The only reference amidst Beijing’s centennial celebrations to Sino-Indian differences — posthumous awards for four Chinese soldiers out of more than 40 believed to have fallen in the Galwan Valley clash in June 2020 — gives no glimpse of the unsmiling President Xi Jinping’s “dream”of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. For that one must go back 228 years to Emperor Qianlong’s haughty rebuff to England’s King George III.
Official India is sometimes equally enigmatic. Indians were completely taken aback when Gen. V.K. Singh, who soldiers on in politician’s garb, announced that “if China had transgressed (the Line of Actual Control) 10 times, we must have done it at least 50 times”. Was it the eternal soldier’s boast that no one can beat our jawans in derring-do? Or flaunting loyalty to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who astonished everyone back in June 2020 by exonerating the Chinese of any incursion or encroachment?
Imitation being the best form of flattery, no one was surprised either when, while visiting Ladakh, defence minister Rajnath Singh would not even mention China. He spoke only about our “neighbours” and the “neighbourhood”.
Reportedly, the Prime Minister had done so earlier, which was rather like the ancient Greeks, who were as superstitious as today’s Hindu stalwarts, calling the Furies the Eumenides or good-humoured ladies to flatter them into being less furious.
China’s disdain for verbal gymnastics recalls Deng Xiaoping’s advice to hide your strength and bide your time. Unlike Indian politicians, Deng abjured any hankering for superpower status. So do his successors. What they assert instead is that although they have suffered oppression and exploitation by European nations and their colonial lackeys (India?) for a century, they will overtake the United States economically in 10 years. Mr Xi called this “xiaokang”, “basically well-off”, the term Deng used in a display of humility that was as ostentatious as Mahatma Gandhi’s poverty. China knows that the gun out of whose barrel power grows rests on a booming economy.
Although Deng was the unaggressive architect of China’s modernisation, there really isn’t much fundamental contradiction between his legacy and that of Mao Zedong. The difference is mainly of style. Deng ousted Mao’s designated successor, Hua Guofeng, launched and guided the Boluan Fanzheng (literally “eliminating chaos and returning to normal”) and the Four Modernisations movements, and suppressed the Democracy Wall and the Beijing Spring.
His only designation may have been “Most Honorary President of the Chinese Bridge Association”, but his word was law. The quaintly named “June Fourth Incident” — when tanks and troops massacred thousands of unarmed young democracy supporters — bore his imprimatur. He could obfuscate his purpose with aphorisms like “A market economy is not necessarily capitalist, and a planned economy is not necessarily socialist”.
Chairman Mao’s singular ability was to draw on the past even while dismantling its legacy. Thus, he told his commanders on the eve of the 1962 war that India and China had fought “one-and-a-half” wars in ancient times. The first was during the Tang dynasty (618-907), when Chinese troops helped an Indian monarch suppress a pretender. The “half” was Timur’s sacking of Delhi seven centuries later, which Mao included because the Mongol Yuan dynasty, founded by Kublai Khan, ruled China at the time. Had Mao known that Emperor Babur was Timur’s great-great-great-grandson, he would undoubtedly have laid claim to the Delhi masnad; perhaps the ambition did stir in his subconscious as he ordered his commanders to be “restrained and principled”, unlike Timur who massacred more than 100,000 Indian prisoners.
Mao must have enjoyed the 2,893-word letter in which Qianlong projected himself as the Son of Heaven, the whole world his vassal. He regarded envoys as supplicants, gifts as tribute, politeness as submission, and diplomatic relations as a plea for protection. Asked for trading ties, he ordered King George III to “tremblingly obey and show no negligence!”
The Great Helmsman, who swam in the Yangtse river at 62 to demonstrate his fitness, was blamed for the miseries of the Great Leap Forward when millions of people died, the anarchic violence of the Cultural Revolution, and the depredations of the Gang of Four. But millions of Chinese truly believe that it was only because of Mao that they could stand up. All Under Heaven acknowledge that Deng could not have built what he did if the feared, reviled and worshipped Mao hadn’t laid the foundations. Even Deng admitted that Mao was seven parts good and only three parts bad.
On July 1 Mr Xi, whose own Mandate of Heaven will soon be renewed for yet another five-year term, announced from the same balcony where Mao had proclaimed the born-again Middle Kingdom in 1949 that 1.4 billion Chinese were “marching in confident strides” toward the “goal of building China into a ‘great modern socialist country’ in all respects”. As Mao rides again, his successor should not forget that the point of his tale about the one and a half wars was that India and China are not doomed to perpetual enmity.
It was a point that had been made eight years earlier during Mao’s last conversation with Jawaharlal Nehru. Discussing their “differences”, Mao referred to the old Chinese saying, “to seize somebody’s pigtail”. He and Nehru agreed that India and China would not do that. “Sometimes we have differences, but we do not quarrel”, Nehru responded. That is something for Mr Xi to remember, no matter how deeply he might resent the new map of the now downgraded Jammu and Kashmir state that New Delhi belatedly released last November.
Unless he does, India and China will stand like two goats with locked horns on a narrow bridge, as Liu Shuqing, a former Chinese vice-foreign minister, warned Bhutan’s Dawa Tsering. Prime Minister Modi gave a new twist to the stalemate with the slogan “Inch towards Miles” on the eve of Mr Xi’s first visit to India in 2014. If the Prime Minister has forgotten what he said, Beijing can jog his memory by reiterating the old Chinese saying: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
Someone has to take that first step.