By Bharat Karnad
In August last year, there were newspaper reports that the former President and Chinese Communist Party boss (1989-2002), Jiang Zemin, and his two sons were “placed under control”, a sort of house arrest, with restrictions on their freedom of movement. They were charged with corruption. That was a preparatory stage to what has just happened—Jiang has been formally arrested as a prelude to a kangaroo court imposing death sentence, possibly by firing squad.
So far, this development has not been reported by any media outlet anywhere but was intimated to an acquaintance by Jiang Zemins’s high-placed Chinese contacts. House arrest followed by formal arrest, court, and death is a pattern, last suffered by the former party security chief, Zhou Yongkang. President Xi Jinping has thus succeeded in dismantling the parallel power structure that Zemin had set up, overseen by Zhou, by finally getting rid of the principles in it.
If true, Zemin’s elimination altogether from the scene suggests many things. Firstly, politics in autocratically ruled China is a zero sum game: if you lose it you also lose your head. Secondly, this event, together with the earlier removal of the two vice-chairmen of the powerful Central Military Commission controlling the Peoples Liberation Army—Guo Boxiong and especially Xu Caihou, who were supposedly responsible for denuding Xi’s predecessor in office, Hu Jintao, of any real power, marks the emergence of Xi as the Jefe Maximo (maximum leader in Latin American parlance) who has suppressed all resistance to his authority and rule in China. It will mean that China hereafter will move as per Xi’s dictates. Is that good or bad for India?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the impression of considerable personal warmth in his relations with Xi (manifested during the latter’s state visit to India in 2015). Modi obviously believes that Xi is a reasonable man he can do business with. Except, and this is the Damocles’ sword hanging over Xi, that a future successor could do to him what he is doing to Jiang and his cohort. Accommodating New Delhi on a slate of issues requires resolution, ranging from delineation of the disputed border to Beijing’s vetoing India’s entry into Nuclear Suppliers Group and the UN Security Council, could give his potential adversaries a reason to hang him.
So, like his predecessor Jiang (when he arrived in Delhi in 1996) for whom he proved the nemesis, Xi will be more inclined to take than to give and on territorial matters to concede not an inch of China’s real estate claims in Arunachal Pradesh.
But Modi seems partial to hugs and embraces as mean of preempting resistance. It won’t work with Xi, as is already evident from how firmly Beijing has held on to its line on all issues, most recently on India’s membership in NSG. Both National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar were deployed to cajole and convince Zhongnanhai but returned home, as the Chinese spokesman revealed, after being heard out. MEA Minister Sushma Swaraj’s take that China is not opposed to India’s entry per se says more about New Delhi’s cupidity than to Beijing’s resolve.
Modi will obviously converse with Xi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. However, Modi (and the Indian government) will once again discover the fact that Beijing is stirred into respecting it when an opposing country shows fight, such as Vietnam, not when it seems willing to cut a deal.
Bharat Karnad is a senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and author of most recent book, ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.
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