January 9, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Claude Arpi

India must take advantage of Beijing's 'sweet amiability' India must take advantage of Beijing's 'sweet amiability'

Li Peng, the Chinese leader many call the Butcher of Tiananmen Square, is in India this week. Author Claude Arbi assesses the likely impact of his visit.

India will receive Li Peng, the second-highest ranking Chinese leader, this week. He will stay seven days in India and according to foreign ministry sources, his visit will "promote ties between Asia's largest nations and pave the way for a trip by Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji."

Li, chairman of the National People's Congress (the Chinese parliament), is the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit India since bilateral ties turned sour after India's 1998 nuclear tests. During his stay he will meet President K R Narayanan, Vice-President Krishan Kant and Opposition leader Sonia Gandhi. Indian officials say the visit is "aimed at keeping up the momentum of close relations and high-ranking visits."

A point, which immediately comes to mind, is that the frequency of visits by Chinese leaders does not automatically imply an improvement in relations between India and China. Zhou Enlai, who by the way adopted Li Peng as his son, visited India thrice in less than two months (between November 28, 1956 and January 26, 1957) at a time when the People's Liberation Army was completing the Aksai Chin road, inaugurated by Zhou later in 1957.

Ironically, one of the topics on this week's agenda for talks between India and China will precisely be the north-western border (including Aksai Chin).

Li's visit comes at a juncture when China seems to open up to its neighbours and choose the road of peace. At the same time, many signs show the instability of the regime in Beijing caught between the hardliners led by Li and the reformers whose role was subdued after the Tiananmen massacre, but who are still present and apparently taking the lead in the recent string of friendly gestures.

Several instances can be cited:

Beijing recently announced that it is ready to sign bilateral agreements on fishing rights with three of its littoral neighbours (Japan, Korea and Vietnam). The reliable American analyst commented that though these agreements were 'fairly routine among nations with shared waters, Beijing's apparent willingness to grant generous terms to its neighbours is curious -- generosity is not typical of Chinese negotiators.' The commentator added that 'from Beijing's perspective, the short-term economic costs will be enormous, but the agreements may offer bigger strategic and economic gains down the road.'

It is said a million people in China's fishing and fish-processing industries may lose their jobs as a direct result of the new agreements. In spite of this, the agreement with Vietnam was signed during President Tran Duc Luong's recent visit to Beijing. The two other agreements will follow soon.

Another sign of conciliation is the re-establishment of contact with the Dalai Lama's administration which could pave the way for negotiations. According to the Dalai Lama, who gave a press conference in Dharamsala on December 4, his elder brother Gyalo Thundup was approached by Beijing sometime ago. He immediately went to Dharamsala to consult his brother who sent, through him, a message to Beijing.

The Dalai Lama also requested the Chinese government to allow a fact-finding commission to visit Tibet. So far, the Chinese government has not reacted to the Dalai Lama's proposal, but Delhi could certainly help solve the Tibetan issue in relaying once more the Dalai Lama's message to Li. Who can disagree with the Dalai Lama that "it is very essential and useful to have person-to-person meetings"?

Yet another positive sign linked with Tibet is the change of guard in Lhasa. In December it was announced that Chen Kuiyuan, the Communist Party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region and the de facto boss of Tibet, had been replaced by Guo Jinlong. The new leader who comes from from Nanjing in China 'has a reputation for being similar to Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji in outlook, focusing on economic growth and building prosperity' said the Tibet Information Network. Chen was known as the hardliner, the artisan of many campaigns and crackdowns against Tibetan religion and culture which some Tibetans described as 'a second Cultural Revolution.'

Sunanda K Datta Ray, former editor of The Statesman, emphasised this point when he wrote in The Tribune: 'Beijing hints at accepting a code of conduct on the disputed Spratly Islands where it has so far preferred strong-arm methods... These are synchronised moves in a multi-pronged campaign to reinforce China's new image of sweet amiability.'

For China's watchers it is obvious that the regime in Beijing is going through a period of transition. They are many signs that there is a wind of change (or a change of wind in Maoist terminology) in Beijing. The best proof is the release in New York of a book, The Tiananmen Papers.

The book is said to contain the minutes of all meetings of the standing committee of the Politburo as well as meetings at the home of the last emperor, Deng Xiaoping, during the events which led the PLA to crush the student movement at Tiananmen Square in June 1989. They have been smuggled out of China in the form of 15,000 computer pages. These highly classified documents could have left Zhongnanhai, the Beijing enclave where the party's top leadership lives, only with the blessings and active participation of highly placed officials close to the Politburo and close to the reformist circle.

We should not forget that Zhao Ziyang, general secretary of the party who was ousted during the Tiananmen crisis, is still alive. It is rumoured that when he tried to attend Deng's funeral in 1997, a shaky leadership felt his presence could rekindle the flame of democracy and refused to grant him permission. Zhao still has some friends.

The fact that these papers are released now tend to prove that the battle for succession -- both Li and President Jiang Zemin are scheduled to step down from office in 2002 and 2003 respectively -- has begun. The 'reformist' group seems to have scored a few points. There is a definitive connection with the 'sweetening' of China's international stance.

These papers show Li -- the Chinese premier in 1989 -- in very bad light. In fact, he is the last of the surviving leaders who took the decision to send the tanks to crush the turmoil at Tiananmen. One of the book's editors, Andrew Nathan, wrote about Li in Foreign Affairs magazine: 'Not only did he advocate a hardline against the students and go on television to declare martial law, as is already known, but the papers show that he manipulated information to lead Deng and the other elders to see the demonstrations as an attack on them personally and on the political structure they had devoted their careers to creating.'

Another event pointing at the 'change of wind' in the leadership is the creation of a top-level advisory group to respond rapidly to national security crises. The central national security leading group consists of leaders from the Communist Party, the military, intelligence departments, foreign ministry and Taiwan affairs units. It is supposed to help President Jiang and give him advice on diplomatic, military, strategic and technological matters. Jiang has three deputies -- Vice-President Hu Jintao, Zhang Wannian and Qian Qichen. But neither Li nor Premier Zhu is a member which is a clear indication that they may not be around after the next party congress in 2002.

When Indian leaders begin discussions on the border problem with the Chinese leader, they should certainly not miss the opportunity presented by the new open-ness and Beijing's 'sweet amiability.' They should not forget that Li is in a very vulnerable position, discredited at home and abroad for his role in the Tiananmen massacre. They should not forget that he is Zhou's son and though he may not have his father's diplomatic skills, he has been able to manoeuvre and survive many purges (most probably thanks to his contacts in the army). Nevertheless, his position today seems rather weak.

PS: There is a raging debate why Choki-la Iyer, a Sikkimese IFS officer, was appointed the next foreign secretary. It may be the result of the war between the two Indian 'foreign ministers' or the fact that Kanwal Sibal, the ambassador in Paris who was tipped for the post, was only 17th in the line of seniority, (though the Frenchman in me finds it difficult to accept that France is rated so low). But this appointment has a very good side.

It will remind Li that Sikkim is part of India and not part of China. We should not forget that even today, China has not accepted that Sikkim is an integral part of India. It is heartening to think that Iyer will be able to enlighten Zhu on the subject when he visits India later this year.

PPS: Will we see Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy demonstrate in front of Li's motorcade? They must know he is the father of the Three Gorges Projects which will create the displacement of 1.3 million Chinese, a hundred times more than the one caused by the Narmada dam.

Claude Arpi is author of The Fate of Tibet (HarAnand), which has also been translated into French.

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