By Kumar David –
President Xi is just completing his first benighted year in office; in countries on the other side of its littoral waters China is seen as an obstreperous bully; Beijing’s control freaks have brazenly deceived the people of Hong Kong; emotions of great power nationalism have grown among the people though the economic waters of the Middle Kingdom are uncertain. Modi’s first 100 days as Prime Minister has been like an express train, sometimes sans brakes. He has scored PR goals but admittedly it is too early for substantive achievements. On the down-side, is he building a team or turning his Cabinet colleagues into pliant followers?
[Now is a good time to review the goal scoring rates of our giant neighbours since next Sunday has to be reserved for armchair philosophising about Scotland and the week after for Uva after the verdict; that is if elections are held. Why is the ruling party indulging hell for leather in vote-losing election violence? Is there a pact between the palace and the commissioner whereby the king can instruct his underling to call it all off if defeat stares the regime in the face? In recent times there has been so much perfidy in high places that the surreal is the possible].
Lying to Hong Kong
A solemn promise was recorded in 1997 at the reunification of HK with the Mainland that there would be steady progress towards universal suffrage in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) to give it its full name. A high degree of autonomy was also enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. All came to nought two weeks ago when the National People’s Congress (China’s parliament) decided that for all intents Beijing will nominate 2 or 3 persons and Hong Kong people could choose one among them – some universal suffrage! The procedure would be that Beijing appoints a “nominating committee” of 1200 Hong Kongers who will pick the candidates. In the years since 1997 a similar committee of Hong Kong tycoons, businessmen and China supporters elected previous Chief Executives. (The Chief Executive is the Chinese version of the British Governor).
There is a grotesque paradox that outsiders need to understand: The firmest supporters in Hong Kong of the Communist regime in China are tycoons and big business leaders! Beijing has held Hong Kong’s, admittedly spectacularly successful capitalist system, rock steady for the mega-buck classes. The mass of the population too has benefited. The strongest opponent of China’s control of the city state is the 18-25 age-group, including especially university students. Older liberals and many old enough to remember British times are nostalgic. I was blacklisted as a leftist by the Singapore Government in 1983 when the National University offered me a position. I then accepted an offer from Hong Kong and on arrival friends would joke: “In Singapore they have ‘democracy’ but no freedom; here we have no ‘democracy’ but we have freedom”. That was true then and remains so to a large degree now, but it may change. Confrontation is building; if the PLA is used or if there is bloodshed, it would be the end of the Hong Kong that its people know and love so much.
Hong Kong opinion is divided into three, the largest is the third; first, radicals, students and activists who managed to call a huge 800,000 strong rally recently; second, mobilisation based on the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong and pro-Beijing trade unions backed by business interest and Beijing managed a similar size rally though there were allegations of bussing and buying. Third are those resigned to the inevitable; a good two-thirds belong to this category but they will take sides as events mature in the next two years. Democrats and students very justifiably feel outraged. It is unlikely that they will back down but they must eschew violence or methods that will alienate the law and order worshiping majority. Those who want greater democracy need to plan a prolonged campaign, consonant with the tortoise-pace of 5000 year old Chinese civilisation. Mishandled, the Occupy Central movement that is to get off the ground in the coming days can degenerate into large scale clashes. One factor on the side of the radicals would be if they could mobilise support in the Mainland; first in the student movement.
By foisting fake-suffrage on Hong Kong, Beijing as killed all prospect of reunification with Taiwan. Taiwan practices genuine electoral bourgeois democracy. Now China has nothing to offer; the one country two systems recipe has been degraded to farce. Next it is up to the people of Taiwan to choose a menu between what will be imposed on Hong Kong, or fearfully seek independence. Either way, the rest of the world, United Nations included, must respect and accept their choice.
Gunboats in the China seas
Xi Jinping has sprouted into a prickly leader. The scariest part is that China has turned into a huge bully in all its littoral waters – the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea washing the shores of Korea. It is mind boggling to list the countries that it is embroiled in a tiff with about islands or territorial limits; Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. In the case of Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam the brush touched incipient force and could have ended in the exchange of fire if the other side had not backed off. In part China’s aggressive stance is motivated by expectations of oil and gas under the sea bed, but much is great power posturing. China is determined to assert its primacy in the region and correct assumed historical wrongs. In the case of the South China Sea the Chinese claim is outrageous and extends very close to Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. A vast expanse of ocean is claimed as Chinese waters. The aria of the Polit-Bureau impresarios in dark suites is a line from the verse William Cowper planted on Alexander Selkirk’s lips: “I am monarch of all I survey”. (Selkirk was Daniel Defoe’s inspiration for Robinson Crusoe).
Within the Spratly Archipelago, thousands of miles from China and close to the Philippines, China is creating new islands out of the sea. It intends to build its South China Sea airbase there to threaten not only the Philippines but also Malaysia and Indonesia. The Chinese master plan is not only access to millions of tons of oil that are thought to lie underneath but also military objectives. Beijing is playing with fire. It may precipitate Japanese rearming including a nuclear deterrent. The public is against the constitutional change that must precede rearmament, but objections will be jettisoned if there is a naval clash in these waters or a Japanese vessel is sunk with the loss of life.
The Modi Express
Modi’s first overseas visit was to Japan. He won a promise of $35 billion in investment and support for smart cities that he plans to grow. There was talk of nuclear cooperation but no details emerged and of course regional security, code for containing China, was on the table. Something will come of this but it is too early to say how it will unfold. Modi is on steroids for sure.
The more interesting, and in my view hugely premature initiative is the invitation extended to all 54 African heads to visit India in December. How on earth can Indian bureaucrats and business interests, or conversely their African counterparts, put in place within three months, policy proposals and investment plans for meaningful consultation? This type of initiative needs ground work and much hard slog at the lower levels before heads of government stick their thumbs in and initial drafts. To my mind December 2015 would have been a more sensible date and that too would require Modi to drive his bureaucrats with a whip to get adequate programmes in place. There really is no sense in loads of African heads milling through the Taj or doodling around tiger spotting.
Modi’s objective seems clear; to outflank China on the African continent. But this will have to be a slow process because India does not have the deep foreign currency pockets that China can boast, and Indian capitalists are no match for Chinese state sponsored enterprises. I agree a start has to be made but a systematic approach is the right way. India has two natural advantages that China lacks; the English language and a demographic connection to tens of thousands who migrated (or taken as indentured labour) to nearly all the former British colonies. South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania including the island of Zanzibar, Uganda and Madagascar immediately come to mind. However, these inherent advantages have to be worked on and worked up.
Thankfully, Modi has ignored all the Western financial and economic rags and made populist essentials his first policy base in the budget and his Independence Day address; bank accounts for tens of millions, public and school toilets and pressure on families to tame misbehaving males. Obviously not much has happened yet, though some companies have started work on school toilets and it seems there is quite a rush to open bank accounts though the challenge is to keep them open. So far he has eschewed grabbing lands to bestow on rapacious multinationals and refrained from destroying the small retail sector for the benefit of global Wall Marts. He is right; consolidation of populist credentials is a sine qua non before embarking on hard economic choices. But first Modi must begin to deliver on his numerous, perhaps too numerous, initiatives.