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Skirting the border

Hu Jintao’s push for increased trade with India should not be seen as dilution of the Communist Party’s stand on border issues, writes Ravni Thakur.

india Updated: Nov 01, 2007 23:21 IST

The latest Communist Party of China Congress saw Hu Jintao emerge for his second five-year term as a stronger leader. Born in 1942 in Anhui Province, Hu, an engineer by profession, is a career Party member having worked his way to the highest position in China. He joined the Communist Party in 1968 and has worked in some of the most problematic and poorest regions such as Jiangsu and Tibet. In Tibet, he played the hard line and clamped down on dissidence. He was understated in his control during the post-Deng liberalisation drive and pullback of State control. Even during the ‘democracy’ movement, Hu played a quiet and controlled role. This, in fact, is his main characteristic — the underplayed strong hand.

Hu is known as a pragmatic hardliner and this is reflected in his main agenda — to keep the Party in charge of China and quell any disturbances through policy mechanism, and where necessary, by force. Strategists in China identify ‘internal chaos’ (dao luan) as the biggest danger to China’s prosperity and stability. A majority believes that there is no alternative politics possible.

Hu is trying to give a new direction to China. In the past 20 years, the country has seen a certain continuity of economic reforms, with the economy decentralised to achieve the maximum targets of FDI and production. This it achieved with the support of all its leaders, from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin. Deng Xiaoping strongly advocated that “poverty did not equal socialism”. Jiang went a step further by bringing the private entrepreneur into the Party and widening the legitimacy of achievement. This he did with his expert selection of the senior cadres and decision-makers. He also gave increasing intellectual freedom to research. It was under him that advice to the government from think-tanks became a matter of routine.

However, this rapid transformation of a tightly controlled State economy to a free-for-all market economy created massive social disparities, impoverished the countryside and led to massive migration to urban centres, leading to large-scale disparities in income and social parameters. Several demonstrations and growing and visible rural unrest has prompted Hu to embark on a new policy of ‘high growth with social justice’ and a ‘harmonious society’.

The new slogan is ‘New socialist rural China’. Hu hopes to transform priority from single-minded focus on GDP to a greater focus on social development by concentrating on tackling inequalities. Related aspects of building this harmonious society are the promotion of Confucianism and Buddhism by the State.

The idea is to encourage a ‘Chinese-ness’ beyond Communism and make use of older discourses on social cohesiveness. In many ways, Hu’s new socialist paradigm falls between Mao’s absolute egalitarianism and Deng Xiaoping’s ‘class-less society’. The success of Hu’s internal policies rest largely on the degree to which States that have enjoyed great economic decentralisation are willing to forgo the imperative for high GDP growth and the FDIs to provide funds for social development programmes.

For the Chinese common man, expenditure on health and education are the biggest drain on family finance. The desire to reign in the power of regional satraps may have contributed to the recent crackdown on the Shanghai power holders. Shanghai does represent the new China and all its faults. The anti-corruption drive must also be seen in this light. Today, the Communist Party is associated with corruption and misuse of power. It is no longer seen as representing, in reality, those it seeks to represent ideologically, the working class and the peasantry.

At the international level, Hu’s predecessors had faced a different world. It was dominated by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, the world order has largely settled and China faces a United States as the dominant world power — trade with which is crucial for the Chinese economy’s survival. India’s growing strategic partnership with the US is also of critical concern to China. The Chinese are intent on entering what is a large potential market for its manufactured goods, especially consumer durables, and are keen to expand trade ties with India. It is pushing for an FTA. The trade angle, however, will not, in any way, change China’s geopolitical strategy regarding India. This means a continuation of support for Pakistan and the attempt to wean away both Nepal and Bangladesh into its orbit.

The tough talking by China’s Ambassador to India, Sun Yixi, on the Arunachal issue, the silence within China on the issue and forceful statements by their think-tanks on Tibet, essentially mean that China is not likely to change its national interest perceptions to accommodate India’s misgivings. India must not get swayed by the illusion created by strong trade ties that all border problems will also vanish.

(Ravni Thakur is Reader, Department of East Asian Studies, Delhi University)