The enigma of Xi ThoughtOther than the application of an ethno-national template in politics, its relevance in Nepal is even less clear.
In October 2017, The Economist magazine declared Xi Jinping as the most powerful person in the world with more clout than Donald Trump. The recognition was well-deserved. The current occupant of the White House runs the risk of being questioned, impeached or even ousted. Even at best, the incumbent US president can be elected to the same office for only one more term. After recent constitutional amendments, the ‘Chairman of Everything’ of the People’s Republic of China can remain ‘President for Life’ if he so chooses.
It was fitting that the new lingxiu, an honorific for a great leader with spiritual connotations, marked the 70th National Day since the founding of the People’s Republic as some kind of a second coronation for the paramount persona of the Celestial Empire. He watched one of the most spectacular shows in the world from the same spot where Mao Zedong had announced the ‘will of the whole nation’ on October 1, 1949. Suitably dressed in a grey Mao suit, Chairman Xi inspected the military parade from a Chinese-made Red Flag limousine. On television screens, he appeared bowed down with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Mao had expressed trust ‘in the will of the nation’. Chairman Xi couldn’t hide his anxiety in the apparent warning that he voiced on a day of celebrations, '... no force can shake this great nation'.
The burden of being the most powerful person in the world must really be heavy to make even a leader of Chairman Xi’s resourcefulness issue threats with a show of military strength. The apprehensions of the paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China, however, aren’t unfounded. Fearing intensification of protests, commemorative functions in Hong Kong—a Chinese territory under the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement—had to be moved indoors. The trade war with the US doesn’t seem to be abating. The Belt and Road Initiative, the brainchild of Chairman Xi, was expected to be the announcement of the People’s Republic of China’s arrival on the world stage. Its reception and dissemination have been less than enthusiastic.
It seems that the so-called Xi Thought is as much of a stratagem of diplomatic outreach as a strategy of exercising absolute control inside the country. The Chinese have left their footprints in Sri Lanka with Hambantota Port and the Lotus Tower, among a slew of other grandiose Belt and Road Initiative landmarks. Pakistan got a ‘game-changer’ in the form of the multi-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor scheme. True to its form, the Nepal Communist Party is rooting for Xi Thought ahead of a much-anticipated high-level visit.
Speaking of Russia on October 1, 1939, Winston Churchill had pronounced in awe, ‘It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.’ In the imperial culture, national interest is often equated with the glory of the paramount leader. In that sense, the purpose of Xi Thought is to enshrine Chairman Xi as the progenitor of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. The underlying ambition of the ambiguous doctrine is unmistakable: Chairman Xi wants to project himself as a lingxiu of historic importance. Among the ‘core leaders’ of China, only Mao is venerated with the honour of having proclaimed a ‘Thought’ for the nation. Deng Xiaoping's ideological contributions, which arguably changed the course of the history of the People’s Republic, are considered merely ‘theories’.
Theories are open to contestations. Thoughts, on the other hand, can only be interpreted in various ways. Domestically, Xi Thought is now constitutionally recognised. However, only its internationalisation can truly put Chairman Xi on a par with the Great Helmsman. What better place to disseminate and test an idea than a neighbouring country where a fraternal party is ruling with almost a two-thirds majority in Parliament?
There is hardly anything earthshaking in Chairman Xi’s 14-point basic policy. Phrased in milder terms, the Thought seeks to institutionalise the one-party dominant authoritarian state. It aims to establish the primacy of the ‘Chairman of Everything’ not just in practice, but as part of the ruling ideology itself. Mercantilism is the foundational principle of the political economy.
On the foreign policy front, Deng Xiaoping had cautioned, ‘Observe calmly, secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.’ Chairman Xi wants to ‘pursue a holistic approach to national security’, which can be read as a euphemism for vigorous and proactive engagements abroad. Apart from ecological concerns, there is hardly much to learn from the basic policy guidelines of the Chinese regime. It can be argued, however, that the appeal of the idea for ‘Ximians’ lies in the ethnonational components inherent to almost all authoritarian ideologies.
Secure in its position as a nation that had ‘stood up’; Chinese foreign policy had a relatively modest aim for several decades. Beijing sought to prevent the emergence of an antagonistic attitude toward China in the West, and cultivate the goodwill of its neighbours. It has been successful on both counts.
Through ping pong diplomacy, the Chinese neutralised the West and checkmated the Soviets. It humoured Pakistan to humiliate India. And Nepal was overjoyed when a minor functionary boasted, ‘The Chinese people support the people of Nepal in their just struggle against the Indian expansionists, and resolutely support the struggle waged by the people of all countries that have been subjected to aggression, control, intervention and bullying by US imperialism, Soviet revisionism and Indian expansionism’.
In 1960, King Mahendra sought and got Chinese support for the royal-military coup. As payback slightly later, an offer was made that he couldn’t refuse, and Nepal was saddled with the white elephant called Kodari Highway. The road continues to be economically unsustainable and environmentally unstable to this day.
It’s not easy to make sense of Xi Thought and its implications for the world. Other than the application of an ethnonational template in politics, its relevance in Nepal is even less clear. However, Supremo KP Oli and his alter ego Pushpa Kamal Dahal are ready to embrace it without second thoughts.
Once again, it’s payback time. Speculation was rife that plutocrats with close connections to Beijing were instrumental in the formulation of the 16-Point Conspiracy in the middle of the Gorkha Earthquake. Without their effort, it would not have been easy to bring antagonistic communist parties on a unified platform. The least that the apparatchiks of the Nepal Communist Party can do now is propagate Xi Thought in the Nepali countryside as a tribute to their benefactors. The United States will probably look the other way in the hope that Indians will rush to clear the mess in their backyard. The Nepalis will endure another Chinese ideology. On that not-so-optimistic note, Happy Dashain.
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