Friday 10 June 2011

Will Xi Talk to Dharamsala?

His Father's Son?
In 1954/55, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited China, he is said to have gifted a Rolex watch to Xi Zhongzun, the then vice premier of China. In 1980s when Tibetan fact-finding delegations from Dharamsala went to China and Tibet, Xi was the Chinese official interlocutor and was known to carry a photo of His Holiness in his pocket.

Xi was close to the 10th Panchen Lama, who submitted the historic 70,000 Character Petition to the Chinese government stating that Tibetans suffered more under Beijing's rule then they have benefited. His association with the Panchen Lama was one of the reasons why Mao purged him three times. Xi also supported Hu Yaobang’s political reform and denounced the use of military force in Tiananmen Square in 1989, after which he disappeared from public.

By all account, Xi Zhongxun, was a liberal communist, who is known for his integrity and forthrightness. Xi’s son Xi Jinping will takeover the communist throne in Zhongnanhai from the current Chinese boss, Hu Jintao, in 2012.

Unlike Hu, Xi can smile at least

Xi junior was born in 1953 and later witnessed Mao purge his father during the Cultural Revolution. His climb up the Communist ladder has been slow and un-dramatic. Xi joined the Chinese Youth League in 1971 and the Communist Party in 1974. After nearly three decades later, he took senior Party position in Zhejiang, one of the rich Chinese provinces and was made the Party chief of Shanghai in 2007. In October of the same year, Xi was inducted into the Politburo Standing Committee, a nine-member all-powerful group that decides the fate of world’s most populous nation.

Mrs. Xi in Tibetan finery
Xi has an engineering degree from Tsinghua University and is married to Peng Liyuan, a famous Chinese folk singer. Their daughter is enrolled at Harvard University. Over the last few years, he has attracted a number of international admirers for his ‘openness and pragmatism’, including former US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who said that Xi is "the kind of guy who knows how to get things over the goal line.” However, Xi’s personal political views remain foggy, which will likely to remain so until he takes office the next year and consolidates his power.

Dharamsala’s Hope

There is a curious optimism and lilting hope among the senior Tibetan leadership in Dharamsala that light may shine from Beijing soon. During his campaigns for the exile Tibetan prime minister, Lobsang Sangay, (he is now the prime minister-elect), said on numerous occasions that things might change for Tibet in 2012 when a new leadership headed by Xi Jinping take power in China. Similarly, the current Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche, during his final speech to the first session of the 15th Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, said that changes are taking place all over the world especially in the Middle East and that within the next few years ‘changes are likely to take place in the People’s Republic of China.’

Exile Tibetan Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche

There is an assumption that we are dealing with China that is self-sure, responsible and rational power that has come of age with dignity backed up by economic strength. This has led to oft mentioned and now almost a cliché statement that Tibet will benefit economically if it remains with China. However, this assumption reverses reality. China today is a brooding nation with a highly unequal social order. Its paranoid leaders are constantly worried, as Minxin Pei writes, about getting overthrown by its own people.

When Xi takes over from Hu the next year, he will inherit an empire, whose unbridle economic growth and hunger for more resources have led to irreparable environmental damages; a brittle society with more than 100,000 mass protests each year apart from uprisings in Tibet, East Turkestan and lately in Inner Mongolia; and an economy that needs massive adjustments to make the growth more sustainable. These will leave Xi’s hands so full that the political reforms will be the last of his priorities.

Dharamsala’s optimism and hope are based on the hope that there will be political reforms in China which will have trickle-down effect on the Sino-Tibetan talks, which in turn will bring a new and positive development for the issue of Tibet. In fact, the Chinese leaders have talked about political reform for over three decades but have done nothing about it. Premier Wen Jiabao famously called for ‘political reform’ and the need to have term limit for senior Communist leaders. Wen said, "[China] must advance political, economic and judicial reforms, so that our superstructure [politics] will keep abreast with the development of our economic foundation."

But such liberal voices have no real impact, as was clear from the weighty 4,600-character communiqué after the fifth party congress in October 2010, which affirmed the ‘political advantages of China’s socialist system’. Under such an overwhelming opposition to any political reform, Xi junior is very likely to maintain the status quo, which will mean that Dharamsala’s hopes remain worryingly misplaced.

Will Xi lead a rising Dragon?

According to official statistics Beijing spent over $100 million on ‘domestic stability maintenance operations’ in 2010, which was more than China’s national defence budget. For a nation vying to be the next superpower, this does not augur well. In order to keep its people under control, Chinese government manoeuvres massive internal security system that involves approximately a million paramilitary personnel and an unknown number of secret police and informers. These people are often lowly paid and their other source of income is corruption, which for the time being seems to make the political system more efficient. However, endemic corruption rots the system from within. Besides in the long run China’s global ambition will be severely limited by its domestic security pressure.

polluted river, dead fishes

Lustre is also pealing off from China’s hot economic engine. Decades of freewheeling developments have led to catastrophic impact on the environment. Experts say that the net economic growth, after the cost of reviving the environment, makes China very unattractive for foreign investors. Adding to this is a new worrying trend, writes Gordon Chang, author The Coming Collapse of China and a respected blogger in Forbes online, that “almost 60% of China’s ‘high net worth individuals,’ defined as those possessing more than 10 million Yuan in investable assets” are leaving China. “We have been working hard to develop the economy in the past 30 years, but now these elite members of society are fleeing with the majority of the wealth,” said economic analyst Zhong Dajun to the Global Times, the Communist Party-run newspaper.

Moreover, Beijing’s appetite for resources and unilateral control of major Asian rivers, originating from Tibet, are leading to head-on confrontations with India, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, which are likely to produce unexpected hurdles in her global ambitions. Aggressive Chinese takeover of resources in Africa by bringing in cheap labour and cheaper Chinese products flooding their markets are being met with firm resistance from affected local population and loss of face for China in international forums.

Tibetan monks in protest
Xi will have to lead China with all these multiple problems, some of which are as big the nation itself for which Xi and his coteries will find no easy solutions. As of now China is heavily cracking down peaceful protestors in Inner Mongolia and Kirti Monastery in Amdo Ngaba, Eastern Tibet. Within the last couple of years, the Chinese authorities have also cracked down and arrested unaccounted number of its people, including renowned artist, Ai Wei Wei. Beijing is visibly nervous. When nervous Beijing always mindlessly flexes its muscles.

This leads a few questions — Is China really rising? Or is it a large impressive structure from outside but without anything of substance inside much like the newly renovated National Museum of China? Will Xi impress this elite group of nine people to lead a quarter of humanity into a democratic society led by rule of law?

Going by the China’s records for the last sixty years, the answers are not even blowing in the wind.


  1. Bhuchung la, nice overview of contemporary Chinese politics dealing with Tibet, Human Rights, Economic, Environment and the political leadership. Hope to see more of your analytical thoughts.

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