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CHINA: God As Threat To National Security


Paper 492                             11.07.2002

by B. Raman

China today is ruled by a highly rational and pragmatic leadership, which realises better than our own, that without economic strength, purely military strength would not help it emerge as a major power of the world and the predominant power of the region.

2. Mao Tse-Dong believed that power grew out of the barrel of the gun.  The present Chinese leadership believes that power grows out of the money purse.  Consequently, its entire attention is focussed since 1979 on making the Chinese economy overtake  the Japanese and catch up with the American by the year 2020.  It has thrown open its doors to the foreign investors---initially mainly to the overseas Chinese investors of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and the ASEAN region and, since 1989, to any foreign investor, from wherever he may come provided he has money to invest and skills to impart to the Chinese.

3. It has no complexes to restrain it from admitting its deficiencies, whether they be in respect of language, knowledge and expertise, legal framework or financial structure, and seeking foreign help and guidance.  Deng Xiao-Peng's initial steps were cautious.  To start with, he opened up only the coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian to see what effect the opening-up  would have on political stability and internal security.

4. The 1980s saw the economies of Hong Kong and  Taiwan  graduate from low and medium tech to hi-tech and from the manufacturing to the services sector.  Taking advantage of the duty and other concessions offered by Beijing, the owners of low and medium tech industries in these areas transferred their manufacturing units lock,stock and barrel to the two Chinese coastal provinces.  In the first decade of China's opening-up, the investment flows were more in kind than in cash---in the form of the old machinery and other equipment of the consumer industries transferred from Hong Kong and Taiwan to China.

5. Having gained enough self-confidence by 1989, Deng started opening up other areas to foreign investors, starting with Shanghai. Today, there is hardly any part of China, where foreign investment is not welcome.  Even Tibet and Xinjiang, which have been affected by what the Chinese describe as national splittist and religious extremist movements respectively, have opened up their doors to foreign investors, though, presently, the local administrations there seem to prefer investments coming from overseas Chinese and are cautious with regard to those from non-overseas Chinese sources.

6. Since the middle 1990s, there has been a torrent of cash direct investment flows from practically all over the world, with an annual average of US $ 40 billion plus.  It has managed to maintain an annual average growth rate of around 7 per cent, often and in the coastal regions much more than this.

7. The Chinese are an extremely security conscious people.  Even while opening up their economy, they had identified certain sectors such as telecommunications, information technology etc as sensitive from the national security point of view and were reluctant to open them up.  For example, they allowed foreign investment in the manufacture of telecommunication equipment, but not for running telecom services.  Now, they have realised that over-obsession with security considerations could prove counter-productive and retard progress in the technologies of the future.  There has been a re-examination of some of the restrictions imposed in the past on national security grounds.

8. The desire for economic power has even moderated what was looked upon before 2000 as its over-assertive policies in respect of issues such as the future of Taiwan, its claim, based on historic grounds, to the islands in the South China Sea etc.  The economy first, the rest can wait. That seems to be the attitude of the present leadership in Beijing.

9. The pragmatism of the leadership is evident even in its attitude to the US-led war against international terrorism. China, like India, has every reason to be concerned over the return of the US military presence and influence to the Asian region under the guise of fighting terrorism, but their leadership does not give open indication of its concerns.  Affected as they are for  over a decade by religious terrorism in Xinjiang, they realise that only the USA has, at present, the required human and material resources to crush the terrorists and are prepared to let it do so even at the risk of a long-term US presence in the vicinity of China.

10. The xenophobia of the past is giving way to a ready acceptance of  foreigners---whether businessmen, tourists or intellectuals.  However, suspicion still lingers in respect of foreign journalists, representatives of non-governmental organisations dealing with human rights and other issues and religious and spiritual leaders.  They are looked upon as possible threats to national security.  Despite this suspicion,  Beijing was prepared to play host to Shri Sankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam and reportedly went out of its way in offering all facilities to enable him observe his religious practices during his stay there.  It was even prepared to have a well specially dug for him since, it is said, he drinks only well water and have Indian vegetables flown to him.  For reasons, not yet clear, the visit has not yet materialised.  The talk in China was that it was not due to any nervousness on the part of China in hobnobbing with an Indian religious leader, but nervousness in New Delhi over  letting the Sankaracharya hobnob with Beijing.  Please don't ask me why.

11. During a recent visit to Shanghai in May,2002, I was pleasantly surprised by the ease with which I was able to enter and leave the country, without vexatious immigration and security checks at the airport, despite the fact that I was travelling with an ordinary passport. They make everyone feel welcome.

12. We must be gratified that the Sankaracharya is seen by the Chinese as a benign influence. They  do not look upon him as likely to pose a threat to their national security.  But, they do not feel equally comfortable with other religious leaders.  They definitely do not like the Pope, the Dalai Lama and many Islamic religious leaders--particularly of the Pakistani kind.  They may have the best of strategic relations with Pakistan, but keep a wary eye on its mullas and tableeghi groups, whom they keep out of the country.

13. The present Chinese leadership is very intelligent and has a better understanding of market forces than  the leaders of many capitalist countries.  The Maoists of Nepal are not far wrong when they describe the Chinese leaders as capitalists in Communist clothing. However, despite all their intelligence and pragmatism, one thing is still beyond their comprehension---the hold of religion and spirituality on the people, whether literate, semi-literate or illiterate.

14. The influence of Christianity and the devotion of their Catholics to the Pope remain as strong as ever.  Despite their constant demonisation of the Dalai Lama, he is still a highly venerated figure not only in Tibet, but also among the Buddhists of their Mongolia.  The influence of Islam amongst the Muslims of not only Xinjiang, but also other areas of China is equally strong.  Objective observers admit that Tibet and Xinjiang have made tremendous economic progress during the last 20 years, but this has not weakened the hold of religion on the people.  It is said that in the interior areas of Tibet, if a peasant is offered a choice of either an electronic gadget or a picture of the Dalai Lama as a gift, he would without hesitation choose the latter.

15. Look at the way the Chinese deal with the Islamic separatist movement in Xinjiang.  During the last 10 years, less than 200 people have died due to Islamic terrorism in Xinjiang as against the thousands killed by the terrorists in Jammu & Kashmir.  Even the worst critics of the human rights record of the Indian Security Forces have not accused them of trying to suppress the religious practices of Muslims or disrespecting their religion.  One is told that in Xinjiang all religious worship has to be in the privacy of one's home, public observance of fast during the holy Ramdan period is not permitted and the keeping of beards is an offence.

16. One has also seen the brutal manner in which they have been treating the members of the Falun Gong sect.  If one regularly visited the web sites of Chinese think-tanks, one would be struck by the number of articles seeking to demonise the Falun Gong and project its members in the most negative colours.

17. Despite official suspicion of devotion to religion and spirituality, faith in them is gathering strength even amongst young and educated people.  One notices more young than grown-up people during visits to the Buddha temples in Shanghai.

18. The Chinese people have reasons to be grateful to their leadership, which has given them increasing prosperity and a well-run administration.  People definitely have more money in their pockets now than in the past and than the people of India have in theirs.  Despite this, why are they attracted to God? Why this feeling of emptiness inside them despite a bulging money purse? Why more and more people seek solace in religion and spirituality, even at the risk of falling foul of the establishment?

19. These are questions which continue to confuse and haunt the Chinese leadership, which is not able to find an answer to them.  The way they monitor religious and spiritual activities, one gets the impression as if they feel that God is a major threat to their national security.

20. As the Chinese hare kept racing forward, seemingly unaffected by even the 1997 economic collapse in some of the ASEAN countries and South Korea, skeptics in the West, particularly in the US, kept saying that all that glittered in China was not gold.  They expressed doubts about the accuracy of Chinese economic statistics.  They kept drawing attention to the landmines  in front of the leadership--- likely social tensions due to the unequal regional development with the coastal provinces racing to prosperity and even affluence, but the interior areas still caught in poverty; rural unemployment; frightening prospects of large-scale urban unemployment due to the closure of unproductive government-owned enterprises and the sale of others to private parties etc.

21. All their grim warnings have proved baseless till now.  The pragmatic and far-sighted Chinese leadership has handled the economy with aplomb.  The chances of political instability due to economic causes are  low.

22. One wishes the leadership develops an equal understanding of the force of religion and spirituality.  If one day there is serious instability in China and if its society comes unstuck, it will, most probably, be not due to political, economic or social causes, but due to the State continuing to come in the way of the religious and spiritual yearnings of the people. 

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-Mail: )