The art of being heardWhat the Chinese narrative on Mt Everest tells us about shaping international views.
It’s been a tough week for Nepali nationalists. The wounds of the new Indian political map hadn’t even healed when Delhi announced it had built a road to Lipu Lekh. Then the same day, a week-old tweet by the official Chinese news site CGTN saying Mt Everest/Qomolangma/Sagarmatha was located in Tibet Autonomous Region had our nationalists furiously typing away. CGTN hurriedly revised the tweet, although it was technically not incorrect. Qomolangma’s peak itself is the border—the world’s highest borderline. So the northern half of the peak is inside Tibet. But that did not deter internet warriors who brought out an archival photograph of BP Koirala with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai and presented it as a contrast to our modern politicians’ ineffectiveness. One holy man even went back into religious scriptures to show Lipu Lekh belonged to Nepal in mythical times. But when our prime minister and foreign minister both send separate messages on the issue, and when the opposition regards it as a stick to flog the government, even the scriptures won’t be enough.
The Kalapani-Lipu Lekh issue is loaded with diplomatic complications, and every time a dispute erupts, I return to General Sam Cowan’s excellent analysis of how Indian army check-posts came to be in Kalapani, and Kantipur editor Sudheer Sharma’s ground report after the initial 2005 bilateral agreement between India and China on Lipu Lekh. The trilateral junction’s history is fraught with issues, especially as China and India have not demarcated their border to date. But as a domestic political tool to shore up anti-Indian opposition, it has always been a magnificent tool. Nationalism is built on perceptions, and the current perception of Indian expansionism goes back to the founding of the Nepali state itself.
The question of perceptions in international relations is one our northern neighbour understands very well. The term huayuquan—translated as ‘speaking rights’ or ‘international speaking rights’—'reflects Beijing’s aspirations not only to have the right to speak on the international stage but also to be listened to, to influence others’ perceptions of China, and eventually to shape the discourse and norms that underpin the international order', suggests a report on ‘China’s vision for a new world order’. One example of how China achieves this is rooted in the Everest/Qomolangma issue.
Firstly, China argues the nomenclature of the peak itself is a relic of western colonialism. It quotes a 1958 paper by Lin Chao titled ‘The Discovery and Name of Qomolangma' to return to the Qing dynasty’s surveys in Tibet in the 18th century: 'Those who discovered Mount Qomolangma first were Tibetans living in southern Tibet and they so named it. And those who first recorded the peak on a map using scientific methods were Chinese surveyors Shengzhu, Churbizanbo and Lanbenzhanba, who conducted the survey in Tibet between 1715 and 1717’. The mapping of the peak, according to China, precedes British attempts by at least 130 years. 'The British approach to the name of Qomolangma was to insist on calling it Everest despite the fact that it had already had a Tibetan name. This was ridiculous’.
China’s claims on the peak were evident even during the border discussions with Nepal in the 1960s. BP Koirala recalls in his autobiography that when he insisted the peak lay in Nepal fully, Mao Zedong told him, 'But you do not even have a name for it in your language, and you call it Mount Everest'. BP writes, ‘I remembered at that time, or someone had reminded me, that it was known as 'Sagarmatha'. Even though I was new to that term, I replied, “You do not have a name for the peak either. 'Chomolongma' is a Tibetan name”. Mao replied, “Tibet is China.”’ In fact, the sharing of the peak was one of the few instances during the Nepal-China border talks where the border was decided politically, and not according to the watershed principles followed elsewhere.
The Nepalicisation of Chomolungma to Sagarmatha by Baburam Acharya based on a 'very dubious etymological interpretation' occurred in 1938. The name ‘Everest’ remains a colonial relic; George Everest was a British surveyor-general in India between 1830-1843, and when a Bengali mathematician named Radhanath Sikdar calculated Peak XV to be the highest in the world, Everest’s successor Andrew Scott Waugh named the peak after him in 1856.
China’s claims about the Qing surveyors could be correct, but remain unverified. The Qing survey claims resemble in many ways another claim by Beijing: that the 15th century Ming admiral Zheng He ‘discovered’ America before Columbus. An 18th century copy of a 1418 map, if real, 'rewrites history, for it shows that he circumnavigated the globe and—most provocatively—that he discovered America more than 70 years before Columbus… The debate over the veracity of this map is emblematic of the current arguments over China’s role on the world stage'.
That brings us to the modern day, and the agreement between Nepal and China during Xi Jinping’s visit that the two countries will 'jointly announce' the height of the peak—a development that came even as Nepal’s Department of Survey had begun its own measurements of the peak, a process now said to be complete. Nepali policymakers, however, did not even consult with the Department before the agreement. China, on the other hand, has begun its own measurements last month, even as it installed a 5G station at the base camp (a live stream is now available on YouTube). China has traditionally also differed on the height of the peak. Nepal claims it as 8848m, which is universally accepted; however, a 2005 Chinese survey claimed the height to be 8844.43m.
I return to the question of perception through these contradictions in Chinese claims over nomenclature and ‘discovery’, and in its insistence on a joint announcement of the peak’s height. Both are a signal China wants its position to be known and accepted internationally; 'Beijing believes that huayuquan has been used by the West to dominate the international system and the world order'. This is a lesson for our nationalists too; international relations is not a simple game of protesting whenever one is in the opposition. Diplomacy requires strong negotiation and communication skills and a clarity of vision, both of which Nepal is short on. But as long as the Nepali huayuquan is determined by domestic partisan interests, few will listen to it.
What do you think?
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