Monday February 06, 2023

Imran’s Chinese whispers

July 04, 2021

A mere coincidence it surely was that a briefing by army and intelligence leaders given to a parliamentary committee on national security was held on the same day that China celebrated, with unprecedented pomp and show, the centennial of the ruling Communist party. But this overlapping of separate events did have some bearing on the emerging contours on our strategic predicaments.

And Prime Minister Imran Khan’s encounter, also on the same day, with the Chinese media underlined this connection. It was timed with the one hundredth anniversary of the formation of the Communist Party of China. However, Imran Khan’s remarks on this occasion had a more profound significance than an obligatory message of good wishes for a close ally.

The message we get is that Pakistan’s rulers are at this time confronted with grave issues in the foreign and domestic domains. Afghanistan, with its dreadful prospects of violent disorder or civil war after the withdrawal of American forces, is casting a dark shadow.

Increasing tensions between the US and China – a conflict that has its ideological and global balance of power implications – are bound to have an impact on the strategic choices we have as a nation. We may not have deserved that ominous reputation of playing both sides, but we would often congratulate ourselves on our dexterity in playing our games – though there is a limit to how much, say, the reverse swing would work.

Anyhow, it is a delicate situation, prompting a lot of reflection on our past policies. The briefing on Thursday must have looked more intently on where we are now and what path we should tread in the future. The briefing continued for eight long hours. There is a lot of mystification about why the prime minister did not attend it.

According to published reports, the military leaders called for avoiding divisive politics on issues of national interest. They cautioned that strategic challenges and related policy shifts in external relations could have repercussions for the country.

Apparently, there is a general resolve that Pakistan would not now participate in someone else’s war. We do not know if Pakistan has firmly decided to fight its own war. The big question is whether Pakistan is capable of fighting this war. Is the ‘war on terror’ not our war, too? Are we able to afford the social cost of supporting or tolerating elements that resist progressive change and advancement?

In the midst of all these matters, I would like to devote some attention to what Imran Khan said to the Chinese media. Again and again, the prime minister’s pronouncements on the vision he has for Pakistan offer alternate and even contradictory prescriptions. Primarily, he looks towards Medina. At the same time, he finds inspiration in a number of countries in the contemporary world.

Now, he is becoming more particular about the Chinese model, despite the fundamental contradictions that it has with our non-negotiable religious interpretations of state and society. It is also problematic that Imran Khan says what he says with an enviable pretence of authority. No one can understand the West as he can. No one knows India as well as he does.

We must admit that the points he has raised are worthy of serious debate at a high intellectual level. Sadly, we do not have an environment in which rational debate would be possible. Consequently, we have to make do with leaders who summarily pass judgments on the relative merits of democracy and one-party, authoritarian rule.

This is largely what he did on Thursday. He hailed the Communist Party of China for its unique model of governance and an efficient system of sifting and grooming talent. In his view, this is an alternative model parallel to the electoral democratic system. Typically, Imran Khan said that he had gone through China’s political process.

If this is true, he must have come across some historical realities that have no relevance to Pakistan. For example, communism and socialism as ideas were considered treasonous by successive rulers of Pakistan and people who promoted these ideas were persecuted.

Another decisive fact is that modern China was created by the Communist party through an armed struggle, after a civil war. Pakistan was created by a politician through democratic means. If there are questions about power and how it is exercised, we may recall the famous quotation of Mao Zedong, the founding father of Communist China.

He had said that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Ah, but with a proviso: “Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the party”. The point is that President Xi Jinping exercises supreme power. He commands the Party.

Imran Khan has also said that in Western democracies, it is difficult to bring change as you are bound by rules and regulations. Does this betray a desire to not be bound by rules and regulation? In one respect, however, he is not bound by allegiance to any one idea or system.

I have invoked the party game of Chinese whispers in which a message is distorted by being passed around. It is born of a racist idea of the 1800s when the Chinese people were accused of being deliberately unintelligible. In some ways, Imran Khan’s whispers are dots that do not connect. China is our best friend – but it is another country.

At another level, a discussion on how democracy is working at present in different countries is timely. Authoritarian countries are becoming more nationalistic and suppressing the rights and freedoms of their citizens with greater force. In democracies, there is always the chance that a Trump can be succeeded by a Biden.

For that matter, I find it fortuitous that this column is being published on the fourth of July, the anniversary of America’s independence. China celebrated one hundred years of its Communist Party on July 1. Relative strengths and weaknesses of the two systems aside, we in Pakistan seem to have the worst of both worlds.

The writer is a senior journalist.