China cherishes its 'jade kingdom'

by Antoaneta Bezlova, October 3, 2007


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 monks.

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 its future.

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 region.

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 Council action.

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 Than Shwe.


(Inter Press Service)

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