By Swapan Dasgupta
What would have happened, it was asked on Twitter last Friday, if someone in the state-controlled media in China had made a tasteless remark similar to what the TV presenter in New Zealand made about Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit? Would the Ministry of External Affairs have summoned the Chinese Ambassador, issued a demarche and snubbed a visiting dignitary?
My own guess is that we would have quietly tut-tutted, stonewalled media inquiries and retreated into the depths of helplessness. When it comes to small fry such as New Zealand, India is willing to live up to the image of Sheru, the Commonwealth Games mascot: a friendly lion but a lion all the same. However, when it comes to China, the natural instinct of the MEA is to look for excuses to avoid baring its manicured fangs.
Of course, there are exceptions. Occasionally, we do get officials and ministers who don't confuse their respect for China's civilisation with abject deference to the ruling establishment of the People's Republic of China. Despite all the dire threats issued by Beijing, the Dalai Lama was allowed to visit Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. And despite signalling that his authority stems from the first family, the Minister of Environment's unmistakable 'give it to China' approach to Arunachal Pradesh's development will not become official policy. India has its Sinophiles but it also has a political class that is not swayed by the dangerous logic of China's approach to the subcontinent.
Yet, because China policy is still unduly influenced by China experts who take their cue from Beijing, it is extremely unlikely that there will be any official Indian reaction to the Nobel committee's decision to award its Peace Prize to the jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo.
This is understandable. India is disinclined to wear its commitment to democracy on its sleeve. Unlike the United States which has fetishized its double standards, New Delhi is inclined to respect sovereignty—although this has not prevented our diplomats from proffering gratuitous advice to Israel, the only worthwhile democracy in West Asia. India has its inconsistencies but at least we don't claim to be the custodian of all that is noble in the world.
It is unlikely that either Rashtrapati Bhavan or Race Course Road will be writing a personal message of congratulations to the Nobel Prize winner China continues to regard as a convicted "criminal". The 54-year-old human rights activist was sentenced in December 2009 to 11 years in prison for alleged "subversion". In the Chinese context, it meant that he had questioned the absence of democratic freedoms in China and c-authored "Charter 08", a blistering attack on the crimes of the Communist Party of China. Having attracted nearly 10,000 signatures (mainly of teachers and intellectuals), Charter 08 has come to symbolise the yearning for democracy in China.
However, the understandable wariness of official India to take an official position on an award that Chinese diplomats tried desperately to prevent need not be the last word on the subject. There is nothing to prevent Indian civil society from celebrating the Nobel Committee's recognition of the universality of basic democratic rights.
That the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu, coming two decades after the Dalai Lama had been similarly honoured, is calculated to infuriate Beijing isn't in any doubt. With characteristic Iron Curtain ham-handedness, the Chinese authorities have attempted to black out the news, quite forgetting that censorship doesn't work and, in fact, makes the forbidden item that much more delicious to everyone. Norway has been threatened with retaliation and, who knows, the US too will be threatened because of President Obama's call for Liu's release.
These are routine noises by a regime that, underneath its imperious arrogance, is fundamentally nervous about its own legitimacy. Some two decades ago, Deng Xiaoping had coined the characteristically cryptic phrase "Crossing the river by feeling for stones" to define China's cautious approach to political reforms that can invariably end the CPC's monopoly of power. There were many who felt that rapid economic growth and greater exposure to the capitalist world would ease Communist control. Indeed, it was widely believed that the 2008 Olympics would hasten the process of relaxation. But this has not happened.
In an interview to Daily Telegraph last year, Professor He Weifang, the lead signatory to Charter 08 assessed today's China, using Deng's metaphor: "The situation at the moment is that the river has deepened and the Party has got scared, so it has pulled back fearing that the waters will rise up and drown them. In the last two years this pulling back from the water has got worse."
Whether or not China retreats into the clutches of a nervous dictatorship has a profound bearing on the world. As it has risen to the status of the world's second largest economy, Beijing has become fiercely assertive in its conduct. With growing militarisation, colonisation of the world's mineral and energy resources in a manner reminiscent of Victorian imperialism, and aggression towards its neighbours (Japan got a taste of it last month), it is becoming increasingly apparent that China's unrestrained rise will lead to it wishing to redraw the rules of the game.
This is why it is important that enlightened voices are not suppressed in China. Taiwan has shown that democracy and the Chinese people are fully compatible.