Are we about to witness a China-led ‘Asian century’?
History will recall these weeks in the middle of 2020 as the pivotal emergence of an unyielding new hegemon. What was barely hidden is now wholly revealed: We are compelled to live in China’s shadow. The much-vaunted “Asian century” will unfold with unmistakable Chinese characteristics.
This week’s most important show of unfettered strength came when Beijing applied its new “national security legislation” to previously semi-autonomous Hong Kong, and promptly arrested hundreds of pro-democracy protestors.
The longstanding promise to maintain “one country, two systems” was trashed overnight. There were loud complaints by other “great powers” as well as the quick promise (initially from the UK, now echoed by Australia) to extend fast-track citizenship to Hong Kong residents who leave the country. But the leadership of Xi Jinping has obviously -- and accurately -- calculated there will only be negligible costs to extending its writ over another unruly scrap of territory.
On a much bigger scale, this is exactly what China has done in its Xinjiang province bordering Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, where at least one million (mainly Muslim) citizens have been interred in “re-education” concentration camps since 2016.
Earlier this week, the German researcher Adrian Zenz released astonishing findings that “birth prevention and mass sterilization” in Xinjiang likely qualify as “a demographic campaign of genocide” by the United Nations definition.
But even this atrocity is unlikely to result in any change to the international status quo. Last year, when 22 countries joined together to condemn China’s detention policies against Muslims, an additional 37 raced to instead praise its “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.”
These included the leading lights of the Organization for Islamic Co-operation: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the UAE, Egypt. The last few days have initiated complicated reckoning for India with regard to its giant neighbour, following the fatal clash on its Ladakh border on June 15.
After decades of coming closer together in complex ways, the opposite now seems inevitable. India has begun by banning 59 apps, including the wildly popular TikTok, and Narendra Modi’s office has deleted its account on the social media site, Weibo.
Unlike previous generations who lived in broad ignorance of each other’s culture and societies, there have been increasing numbers of young Chinese and Indians (including 20,000 Indian medical students in China) who forged more substantive understanding alongside many- faceted connections.
What will happen to these hopeful tendrils of meaningful rapprochement? “It really breaks my heart to see what we’ve lost,” says Krish Raghav, the brilliant Beijing-based journalist and illustrator (krishcat.com) who also told me with great sorrow, “I was denied a flat today because of my nationality, despite meeting the landlords and hitting it off with them. All it took was the word ‘Indian’ to make their minds flip. Suspicion destroys the momentum of people- to-people exchanges.”
After spending several years in China, Raghav has some penetrating insights. He says: “There’s so much about our societies’ [respective] rapid march into the 21st century that is still so massively under-reported or misunderstood.” In fact, “China is as diverse and pluralist as India [however] our countries are ruled by despotic governments who seek to obscure that diversity in the name of national strength.
"Our historic connections run deep [but] very few Chinese regard India as an equal or economic rival. They’re looking to Japan, the US, and the EU. We’re about as important to China as Egypt is to India -- a land in the mists of time that’s romantic to some and ‘unsafe’ to others.”
Raghav also notes: “A generation ago, we had something to offer China, a vision of plurality.” But “in the last decade, [it has] felt like India has become more like China -- this reduction of our complexities into a single, ‘national’ identity, this futile search for some kernel of ‘Indianness’ that simplifies and appropriates, this sneering attitude towards the marginalized and minorities.”
What the 31-year-old Indian is describing is the remarkably comprehensive victory of the ultra-nationalistic, unabashedly strong-armed “Chinese model” over the varied strivings of its more democratic neighbours.
China’s leadership is well aware of its predominance. As their strident propaganda mouthpiece Global Times recently put it, “India waging a trade war with China is like throwing an egg at a rock [and] will deny the Indian masses their right to a better life. Challenging the dominance of Chinese goods in the Indian market would be to challenge the market itself.”
Just hours ago, there was this warning: “Asia will be the world’s economic centre if it can continue its 30 years of peaceful development. The region cannot afford a large- scale military confrontation between China and India. The two countries had in previous years accumulated a favourable understanding. India is expected to resume rational foreign policy, and the two sides could resolve their disputes through talks.”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.