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External and internal threats to China

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China’s White Paper on military strategy notes that the country’s external threats are increasing and mentions only a few internal threats. But it is the latter that are more serious, as they’re inherent to the one-party system

The recent White Paper on China’s military strategy affirms that the country generally enjoys a favourable environment for development, but external challenges are increasing. It also briefly mentions some ‘internal’ threats. The latter are, however, far more serious for China’s future. While the ‘external’ threats are mostly self-made (for example in the South China Sea), the ‘internal’ ones are inherent to the one-party system. When the WP speaks of complex security risks, “leaving China an arduous task to safeguard its national unification, territorial integrity and development interests,” the first two points refer to internal issues.

While the ‘Taiwan independence separatist forces’, are described as the biggest threat to the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations, other ‘internal’ dangers are listed: “Separatist forces for ‘East Turkistan independence’ (Xinjiang) and ‘Tibet independence’ have inflicted serious damage, particularly with escalating violent terrorist activities by ‘East Turkistan independence’ forces.” Beijing takes this particular menace seriously at a time when China is planning to finance the Pakistan Economic Corridor in a big way. It is also apparent that Beijing is more bothered by a ‘terrorist’ Xinjiang, than a ‘non-violent’ Tibet.

The problems of Xinjiang and Tibet are serious enough for the party to call a three-day special meeting (held from May 18 to 20 in Beijing) of the United Front Work Department, which deals with non-party organisations and ‘minorities’. Xinhua admitted that the conference came “against the backdrop of mounting challenges to the party’s agenda, including pro-democracy protests last year in Hong Kong and ethnic unrest in the far western region of Xinjiang.” During the United Front Work conference, President Xi Jinping spoke of the “the positive influence that religious people and believers have on social and economic development.” But he pleaded with the UFW officials to make ‘active efforts’ to incorporate religions in socialist society, adding that ‘religions in China must be Chinese’. It means that even Tibetan Buddhism should be ‘Chinese’!

During the same conference, Ms Sun Chunlan, head of the UFW department and member of the Communist Party of China’s Politburo met a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks who had just graduated as geshe (doctor) in Buddhist philosophy. Ms Sun affirmed that the academic degree system is “an important measure in fostering Tibetan Buddhist religious believers to love their country and religion, as well as adapting religion to socialist society.” In other words, China trains Tibetangeshes with ‘socialist and Chinese characteristics’!

But for Beijing, more worrying is Xinjiang. After all, a few Tibetans may burn themselves, this does not disturb Beijing much (except for the bad propaganda), but in Xinjiang, nationalist elements are ready to use force, even jihad; this could disturb the pax sinica socialista. Beijing’s first reflex is to blame the troubles on some ‘foreign hands’. Mr Zhang Chunxian, Xinjiang’s party boss affirmed that forces inside and outside China are using religion to engage in destructive activities in the region: “Hostile forces are stepping up their infiltration in the region,” stated Mr Zhang, who added “religious teaching must be ‘sinicised’ to ensure social stability.”

Xinjiang Daily, the party’s mouthpiece in the restive region reported that Mr Zhang met 700 Muslim, Buddhist and Christian representatives. Like Mr Xi a few weeks earlier, Mr Zhang insisted that “(religious) leaders must steer religions forward with Chinese socialism.” He also asserted that religions must work under socialism to serve economic development, social harmony, ethnic unity and the unification of the country: “Immerse religions in the Chinese culture... in order that religions can develop in a normal and healthy way.” Religious leaders must support the party’s leadership and safeguard the motherland’s unity and social stability, while “staunchly resist separatism, religious extremism and illegal religious activities.”

Beijing seems particularly worried that if it goes ahead and invests tens of billions dollars in the new Pakistan Economic Corridor, unwanted elements may rush through the Corridor and land up in the former Eastern Turkestan. Mr Zhang’s conclusion is: “Only when one is a good citizen, then one can be a good believer.”An atheist party will always remain suspicious of ‘believers’. In the meantime, Beijing is tightening the screw on Tibet too.

Xinhua announced that Mr Xi ‘accepted an audience’ with the Chinese-selected Panchen Lama Gyaltsen Norbu at Zhongnanhai in Beijing on June 10. The term ‘accepting an audience’ is a euphemism to say the least, because the ‘audience’ seemed more like summon. Beijing seems worried that the Lama they have selected as the Panchen Lama turns hostile; it would be a failure for the party’s way of selecting ‘reincarnations’. China Tibet Online, a site affiliated to Xinhua said that the Xi-Norbu encounter shows that the party “has consistently given a high level of attention to Tibet;” it also indicates “the great importance that the Central Committee attaches to the religious work.”

What happened during the Xi-Panchen encounter? If one looks at the picture published by Xinhua, apart from Mr Xi, three other members of the Politburo were in attendance (Mr Yu Zhengsheng of the Standing Committee, Ms Sun, the UFW head and Mr Li Zhanshu, director of the general office of the party). Why such a rare lineup? Apparently Gyaltsen Norbu needed to be ‘briefed’. Mr Xi did most of the talking. He wanted to be reassured that the person who is supposed to be the face of the party in Tibetan affairs, understands properly the stand of the party.

In Beijing’s game plan, Gyaltsen Norbu is destined to play a central role; he has been especially selected by Beijing and later groomed to be a ‘good religious socialist’ leader. What will happen if Norbu behaves like his predecessor the 10th Panchen Lama, who sent a 70,000 character letter to Zhou Enlai in 1962 criticising the party’s actions in Tibet and who, a few hours before his death, again asked, what good 30 years of ‘liberation’ had brought to Tibet. An awful thought for the party!

Mr Xi told Gyalsten Norbu to “keep the motherland and its people in his heart and firmly work for the unification of the country and all its ethnic groups.” Is there any doubt in Beijing’s mind? The young Lama was sermonised that he has to “carry on the legacy of his predecessor and actively engage in the cause to incorporate Tibetan Buddhism into socialist society.” This is tricky. The 10th Panchen was a rebel, a courageous monk who never hesitated, at the cost of his own security, to call a spade a spade, even if it was a party spade.

While ‘external’ threats can be stopped within days, if Beijing decides to be less aggressive, ‘internal’ ones are here to stay and that worries China. By the way, what was China Communist leader No 3, Mr Zhang Dejiang doing in New Delhi earlier this week?

 
 
 
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