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Behind China's stern front, paranoia rules

September 2, 2010

Venkatesan Vembu
DNA India
September 1, 2010

Mumbai -- Here we go again. The uneasy and
artificial calm in Sino-Indian relations of the
past few months has given way to tit-for-tat visa
cancellations and testy exchanges that more truly
represent the unresolved tensions between them.

So beguilingly calm were matters all this while
that environment minister Jairam Ramesh even
claimed, somewhat fancifully in May, that the
‘Chindian’ cooperation he forged at the
Copenhagen climate change conference last year
had fortified the two countries’ "strategic"
relationship. It now appears that the thin ice on
which that exaggerated claim rested has melted
away in the heat of a cruel summer.

China’s brazen challenge to India’s sovereignty
over J&K and the presence of Chinese troops in
large swathes of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir,
ostensibly to secure Chinese commercial interests
in the disputed territory, are more than a little disquieting.

Taken along with increasing Chinese assertiveness
in the South China Sea, which faced a concerted
pushback by countries in the region and even a US
challenge, they appear to point to a China that’s
signalling the rise of the Chinese Empire.

But in fact China’s recent ‘iron fist’ approach
is as much a manifestation of a security paranoia
as of the artless outreach of an empire that
believes it’s time is at hand. Despite the
heavy-handed crackdown on Tibetan and Uighur
disaffection in recent years, China remains
unsure about the firmness of its hold on Tibet
and Xinjiang. Its needling of India, and its
security cover for an imploding Pakistan -- the
global hotbed of jihadism, which spills over into
Xinjiang — are motivated by this sense of insecurity.

That sense of perceived infirmity extends beyond
just the security space in China: today
conspiracy theories — about China being the
‘target’ of hostile forces -- are being peddled
with disturbing frequency. For instance, at least
three such conspiracy theories are currently
gaining traction. The first of these, articulated
by financial journalist Li Delin, author of the
best-selling book Goldman Sachs Conspiracy,
claims that the Wall Street investment bank’s
“ultimate goal” is to “hunt and kill China”.

The jingoistic and borderline anti-Semitic tone
of the book, which has been well received, feeds
the prevailing “they’re out to get us” mindset in China.

Similarly, a second book, Low-carbon Plot: The
Life and Death War Between China and the West,
advances the climate-change skeptics’ view that
the developed countries’ campaign for a
low-carbon economy globally is a "sinister
attempt" to deny developing countries their right
to development. And a third book, Who is
Auctioning China?, peddles the line that
international auction houses are colluding with
wealthy collectors in the West to exploit China’s
treasures, and are creating an enabling
environment for the smuggling of Chinese artefacts.

More bizarrely, in recent days sensational (and
completely discredited) rumours began circulating
that the governor of China’s central bank had
defected overseas ostensibly after the bank lost
nearly half a trillion dollars on its US Treasury
investments. They were easily disproved, but they
nevertheless served to feed the paranoid
narrative -- that "Western traders" were out to sink China’s investments.

Taken together these point to the prevalence of a
societal ‘siege mentality’ that is at variance
from outside-in perceptions of a
confident,assertive China. For anyone who deals
with China, it makes for a rather more disturbing narrative.
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