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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Wen and the art of Tai Chi

December 17, 2010

December 15, 2010 
The Pioneer
Claude Arpi

Make no mistake: Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are like a restaurant sugar packet, black on one side and white on the other, but still part of the same whole.

W ho is China’s First Dissident? Many China observers believe that it is not Mr Liu Xiaobo who was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but the Prime Minister (or Premier in Communist jargon) of the country, Mr Wen Jiabao, who will be visiting India between December 15 and 17. During the last few months, Mr Wen Jiabao has spoken on several occasions on the same theme as the Nobel Laureate; each time he has been censured by the ‘authorities’ of his own country.

Take his visit to the United States in September. Mr Wen Jiabao was interviewed by Fareed Zakaria for CNN’s Global Public Square. When Zakaria asked Mr Wen Jiabao about freedom of speech in China, the suave Premier, known as ‘Grandpa Wen’ in the Middle Kingdom, replied, “I believe freedom of speech is indispensable for any country — a country in the course of development and a country that has become strong. Freedom of speech has been incorporated into the Chinese Constitution.” He then continued in the same vein, “I often say that we should not only let people have the freedom of speech, we more importantly must create conditions to let them criticise the work of the Government.”

When Liu Xiaobo had said the same thing, he was jailed for 11 years. Well, it might be the prerogative of the Premier of the State Council to not be jailed but only censured. Ironically, it is the same State Council which sentenced Mr Liu Xiaobo.

More than being a dissident, Mr Wen Jiabao has probably an extraordinary capacity of adaptation and survival. On May 19, 1989, the director of the general office of the Communist Party of China walked with his boss, CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, to meet the youth who had gathered at Tiananmen Square. Zhao Ziyang told the students, “I have to ask you to think carefully about the future.” He assured them that all issues could be dealt with peacefully.

One of the issues that bothered the students was that their protest was labelled as ‘turmoil’ by the party rather than a patriotic movement. For the youth on the Square, the description mattered greatly: They felt that their motivations were being questioned. The director was Mr Wen Jiabao. Two weeks later, tanks of the People’s Liberation Army rolled into Tiananmen Square and crushed the protest.

An interesting debate is today going on in China: Is Mr Wen Jiabao ‘putting on a show’ when he speaks about democratic reforms? Due to the extreme opaqueness of the regime in Beijing, the question is not easy to answer. The South China Morning Post mentioned a letter written by some former senior editors and journalists (including the nonagenarian secretary of Mao Tse-tung). The Hong Kong-based paper wrote: “The sponsors of the open letter seemed most outraged by the fact that even Wen had been censored. They cited examples of his speech in Shenzhen on August 21, a talk with journalists in the US on September 22, and his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 23.”

Living in India, the ‘largest democracy in the world’, it is difficult to imagine a Prime Minister who is not free to speak his mind or has portions of his speeches deleted by an all-powerful Propaganda Department. When the question about Mr Wen Jiabao was asked to Mr Du Daozheng, director of the editorial board at Yanhuang Chunqiu magazine (former Chinese edition of Asiaweek), he had a different view: “(Wen) has always worked tirelessly for opening and reform… He is also a living person, with his own thread of life… This is not ‘putting on a show’. I think that his manner and actions are based on his wide knowledge and the excellent traditions of Chinese culture.”

But people like Yu Jie, the author of China’s Best Actor: Wen Jiabao do not believe that ‘Grandpa Wen’ is a reformist. In an interview with BBC’s Chinese service, Yu Jie said: “Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao are like the two sides of a coin. They are on a tandem bike, heading in the same direction. I think they are playing the good-guy-bad-guy routine, like the harsh-dad-loving-mum sort of thing.”

There is a fascinating cable from the US Ambassador to China about Beijing’s Tibet policy in one of the Wikileaks releases. In April 2008, Ambassador Clark T Randt tends to have the same perception as Yu Jie: “While there may be differences in how various leaders have publicly articulated China’s Tibet policy, there are no substantive differences among the top leadership. (Contact) xxxx asserted that, on Tibet, Hu and Wen are like a 'restaurant sugar packet’, black on one side and white on the other, but still part of the same whole.” That is exactly the point: Mr Wen Jiabao gives a ‘milder’ face to a regime which remains basically undemocratic.

What can India expect from Mr Wen Jiabao's visit? Regarding the dispute over stapled visas for Indian citizens living in Jammu & Kashmir, nothing will be announced during the visit though Beijing's policy will probably be progressively relaxed. Mr Wen Jiabao will say that his Government is working hard to reduce the trade deficit with India. With a contingent of 400 businesspersons, the Premier is scheduled to witness the signing of some 45 business deals between Indian and Chinese companies. He may even beat US President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy and take back home some $20 billion in contracts. The fact remains that imports from Tibet remain nil this year at Nathu-la pass in Sikkim.

But China being China, Mr Wen Jiabao will bring nothing directly home. He will first visit Islamabad and assure China’s 'all-weather friend' of Beijing’s unconditional support and probably supply nuclear power reactors in contravention with international laws. South Block will probably pretend not to notice this practice of Chinese leaders to visit Islamabad after New Delhi, a practice that has been discontinued by leaders of other ‘friendly’ countries.

One issue should however be strongly taken up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: The construction of dams on Brahmaputra. A few days ago, the Chinese TV announced the opening of a new road reaching right to the Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh: “The harsh natural conditions meant building a highway connecting Motuo (Metok) to outside world was once considered a dream. However, just in a week, the last tunnel is due to be completed for the Motuo Highway and the dream will come true,” said CCTV reporter Yin Xiang.

For India, this might prove to be a nightmare. In 2004, ‘Grand Pa’ Wen had managed to block the construction of a large hydropower plant on Salween river. He used his ‘influence’ to demand an in-depth study of the likely impact on the local ecology and communities. His decision deeply upset the power companies as well as local vested interests. Why can’t he do the same for the proposed dams on Yarlung Tsangpo, or Brahmaputra? He would then truly be a ‘good guy’!
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