China

The following article by Tim Robertson appeared in the Diplomat on August 7 2018.

On July 6, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, celebrated his 83rd birthday in Ladakh, the Himalayan region in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. On the other side of the world’s highest mountain range sits Lhasa, the Tibetan capital that he fled in 1959 during the Tibetan Uprising. The Dalai Lama has never been allowed to return. His has been a life lived in exile. But even Lhasa, home to the Jokhang Temple and Potala Palace, was a world away from the place where Tenzin Gyato was born.

Takster is a small village in the far northeast of the Tibetan plateau, in the region of Amdo (these days, it’s part of the Chinese province of Qinghai). In his biography, Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama writes of Takster:

It was a small and poor settlement which stood on a hill overlooking a broad valley. Its pastures had not been settled or farmed for long, only grazed by nomads. The reason for this was the unpredictability of the weather in that area. During my early childhood, my family was one of twenty or so making a precarious living from the land there.

When Thupten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama, died in 1933 a search party was appointed to find his reincarnation; they first reached Takster just before Tenzin Gyatso’s third birthday. Shortly thereafter, they sent word to the Regent in Lhasa that they’d found the new Dalai Lama; they then waited several months to receive official confirmation.

At the time, control of China was divided among former military cliques. Ma Bufang, the Hui Muslim warload who ruled over Qinghai, “began to make trouble,” in the words of the Dalai Lama; thus, the boy destined to become the religious and political leader of Tibet was taken with his family to Kumbum monastery, “several hours away by horse.” Two years of diplomatic toing and froing followed and eventually, with the payment of a ransom, Ma Bufang allowed the party to leave Kumbum monastery and travel onwards to Lhasa.

***

Takster is a footnote in the long history of Tibet; it would be all but unremarkable if it were not the birthplace of the 14th Dalai Lama.

Today, it’s still a small, isolated village. For tourists visiting China – taking in the sights of Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Chengdu, etc. – this side of the country’s extraordinary rise often remains invisible: away from the big cities, there is still widespread impoverishment. In places like Takster it’s clear that China’s growth has disproportionately benefitted wealthy urbanities; today’s reality is the very opposite of the peasant-led revolution Mao Zedong hoped would remake China.

But Takster also tells another story of modern China, with its resurgent Han nationalism and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities.

It’s seven kilometers from Takster to the next closest village. The roads leading up the mountain from Ping’an are all relatively new up until the final village, after which they’re pot-holed and often unsealed. The villages scattered up the mountain, where the majority of people are Hui Muslims, are fairly typical of the region: there’s a small middle school, and stores where shopkeepers stare at their phones while waiting for customers. I spot a large government building with the requisite Chinese Communist Party (CCP) insignia and men work in a small square, laying pavers and planting trees.

Takster is somehow different, though. At first sight, it looks like the other villages. Vegetation is sparse, there are old cars and decrepit motorcycles parked haphazardly, and all the homes are small, one-story dwellings with large courtyards. But all the gates are closed and locked, which is unusual in a village where everyone knows one another and many people are related. It’s around 10:30 a.m. when we arrive, but there is no one around. Even the police are nowhere to be seen. We park in front of a requisitioned school desk with two police shields leaning against it, but the comically small chairs are empty.

The Dalai Lama’s former home isn’t exactly inconspicuous; the CCP have “renovated” it and you can see the gold roof as you drive toward Takster. But that’s the best view we get; the house is behind a four-meter high grey brick wall and, on the day we’re there, the wooden gate, draped in Tibetan khatags, is locked.

In lieu of people, the house is watched over by a lone security camera, aimed at the entrance. One hundred meters down the road a dog emerges from a house, then the sound of someone hammering metal begins to ring out over the village. As we make our way toward the only sign of life we’ve seen or heard since arriving, a Chinese-speaking Tibetan man emerges from a dwelling attached the former home of the Dalai Lama. Looking at me, he asks: “Where are you from?” But before I can answer he turns to my driver and, more alarmed, asks, “Are you Tibetan?” When the driver answers in the affirmative, the villager – with an obvious sense of urgency – tells us to leave quickly because the place is heavily surveilled. His voice is foreboding and his jerky, hurried gestures make it clear that this isn’t a place to loiter.

My now visibly anxious driver and I hurry back to the car, hoping that the makeshift police checkpoint is still unoccupied. Although few words are spoken in our brief encounter with the local villager, much is conveyed: Tibetans understand the reach, power, and unjustness of the CCP. They’ve spent their whole lives being persecuted because they’re Tibetans.

Beijing obviously doesn’t want Takster becoming a pilgrimage site for Tibetans; the Dalai Lama represents a challenge not to Chinese power per se, but to its national(ist) narrative. Martin Jacques, author and scholar of modern China, has argued that China is different from other nation states and is better understood as a “civilization-state.” The CCP’s claims to legitimacy are closely linked to its ability to foster an image of itself as the guardian of China’s 6,000 year old civilization. The claim, therefore, that Tibet is culturally, linguistically, and geographically distinct from China and its civilization undermines the CCP’s claims to legitimacy.

Yet, if, as Beijing claims, Tibet is an intrinsic part of China and if the emerging superpower is, as it claims, a benign force (unlike Western imperial powers), then it doesn’t make sense to ban people from visiting sites like Takster. If Takster is part of China in the same way that, say, Shanghai is, then all Chinese people (including Tibetans) should be free to go there. But, of course, Takster is not the same as Shanghai, nor are Tibetans, in the eyes of the CCP, the same as Han Chinese. There is a tension, in other words, between the myth-making that passes for official Chinese history, the national narrative that’s the basis for so much state propaganda, and the lived reality for China’s minorities.

China today is unrecognizable as the socialist utopia envisioned by Mao. Since his death in 1976, the CCP has shown itself to be flexible on matters that were once ideological imperatives. Thus, the once nominally atheist state has, in recent years, seen a resurgence in religiosity amongst its citizens. The CCP has allowed this – even encouraged it in some instances – to the extent that it remains apolitical. But if religious belief is accompanied by or becomes the basis for calls for independence or autonomy or greater freedom, then it’s ruthlessly repressed.

***

With each passing year, as the Dalai Lama grows older, there are whispers about what will happen when he dies: it’s unthinkable that Beijing would allow a Tibetan search party to carry out the task of finding his reincarnation unimpeded.  The Dalai Lama has made some vague comments that he may be the last reincarnation or that his reincarnation may be found outside Tibet in, say, India or Nepal. But until he passes and Beijing reveals its hand, this all remains hypothetical.

When we are a few kilometers out of Takster, my driver relaxes a bit, puts on some Tibetan rap music and we resume the conversation we’d been having earlier. “What do you think will happen,” I ask, “when the Dalai Lama dies?”

“Maybe I will have a bit more freedom,” he replies unconvincingly. He qualifies it with, “But I don’t really know, though.” He thinks it’s inevitable that the CCP will try to install their own pliant “Dalai Lama” (like it did when the Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking lama in the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, died in 1989); a figurehead the CCP can point to as evidence of its acceptance and respect for minorities, but someone who’s just an extension of its authority.

A few weeks later I am in Dharamshala, India with a Tibetan friend who’s spent most of his life in exile. When I tell him about my visit to the Dalai Lama’s birthplace and relate the conversation I had with my driver, he is dismissive of that prediction. It is impossible, he says, that Tibetans living in Chinese-occupied Tibet would stand for such an affront to their faith. If the CCP interferes with the search for the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, he warns, it could be the fire that sparks a revolution.

These two responses are not necessarily reflective of the views of the majority living in occupied-Tibet and those in exile, but they are emblematic of the gulf between the lived experiences of the two communities. Both suffer because of China’s occupation, but they suffer in very different ways and this shapes their hopes, aspirations and expectations.

All Tibetans share a culture and history, but China, in addition to occupying Tibetan land, has driven a wedge between its people. Many of those living in Chinese-administered territory can’t leave, while many of those living in exile have never set foot in Tibet.

The on-going Chinese-Tibetan conflict is not generally treated as an urgent matter by the international community. Beijing restricts access to Tibet, so the flow of information is tightly controlled, and China is an increasingly powerful force in the world. But the longer China is allowed to remain unaccountable for its occupation of Tibet and the oppression of its people, the harder it will be to bridge the divide between a people whose lived experience of isolation, occupation, and exclusion have been so different.

Tim Robertson

The following article by Martin Jacques was a contribution to the debate on the Economist website on the themeShould the West worry about the threat to liberal values posed by China’s rise?’

For long the West has thought that history is on its side, that the global future would and should be in its own image. With the end of the cold war and the implosion of the Soviet Union, this conviction became stronger than ever. The future was Western; nothing else was imaginable. Of course, already, well before the end of the cold war, in 1978 to be exact, China had started its epic modernisation such that, in the annals of history, 1978 will surely prove to be a far more significant year than 1989. During China’s rise, hubris continued to shape the West’s perception and understanding of China. As the latter modernised it would become increasingly Western, it was supposed: Deng’s reforms marked the beginning of the privatisation and marketisation of the Chinese economy—its political system would in time become Western, otherwise China would inevitably fail.

Read the full article here.

The following article by Martin Jacques appeared in Gulf News, 27th February 2018. 

The Belt and Road Initiative marks a new stage in China’s rise. Launched in 2013, it built on China’s going out strategy which took shape around the turn of the century. If the lines of continuity are clear, the differences are even starker. The going out strategy saw China developing closer relations with Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America, to name the most prominent. In contrast, the BRI is an overarching project designed to transform the Eurasian land mass, presently home to around two-thirds of the world’s population.

We have never seen the like of it before, a project on the grandest of scales and in that sense consonant with China’s own traditions.

Although Europe is part of the Eurasian land mass, the central aim is the transformation of the developing countries that comprise most of the continent. The developmental logic runs roughly as follows. China transformed itself — the most remarkable transformation in human history, one never likely to be repeated — by massive investment, in which the state was instrumental and which was largely directed towards infrastructure.

The result was spectacular economic growth and a massive reduction in poverty. If it worked for China, then why could it not for other developing countries? China doesn’t see itself as a model, but it does believe that these lessons are of more general application.

Spectacular though Belt and Road maybe, it would be wrong to underestimate or dismiss its chances of success. After almost four decades of continuous growth, China has a formidable record of delivery. Belt and Road should not only be taken seriously, it should be assumed that it in the long run it is likely to be largely successful.

By 2050, Eurasia will surely look very different, growth will have taken root in many countries and Eurasia will have moved to the centre of the global economy and geopolitics. For the more sceptical, it should be born in mind that by 2030 the Chinese economy is projected to be twice the size of America’s.

For various reasons, most importantly the closeness of the US’s relationship with the Middle East, China has moved relatively cautiously in expanding its ties with the Middle East. But the pace has quickened since the Western financial crisis.

The most important single aspect of China’s relationship has been its dependence on the Middle East for half its oil imports. But the Chinese approach has consistently focused on the need to establish a much broader economic relationship. In this context, the Middle East countries have shown great interest in the Belt and Road Initiative.

All the Middle Eastern states, bar five, are members of the Asian Infrastructure Bank, and three of the 12 directors are from the region.

Apart from the obvious economic importance of China to the Middle East, there are two key reasons why the latter is showing such interest in Belt and Road. Firstly, these countries — and perhaps most notably the Gulf states — occupy a key strategic position with regard to both the land and maritime routes.

This lends their ports an obvious significance and enhances the potential of their accompanying economic zones. The second is that with the decline of fossil fuels now firmly on the agenda, they need to diversify their economies with some alacrity, Saudi Arabia being the most compelling example.

The UAE has been well to the fore in broadening its relationship with China. China is the UAE’s second largest trading partner while the UAE is China’s second largest partner in the Gulf region.

The Khalifa port is one of the fastest growing in the world and, with Cosco’s decision to establish its own container terminal, is set to almost double in size. The Kamsil industrial zone is expanding rapidly with major Chinese investments.

A UAE-China investment fund was established in 2015 and the UAE sees itself as becoming a major financial hub. Lying on the key trading routes to Africa, Europe and the Indian subcontinent, the UAE is well-placed to be a major beneficiary of the BRI.

The following article by Martin Jacques appeared in China Daily, 20th January 2018.

As momentous historic events go, China’s reform period was relatively unheralded. Little did anyone realise at the time – probably no one, in fact – that 1978 would enter the history books as one of the most important years in modern history.

We should not be surprised. At the time, the Chinese economy was a mere one-twentieth of the size of the US economy, with a per capita GDP roughly on a par with that of Zambia, lower than half of the Asian average and lower than two-thirds of the African average. China’s impact on the world was very limited, even in East Asia.

Read the full article here.

The following is an English translation of an article by Martin Jacques that appeared in People’s Daily, 9th January 2018

The 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress marked a new moment in China’s arrival on the global stage. Congresses of the Chinese Communist Party, even in the modern era, have invariably attracted little attention in the West. They have been regarded as neither particularly relevant nor important, rubber-stamp occasions that were difficult to understand or decipher and best left to the China experts. The 19th Congress broke the mould. It was widely reported and recognised in the West as an event of major global importance. Instead of treating the Congress as a somewhat bizarre tribal occasion, some of the coverage displayed a greater sense of seriousness and inquiry. It was widely acknowledged that this was one of the most important political events of 2017. The coverage was further evidence that China has moved to the centre of the global stage. 

Read more >

The following is an English translation of an article by Martin Jacques that appeared in the People’s Daily, 22nd December 2017.

At the end of 2017 uncertainty dominates the outlook for the future. As we can now see with great clarity, the Western financial crisis of 2007-8 proved the most important turning point in the West since 1945. For a decade, the Western economies have been mired in varying degrees of stagnation, not least with regard to living standards. And it was the Great Recession that begat the Great Populist Uprising in 2016. The latter signalled the end of the hegemony of neo-liberalism in the West, which began in 1980 with the arrival of Reagan and Thatcher and was characterised by hyper-globalisation, privatisation and a huge growth in inequality. The Uprising was driven by large swathes of the population in both the United States and Britain whose living standards had more or less stagnated for four decades. It was a popular revolt against the governing elites by those who felt left behind and who held these elites responsible for their deteriorating situation. Politically the new mood was articulated most clearly, though not solely, by the right, notably Trump in America and the Brexiteers in the UK. 

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我们应当铭记,2017年始于习近平主席在瑞士达沃斯世界经济论坛上的演讲。这一演讲的主要观点迅速传遍世界,并被视为对经济全球化的标准界定,将之称为新的全球共识也毫不为过

这是一个充满不确定性的时代。但有一点很明确,对西方而言,2007—2008年爆发的国际金融危机是自1945年以来的一个重大拐点。10年间,西方国家陷入了不同程度的停滞,尤其是在人民生活水平方面。这次大衰退最终导致了2016年西方民粹主义的兴起。民粹主义泛滥标志着始于上世纪80年代、以自由放任的全球化、私有化和收入差距拉大为特征的西方新自由主义支配地位的终结。

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Updated and expanded new Chinese edition just released.

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Turkish edition just published!

When China Rules the World is the first book to fully conceive of and explain the upheaval that China’s ascendance will cause and the realigned global power structure it will create.

New edition available now from:

Amazon UK
and all good booksellers.

US second edition is available now via: 

Amazon US