29 July, 2021

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July Anniversaries: Chinese Centenary, Canada Day & US Independence

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

On July 1, China celebrated the centenary of its Communist Party. The Party marked the occasion in Beijing with a glittering performance of “The Great Journey” illustrating the history of the Party and the Country with nothing separating the two. July 1 is also Canada Day – the day Canadians celebrate the birth of the Confederation of Canada as a British Dominion in 1867. For the last two years the pandemic has prevented open celebrations and forced them to go virtual. This year the country is also in official half-mourning (with government flags at half-mast) in empathy with the country’s First Nations peoples, following new information on the horrors of residential schools set up by the state and run by the Churches as enforced encampments for their children. Today, Fourth of July, is America’s Independence Day. After a year of twin scourges – of Trump and the pandemic, the US is limping back to normalcy under a new President. Joe Biden is the country’s oldest President ever, but he is showing a more radical verve than any of his much younger predecessors. 

China and the two North American countries are the world’s two extreme polarities. China is an old country and an old civilization. The US and Canada are more recent immigrant countries. There is hardly any country in the world that does not have an economic relationship with China. And every country and community in the world has some family in the US and in Canada. They are also the world’s oldest constitutional democracies, but they cannot turn their backs on their past of European settler colonialism and the decimation of the continent’s natal civilizations.

China has no colonial trespasses to apologize for, let alone compensate. The complaints against it are all current. The main backdrop is its race with the US for global market supremacy, and the concern among China’s Asian neighbours over its growing dominance. The race is not over capitalism or socialism, it is all about trade, tariffs, sanctions, and wolf-warrior diplomacy, and it is without the sword guns, or missiles. Canada is literally caught in the middle following Canada’s detention of a high-profile Chinese businesswoman and the retaliatory incarceration of two Canadian citizens in China.

A costly detention

On December 1, 2018, at US’s request, Canada detained at the Vancouver airport, Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of telecommunication giant Huawei, for extradition to the US to stand trial for alleged violations of the US, rather Trump’s, sanctions against Iran. Meng is also the daughter of Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei, who in his earlier life had been a Deputy Regimental Chief in the People’s Liberation Army. China retaliated by arresting and imprisoning Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians working in China, as well as banning agricultural imports from Canada. In Canada, Meng is on a $10 M bail and is allowed to live under electronic surveillance without her many passports in one of the two multimillion properties her family owns in Vancouver.

The standoff over detention in Canada and incarcerations in China is still continuing with no prospect of an early resolution in sight. Complicating the standoff is the general concern over the involvement of the Chinese government in Huawei’s development of 5G wireless networks and the fear that China will use them for surveillance purposes. This is quite a turn in the China-Canada relations, for among the western countries, Canada has been a pioneer in recognizing China after the 1949 Communist victory. The two countries opened diplomatic relations in 1970 and then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau visited China in 1973, a year after President Nixon. There are nearly two million Chinese Canadian citizens and around 150,000 Chinese students attend Canadian universities and colleges. Chinese is the third most spoken language in Canada after English and French, and China is Canada’s largest trading partner in Asia.

Many political analysts and former Canadian government leaders, including former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, believe that the young (Justin) Trudeau government was tricked by the US to detain Meng Wanzhou for extradition. Meng was under an arrest warrant from an American court for some time and she was travelling through several countries, but the US picked the moment to ask for her arrest and extradition when she was on Canadian soil. Canadian critics contend that the government could have looked the other way, or feigned ‘legal incompetence’, and avoided unnecessarily getting caught in the middle between two elephants.

There have also been calls by prominent Canadians, including families of the two ‘Michaels’ incarcerated in China, to release Meng Wanzhou from her detention and have the two Canadians freed in China. The government of Canada has rejected these appeals and insisted that as the extradition case is before the Canadian courts it will have to run its course without political interference. For its part, China has retaliated far more severely against Canada over Meng’s detention than it has against the US tariffs and sanctions that Trump impetuously imposed on China. This has been the experience of smaller countries when they run into disagreements with China, and many of them are grouping themselves into different alliances to provide collective responses to China’s bilateral retaliations. 

China’s longevity

President Xi Jinping defiant speech at the centenary celebrations was clearly not meant to allay any foreign fears of China, big or small. In fact, he issued a warning to foreign powers that the Communist Party “will never allow anyone to bully, oppress or subjugate China,” and “anyone who dares try to do that will have their heads bashed bloody against the Great Wall of Steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.” There is no one anywhere who might be having illusions of bullying, oppressing or subjugating China – of all places. Mr. Xi’s rhetoric is meant entirely for domestic consumption and for affirming his currently interminable power over the Party and the country.

Mr. Xi is also wont to show that he is invincible by insisting that China is “invincible,” as he did when he told Party cadres earlier in January that China has done better than any other political leadership or system in controlling the pandemic. He went on to declare that “time and history are on our side, and this is where our conviction and resilience lie, and why we are so determined and confident.” It so happened that Xi’s speech was delivered on January 11, five days after Trump’s QAnon crazies stormed the US Capitol to disrupt Congress. Born in 1953, Xi Jinping is the first the person born after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, to become the General Secretary of the Communist Party. For some one whose father was purged during the cultural revolution under Mao, Xi Jinping has assumed even greater powers over the Party than Mao Zedong.

The crucial difference between the two, and between Mao’s China and Xi’s China, is the missing dimension of socialism. Mao was not only a powerful leader of his country, but he was also a powerful contender for leading the world’s socialist camp to victory over market capitalism. Xi is a beneficiary of China’s transformation to a more market economy, although his contention is that “only socialism can save China, and only socialism with Chinese characteristics can develop China.” The shift from Mao to Xi also underpins the shift in the relationship between China and the West. It is no longer a battle between socialism and capitalism. The West, especially the US, would like to frame it as a tussle between democracy and authoritarianism. China’s response, especially when Trump was US President, has been to claim that liberal democracy is failing while the Chinese political system is working.

There are other ways to look at the differences between China and the West, and everyone else who are stuck in between. The aberration of the Trump presidency is not proof that the US political system is falling apart. Trump’s defeat and the election of Joe Biden as President have proved that the system works, however tortuously. At the same time, China’s stability as a centralised political system has much deeper historical roots, than its Communist Party, and than perhaps any other political system in the world. It is acknowledged that feudalism and a centralised political state arose in China long before they were sighted anywhere in Europe. And China quite neatly bypassed the treacherous waters of nationalism and ethnic conflicts that have tormented every other society, by the historically fortuitous presence of a singularly large ethnic group and a single written and spoken language. The descendants of the “people of Han” who emerged during the Han dynasty 2000 years ago, make up 91% of China’s population. The Han Chinese people are also the world’s largest ethnic group at 18% of the global population.

Given its longevity and stability China does not need the agency of a powerful President for its future survival or success. Nor does China need to continue its harshness towards the smaller populations of its ‘outer areas, the Tibetans, the Mongols and the Uyghurs. President Xi made no reference to them in his centenary speech. Nor did he mention Hong Kong, but spoke of China’s “unshakeable commitment” to unification with Taiwan.  In response, Taiwan called on Beijing to “introduce democratic reforms, such as party competition, and respect for human rights while behaving as a responsible regional player.” Democratic reforms in China are entirely an internal matter, as it should be. But insofar as China is part of the global trading community, it cannot ignore the concerns of its neighbours or criticisms about the treatment of Uyghur Muslims.

One of the concerns about the treatment of Uyghurs is the alleged detention of them in mass detention camps, called “re-education Camps,” for minimum periods of twelve months, and purportedly to change their “political thinking, identities and religious beliefs.” China’s re-education camps for Uyghur Muslims are not very different from the controversial residential schools that were established in the 19th century in Canada to enforce the assimilation of Canada’s Fist Nations (indigenous) peoples into European settler culture. The schools were established by the state and were run by the Churches, and many of them by Dioceses of the Catholic Church. The schools were an exercise in abusive power and devoid of any spirituality.

*To be continued….

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