In this exclusive interview with Tibetan Review’s Managing Editor Gelek Namgyal, Claude Arpi, a regular commentator on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations issues and author of ‘1962 and the McMahon Line Saga’, ‘Tibet: The Lost Frontier’ and ‘Dharamshala and Beijing: the Negotiations that Never Were,’ dwells on what Chinese Xi Jinping’s thought on “Socialism with Chinese Characteristic for a New Era” might mean for issues like Tibet and in the greater outside world.
Question: Chinese President Xi Jinping has now been catapulted into the pantheon of the founders of the People’s Republic of China, possibly making him the most powerful leader that the world’s largest one-party state has had in decades. What do you think are the major challenges facing Xi Jinping in the coming years?
Claude Arpi: Xi’s name has truly been catapulted into the Constitution, but that does not automatically make him the all-powerful leader that he is projected to be by the Chinese (and Western) media. He is facing a number of challenges. First poverty alleviation: several provinces/regions are still very poor (particularly Xinjiang and Tibet); the so-called minorities areas are restive (again Tibet and Xinjiang).
Though more than 100 major army generals and above have been ’investigated’, corruption is still endemic in the Party and the PLA. Another challenge is by trying to become the main world power by 2050, Xi has upset most of China’s neighbours. The coming years will witness many new alliances between countries like India, Australia, Japan, Vietnam, etc… It will pose a new challenge to the ‘peaceful rise’ of China.
Xi’s pet project, the OBOR (which includes the CPEC) will face new challenges, not only from India, but also from country like Pakistan which will soon realize that there is ‘no free meal’.
Question: According to some experts, the Chinese society has moved far beyond the Maoist or even the Dengist era. Few Chinese, including members of the party, genuinely believe in any official doctrine. Economically, the private sector accounts for more than 60% of the nation’s GDP and the CPC has become practically irrelevant in the daily lives of ordinary Chinese. How relevant is the Chinese communist ideology and how long will Chinese Communist Party hold on to the power? Do you think Xi can really channel the Chinese society as he desires?
Claude Arpi: China never followed Marxism-Leninism into the traditional sense of the ideology. That is why Beijing always speak of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Chinese ‘socialism’ has adapted to the successive eras (Mao, Deng = to become rich is glorious, Jiang Zemin = Three Represents, etc).
For the Chinese, this ‘adaptative’ ideology is relevant. Further they believe that ‘democracy’ is not a reliable system of governance (for example, they will quote the election of President Trump). They believe that if corruption can be eradicated, their system which is based on a mixture of ideology, nationalism, effectiveness and good organisation is far superior. But it is also founded on authoritarianism. In this system, the ‘minorities’ have been the sufferers, so also will Hong Kong be in the years to come.
In one way, Xi has managed to make happy a large section of the society (for example 125 million Chinese travelled abroad in 2016); Xi’s fight against corruption has also made him popular. How long will this last, it is impossible to say.
I am not an expert at ‘mo’ and to predict the ‘collapse of China’ is not serious, though it ‘sells’ well. One can only hope that China will evolve in the years to come, based on the Rule of Law and universal values.
Question: Xi Jinping unveiled his “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” during the recently concluded 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. What new or greater effect, if any, do you think this new doctrine, now incorporated into the party constitution, will have on the Uyghurs and Tibetans?
Claude Arpi: In my opinion, it will not change the fate of the Uyghurs and Tibetans.
China will try to solve the ‘minority’ issue by offering better ‘life’ to the Tibetans and the Uyghurs. Development of tourism will play an important role in this scheme. In 2016, it is said that 25 million Han Chinese visited Tibet. Whether the figure is correct or not, it brings some wealth to the region, not only in the big cities (Lhasa, Shigatse, etc), but also in the border areas like Nyingtri. The next target for development is Ngari area. The train to Kyerong will greatly help the Chinese plans.
But as such Xi’s new theory will not help the Tibetans.
Question: China has designed a “magnificent plan” to realise the “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation by 2050. The Tibetan administration in exile also recently held a Five-Fifty Forum to rejuvenate the Tibetan movement in the next five to fifty years. Resumption of dialogue with Beijing to resolve the issue of Tibet was one of the main points of discussion. Do you see any scope for the two sides to reach a common ground, or, rather, for China to accommodate the official Tibetan aspiration?
Claude Arpi: Not right now. China is too powerful. As you mentioned it is in the process of rejuvenating the Nation. In my opinion, they are not interested in ‘compromises’.
China will argue that the Tibetans are well represented in the Party in Tibet.
After the 19th Congress, two members of the Central Committee are Tibetans (Lobsang Gyaltsen and Che Dalha) and two other Tibetans are Alternate members.
Out of 29 members of the TAR delegation to the Congress, 17 were Tibetans (+one Monpa + one Lopa). There were 9 Hans and one Hui. Of course, many are ‘for the show’.
In the present scenario in China and in Tibet, it is difficult to envisage that China will agree to compromise. And have they ever compromised?
Further they have the habit not to honour the treaties they signed (i.e. 1951 for Tibet; in 1954 for India). An interesting article below.
Question: At the Five-Fifty forum, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was quoted as having said, “Chinese leaders never expected Tibet issue to remain alive even after 50 years. But it is alive and growing stronger.” That may well be. But do you think it possible or likely for the Chinese leadership to let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet during his lifetime, as desired by him?
Claude Arpi: It is very true that China never expected that the Tibetan cause will remain alive for so many decades. But it is difficult to envisage a return or even a visit of His Holiness in Tibet in the present circumstances. It would be too disturbing for China and dangerous for His Holiness.
During the 19th Congress, the executive deputy head of the United Front Work Department Zhang Yijiong asked foreign governments to exercise ‘caution in both words and deeds’ and not receive His Holiness. In this context it is difficult to think of a visit to Tibet.
For Beijing, the question is what would it gain? Let us not forget, that China never does take any decision or undertake and action by compassion or altruism. The leadership always calculates where its interests are and what it can gain.
Presently Beijing is not interested by the ‘goodwill’ of the international community or even their neighbours (look at their attitude in the South China Sea or in Doklam). Beijing always does what it is in the interest of the Party.
Question: Supporters and activists for Tibet’s independence gathered for a conference in Paris on August 21. But independence advocates find themselves marginalized in the Central Tibetan Administration setup while China’s rising power and global influence means it will never relent on this issue. Do you think the independence campaigners still have a case or are theirs a lost cause?
Claude Arpi: In a pluralistic society, all views should co-exist and be respected, whether you are a follower of the Middle Path, Rangzen or a third path. In this perspective, Rangzen path should exist.
One can’t speak of a lost cause for Tibet.
Question: In his report to the party congress, Xi Jinping used the word “military” (jun) for record 86 times while speaking of his determination to develop it. He said China will complete the basic modernisation of its army by 2035, and that by the mid-21st century, it will boast a world-class military under the party’s command. What implications do you see this having on the situation in the subcontinent, particularly vis-a-vis India?
Claude Arpi: There is no doubt that it is a serious issue for India, especially after the Doklam incident. It also shows that China does not respect its engagements/agreements. In 2012, Beijing had agreed to keep the status quo at the trijunction between Sikkim, Chumbi Vallley (Dromo) and Bhutan, but despite this, the PLA started building a road on Bhutanese territory.
Another serious issue is the appointment of Maj Gen Thubten Thinley, the highest ranked Tibetan officer to be in the PLA delegation to the 19th Congress. The General, a Deputy Commander of the Tibet Military Region, is responsible for the recruitment of Tibetans in the PLA. It means that in the years to come, India will be facing Tibetans on her borders. It is certainly a serious issue, though not publicly admitted in Dharamsala.
Question: China keeps asking India, seemingly with a bit of frustration, to shed its reservations and join its ‘Belt and road initiative (BRI)’, a globally ambitious signature project of President Xi Jinping, while expressing willingness to engage in “in-depth communication” to address the latter’s concerns. Do you see any possibility for the two sides to resolve their differences on this issue given the fact that it involves, in one aspect at least, an issue of nothing less than India’s national sovereignty?
Claude Arpi: On one side, it involves India’s sovereignty (Gilgit-Baltistan), but there is more: the entire Indo-Tibet border remains closed after 1962 (except for three landports at Shipki-la, Lipulekh-la and Nathu-la). If China was so interested to have India on board for its BRI, it would reopen the old traditional border posts between Tibet and North India (for example, the Demchok-Tashigang route between Ladakh and Western Tibet, Niti-la and Mana-la in Uttarakhand, Jelep-la between WB and Chumbi or Bumla and Kibithu in Arunachal Pradesh).
Till today, Beijing has adamantly refused to reopen these traditional passes.
The Indian Consulate General in Lhasa and Kashgar also remain closed.
In these circumstances, why should India participate in the BRI?
Question: Shortly after the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, it was reported that Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution, written in 1856, had become a “must-read” for senior CCP cadres. Tocqueville argued that growing prosperity in the 18th-century France had actually made it more difficult to govern the country. As people become wealthier, their awareness of social and economic inequalities increases and so also their resentment against the rich and powerful. Attempts to reform the system only highlighted its vulnerabilities. Revolution followed, sweeping away the monarchy and aristocracy. How in your view is Xi Jinping addressing this issue, rightly or wrongly, in his “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era”?
Claude Arpi: It is difficult to say. In China today, the situation is different from the one in France during the 18th century. That is probably why Xi insists on the ‘Chinese characteristics’.
So far, by making a large section of the society ‘richer’, the Communist Party has been able to maintain its hold on the masses.
In his speech to the Congress, Xi again mentioned his “The four-pronged comprehensive strategy” (to finish building a moderately prosperous society in all respects, deepen reform, advance law-based governance, and strengthen Party self-governance).“ Unless China introduces ‘the rule of law’ and deeper reforms, the future of China will remain shaky.
For example, why do the seven members of the Politiburo’s Standing Committee need to pledge again allegiance to the Party: “It is my will to join the Chinese Communist Party … carry out the party’s decisions, strictly observe party discipline, guard party secrets, be loyal to the party … be ready at all times to sacrifice my all for the party and the people, and never betray the party.”
It is not clear today what the ‘new era’ will be, but the leadership is definitively nervous.