US narratives on Beijing and the ‘threat’ posed by the Asian rival are rooted in anything but fact
(LUO JIE / CHINA DAILY)
In the publishing world, so as in public forums, the pedagogic requirements for objectivity, truthfulness, and balanced handling of similar misconducts charged to opposing sides are often hard to maintain. One ready example is in handling the topic of China; and especially so after the turn of the 21st century. A brief historical tracing of relevant key developments may help underline what I have in mind.
The earliest mention in available English tracts, mostly coming out of the United Kingdom in the heyday of its power, following the Opium War of 1842, was of Manchu China in steady decline, treated typically with disdain. In the United States, after Pearl Harbor, the image of an incidental Chinese ally prevailed through the length of World War II and until the KMT regime of Chiang Kai-shek was driven off the Chinese mainland to Taiwan by a new China under Mao Zedong in 1949, upon winning a civil war.
After Mao’s departure, the post-1978 Dengist reform made possible the significant advances leading eventually to an eye-opening rejuvenation. By 2010, China leapt forward to become the world’s second largest economy, replacing Japan which held that spot for the previous 42 years. Western and Japanese media immediately treated it as a potent threat to America’s hegemonic power.
Alarming epithets were now shifted from the defunct Soviet Union to the rising China as the new threat in a new Cold War. The current myth is that China is the “country most dreaded by the USA”. It is rated as the “most consequential threat” to America’s national security, according to testimonies of top US intelligence officials. Those were the exact thoughts expressed by National Intelligence Director Avril Haines when testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on March 8 this year. Accompanying her was a team of top national security officials that included the directors of FBI (Christopher Wray), CIA (William Burns), and Defense Intelligence Agency (Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier).
FBI Director Wray, on his own initiative, discussed how China’s quest for economic and political domination threatened America’s security. In short, he said, the Chinese government’s “disregard for global leadership norms, ruthless hunger for economic superiority, and desire to influence American politics make it a threat to US national security.”
China may “desire to influence American politics”, as the FBI director suggested. But we know that the reverse is unquestionably true. The issues of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao are the better known cases of Chinese domestic politics in which Washington has soiled its hands, to put it mildly. In addition, it has been involved in two other cases very likely to make the US a real “threat” to China’s “national security”, if the same standards of FBI’s Wray are applied in reverse.
The two additional cases are: Xinjiang and Tibet. In wide-apart time frames, US involvement was to focus on the two Chinese regions populated by non-Han ethnic groups. So, in the rest of this discussion, I will address these two cases as additional examples of America’s “desire to influence (and harass) China”.
Xinjiang is a former Chinese province (1884-1955) that became one of the five autonomous regions in 1955. Its Uygur inhabitants reached more than 11.6 million as per China’s 2020 census, out of the region’s total population of 25.85 million consisting of different ethnic groups. The Uygurs — who are mostly Muslim — are an ethnic group that speak a language similar to Turkish, and they outnumber all the other ethnic groups in the region. They occupy the northwest part of the region. The other ethnic groups fill out the rest of Xinjiang, which is the largest of China’s five autonomous regions. By definition, none of these five autonomous regions is populated by a Han Chinese majority.
While Uygurs are the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang, making up 44.9 percent, as compared with the Han Chinese (42.2 percent) and all other ethnic groups (together 12.8 percent), only their activities are most noticeable and representative of the land. Uygur nationalists and separatists are known to have kept in stealthy touch with Washington, lobbying on Capitol Hill. Their influence can be witnessed by the legislations enacted by Congress in their favor. For example, H.R. 4785 Bill, passed by the 117th Congress (2021-22), with an explicit title portraying its purpose as such: “To Support the Human Rights of Uygurs and Members of Other Minority Groups Residing Primarily in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and safeguard their distinct identity, and for other purposes.”.
A careful reading of the long text of the legislation reveals a serious intent by the US to mount a close watch — if necessary, in concert with other concerned countries — over China’s alleged “atrocities, repression, imprisonment, brainwashing, and other forms of abuse of Uygurs’ human rights”. Even the dreadful idea of “genocide” can be sniffed out in the undertones.
Among the sins the Bill lists against Beijing, one is its relentless driving of what the Bill calls “forced labor” among the Uygur able-bodied workers.
Xinjiang is responsible for 84-90 percent of China’s total cotton production. Most of Xinjiang’s cotton is of the high quality extra-long staple lengthened species. Located in the hinterland of Eurasia, Xinjiang has a typical continental (dry) climate. Features such as moderate rainfall, sufficient heat, big temperature differences between day and night, and prolonged daytime hours, all make a good growth environment for cotton. These natural conditions make Xinjiang cotton a world-class produce.
Nevertheless, rumors circulating in the US allege that China employs “forced labor” in the production of cotton, among other things, in Xinjiang. US Congress in 2019 heard a testimony to the same effect from a Uygur-American lawyer and so-called human rights advocate, a person named Nury Turkel, and then passed another law, the H.R. 6256 Uygur Forced Labor Prevention Act, in 2020.
This new Bill’s purpose is “to ensure that goods made with forced labor in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XAR) of the People’s Republic of China do not enter the United States”. The American boycott of Xinjiang imports would begin as from June 26, 2023.
Since Xinjiang cotton is world famous, the story of its production by alleged “forced labor” cannot but attract world-wide attention. It also has whetted the curiosity of people in many quarters, including the Taiwan region. There the DPP’s separatist advocates in the regime of Tsai Ing-wen found the “forced labor” charge a juicy story capable of smearing Beijing’s reputation.
The annual yield of Xinjiang cotton constitutes some 80 percent of the total yearly revenue from the region’s agriculture. Its people are known to spend about 50 percent of their farming time in cotton planting. The importance of this enterprise to their livelihood is thus obvious.
For Tsai’s regime, propagating the “forced labor” charge may lead to wider boycotts of Xinjiang cotton, thus affecting Xinjiang people’s livelihood and further tarnishing Beijing’s image in the eyes of the Taiwan people.
Skeptics among Taiwan residents, however, would take the bite only if they could verify the baneful story in person. One such person was Chi-hsien Huang, an academic and opinion leader. She decided to pay a personal visit shortly after US Congress passed the H.R. 6256 The Uygur Forced Labor Prevention Act, in 2020.
In fact, she made two visits in 2021. Her findings were reported in two articles, one in Chinese and the other in English — they were carried respectively in the Baodiao Forum journal and on Facebook, in June last year. In addition, she discussed more of her thoughts and discoveries in an interview with the CGTN program “The Point” during that same month.
Her interview more eloquently verified that cotton in Xinjiang was planted and harvested by motorized machines, requiring no human labor. Not only did Huang see the machines, she even touched them with her hands, to make sure that they were truly made of metal, and did not just exist in name. Hence, with the machines doing the work, there was no room for human labor, forced or free, she added.
On other matters, the academic was impressed by the use of both Uygur and Chinese scripts on all signs she saw after coming out of an airplane. Thereupon, she raised a rhetorical question to her interviewer: If Uygur language and culture were so vividly prominent, where would one find the alleged cultural eradication that one hears so much (in America) about the crime that China is accused of committing.
After visiting several schools in Xinjiang, she came away with the sure knowledge that Uygur people’s history is faithfully taught, along with that of the other ethnic groups who together populate the region in varying numerical sizes. Furthermore, Islamic culture is being inculcated in all schools attended by all Xinjiang’s ethnic groups. This fact, she pointed out, has gained the admiration of all the world’s Islamic countries for how decent is China’s governance of the Xinjiang region.
There was one issue, however, that Huang said she could not verify or repudiate after her two visits, namely the American accusation that Xinjiang’s prisons were filled with 500,000 Uygurs. But, drawing on her discoveries as a whole, she concluded that the overall American “filthy mouthing” against China for its alleged atrocities and repression in Xinjiang, such as those enumerated in the above-mentioned H.R. 4785 enacted by the 117th Congress, as nothing but a “mammoth lie of the century.”
(cai meng / CHINA DAILY)
Occasionally in her interview, Huang went into comparisons with the United States. For instance, H.R. 4785 hints at the dreadful crime of “genocide” in the context of deprivation of human rights in Xinjiang. She recalled, offhand, the treatment of the American Indians in US history. Her documentary clue was based, among other things, on the Indian Removal Act (Public Law 21-148) of 1830. Very much like the undertone of “genocide” in H.R. 4785 regarding Chinese treatment of Xinjiang Uygurs, Huang said she could almost sense the same undertone ringing in the Indian Removal Act.
For those in the know, mention of the latter Act brought back the memory that more than 46,000 native American Indians were forced — sometimes by the US Military — to abandon their homes and relocate to “Indian Territory”. More than 4,000 died on the journey — from disease, starvation, and exposure to extreme weather.
Tibet, as another of China’s five autonomous regions, is geographically a neighbor of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. Like its neighbor, the Tibetan region is also populated by a number of ethnic groups. The Tibetans make up about 90 percent; Han Chinese 0.3 percent; Monpa 0.3 percent; Hui (Muslims) 0.2 percent, and others the remainder.
Despite some contrarian views, the land of Tibet was never an independent nation. In fact, the region’s political relations with central rulers in China went as far back as the powerful Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD). It was then referred to as Xiyu (Hsiyu) in Chinese history books. Not until much later, however, did the relations become formalized. During the 13th century, Emperor Kublai Khan of the Yuan (Mongolian) Dynasty in China created the first Grand Lama (the supreme head of the land). The Grand Lama would preside over all the other lamas as might a pope over his cardinals and bishops. Hence, the beginning of a theocratic polity in Tibet.
Nearly three centuries later, another Chinese emperor sent in an army to put down a rebellion, to shore up the Grand Lama. An ambitious 25-year-old man (Sonam Gyatso) was ordained in 1578 as the Dalai Lama, ruler of all Tibet. His two previous Lama incarnations were recognized as his lineal predecessors. Thus, the initial Dalai Lama became the Third Dalai Lama. In a direct line of descent, the Dalai Lama today is the 14th incarnation.
Many people, including the lamas and America’s China critics, maintain that until the “Chinese crackdown” in l959, the old Tibet was a spiritually oriented kingdom free from egoistic lifestyles, empty materialism, and corrupting vices. Western media, travelogues, novels, and Hollywood films portray the Tibetan theocracy as a veritable Shangri-la. The 14th Dalai Lama in his exile also tells us the same story.
But, alas, a reading of Tibet’s history suggests a different picture. The old Tibet, as one perceptive writer puts it, was much more like Europe during the religious wars of the Counter-reformation.
In the past, the ordinary Tibetan people were serfs to the lamas and priests, and were blind to their own oppression. Some resisted their fate and tried to run away only at their own cost. In feudal Tibet, torture and mutilation — including eye gouging, the pulling out of the tongue — were favored punishments inflicted on thieves and run-away or resistant serfs.
Though the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949, its government waited until the next year before moving into Tibet. The agreement reached with the 14th Dalai Lama provided for ostensible governance under his rule, but it gave the PRC government military control and exclusive right to conduct foreign relations. Beijing was also granted a direct role in internal administration “to promote reforms”.
Among the earliest changes made by the new regime was to reduce usurious interest rates, and build a few hospitals and roads. Over the centuries past, the Chinese came and went, but Chinese government approval was needed to validate the choice of the next Dalai Lama plus the Panchen Lama, the deputy. When the 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) was installed in Lhasa, the capital, in February 1940, the occasion was marked by the presence of an armed escort of Chinese troops and an attending Chinese minister from the ROC government of Chiang Kai-shek. The difference after 1950 was that the latest Chinese were from the Communist government.
Another change is that Tibet was formally made into an autonomous region, although it may not enjoy more autonomy than under the pre-Communist Chinese authorities. Beijing today has a more hands-on policy toward Tibet, which is in part made possible by the facility of modern communications.
Things came to a head in 1956-57, when armed Tibetan bands ambushed convoys of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Several reports alleged that the uprising received extensive assistance from the American CIA, including military training, support camps in Nepal, and numerous airlifts.
What shook up the Tibetan religious establishment most was the land reform initiated by the central government in Beijing, which abolished the slavery and the serfdom system of unpaid labor. They eliminated the many crushing taxes, started work projects, and greatly reduced unemployment and beggary. They broke up the educational monopoly of the masteries by establishing a secular school system. They also constructed running water and electrical systems in Lhasa.
By 1961, the central and local authorities had expropriated the land estates owned by the lords and lamas. Following the same pattern throughout other parts of China, the land reform distributed thousands of acres to tenant farmers and landless peasants, reorganizing them into hundreds of communes.
While all these changes reportedly led to an increase in agrarian production, members of the previous privileged land-owning class, including lamas, felt dispossessed and alienated. Many fled to neighboring India or other countries. Resettled in foreign lands, they began to establish what became a close-knit global network of exiles agitating for “Tibet’s independence”.
With outside funding from several governments and private foundations, they successfully extended their influence and coached Western media and political leaders on their version of the story about “Tibet vs. China”. They helped proselytize the myth that Tibet was not part of China but a separate country only “occupied” by the Chinese PLA since 1950. They also dressed up their cause as fighting for human rights and freedom for their brethren back in their homeland. In the spring of 2008, it was these Tibetan exiles or their descendents that made up the bulk of the anti-Chinese Tibetans who rallied the coterie of opponents disrupting the torch relays for the year’s Beijing Olympics, in different places like London, Paris, San Francisco, etc.
Both the 14th Dalai Lama and his advisor and younger brother, Tendzin Choegyal, claimed that “more than 1.2 million Tibetans were dead as a result of the Chinese occupation”. As someone pointed out, the official population statistics in 1953, or six years before the crackdown, recorded the entire Tibetan population at 1.274 million. If the claims were true, the surviving 74,000 Tibetans (1.274 million minus 1.2 million) must have been extraordinarily fertile and productive, because five years later by the time of the 1964 census, Tibet’s population had gone back to 1.25 million! This figure was after the massive exodus of displaced Tibetans to foreign lands, whose numbers were impossible to surmise.
Despite similar claims about Chinese “genocidal” practices in Tibet region, by the 1990 census, the apparently fertile Tibetans had doubled their numbers to an unprecedented 2.2 million. Of these, 95.4 percent were indigenous Tibetans, with the remaining 4.6 percent made up of Han Chinese and other ethnic minorities.
The Han Chinese “immigrants” after 1993 were traders and farmers who came as temporary settlers, and the scale of these “Chinese transfers” sparked numerous protests by some Tibetan farming communities, notably in May 1993, thus keeping the political concept of an autonomous Tibet alive within the Tibet region, and among several foreign nations.
The CIA Tibetan program was a nearly two decades-long anti-Chinese covert operation that consisted of political and intelligence operations based on the US government’s arrangements made with brothers of the 14th Dalai Lama, who was not initially aware of them. The goal of the program was “to keep the political concept of an autonomous Tibet alive within Tibet (region) and among several foreign nations”.
Although it was formally assigned to the CIA, it was nevertheless closely coordinated with several other US government agencies such as the Department of State and the Department of Defense, reports have said.
Previous operations had aimed to strengthen various isolated Tibetan resistance groups, which eventually led to the creation of a paramilitary force on the Nepalese border consisting of approximately 2,000 men. By February 1964, the projected annual cost for all CIA Tibetan operations had exceeded $1.7 million.
The program ended after then US president Richard Nixon visited China to establish closer relations in 1972. The 14th Dalai Lama criticized this decision, saying it proved wholeheartedly that the US never did it to help the people of Tibet.
Myths about China circulating in America, as seen above, are at best half truths or half imagined. Sometimes, they are results of distortion, deliberate or haphazard.
To national security watchers, China is an unmatched threat, if only because of its rapid and enduring rise. This image is due to more than common sense; it is substantiated by professional estimates and forecasts by authoritative institutions like the International Monetary Fund or World Bank. Statistics show China’s GDP has propelled the country to the position of the world’s second largest economy, next only to the US, from 2011. As such China has replaced Japan which had been in that position for the previous 42 years.
More worrisome for Americans, economists and security strategists speculate that China has the makings to surpass America, in more sense than one. This, they say, is not a “whether” question, but one of “when”.
Forecasts like these are most likely to precipitate further horror for American officials and lay persons alike. In our study, we have seen the mere “dread” thus far has prompted relentless counter-action or intervention, jeopardizing China’s domestic politics and foreign-relations leeway. If China is reasonably sensitive, it should be duly prepared for the worst yet to come. Myths like the ones noted above are detestable, while also laughable. But, if they are taken seriously by security strategists in America and scared into undue counter-measures, they may spell unthinkable consequences for both countries.
The writer is a professor of politics at New York University since 1975, and a member of American Political Science Association and the Association of Asian Studies, among other entities. Among the many books he authored and edited are China into Its Second Rise: Myths, Puzzles, Paradoxes, and Challenge to Theory and The Xi Jinping Era: His Comprehensive Strategy Toward the China Dream.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
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