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‘A lot of China’s positions are grounded in their environment and cultural conditioning … It’s to do with Chinese nationalism’

As a young diplomat Vijay Gokhale, former foreign secretary, witnessed China’s watershed protests in 1989. It led to his book, ‘Tiananmen Square: The Making of a Protest’. He distilled the lessons in an interview to Indrani Bagchi:

Tiananmen was happening around the same time that Soviet Union was going through momentous changes. How did you read the Chinese actions then?

China’s turn predated that of the Soviet Union. Deng had, in the early 80s, more or less charted out the plan for economic reform, whereas Gorbachev came to power only in 1985. You would see during the Tiananmen crisis that the Chinese were grappling with the fact that the two largest Communist countries were following divergent paths, one giving political reform primacy, the other to economic reform and suppressing political views.

Deng used to say repeatedly, the stability of society is essential. Unless there is stability you can neither give economic wellbeing to the people nor political security. He started with the assumption that social stability is the critical point from which any reform had to begin. He concluded that to maintain social stability, economic well being must precede any kind of political reform. Otherwise there would be a collapse of the system. History was to prove him right. The collapse of the Soviet Union probably shocked the Chinese more than it shocked the Americans.

I believe Deng is the hero of modern China. We may debate the fact that he crushed a democratic movement, did not allow political freedom. But he is the man who led China out of the morass of the cultural revolution on the path to the enormous power we’re seeing today.

You have challenged the western media narrative of the Tiananmen Square incident, in your book. Why did you feel it necessary to correct that?

I want to preface it with the fact that 1989 was a different era for all of us. Nobody could have predicted the fall of the Soviet Union just six months later. It was clear media on both sides of the divide had a certain ideological bent. Notwithstanding, my personal experience during those 50 days was that a lot of the western media fed off each other and fed off the students in the square, without actually cross-checking their information. There were a number of instances when I knew that their facts were not fully accurate. Or that their sources were questionable. For me that was a revelation. That is why I felt I needed to bring out that the Chinese side is hiding some facts but also that the western media was giving its own slant to the whole thing.

What were the Chinese trying to hide?

First, they were embarrassed that the inner workings of the Party had been exposed to the international community. They had always prided themselves on unity within and among the leadership of the Communist party. It was embarrassing that infighting within the party spilled out into the public.

There was a deeper worry – that, with every generation succeeding Mao Zedong and the first generation, the party would weaken from within. The ideals of the first generation would no longer be valid for subsequent generations. Henry Kissinger said he was surprised the Chinese Communist system had evolved into a feudal system. The first generation leaders’ children and grandchildren believed they were the inheritors of the revolution and therefore rightfully the rulers of the country, people who should benefit from the sacrifices of their fathers and grandfathers.

This worry is reflected in one phrase President Xi Jinping uses in his speeches. He says “we must pass on the Red gene”. This in a sense, symbolises the whole issue. The concern that the enormous amount of prosperity, wealth, comfort that has come to the Chinese people will dilute the Red gene. The Red gene is all that stands between the supremacy of the Communist party and what they consider to be chaos.

That was the theme that ran through Tiananmen and that runs through the leadership today as well.

Xi Jinping himself is a princeling, why did he turn out differently?

Xi Jinping is separate from a lot of other princelings. If you look at some of progeny of other leaders, like Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, other Elders like Chen Yun and Li Xiannian, their children went to the top corporate jobs, made money and lived the good life in Beijing or Shanghai.

Xi Jinping despite coming from the “reddest of the red” families, chose to go back into the rural areas, work for the party in those areas and come up from the grassroots. His life experience was very different from the life experiences of all his contemporaries who are princelings. Perhaps early on Xi realised he was the inheritor of a great tradition. That tradition would continue only if that grassroots connect remained. Now that he is in power, there are two ways of looking at what he is doing – the conventional way is as a naked agglomeration of power. Did away with the two-term presidential limit; became commander in chief of the army, which even Mao and Deng never did; he has declared himself to be the core of the leadership and so on. That’s one way of looking at it.

But the other way is perhaps he is acting to ensure that he can turn back the tide – of the dilution of the party to the point where it disappears. Therefore, he targeted those institutions where he needs the Red gene to pass on to ensure the Party remains in power for the next 100 years. Which is why he started in the Army and public security organs, which are the main instruments of the State. He first purged those, then he gradually moved into other areas, now in the cultural and media and corporate fields.

The west believed an economically open China would result in a more liberal China. How do you explain today’s China?

That is just a misguided western notion. Right from 1989, the Indian political leadership and the MEA maintained that at every point the Chinese have masterfully exploited the west. We told western delegations they were going easy on the Chinese on a number of issues on which they would come down much more heavily on us, not just human rights, but on trade, intellectual property rights and so on.

The cynical response we would get is “we hold India to a higher standard.”

Because they were making enormous amounts of money in China, they were prepared to overlook IPR violations and stealing of technology. I think they believed the gap between them and the Chinese was so large, the technological edge was so great that China would take many generations to catch up.

They did not reckon for the fact that China was being led by a set of leaders who not only had a grip of the political situation but who were technologically educated – they were engineers and doctors etc, they understood technology and the system allowed them to channelise funds into developing core technologies. That is the reason for the rapid jump within a generation, something the west did not expect. Now China has become a true challenger.

Which means China will remain China, not a westernised Asian power?

That is a message Indians should understand as well. There is a feeling that China’s position on certain key issues relating to India-China relations might change. We need to understand that a lot of China’s positions are grounded in their environment and cultural conditioning. It has nothing to do with the Communist Party. One has only to look at India’s brief relationship with Nationalist China, that is, China under Chiang Kai Shek – their position on India-China boundary, on McMahon Line, on Sikkim, is exactly the same as the PRC. It has nothing to do with Communist China, but Chinese nationalism.



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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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