By S. Sivathasan –
Even when far too much is not read into China’s statement following the 18th Congress of the Communist Party, it is gleaming in its significance. For the first time, China has been vocal in her exhortation to Sri Lanka. Qin Gang the Foreign Ministry spokesman conveyed tersely, that Sri Lanka has to “make efforts to protect and promote human rights”. Not stopping at that he continues, “other countries in the world should provide constructive assistance”.
The statement is plain but the implications are strong when the setting is noted. It comes at the conclusion of the Commonwealth Summit, where 53 countries participated and Sri Lanka played host. Primus inter pares at the summit was the British Prime Minister. His determined stand on Sri lanka investigating war crimes, rectifying rights violations and restoring the rights of Tamils was impressive. As important was the path breaking Congress in China commencing a week earlier than the Summit and concluding a day after. The sequence and timing add meaning and strength to the spokesman’s words.
The Party Congresses, 20th of USSR in in1956 and the 18th of China in 2013, bear some points of comparison or even of contrast. The former was 39 years after the Revolution, just three years subsequent to the passing away of the dreaded dictator Stalin. He was fakely idolized for 29 years and depedestalised shortly thereafter. The Congress Session itself came to be noted for ‘Destalinisation’ .
Kruschev’s four hour disclosures at midnight on the last day to senior communist party members, made quite a number of the indoctrinated faithful faint. The stage was getting set for unprecedented change.
The Congress was certainly a historic event, but only for initiating a process. After a succession of leaderships, it was given to Gorbachev in 1989 to consummate it with emphasis on transparency and democracy. The Revolution took a heavy toll and 72 years to reach the threshold of democracy. Cast aside was the very architect of reforms. How correctly an English historian had said decades earlier, “The worst moment for a regime is when it begins to reform”. Sri Lankans therefore have to live with a regime that has learnt this lesson, ie prolonging life by not reforming.
In this context the gentle prodding of a great power – China, assumes importance. It is reassuring to the Tamils because she is veering from her past practice of standing by a friendly nation whether right or wrong when geopolitical considerations counted for much. Her independent stance now demonstrates that she has grown fully into her own. She has shown her obligation of acting objectively by the norms and expectations of the UN institution in Geneva. No longer can Sri Lanka take a great power’s support for granted.
Compared to Russia, China’s trajectory has been significantly different in the phase of revolutionary struggle, in post revolution consolidation and in development. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” was intended to convey much by describing the contrast. Historical differences account for the change of features. Yet there were points of comparison as well.
The spokesman captures them when he speaks for China. The importance comes when he extends to other countries the human rights compulsions applying to China. The words “Due to the differences in the economic and social development in different countries”, may be taken to mean that economic and social conditions in China had to mature to the desired level before she could embark on democratization with a liberal outlook on human rights. It also implies that different countries can respond only at varying times, as their stage of socio economic growth permits. But this is no blank cheque for any rogue country to go on a rampage. It is only an academic position and by no means exculpates Sri Lanka.
China has taken 64 years after the revolution to give meaning and scope to democracy. Mao’s rigorous iron fist over political, social and economic reordering was all pervasive for nearly 30 years. To critics of the period of struggle as well as the post revolution era, Mao’s devastating quip was “Revolution is not a Tea Party”. It took a further 34 years for Deng and a succession of leaderships to regenerate society and then to speak of democracy and human rights at the Party Congress in 2013.
Now China stands poised to properly align her domestic and foreign policy and to advise member nations of the UN in observing the tenets valued internationally. A quarter century ago ‘the movement for democracy’ attempted to graft democracy in China. It was seen by the authorities as an alien bud for an indigenous species. The effort trumpeted with fanfare at Tien An Men Square, withered prematurely away. The regime is now mature enough for change is the assessment of the leadership.
Kissinger speaks often about how subtle the Chinese leadership was. This was in their speech and action. He was greatly impressed by the unobtrusive manner in which China thawed the cold relationship with US and made it warm. His reference was particularly to Mao and Chou En Lai. In inimitable ways, Deng Ziao Ping, made not ripples but waves in China and in the global economy. The world is yet experiencing the effects and China’s leadership is continuing to reap the benefits for their people. The most recent pronouncement made staidly without words of learned length portend many changes for the word and for her own self.
China does the spectacular passively, veering from a splash. The very countenance of the leaders from Mao to Qin displays imperturbable serenity of a nation well composed. Karaka once pointed out that the appearance of a leader portrays the condition of a nation. Gandhi he said depicted an India, “half fed and semi clothed”. The wealth and assertive confidence of China have become pervasive. The importance or consequence of her message is left to the receivers to respond to. Ignoring it is peril to those whose trust in China’s perennial support is misplaced.
With over thirty years of consistent progress, per capita income is at respectable levels and more than 300 million have been raised above poverty line. The time is now to address human rights issues at home and she has gone close to that necessity. Her membership in the UN Human Rights Council mandates honouring these concepts in other countries as well. Overlooking them in friendly countries has now ceased to be an option.
The military leader of Burma who had been immune to the people’s voice and to international opinion attuned himself to them in recent times. In tandem, China supportive of the military ruler hitherto, changed track and became sensitive to people’s views, opinion of the international community and to the stance of Aung San Suu Kyi. What does the world glean from the change of political position of a powerful nation like China? Such nations as were accustomed to dictatorial rule, either have to change to democratic ways or face inevitable ostracism and sanctions.
Sri Lanka’s Obligation
China’s foray into Human Rights is likely to make as much an impact upon the world as her economy has done by now. In the years to come, we may see China tending to engage with other countries in gentle persuasion but with verve, to respect Human Rights constructively. Sri Lanka will be among the first few to come under the radar. When the attention of the world has unerringly fallen on her, looking furtively or obliquely away will not help. It is good to take note of a Chinese saying, when a finger is pointed, a wise man looks in the direction.
For over half a century there has been no relaxing or relenting in marginalizing the Tamils. Have they abdicated or will they? No and never is the answer? Has the world been convinced that Tamils are the villains? To the contrary, is the world’s conviction, pointlessly to all and of benefit to none. A thousand questions can be asked and answered interminably. Abandoning this nonsensical process and stopping ‘marginalize till extinction’, is the one and only way for redemption.