September 19, 2021

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China and the Taliban – several similarities

china talibanchina talibanEven though both China and the Taliban have differences in organisational set-up, ideologies and strengths, several similarities can be noted. (Photo source: Reuters)

By Srikanth Kondapalli, 

As the Taliban marched last month into Kabul after engulfing Kunduz, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kandahar and other cities, some Chinese analysts likened it to the People’s Liberation Army of the 1940s defeating the Kuomintang forces. They also raised the prospect of the United States leaving its allies and Taiwan in the lurch. Ostensibly this was made up for the merging of psychological warfare.

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While the two historical contexts in China and Afghanistan are different, China’s party-state official legitimacy to the Taliban in low-key meetings such as Ambassador Lu Shulin consultation with Mullah Omar in November 2000 at Kandahar or the recent frequent high-level meetings at Doha, Beijing, Tianjin, Kabul, Urumqi and Xian and announcement of aid of $31 million and China’s strategic community making pro-Taliban statements – all these indicate to the emerging bonhomie between China and the Taliban.

Even though both China and the Taliban have differences in organisational set-up, ideologies and strengths, several similarities can be noted. First, both used violence to seize state power. Although the Taliban has not won any major battles and just swept across Afghanistan in the backdrop of the vacuum created by the United States troops withdrawal, Kalashnikov gun culture has been popularised by them since the 1970s. The Chinese community party (CCP) famously articulated armed struggle as “power flows from the barrel of the gun”, although they quickly reiterated the party’s control over the army. Large-scale guerrilla and positional warfare in Siping, Sungari River, Beijing-Tianjin, Huai-Hai campaign and Liaoning-Shenyang seizure have catapulted the CCP to power in 1949. The PLA is still used for the CCP’s agenda.

Second, both underlined the importance of mass support for their expansion, although in both cases only the elite rule over the masses. 90 million cadres in China control 1.47 billion people and a few thousand-armed Taliban exercise control over 40 million Afghans. The CCP articulated “fish in the water” theory to explain its sustenance from the public. Both have contempt for any wider participation of the people in the decision-making processes.

Third, both the CCP and the Taliban are highly authoritarian and secretive with hardly any transparent mechanisms in place. No one for sure knows where the leaders of these two entities live nor their personal lifestyles or public accountability. Ruthlessness is said to be the norm. Although the rumours of Taliban leader Baradar’s alleged assassination were denied, the public has no clear idea about the palace politics in Kabul. Xi Jinping’s absence from the public sphere before he took over the CCP in 2012 is another pointer to these conspiracy theories.

Fourth, both are anti-foreign in their political outlook, even though they took substantial help from as many foreign entities as possible. Treating relations with others in a tactical and transitory manner is the hallmark of both of these entities in their expansion plans. The Taliban’s predecessors took material and moral support from the US, China and Pakistan to overthrow the Soviets. Today, the Taliban is exhibiting anti-US postures, even though a deal existed at Qatar last year. Likewise, the CCP took support from the Soviets to come to power, but opposed them in the 1960s. The CCP took US support since Deng Xiaoping’s White House deal in 1979 and its subsequent rise and joint efforts at the disintegration of the then Soviet Union. The CCP of course has generated nationalism as a party-state ideology, with the Taliban confined to decentralised kinship loyalties.

Fifth, both are intensely ideological with the Taliban proposing extremely conservative Islamic emirate policies. The CCP, since the Soviet debates, wants “socialism in one country”, although since the 19th CCP congress is egging on exporting its party-state authoritarian model abroad through the Belt and Road Initiative or others. Both advocate internationalism through their respective political prisms with the Taliban taking jehad abroad, while the CCP since 2017 advocating “occupying the centre stage”, although the CCP is promoting the “modernist” agenda.

Sixth, both are highly sectarian with unimaginable ruthlessness exhibited with internal and external competitors. The Taliban’s ferociousness on obliterating the resistance movement at Panjshir or other places have been played on the TV channels. The internal fighting and bloodbath between the more powerful six to seven Taliban factions has spilled into the public sphere. The CCP and the Kuomintang struggles are legion, both terming each other as white/red “bandits”. Within the CCP, the removal of Zhang Guotao, Gao Gang-Rao Sushi and recently Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai and Sun Zhengcai have torn the party apparatus. It is no surprise that in both China and Afghanistan, it is normal for several leaders and others to simply “disappear” with no public auditing.

While there are structural differences between China and the Taliban, the current bonhomie is expected to last given similarities in their outlook, with the exception of the spike in Uighur violence as the wild-card.

(The author is Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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