Beijing’s quick response to Modi’s ‘the age of expansionism is over’ is a clear indication that China has received the message loud and clear. This is why it makes sense to proceed with exceptional care and speak in riddles — just as China has been accustomed to doing
Among the features of Chinese culture that both amuses and confuses outsiders is the ability to talk in riddles — and conveniently attribute it to either Confucius or some unnamed “old Chinese philosopher”. In a study of the stereotypes that have marked Western — and not merely Western — understanding of China, historian Christopher Frayling in his book The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu & The Rise of Chinaphobia observed: “Most Americans’ knowledge of ‘Confucianism’ seemed to be pedantic aphorisms of be philosophical, fictional, asexual Hawaiian-Chinese detective from Honolulu, Charlie Chan: Hasty conclusions easy to make, like hole in water. It is difficult to pick up needle with boxing glove. Confucius says, ‘No man is poor who have worthy son’.”
On his part, Mao Zedong, the “Great Helmsman”, was a great one for elliptical aphorisms. Some of his sayings such as “imperialism is a paper tiger”, “a revolution is not a dinner party” and “one spark can light a prairie fire” have become all-time favourites, to be used in discourses both profound and utterly non-serious. Beyond the ridiculous, however, it is important to note that political communication in China has more often than not, been centred on tangential aphorisms such as Deng Xiaoping’s famous: “No matter if it is a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat” or “To be rich is glorious” — sayings that defined move away from the Maoist legacy.
In the last years of Mao’s life, for example, there was a fierce struggle for political supremacy between the so-called Gang of Four led by the Chairman’s wife Jiang Qing and the pragmatists who rallied behind Zhou Enlai. A feature of this battle was the use of Mao’s scathing criticism of Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart that ran parallel to his less acceptable denunciation of Confucius. In the bizarre world of China 1974, this gratuitous attack on the stalwarts of Western classical music — and Beethoven enjoyed a huge popularity in China — was widely interpreted as criticism of Jiang Qing because at some point in the past she had hosted a Western classical music concert.
The invocation of this Chinese custom of what a Bengali proverb — dating back to the politically incorrect era — described as “beating the maid to teach the wife a lesson” is pertinent in the context of some criticisms levelled against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech to the Indian soldiers in the Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control.
In his speech at Nimu, the Prime Minister asserted that “the age of expansionism is over; this is the age of development… Whenever we have seen expansionist tendencies, these have spelt dangers for world peace.”
Modi’s critics, many of whom have now expediently chosen to assume the mantle of ultra-nationalism, were unhappy that there were no direct references to China. To them, the Prime Minister was being wilfully evasive by not naming the adversary responsible for the deaths of 20 soldiers in the Galwan Valley last month. It was hinted that the leader had no stomach for a confrontation and was being ultra-cautious, for fear of offending China.
They need not have worried about the Prime Minister’s message not getting through and being lost in the mythological haze of the Shiva Puran and ambiguity. Accustomed as it is to elliptical messages, Beijing was quick to respond, describing the allusion to expansionism as “exaggerated and fabricated.” It warned India against making any strategic miscalculations in its China policy, a clear indication that it had received the message loud and clear.
For Beijing, an unarmed but lethal skirmish along the LAC — replete with disputed boundaries and contested maps — was intended as a localised and targeted attack on India. In its view, India was too big for its own good and needed to be shown its place, just as it was in 1962. From China’s perspective, a localised hit on an India that had earlier demonstrated its disinclination to fight back with gusto, made sense. However, Modi’s response has not been along expected lines.
First, there seems a determination to physically and militarily resist all Chinese incursions along the LAC. There are the interminable negotiations involving military and civilian officials on both sides, but India is not shying away from military deterrence.
Secondly, while bolstering India’s capacity along the LAC, Modi has extended the battle to the economic front by banning Chinese apps on grounds of national security and putting obstacles in the path of Chinese investments, services and goods. India, in effect, has done what many countries have been contemplating but haven’t actually done so. The Indian measures correspond to a growing anti-China mood in large parts of the world.
Finally, Indian diplomacy is quietly but quite decisively taking steps to mobilise international opinion. This is being done to ensure that in the event of any escalation along the LAC, it will be linked to the wider war to resist China’s post-Belt and Road hegemonism. In effect, India is wilfully taking the war away from its status as a localised battle over maps and plugging it into the larger disquiet over the new China-dominated global order that Xi Jinping is keen to usher. In short, it is drawing the entire Chinese ecosystem into the battle.
This is why it makes sense to proceed with exceptional care and speak in riddles — just as China has been accustomed to doing. There will be a time to communicate with greater forthrightness. That time has not yet come. For the moment the phoney war must go on.
Sunday, 05 July 2020 | Swapan Dasgupta
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