Between the Lines of Rewritten History


In the waning years of China’s Cultural Revolution, Shyam Saran, a young Indian foreign service officer fresh out of Mandarin language school, arrived in China. He returned again when, under Deng Xiaoping, Chinese people were frenetically trying to achieve glory by getting rich fast. In the decades since, Saran has performed many roles, rising to become India’s foreign secretary and an adviser to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Now retired, Saran has written this volume in an attempt to enable India to develop a credible strategy in the face of the challenge from an ancient civilization with many chips on its shoulder. This erudite book, rich with a millennial history and Saran’s own reflections, should not only help Indian policymakers but also general readers to better appreciate the forces behind China’s stunning rise as well as its current “nightmare of countervailing coalition” driving President Xi Jinping’s virtual alliance with Russia.


Close to two-thirds of the book is devoted to the ebb and flow of China’s dynastic history and the interaction between the Han majority and the minorities who ended up ruling the country. That this history shapes the present is obvious, but Saran’s focus is to show how it is being rewritten by current rulers to present “history as destiny.” In recent Chinese recounting of its past, the country has been presented as a dominant power playing a central role in Asia. Saran delves into the past to show it to be “an imagined history put forward by China to seek legitimacy for its claim to Asian hegemony.” The Chinese narrative, he notes, conveys a certain historical inevitability about China’s emergence as an uncontested superpower. Similarly, a trade network that once linked China with Central Asia, India and the Mediterranean and was christened the “Silk Road” by a Western geographer (although silk was only one of the many items traded along it) has been appropriated as a Chinese creation. Saran is astonished how much of this contrived history of China’s centrality in Asia is considered “self-evident in Western and even Indian discourse.”


However much today’s Chinese regime rewrites history to strengthen its hegemonic claims, the author is fully sympathetic to China’s rage over the “century of humiliation.” China’s suspicion and mistrust of the outside world, Saran points out, is legitimate. Chinese suffering and humiliation are very real and “not a contrived narrative.” Explaining the anti-India sentiments of many in modern China, he notes the despicable role that Indian police and soldiers under British colonial rule played in bloody repression of the Chinese people. The earlier admiration of the Chinese people for India, a paradise in the West and birthplace of Lord Buddha, was replaced by contempt for the slaves of the British. “India became a teacher by negative example,” Saran writes. While sympathetic to Chinese dislike of British India, he nonetheless points to the irony of the Chinese blaming lazy and effete Indians for falling prey to foreign rule and “ignoring their own country’s history of having been conquered and ruled by the alien Mongols … and the Manchus.”


The lengthy foreign rule by the Mongol Yuan and Manchu Qing dynasties provides the author with a major argument against China claiming an unbroken centrality in Asia. China was not always the dominant power in Asia. There were periods when Han Chinese rulers paid tribute to their more powerful neighbors. China’s current claims that Tibet has always been a part of China are belied by the fact that in the 7th century a powerful Tibetan empire subdued the Tang dynasty. In the peace accord, China was to pay tribute and send a Tang princess in marriage to the Tibetan king. Over 200 years, Tibet controlled large parts of China from Sichuan and Yunnan to Xinjiang. Saran notes that until the occupation by the People’s Liberation Army in 1950, “Tibet was never under the direct rule of any Han or non-Han empire ruling China.” Even when part of the Yuan or Qing empires, Tibet enjoyed secular and religious autonomy. “Neither the Mongols nor the Manchus considered Tibet as part of China. It was part of their empires, just as China and other countries on the periphery were. This is obfuscated in the Chinese narrative.” While China had a significant political impact on Tibet after the Yuan dynasty occupation, Saran recalls, much of Tibet’s culture and religion was shaped by influences from India.


In a revealing anecdote, Saran recounts that in 2005 as India’s foreign secretary he met the Dalai Lama, who wanted to know Saran’s opinion about the Chinese precondition for holding talks with him — an acknowledgment that Tibet has been a part of China “since ancient times.” Saran writes, “I pointed out that in conceding this formulation he would also be acknowledging that Tibet was no different from any other province of China and could not claim cultural and religious autonomy.” His Holiness agreed; as a Buddhist monk, he said, he could not lie, meaning he could not say Tibet has always been a part of China. Meanwhile, India’s border with Chinese-occupied Tibet remains a flashpoint and a reminder of this unresolved chapter of history.


Resolution of the China-India conflict will not be easy. The once equal Chinese economy has grown to five times the size of India’s, and now presents the challenge of managing the expanding asymmetry of power. Fortunately, India enjoys a benign partnership with the West and Japan in standing up to China, but its developmental goal cannot be to become another China following an autocratic, chauvinistic policy. “The rise of narrow nationalism, the deliberate stoking of communal discord and the attempt to put a monochromatic frame over a diverse country,” Saran warns, “devalue the very assets which make India distinctive.”


The author concludes by taking stock of the new challenges posed by the ill-conceived Russian invasion of Ukraine. The weakening of China’s new ally Russia might make China more cautious and offer India some breathing space. In fact, prolonged political and economic uncertainty in the aftermath of the Ukraine war, Saran writes, might create opportunities for India “to expand their strategic space and influence.”


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