990, China was much weaker, and therefore Deng Xiaoping spoke of keeping of lying low, and not raising your head, and waiting and watching and biding your time. Today, China’s economy is the second largest in the world, it is the world’s largest foreign investor, it is the world’s second or third most powerful armed force, it has a huge diplomatic influence abroad. And therefore Mr. Xi’s policy is one where China is beginning to assert itself.
Are the challenges President Xi faces internally, in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong of a different order from what Deng faced in 1989 with the protests?
When it comes to the pacification of the minorities and of the borderlands, I think there is almost nothing to choose between Mao, Deng and Xi. However, I feel the response of the Chinese government to the protests in Hong Kong, the haste with which they are proceeding, the determination to completely crush any kind of dissent must be watched closely in India as it will also play out badly in Taiwan. The concern is whether the Chinese leadership has reached the view that a reunification of Taiwan with the Mainland by peaceful means may no longer be possible, and therefore they may have to contemplate some kind of military of forceful action. If that conclusion has already been reached in Beijing, then what they’re doing in Hongkong makes perfect sense, because then they’re not looking to set up Hong Kong as an example for Taiwan, which is what Deng Xiaoping did with his one country, two systems experiment (for Hong Kong).
32 years ago too we were in the middle of a long standoff at the LAC (Sumdorong Chu). In terms of dealing with India, how has China changed?
China’s confidence today comes from what some might call a false confidence that China is fated to rise and rise, and the West is fated to fall and fall. This has been further reinforced by [how they have dealt with] the COVID pandemic. However this strong external confidence that China is still combined with an internal paranoia, especially about the sustainability of the Communist Party in China. Any country which doesn’t align with China is one which is potentially a threat to them, and increasingly it is in this category that India falls. India is a major power, has a relatively autonomous foreign policy. We have friends all over the place, and we would like to be friends with China as well. But there are certain policies we have not aligned to, for instance, Belt and road, as it violates our sovereignty. And therefore, I feel that there has been a certain misreading of Indian intentions by the Chinese side. In the short term, of course, what has been happening [at the LAC] is concerning for us. In the long term one hopes China senses that it is not in its national interest to create an adversary of a country which is not only a neighbour, but which is also going to share a bigger stage with China in the future. But I think that in the interim, we are in for a difficult ride.