Dragon and the art of selective amnesia

Before making outrageous claims, Chinese officials should do their homework and know their country’s history. China has not always claimed Arunachal Pradesh.

Zhao Lijian, the ‘wolfwarrior’ and spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, did it again. On 7 September, during a press briefing, when asked to provide details about five missing Indian nationals from Arunachal Pradesh (who are said to have been captured by the People’s Liberation Army), the arrogant Zhao asserted: “China’s position with regard to the eastern sector of China-India boundary i.e., South Tibet region, is consistent and clear. We have never recognised the socalled ‘Arunachal Pradesh’ illegally established on the Chinese territory.” About the missing Indians, he added: “I am not aware of it now.”

Obviously, Zhao has poor knowledge of history and even geography. Already in February 2019, when the Prime Minister visited the Northeastern Indian state, Hua Chunying, Zhao’s boss, had affirmed: “The Chinese Government has never recognised the so-called Arunachal Pradesh and is firmly opposed to the Indian leader’s visit to the East Section of the China-India boundary.”

South Block issued its usual weak rebuttal. Why can’t New Delhi speak of the ‘so-called Tibetan Autonomous Region’ or Eastern Turkestan? Will Indian diplomats do this one day? In 2019, Hua’s sharp tongue expressed hopes that “India will cherish the momentum of warming bilateral ties and not take any provocative action.” Today, the bilateral ties are not that warm anymore, but the fact remains that Hua, like Zhao, seems unaware that China’s refusal to acknowledge the McMahon Line is a new phenomenon.

Let us go back to 1956. As India prepared to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the birth of Buddha, communist China was extremely nervous; eastern Tibet was on fire with the Khampa rebellion, while central Tibet was slowly getting contaminated by the revolt. After months of prevarication, Beijing finally allowed the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama to visit India for the celebrations. But Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was really febrile, he was aware that many Tibetans wanted the Dalai Lama to stay on in India; as a result, he visited Delhi thrice in a period of two months.

During one of his numerous encounters with Zhou, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru asked him: “But I do not quite understand what you meant when you said that Tibet in the past had not become a province of China?” The Premier answered: “That Tibet is part of China is a fact but it has never [been] an administrative province of China and has kept an autonomous character.” For the Communists, the autonomous character would remain on paper only. Zhou even admitted that India knew more about Tibet’s past history than China: “For example, I knew nothing about McMahon Line until recently when we came to study the border problem after the liberation of China.”

Zhao Lijian would be surprised to learn that China’s Premier did not know about the line delineating the border between India and Tibet till the early 1950s. Nehru unnecessarily asserted that historical knowledge was not important: “History is gone,” he said, adding: “My impression was that whatever it may be in theory, for all practical purposes, Tibet has all along been autonomous.”

The clever Zhou repeated that though people like him never knew about the McMahon Line till recently, the Kuomintang regime knew about it. Referring to the McMahon Line, he spoke of a ‘secret’ pact between British India and Tibet at the time of the Simla conference.

The Chinese do not like to remember that the Tibetans sat on an equal footing with them and British India during the Simla conference between October 1913 and July 1914. To give an example, the proceedings of the third meeting of the Tibet conference held on 12 January 1914 mentioned the presence of Sir Henry McMahon, British Plenipotentiary and staff, Monsieur Ivan Chen, Chinese Plenipotentiary and staff, and Kusho Lonchen Shatra, Tibetan Plenipotentiary and staff. They officially sat together for nine months, but China suffers from selective amnesia today.

To come back to the NehruZhou meeting, the Premier continued on the McMahon Line: “And now that it is an accomplished fact, we should accept it. But we have not consulted Tibet so far. In the last agreement, which we signed about Tibet [in 1954], the Tibetans wanted us to reject this Line but we told them that the question should be temporarily put aside,” the Chinese Premier bluffed and added: “But now we think that we should try to persuade and convince Tibetans to accept it.” Then, Nehru went on his favourite argument: “The border is a high mountain and sparsely populated.” He further asserted: “Apart from the major question, there are also small queries about two miles here and two miles there. But if we agree on some principle, namely, the principle of previous normal practice or the principle of watershed, we can also settle these other small points.” It is Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government which first made the communists realise the extent of the Tibetan territory in the area. Long before the beginning of the Japanese war, Ren Naiqiang, an influential scholar during the Republican era, had started wandering through eastern Tibet. In 1926, he went a step further and included part of the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA, today Arunachal Pradesh) into Chinese territory.

In 1939, as the Nationalist Government formally established the new province Xikang (corresponding to Kham province of Tibet), Ren Naiqiang was encouraged by Liu Wenhui, the Governor of Xikang, to produce a map of the area. Though the Chinese had never set foot in the area, the new map included NEFA in the new Chinese province. It is how “Arunachal has always been Chinese territory”.

At the end of 1949, Ren Naiqiang met Marshal He Long, one of the senior-most generals of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and explained why his map was dependable; the Marshal was convinced and ordered the distribution of copies. On 10 January 1950, He Long sent a report to Mao Zedong strongly recommending that Ren’s map should be accepted and circulated amongst the PLA. It is after this encounter that Beijing started claiming NEFA as Chinese.

Before making outrageous claims, Hua and her colleagues should do their homework and know their country’s history. China has not always claimed NEFA.

The writer is a French-born author, journalist, historian, Tibetologist and China expert. The views expressed are personal.