The meteoric rise of China in the past three decades is looked upon with trepidation by many and with awe, by others. What we cannot comprehend, we consign to the realm of fantasy. But fantasy is like fog; it dissipates with the rising of the sun.
Let us first start by putting things in the correct perspective. China is not a manufacturing superpower. It is a contract manufacturing superpower. Except for half a dozen mobile phone brands, it is difficult, if not impossible, to recall the name of a Chinese car, motorcycle or even a cigarette lighter. And yet China manufactures everything. There are many reasons for this, but those reasons are not why this article is being written.
My contention is that the modern Chinese nation-state is a loosely cobbled synthetic entity that is held together by depreciating mutual benefit between the citizens and the state, iron control over personal and public social and non-social transactions, deep physical fear and an artificial sense of loyalty to a political construct.
The contract between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese citizen is simple; receive economic prosperity and in return, give unquestioning loyalty to the Party. This has largely worked for the CCP. But Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is very real and once the stomach is full and there is a roof over one’s head, the human heart seeks other things that a modern economic miracle is ill-equipped to provide.
In the pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs lies China’s Achilles heel. The 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests were not the first unveiling of the deep faultlines that are China’s dark underbelly. The 1959 Tibetan uprising against China’s one-party rule is a case in point. The 1999 Falun Gong protests again saw a massive crackdown on free will and expression. The 2011 pro-democracy protests, widely known as the Greater Chinese Democratic Jasmine Revolution, spooked the Communist Party of China. The current upheaval in Hong Kong has again exposed the deep faultlines in Chinese society, a construct that is outwardly prosperous and stable but a gentle push reveals that the structure is neither malleable not ductile. A hard and brittle Chinese society is vulnerable to cracks and fissures.
Another facet of China that is well known but not as frequently discussed as it should be is that the Chinese government is not as afraid of the United States of America or a rising India as it is of its people. What terrifies the Communist Party of China are not America’s aircraft carriers or India’s high-altitude trained, mountain warfare battle-hardened troops. The danger, as far as they are concerned is from a Chinese dissident with a VPN, operating a Twitter handle under an assumed name.
Bloodshed outside. Harmony inside. This is what China seeks.
The economic miracle that has made China the envy of the world and has helped fuel its military expansionist dreams is, amongst other factors, also based on this principle. Internal harmony is what China desperately seeks. And this is why when you cross over from Hong Kong into mainland China, it is like running into an impenetrable firewall. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp and all other social media platforms that you are so used to, simply stop functioning. Ni hao! Welcome to the Peoples Republic of China.
Herein lies a lesson for India; an internally weak nation cannot be externally strong. The outward projection of power is a pipe dream when you have terrorism in Kashmir, the insurgency in the North East, fireworks along the Line of Control, pressure on the Line of Actual Control, bloodshed in the Red Corridor and elections every three months. India also has a hyper-active fifth column that seeks to weaken India from within. There is enough documentary evidence to prove that various NGOs and individuals, suitably funded and supported, have done an extremely professional job of creating chaos inside our borders. It is not just the IEDs planted by Naxalites in Chintagufa or Sukma. It is also sustained by consistent narrative building that happens on TV debates every evening at 9 pm and across our Universities. You can be a three trillion-dollar economy, going on five trillion. But global superpower? Unlikely! Unless, you and I understand what it takes to be one. Bloodshed outside. Harmony inside.
China and Pakistan have kept India busy with hundreds of “forest fires”. When we are not spending billions of dollars dealing with these fires, we are lifting coffins of our soldiers. Either way, India loses.
There is little point in thinking that our mountain divisions will smash the People’s Liberation Army in Ladakh. Sure, they will. But to what end?
The solution lies in making the Chinese people believe that their Army is neither the People’s nor has it anything to do with Liberation. And the solution lies in ensuring that there is no harmony inside China.
Self-actualization is what the Chinese people seek and the most tangible feature of political self-actualization in a nation-state is democracy. Therefore, the absence of democracy is China’s, Achilles Heel. To contain China, you do not need mountain divisions. You need Maslow.
The situation in Hong Kong has provided us with a roadmap. It is an in-your-face global protest and the only way China knows how to deal with it is force. Not surprising for a nation that has never been run by consensus. But the more force China uses, the more the situation spirals out of control. The reason can be traced back to midnight on 1st July 1997 when Hong Kong was peacefully handed over to China by the United Kingdom, under the “one country, two systems” formula. Not everyone was happy. Having tasted post World War II British democracy, the citizens of Hong Kong didn’t take kindly to Chinese overlordship. They still don’t. Citizens of Hong Kong crave democracy. However, it would be short-sighted on our part to believe that this craving is limited to Hong Kong alone. It manifests itself in mainland China in many ways; irreverent social media posts, protests, small acts of defiance against the Communist Party of China (CCP) and simple questions that are asked in tea shops.
China will never explode, but it can be made to implode. When the “virus” of democracy is injected into the Chinese social bloodstream, the Communist Party of China will catch a cold. This is how that virus will be injected.
Before anything, India must realise that peaceful co-existence with China and its desire to rise as a global power are contradictory. Both cannot happen simultaneously. China will never allow it. It will keep India’s internal security situation on edge through its many proxies and also keep up pressure along the Line of Actual Control. If India wants to manage this situation, it must understand that China’s biggest faultline is not Xinjiang or Tibet. It is the hunger for democracy in the Chinese people. This is India’s biggest weapon against the CCP.
Next, foreign policy mandarins in North Block who have for a very long time advised caution while dealing with China, must be sidelined. There can be no defensive or tentative measures whilst dealing with a marauding wild beast. It is a failure of India’s foreign policy that we don’t have regular diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Think of Taiwan as India’s friendly beachhead. The nation is economically prosperous, democratic and with a population that is 95% of Han Chinese origin. Taiwan is developing its own nuclear weapons program. To add icing on the cake, it is separated from China by a narrow sliver of the sea called the Taiwan Strait, which is not more than 220 kilometres at its widest. China claims Taiwan as part of the Peoples Republic of China. Taiwan remains fiercely independent. India must, with utmost urgency, formalize diplomatic relations with Taiwan and use its international heft to urge friendly countries to do the same.
Parallel to this, India must provide support and sanctuary to Chinese pro-democracy elements who have fled CCP oppression. This need not be done inside India. It can be done in Western countries or Taiwan. It is these pro-democracy activists who will go to various global universities and organisations and tell the truth about oppression in China. They will be part of political pressure groups who will force American and European companies to relook at manufacturing their products inside China. Your biggest business partner cannot be the world’s biggest human rights abuser. Every morning when expensive suit wearing MNC executives enter their steel and glass towers, they must face these Chinese activists standing outside, naming and shaming their companies for doing business with the CCP. When media and social media covers this, it will impact stock prices. That is what big corporates fear.
Books and articles must be published and OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime must be used to tell stories of CCP perfidy and why China is a gilded cage. While this will create pressure on the outside and can be partially countered by China, at least domestically, what we must largely focus on is inflicting pain in mainland China. For this, Taiwan must be befriended.
A highly motivated and well-paid Information Warfare team must be created, comprising of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists and Taiwanese cyber specialists. The team can be based out of Taiwan. Supporting them will be a professional team of content creators. Content will be created worldwide and Chinese social media platforms like Weibo, Renren, QQ and WeChat will be used to inundate mainland China with pro-democracy content. While many videos and articles will get filtered by the great Chinese firewall, there will be content that will get through.
Pen-drives can be used to send content inside China physically and then spread through VPN based carriers. This must be done consistently. Over a period of time, there will be enough pro-democracy content inside China to give fuel to the Chinese people’s democracy-deprived anger. This makes perfect business sense; there is demand. We ensure quality supply.
The Chinese people must be convinced of the fact that to fear one’s government is not natural and to not be allowed to speak by one’s government is criminal. Fancy cars and iPhones cannot replace freedom. It is not natural. And it is exactly this unnatural act that the Chinese Communist Party is guilty of.
China is simply too economically powerful to be brought to heel. If we think that banning a few Chinese mobile phone apps is a major diplomatic move, let us set our compass straight. China’s is too well intertwined into the global economic system. As I said, China cannot be made to explode. But it can be made to implode.
Create disharmony inside China and the Communist Party of China will crumble. China has ‘banned’ democracy because democracy is its greatest fear. When the common Chinese starts questioning the CCP and demanding democracy, the famed Bamboo Curtain will splinter.
And this will be the beginning of the Great Fall of China.