‘We’ll see China move away from heavy investments to digital power … Xinjiang isn’t ethnocide but it’s certainly culturicide’
Prasenjit Duara is the Oscar Tang Professor at Duke University and the Kothari Chair in Democracy at CSDS. He spoke to Renuka Bisht about China today and its inheritance of an immense organisational capacity:
Instead of soft and hard power, you emphasise a third kind …
In the Joseph Nye sense Chinese soft power is quite weak. It’s mainly Confucius Institutes. In another 10-15 years you may see a lot of African elites who have learnt Chinese here and who have been co-opted by Chinese institutions but they will also have to deal with other realpolitik considerations. What I would emphasise much more is the financial power of the Chinese, the ability to make massive investments when others are not willing to make investments, in Asia, Africa, Latin America and even Europe.
But the Chinese certainly cannot, even though they are trying at some level, use their military power to neutralise problems in their overseas investments. One estimate is that 20% of their big investment projects are now facing pushback. My sense is that they feel they have an important third type of power, digital power, which is being used to facilitate infrastructural investments and logistical relationships but can also be used in many other ways.
All of China’s digital developments, whether 5G, or GPS, or nanotechnology, or super developed fibre optics, can be tracked by its government. We will see them beginning to move away from big, heavy investments to this kind of digital power. It doesn’t necessarily have the kind of weakness of soft power and it doesn’t get the kind of pushback that heavy investments get – at the moment. We are just at the beginnings of this.
After finding ‘a South Asian hell’ in Pakistan why does China want to stay there?
China has been an all-weather friend to Pakistan and its investments there precede the Belt and Road Initiative but BRI has certainly made its biggest investment in Pakistan. But they found there such a plurality of interests in and outside the state, and in places like Balochistan they had a very hard time. So there was a lot of reaction in China about the foolhardiness of such an investment. But the defenders of the Pakistan project say that if they can survive this kind of situation they can operate anywhere in the world. They see it, and this is attitudinally very interesting, as a learning experience.
But I must preface that the Chinese have a very Panchsheel-Westphalian type of idea, that you deal with the sovereign government. And if it has no particular interest in developing society but is dominated by crony capitalists then in fact you do whatever it wants, quite often at the expense of ordinary people and the environment. Before CPEC only 1% of fuel was coal in Pakistan, today it is up to 69% after the Pakistan government invited Chinese investments in the Thar desert. Basically BRI is also meant to export China’s excess capacity in old, inefficient and carbon-heavy industries.
And their contract making is not transparent. This has also led to pushbacks. In a recent dramatic case Kenyans are beginning to say that Mombasa port development will lead to such a huge debt that China may have to take it over, much as Hambantota port was taken over in Sri Lanka. We are talking about the biggest port in East Africa.
How do you assess ‘sinification’ of Islam?
There are many different groups of Muslims in China. But in Xinjiang, which is predominantly Uyghur, they have created both a surveillance system and internment camps with over a million and many have even disappeared. It’s not ethnocide but it’s certainly culturicide. The idea is very much to root out Islamic culture. If that happens it will be one of the first times in the world and I doubt it can happen. But they have done very successful diplomacy with Islamic countries. Even Turkey is not saying very much though the Uyghur consider themselves ethnically Turkic.
While both India and China are ancient civilisations you say this comparison must not miss a crucial difference …
I think it is very important to recognise what a massive organisational culture the Chinese state has spawned from over 2,000 years ago. There are two dimensions to this. One is that after the Chinese imperial state was created around the same time as the Mauryan empire, in China you always had a power that sought to re-achieve and reunify. It became much more difficult to do that through Indian history. They created a much more powerful state. Having a powerful state is one thing but the organisational capacity that state enables through infrastructure or systems of command and communication is amazing.
It became visceral and tangible to me when the Belitung shipwreck was brought up. This Arabian dhow was carrying Chinese goods to the Middle East via probably Gujarat and Cochin and you see that in 950 AD China was already the supplier of the world. In the 15th century the Zheng He armada was many times bigger than anything Columbus managed. The Chinese have a kind of superhuman capacity that their political culture has produced. We have to be in awe of it and understand how it can be used both to our advantage and danger.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.