If there is one thing about civilisations, it is the fact that they go through crests and troughs. Some build legacies, others lose them.
By Gautam Chikermane
Xi Jinping is right about the idea of civilisation. In a speech that could possibly be defined as his most global statement so far — more outward looking than his 17 January 2017 globalisation speech — the multi-designated ‘core leader’ of China has shown a maturity in understanding world events that dwarfs scholars of international affairs, a depth of empathy that gives Dalai Lama a run for his compassion, a sense of history that today’s narratives have forgotten.
In a nutshell, here’s what he said — according to a 15 May 2019 report in South China Morning Post:
If someone thinks their own race and civilisation is superior and insists on remoulding or replacing other civilisations, it would be a stupid idea and disastrous act.
We should hold up equality and respect, abandon pride and prejudice, deepen our knowledge about the differences between our own and other civilisations, and promote harmonious dialogue and coexistence between civilisations.
All countries should conduct exchanges beyond borders of state, time and civilisations, and work together to protect the peaceful time we have, which is more precious than gold.
Who can argue against such lofty ideas of harmony, puissant notions of mutualism, inspirational faith in sovereignty? Only one man and one institution — Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of China (CPC) of which Xi is the leader. China under Xi believes that it needs to reset the rules of the global world order, rules that all other nations must follow — all but China.
This civilisational tribute has a context. Under pressure from the US on the trade war side, and the increasing rejection of Xi’s ambition, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) due to corruption, debt traps and backlashes, on the other, China’s ‘paramount leader’ is trying to shift global attention from the country’s protectionist regime. Further, as chairman of the Central Military Commission, he is also attempting to photoshop China’s image as one that respects other cultures and nations, even as it goes about throwing its military weight in the South China Sea, around The Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia, to seize control of waters by force.
As President of China, his greatest claim to fame has been to support terrorists in Pakistan. After a humiliating retreat earlier this month under pressure from the US, the UK and France within the UN Security Council, even that fig leaf has been ripped apart — the UN has declared Masood Azhar an international terrorist. Finally, holding an ex-officio seat on the Politburo Standing Committee of the CPC, Xi’s biggest achievement has been a withdrawal from Doklam, using words of a bad loser, when he attempted to grab territory from arguably the most peaceful nation on earth, Bhutan. Described as a nationalist reformer, Xi’s aggressive foreign policy has placed all its neighbours, from Japan to Taiwan in a state of fear and loathing. China’s closest friendships are with failing states of North Korea and Pakistan, with whom it is closely hyphenated to be used as proxies against Japan and the US, and India respectively.
For Xi to lean on civilisational respect, therefore, is little more than political grandstanding and foreign policy opportunism at a time when the world’s superpower, the US, is looking inwards, seeking reciprocity, questioning the policy that encouraged China’s economic rise. When Xi says China is looking outwards for a win-win, what he really means is China wins twice over. Had Xi’s rise been in tune with the harmony he is mouthing, had China’s rise been one that commanded respect of nations rather than fear, had the CPC reigned in Xi such that the rise of China would have been a matter of emulation rather than breed an uneasy contempt, the civilisational narrative Xi is attempting to write may have had some credibility.
The world only needs to look inside China to see the civilisational destruction that this country has wreaked. After it invaded and took over Tibet on 1 January 1950 — an international tragedy and a failing moment for the UN — China closed the monasteries in Tibet, and imposed Chinese law and custom in the region. Adherents say the new Dalai Lama will be an Indian. Not for Xi. Following the brutal subjugation of an entire people, China will decide who the 15th Dalai Lama will be. Besides, not only will the new Dalai Lama need to comply with Chinese laws and regulations, he will also need to follow Chinese religious rituals and historical conventions. The Tibetan civilisation has had to shift to India for preservation.
Likewise, there is an ongoing suppression of the religious rights of the 11 million Uighur Muslims along the western border of China, under which they need to give DNA and biometric samples to Chinese authorities. Those with relatives in 26 sensitive countries have been rounded up and 1 million detained. They are forced to criticise or renounce their faith. This area, ironically, borders Pakistan — a nation built on Islam — but to whom this religious assault is legitimate, since China is its ‘iron brother’ on the financing and anti-India side. The irony doesn’t end there: the ideological resonance with CPC in India’s Communist parties too selectively whitewashes these crimes.
This is the harsh reality of Xi’s civilisational respect.
Xi, the CPC and China need to first decide, act and then speak about what they really want. If it’s civilisational respect, they need to give respect. If it is open markets, they need to open their markets. If it is non-interference in the affairs of other nations, they must end their dalliance with Pakistan against India, stop threatening Taiwan and nations around South China Sea. On the other hand, if their 21st century civilisational signature is bullying, coercing and skinning smaller nations of their sovereign rights, it would be better to come clean and stop being a pretender to a grand global narrative hiding behind smooth but meaningless words.
If there is one thing about civilisations, it is the fact that they go through crests and troughs. Some build legacies, others lose them. Some create tributaries of emulation such as democracies, others hide behind words such as ‘stability’ to hide human rights violations. Right now, it is difficult to comprehend which legacy Xi wants to leave — the real one that seeks to dominate all nations politically, economically and culturally and create a fictional foreign policy narrative that leaves the rest of the world laughing in disbelief; or a genuinely different trajectory, in tune with his words with visible and verifiable actions following suit and one that gives China the respect it has been seeking since its century of humiliation.