China cherishes its 'jade kingdom'
by Antoaneta Bezlova
Amid a dearth of official news about the
turmoil in Myanmar, the Southern Weekend - one of China's more
liberal official newspapers - has chosen to run a lengthy feature
about an ethnic-Chinese entrepreneur striking it rich in the jade
business in that neighboring country.
But the feature was curiously apt. Describing
the country as the "jade kingdom on Earth" where fortune
is easily made as long as one is hard-working, the article in
effect perpetuated a centuries-old perception in China of Myanmar
as a country of riches from which successive Chinese dynasties
commanded a tribute.
Tellingly, the article steered around
Myanmar's current state of turmoil and the brutal suppression
by the military junta of peaceful demonstrations led by Buddhist
The event eerily resembles China's own
suppression in 1989 of student-led democracy protests. And it
comes at a time when Beijing is preparing to hold the 17th Congress
of its ruling Communist Party and is wary of anything that could
jeopardize the country's fragile social stability.
However much the official Chinese media
choose to ignore popular calls for political change in Myanmar,
China's rulers have a long history of involvement in the Southeast
Asian country's fortunes and hold a unique capacity to influence
Going back 800 years to the Yuan Dynasty,
the Mongol rulers of China invaded Myanmar three times. There
were two more invasions by the succeeding Ming Dynasty. And under
the sway of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, Myanmar came
to be regarded as a vassal state whose kings were regularly sending
tributary missions to Beijing along with gifts of elephants.
This traditional patron-vassal relationship
became fiercely ideological under the reign of China's communist
chairman Mao Zedong (1949-76) when Beijing wanted to establish
itself as the leader of a world revolution and take over the leadership
of the communist movement from Moscow.
Under Mao, China financed and trained
long-running insurgencies over the whole of Southeast Asia. In
Myanmar (then known as Burma), it supported the now defunct Burmese
Communist Party, which several times came close to winning power.
Over the years, the Chinese grew to dominate
Burma's trade in many commodities, including rice. Resentment
sometimes exploded into anti-Chinese riots. Chinese shops and
warehouses were ransacked and Chinese homes burned down.
Such anti-Chinese riots gave China an
excuse to invade Burma in 1968. In an undeclared war that was
little noticed because it took place during the Tet offensive
in Vietnam, Beijing sent 30,000 heavily armed troops who rapidly
occupied swaths of the country and forced the government of General
Ne Win to negotiate.
But the effort to spearhead a communist
revolution across the region and the cost of subsidizing large-scale
insurgencies like that in Burma had exhausted communist China
- itself impoverished and starving.
The death of Mao in 1976 signaled the
end of an era of ideological crusades and failed industrial campaigns.
China assumed a low profile in international affairs and concentrated
on rebuilding relations and gaining an economic foothold in the
Since 1990, China has been the only big
country backing the military junta that rules Myanmar, supplying
it with aid and arms. Observers reckon Beijing has provided the
generals with more than US$2 billion worth of arms and ammunition.
In return, China has received teak and gems, promises of Myanmar's
oil and gas reserves through a planned pipeline and access to
a large market for its cheap consumer goods.
About a million Chinese are said to have
migrated to Myanmar, dealing in trade, constructing dams and laying
a road that, when ready, will stretch from the Chinese border
across Myanmar to its shores. Isolated by Western countries, Myanmar's
rulers have become ever more dependent on trade with China. Two-way
trade doubled between 1999 and 2005 to $1.2 billion.
Protecting its investments and business
interests, China has also come to play the role of Myanmar's staunchest
supporter at the United Nations. It has consistently resisted
action against Myanmar, insisting that its behind-the-scenes political
negotiations work better with the regime than imposing sanctions.
While the international community deplored the bloodshed in Yangon
and other cities last week, China blocked calls for a strong statement
condemning Myanmar's repressive actions. Chinese Ambassador to
the UN Wang Guangya told the media afterward that the situation
in Myanmar did not "constitute a threat to international
and regional peace", the formal threshold needed for Security
Yet despite appearances of inaction on
China's part, foreign diplomats in Beijing believe the country
will seek to exert pressure on Myanmar's military to prevent a
repetition of the 1988 massacre, when 3,000 peaceful protesters
were killed by the army.
"The stakes are too high for China,"
said one Western diplomat. "They have been criticized for
remaining passive in Sudan for far too long and don't want to
have another Darfur crisis unfolding right at their doorstep."
The approach of the 2008 Beijing Summer
Olympics has brought heightened international scrutiny on China,
and its leaders are loath to see the preparations marred by any
association with a massacre in Myanmar, which some are already
calling the "Asian Darfur".
In meetings with Myanmar's leaders last
month, Chinese diplomats were unusually forthright about the possibility
of violent suppression of peaceful protests that were gathering
momentum in Yangon and other cities.
"China, as a friendly neighbor of
Myanmar, sincerely hopes Myanmar would restore internal stability
as soon as possible, properly handle issues and actively promote
national reconciliation," the Xinhua News Agency quoted State
Councilor Tang Jiaxuan as telling visiting junta leader General
(Inter Press Service)