Authors: Darya Gribkova & Viktoria Ivanchenko*
According to Joseph Nye, the pioneer of soft power concept, Japan’s attractiveness potential is one of the highest in the world. But at the same time Japan faces obstacles to its comprehensive implementation. First of all, it is a policy towards preservation of internal values and the way of life, Tokyo’s aggressive policy in the first half of the 20th century still not forgotten by its milieu, demographic problems, successful competition by the rapidly developing neighbors, especially Republic of Korea and China, in the field of soft power. Today Japan’s desire to revive the status of military power makes the situation more complicated.
Japan is a convincing example of promoting the positive image by a non-great power without engaging military means. Economic success, urban development, high quality of education, futuristic technologies, mysterious culture which burst into information space by anime and manga created perception of Japan as a smart and advanced country. Demonstrative disregard of geopolitical ambitions helped Japan to keep up its stable position in the international arena for a long time.
But what components does Japan’s soft power include now? What role does the state play in it? Which regions of the world are priority-driven when choosing the directions of the Japanese soft impact? What are the prospects for Japanese soft power and which countries can compete with Japan? Let us try to examine the system carefully.
State, “soft power” and cultural diplomacy
Traditional spheres the state is in charge of are economic and military because they both guarantee state’s survival. In case of the state’s participation in public diplomacy space for activity of special-purpose funds, NGOs, media and large corporations occurs. In today’s world, one way or another, states are limited in the use of hard powerand it is soft power that becomes an instrument for creating favorable environment for foreign policy.
Japanese soft power developed independently of the state and rose from Japanese culture, national traditions, aureole of mystery and inaccessibility and later rose from modernization success and model of economic development. But at which stage did the state get involved and soft power become considered as a means of winning leading positions in the world economy, policy and culture for Japan?
After World War II Japanese government faced necessity not only to recover economy and reform governance system in the state but as well to overcome the image of aggressor in the international arena. Spheres of culture and public diplomacy offered Japan wide opportunities for such activity.
Today implementation of Japan’s soft power is under control of Foreign Affairs Ministry. In 1972 the Japan Foundation was established under the Ministry’s management for development of cultural exchange, promotion of Japanese studies abroad, researching activity of Western institutions and international cultural exchange standards and programs. In October 2003 the Foundation became an independent institution and now it has 24 offices around the world, its activity covers more than 190 countries. The main directions of Foundation’s activity are exchange programs for outstanding specialists in the field of cross-cultural communication, science and culture as well as sport exchange programs and participation of Japanese scientists in international conferences, preservation of Japanese cultural monuments by Japanese specialists , cooperation on realization of joint projects with UNESCO.
Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) regulates the issues related to the official development assistance; its goals are the reduction of poverty, increase of effectiveness of management systems, ensuring human security and stimulation of educational and cultural exchange.
In 1988 Japan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry began to publish the monthly journal on foreign affairs “Gaiko Forum”, which also covered issues related to Japanese popular culture and public diplomacy.
In 2005 the Advisory Committee led by Tamotsu Aoki, professor of Hosei University, was formed to conceptualize the elements of Japan’s soft power. In Diplomatic Blue Book 2004 a section of the 3rd chapter dedicated to the soft power concept and public diplomacy, improvement of image of the state abroad, students exchange programs, cooperation in the cultural sphere. One of the most important part is about “Cool Japan”, public diplomacy program aimed at the promotion of Japanese popular culture. By 2014 the government’s spending for promotion of Japanese pop-culture reached almost $883 million. In 2004, ex-prime minister Aso Taro in his speech about Japan’s strategic development stressed soft power as one of the most perspective direction and Japan’s attractiveness promotion in the world as one of the resources of growth.
There is a departure in the MOFA structure, that realizes Japanese film festivals, painting exhibitions, Japanese cuisine days. The MOFA’s internet-page provides links to resources related to public relations abroad, cultural and people-to-people exchange, cooperation with international organizations (UNESCO, UNU) including WebJapan (available in Chinese, English, Arabic, Russian, Spanish, Korean, Portuguese, Danish and French) which provides information on trends in Japanese fashion, cuisine, nature, Japan’s achievements in the field of economy, education, environmental protection and so on.
Also it is worth to note that neither the Prime Minister nor the Minister of Foreign Affairs, nor the Japanese Ambassadors refuse to give comments to the major national and foreign media on such seemingly acute issues as territorial disputes with neighbors. This looks like demonstration of Tokyo’s willingness to discuss these issues openly and confidence in the legitimacy of the territorial claims.
The state invests a lot in support of external economic activity of Japanese enterprises. In the sphere of economy attractiveness of the state and national culture are valuable as they bring significant dividends to business. At the same time the country’s economic success is already a powerful tool of positive influence which forms the attraction of Japanese corporate culture. In the Intellectual Property Strategic Program 2006 cultural and economic aspects were identified as complementary, and also there were measures proposed to improve the image of the country through the use of rich cultural potential, through support of Japanese business and promotion of Japan brand all over the world. The brand “Made in Japan” around the world is associated with the quality and reliability of Japanese products and despite the high price it is in great demand.
In 2004 the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry launched the “Japan Brand” program, aimed at promoting certain products produced in Japanese regions at the foreign markets. This program became a part of a strategy for stimulating external economic activity of small and medium-sized enterprises.
Japan became the first state in Asia which realized the opportunities that opens up the proper use of soft power as a powerful instrument of influence in the world. After the World War II Japan was a defeated aggressor, which in order to restore its economy and position in the international community needed to achieve normal relations, primarily with the countries of Asia Pacific, which suffered the most during the war.
But active state involvement and directive approach to soft power produce some serious risks. Usually, the private sector evokes more trust abroad as more independent and free in its actions.
Here other players come, for example, transnational companies. One of the strongest soft power instruments they engage is corporate social responsibility. Such big companies like Mitsubishi and Toyota take part in various projects related to the social sphere in Russia. For instance, Mitsubishi Corporation supports the Center of Japanese language and culture in Moscow State Linguistic University. As well in 2017 on the base of Far Eastern Federal University Mitsubishi Corporation and Far Eastern Federal University established the Center for study of Russian-Japanese relations. Mitsubishi’s employees visit boarding schools, organize educational and leisure activities. In December 2015 Furusawa Minoru, CEO of Mitsubishi Corporation Russia, was awarded as a “Maecenas of the year” at the St. Petersburg Cultural Forum.
Vectors of dissemination
After the World War II Japan managed to solve an extremely difficult task: in a short period of time the country not only earned the reputation of a peace-loving country and a reliable economic partner but still continues to support it successfully.
Japan’s cautious, non-assertive policy and economic assistance to the countries of Asia Pacific after the World War II played a key role. In 1954 Japan became a participant of the Colombo Plan for the joint economic and social development of Asia and the Pacific. From that moment, directly or through participation in international projects, Japan began to provide official development assistance, grants without requiring their return and long-term loans on preferential terms. Today speaking of lending Japanese banks keep a leading position in the Asia Pacific region.
The construction of Japan’s infrastructure projects is another significant area, however today Japan faces strong competition from China. Tokyo invests in the construction of schools, hospitals, purchase of equipment, construction of roads. In May 2015 Shinzo Abe announced the launch of the “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” project which should embrace South, Southeast and Central Asia countries. Next five years Tokyo intends to invest 110 billion dollars for the project implementation. Despite the recession that has continued since the 1990s, Japan remains the main donor of economic assistance and lender in Asia, one of the founders of the Asian Development Bank and the largest contributor to infrastructure development projects.
Assistance for developing countries, financing of development programs, provision of preferential long-term loans, training of personnel and sending Japanese specialists to developing countries allows to form the positive image of the country and favorable environment for Japanese business.
During the recovery period after the World War II the cautious Tokyo’s policy, the emphasis on the provision of economic means, loans, grants, and investments in infrastructure project played an important role in spreading the so-called soft influence of Japan in North Asia and Southeast Asia – closest Japan’s neighbours. Thus, after the beginning of reforms in the People’s Republic of China in the late 1970s Japan was one of the main trading partners and still one of the main investors.
Because of geographical proximity and close historical ties China and South Korea became the first countries which felt Japanese soft power influence through the popular culture. In late 1990s Japan faced a strong competitor: South Korea film production, music (K-pop) and tourism to Korea, Korean ethnic cuisine, electronics intercepted interest in Japan. Korean pop culture first captured China and Japan, then Vietnam, Cambodia, Taiwan, Thailand, Russia, Mongolia, European, Central Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries, America. Nevertheless, 99% of the exports of the Korean cultural industry go to Asian countries.
To some extent Japan nurtured its competitor itself: it was the Republic of Korea that was the largest consumer of the products of the Japanese popular industry, and then the imitator, subsequently adding its national flavor to the most popular samples of Japanese pop culture.
In Southeast Asia Singapore became a kind of reference point for distribution of Japanese popular culture. In November 2009 the Japan Creative Center was opened in Singapore to introduce traditional and modern Japanese culture, technological achievements, cuisine, anime, crafts, cinema and music.
In Central Asia the basis of Japanese soft power is Japan’s Asian identity, similarity. Diplomatic relations with the countries of the region Tokyo established in the 1990s, but they won attention much earlier and today they are spurred by Tokyo’s interest in energy potential and transit opportunities of these countries.
The undeniable advantage of Japan in the Central Asian region is the absence of military aggression in the past and, as a result, the absence of negative memory of the peoples regarding Japan. “Residents of Central Asia remember tens of thousands of Japanese prisoners of war on the territory of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan after the World War II. Until now buildings built by their hands have been preserved, for example, the Central Telegraph and the Ministry of Culture in Tashkent, the Academy of Sciences in Almaty, the Farhad Hydropower Station in Tajikistan”, notes Olga Dobrinskaya, Research Officer at the Department of Japanese Studies, Institute for Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
In the 1990s Central Asian countries had to choose the way for further development including economic model. The Japanese case with the leading role of the state seemed very attractive, as well as the fact that Japan acted as a carrier of Western values of democracy with some Eastern specificity.
Ryutaro Hashimoto’s concept of the “Eurasian diplomacy” meant revitalization of Japan’s relations with Central Asia, the Caspian Sea region and China. In 2004, Japan initiated the launch of the “Central Asia plus Japan” Dialogue to strengthen mutual understanding between countries. In 2006 Central Asia along with the South Eastern and Central Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East, South, Southeast and Northeast Asia were inserted in the concept of the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity”. Shinzo Abe’s visits to the countries of Central Asia in November 2015 became a demonstration of serious interest in cooperation with the countries of the region.
Among the examples of Japan’s soft power in Central Asia, it is significant to mention programs of official assistance to the development of the Central Asian states, projects in the field of ecology, green and energy-saving technologies, in the spheres of agriculture, education, health. Successes in these fields have strengthened Japan’s image as a state that promotes and develops non-military security.
Japan is interested in Central Asia’s transit routes and energy resources, and that’s why the Japanese government is interested in the stability of the region including environmental dimension, political, economic and social spheres.
Difficulties and prospects
In the Soft Power 30 global index of Portland in 2017 Japan ranks sixth while in 2015 it was located on the eighth position. Despite the high indices there are factors which contain the further realization of the potential of Japan’s soft power.
The most important one is related to the perception of foreign influence. Soft power becomes an unattainable ideal wherever different identities, ideologies, views collide. It becomes effective only if the ‘recipient’ of soft power shares the notions of the way of life, worldview, culture of the soft power ‘projector’. Concerning effectiveness of Japanese soft power the following question arises: how much is Japan’s soft power viable in Northeast Asia given the growth of nationalist sentiments in Asia including those in China and Korea, and Japan’s implementation of military reforms policy? Can it cope with competition from the Chinese cultural heritage which is much older than Japanese one?
Another issue concerns weakness of soft power in overcoming hostility and rivalry rooted back far in the past and kept in memory of several generations. It is evident within long-lasting memory of Japan’s militaristic and colonial policy in Asia in the first half of the 20th century.
Today in Japan military component as an invariable attribute of great power gradually displaces the ‘soft’ component, which is absolutely important in the world of international technologies and free information flows. Nevertheless, soft power cannot be disregarded, since it is one of the most important elements shaping the image of the state, which strives for a more weighty position among powerful actors and in dealing with global issues.
Moreover, the longest life expectancy results in a high rate of aging; the desire to preserve the culture, way of life, business ethics appears in rigid migration legislation, which exacerbates demographic problems. The migration legislation provides a facilitated regime for obtaining visas and citizenship for “unique” specialists, however, a language barrier remains a strong obstacle. Japanese popular culture is experiencing serious competition from the Korean one. Competition with China in Southeast Asia and Central Asia is increasing and India is rising a a new vigorous rival in the economic field.
So the question is if it is possible in the current conditions to give a new impetus to the Japanese soft power. In case Abe’s government is able to cope with domestic economic problems, Japan will be able to maintain its status as a reliable economic partner and one of the main creditors in the international community.
An important but hardly feasible step could be Japan’s willingness to discuss the issues related to its militaristic past, which the present government is trying to forget with all its might.
In cultural diplomacy Japan relies on pop-culture, the brand of anime and manga, which should promote a deeper interest in the country’s rich culture. But maybe today the world needs things which fascinated foreigners in the XIX-XX centuries? For example, traditional, authentic cultural heritage?
Today military reforms can eradicate the government’s efforts to project its soft power and their further implementation will require much more effort and resources to maintain Japan’s attractiveness in the world. A great opportunity to put life into Japanese soft power can be the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympic Games which will be held in Japan.
As well 2018 is a cross-cultural Russian-Japanese year. For both countries it is a great opportunity to better understand each other, to make people interact more often and find more common points for cooperation. Despite the Kuril issue, which is yet to be resolved, current stable and friendly relations between Russia and Japan provide great potential for dialogue and collaboration. Within the Pivot to the East Russia now makes an attempt to establish close ties with promising and highly developed Asian countries, and 2018 grants Japan a more privileged position at least in terms of people-to-people contacts.
Japan`s cultural events are warmly welcomed in Russia. For instance, in Autumn 2017 just three big events took place in Moscow: 7th Moscow Biennale, exhibitions by Takashi Murakami “There will be a gentle rain” and Keichi Tanaami “Country of mirrors”.
But opportunities granted to Japan by international large-scale sports and cultural events have temporary effects although they give a good chance to show the country at its best. Japan as an influential soft power actor requires a long-term strategy which would work in accordance with other state policies. Otherwise, Japanese government run risks to lose its positions as one of soft power leaders if it chooses hard power instruments for projecting its influence and will have to fully revise its soft power strategy.
Original pre-revised text in Russian
*Viktoria Ivanchenko, PICREADI (Creative Diplomacy) editor-in-chief, researcher at Higher School of Economics, Moscow
Xinjiang: Pan-Turkism fuels China’s hearts-and-minds campaign
Chinese efforts to woo Saudi Arabia’s ethnic Chinese community highlight the People’s Republic’s effort to avert criticism from the Muslim world of its crackdown in the north-western province of Xinjiang and strengthen relations with the kingdom and Middle Eastern nations.
The efforts to woo a community, a significant part of which is of Turkic origin, identifies itself as Turkestani, and long supported greater rights, if not independence for Xinjiang’s Uyghur population, are part of a larger, long-standing global Chinese effort to ensure the support of a mushrooming Chinese diaspora not only for its policy in Xinjiang, but also for its anti-Taiwanese One China policy and growing economic and geopolitical influence.
“Tukestanis…do not identify as ‘Chinese in the ethnic, cultural or even geographic sense. Parts of this cluster perceive themselves…as being part of an oppressed group whose homeland is currently under Han occupation,“ said Muhammed Al-Sudairi, a Saudi China scholar and author of a recent report on the Chinese efforts in Saudi Arabia.
In wooing Saudi Arabia’s ethnic Chinese community, China is targeting a group that not only historically supported the Uyghurs but also maintained close ties to Taiwan. Mr. Al-Sudairi estimated the Saudi Chinese community to number at least 210,000, 150,000 of which have lived in the kingdom for decades.
It is a community that played a significant role in Saudi Arabia’s propagation of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in China, part of a four-decade-long global campaign to counter post-1979 Iranian post-revolutionary zeal that more recently with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is being curbed and given a more moderate makeover.
China this week sought to tighten relations with the Arab world with the allocation of US$106 million in aid to troubled nations, including Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon and the creation of a US$3 billion joint Chinese Arab fund that would invest in transportation infrastructure, oil and gas, finance, digital economy and artificial intelligence.
China announced the financial initiatives at a moment that it was putting the brakes on funds it pumps into its infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiative that aims to connect Eurasia to the People’s Republic. The slowdown was designed to ensure that the initiative does not become a drag on the Chinese economy.
China’s Xinhua news agency meanwhile reported that President Xi Jingping would visit the United Arab Emirates this month on his way to a BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in Johannesburg. Mr. Xi visited Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt in 2016, the first visit to the Middle East by a Chinese head of state in seven years.
Chinese concern about Uyghur sentiment is compounded by the revival in post-Soviet Central Asian nations of pan-Turkism, a movement that emerged in the late 1900s that aims to unite Asia’s Turkic people. Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev sees pan-Turkism as a pillar of his country’s national identity.
Quoting Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, Mr. Nazarbayev told a gathering in Ankara in 2012 that “the time will come when all the Turks will unite. Therefore I want to greet all the Turkic-speaking brothers. Between Altai and the Mediterranean Sea, over 200 million brothers live. If we all unite, then we will be a very effective force in the world.”
Pan-Turkism’s appeal in Central Asia, boosted by what Russia’s annexation of Crimea could mean for other post-Soviet states, does not stop at the borders of Xinjiang. The Altai mountains, Mr. Nazarbayev referred to is where Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia and Russia meet.
Mr. Nazarbayev last month took several steps to popularize pan-Turkic notions. The president sent a congratulatory message to a gathering celebrating the 125th anniversary of Magzhan Zhumabayev, a Soviet pan-Turkist poet whose works were banned by Joseph Stalin.
Days earlier, Mr. Nazarbayev signed a decree renaming the southern region of Shymkent as Turkestan, a reference to what pan-Turkists see as their spiritual homeland.
The rise of pan-Turkism puts China’s recent focus on Saudi Arabia’s Chinese Turkic community in a class of its own. China sought to boost its efforts by appointing in 2013 Anwar Habibullah, one of China’s few Uyghur diplomats as consul general in the Red Sea port of Jeddah.
The consulate, since Mr. Habibullah’s appointment conducts events not only in Mandarin and Arabic but also Uyghur, according to Mr. Al-Sudairi.
Mr. Al-Sudairi attributes the focus on the Saudi Uyghurs, one of the largest and wealthy Chinese Turkic diaspora communities, “to the role of this community as a stronghold for anti-Chinse and anti-CPC (Communist Party of China) sentiment in Saudi Arabia, and one that has had some influence in shaping Saudi elite and popular perceptions toward the PRC (People’s Republic of China) and CPC.”
The Chinese focus is also fed by the country’s determination to stem the influence of what it terms extremist thought, including Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism, that was promoted by Saudi ethnic Turkic Chinese through their contact with Uyghur pilgrims and the distribution of literature and, audio-visual materials in Xinjiang, often through governmental non-governmental organizations like the Muslim World League, a major vehicle in Saudi Arabia’s global propagation of ultra-conservatism.
Mr. Al-Sudairi’s portrayal of Saudi Turkic sentiment and its impact on perceptions of China in Saudi Arabia is noticeable given the fact that the kingdom, like almost all Muslim states, has turned a blind eye to China’s crackdown in Xinjiang and systematic attempts at forced assimilation of the Uyghurs.
Muhammad Amin Islam Turkestani, a strident Uyghur advocate of Xinjiang independence helped shape Saudi perceptions and propagate nationalism in his homeland after settling in the kingdom in the mid-1950s. Mr. Turkestani served as a translator for Uyghurs performing the haj and hosted a one-hour Uyghur-language show on Saudi radio in the 1980s.
Funded by the Saudi Turkic community, Mr. Turkestani published a book, A Message to the Islamic World … Facts about Muslim Turkestan, that criticized Han supremacism and denounced communist rule. The book was published in the kingdom and distributed locally as well as internationally as part of Saudi Arabia’s global propagation of ultra-conservatism.
Mr. Turkestani’s book, according to Mr. Al-Sudairi, influenced Saudi discussions and perceptions and complicated the kingdom’s relations with China before and after Saudi Arabia in 1990 became the last Arab state to officially establish diplomatic relations.
Saudi Arabia, however, while at times critical of Chinese policy in Xinjiang, ensured that they plight of the Uyghurs did not fundamentally affect official relations.
The country’s controlled media were at times allowed to raise the issues and senior religious scholars called for support of the Uyghurs, Mr. Turkestani’s campaign to get the Muslim World League to recognize East Turkestan went however unheeded.
Moreover, no senior Saudi scholar has issued a fatwa or religious opinion on the issue. “Uyghur persecution by China will not stop the Saudis’ engagement with China, nor even slow it down,” said prominent China scholar Yitzhak Shichor.
The Chinese effort to woo Saudi ethnic Turkic Chinese is being spearheaded by the United Front Work Department, the main communist party unit tasked with reaching out to key non-part groups in China and across the globe, including Saudi Arabia.
“In January 2018…Politburo member and former Foreign Minister and State Counsellor, Yang Jiechi, told the National Overseas Chinese Conference that the government should expand and strengthen ‘Overseas Chinese Patriotic Friendly Forces’ in the service of the ‘Great Rejuvenation’ of the Chinese nation. In plain language, what this means is that overseas Chinese should be persuaded, induced, or in extremis, coerced, into accepting allegiance to China as at least part of their identity,” said Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singapore diplomat and chairman of the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, in a recent speech.
Mr. Kausikan noted that the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office was incorporated two months after Mr. Yang’s remarks into the United Front Work Department.
“This is leading China into very complex, indeed dangerous, territory. China’s navigation of the complexities has in many cases been clumsy,” Mr. Kausikan said, noting that the policy had led Chinese diplomats to openly interfere in the domestic politics in for example Malaysia.
“Since my retirement, I have travelled extensively in Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. Complaints about similar behaviour by Chinese diplomats and officials are all too common in all these regions; in fact, so common that it is becoming somewhat tiresome to listen to them,” Mr Kausikan said.
Xinjiang: China ignores lessons from the past
A Chinese campaign to forcibly assimilate ethnic Uyghurs in its north-western province of Xinjiang in a bid to erase nationalist sentiment, counter militancy, and create an ‘Uyghur Islam with Chinese characteristics’ ignores lessons learnt not only from recent Chinese history but also the experience of others.
The campaign, reminiscent of failed attempts to undermine Uyghur culture during the Cultural Revolution, involves the creation of a surveillance state of the future and the forced re-education of large numbers of Turkic Muslims.
In what amounts to an attempt to square a circle, China is trying to reconcile the free flow of ideas inherent to open borders, trade and travel with an effort to fully control the hearts and minds of it population.
In doing so, it is ignoring lessons of recent history, including the fallout of selective support for militants and of religion to neutralize nationalism that risks letting a genie out of the bottle.
Recent history is littered with Chinese, US and Middle Eastern examples of the backfiring of government support of Islamists and/or militants.
No example is more glaring than US, Saudi, Pakistani and Chinese support in the 1980s for militant Islamists who fought and ultimately forced the Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan. The consequences of that support have reverberated across the globe ever since.
Some analysts suggest that China at the time was aware of the radicalization of Uyghurs involved in the Afghan jihad and may have even condoned it.
Journalist John Cooley reported that China, in fact, had in cooperation with Pakistan trained and armed Uyghurs in Xinjiang as well as Pakistan to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
The notion that Islam and/or Islamists could help governments counter their detractors was the flavour of the era of the 1970s and 1980s.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat saw the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood as an anti-dote to the left that was critical of both his economic liberalization and outreach to Israel that resulted in the first peace treaty with an Arab state.
Saudi Arabia funded a four-decade long effort to promote ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam and backed the Brotherhood and other Islamist forces that helped create the breeding ground for jihadism and wreaked havoc in countries like Pakistan.
China’s experience with selective support of militancy and the use of religion to counter nationalist and/or other political forces is no different.
China’s shielding from designation by the United Nations as a global terrorist of Masood Azhar complicates Pakistani efforts to counter militancy at home and evade blacklisting by an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog.
Mr. Azhar, a fighter in Afghanistan and an Islamic scholar who graduated from a Deobandi madrassah, Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi, the alma mater of numerous Pakistani militants, is believed to have been responsible for a 2016 attack on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station.
Back in the 1980s, then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping saw his belief that what China expert Justin Jon Rudelson called a “controlled revival” of religion would foster economic development and counter anti-government sentiment boomerang.
The revival that enabled an ever larger number of Uyghurs to travel to Mecca via Pakistan for the haj made Saudi Arabia and the South Asian state influential players in Uyghur Islam. Uyghurs, wanting to perform the haj, frequently needed Pakistani contacts to act as their hosts to be able to obtain a Chinese exit visa.
The opening, moreover, allowed Muslim donors to provide financial assistance to Xinjiang. Saudi Arabia capitalized on the opportunity as part of its global promotion of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism to put money into the building of mosques and establishment of madrassas.
Receptivity for more conservatives forms of Islam, particularly in southern parts of Xinjiang that were closest to Central and South Asia, suggested that the closure of Xinjiang’s borders during the Sino-Soviet split in the 1950s and 1960s and the cultural revolution in the 1960s and 1970s had done little to persuade Uyghurs to focus their identity more on China than on Central Asia.
In fact, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent states in Central Asia coupled with rising inequality rekindled Uyghur nationalism.
The rise of militant Islamist and jihadist Uyghurs constituted in many ways a fusion of Soviet and Western-inspired secular nationalist ideas that originated in Central Asia with religious trends more popular in South Asia and the Gulf in an environment in which religious and ethnic identity were already inextricably interlinked.
The juxtaposition, moreover, of exposure to more orthodox forms of Islam and enhanced communication also facilitated the introduction of Soviet concepts of national liberation, which China had similarly adhered to with its support for various liberation movements in the developing world.
The exposure put Xinjiang Uyghurs in touch with nationalist Uyghur groups in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that fed on what political science PhD candidate Joshua Tschantret terms “ideology-feeding grievances.”
Nationalists, dubbed ‘identity entrepreneurs’ by Gulf scholar Toby Matthiesen, built on the presence of some 100,000 Uyghurs who had fled to Central Asia in the late 1950s and early 1960 during Mao Zedong’s social and economic Great Leap Forward campaign that brutally sought to introduce industrialization and collectivization and the descendants of earlier migrations.
With Pakistan’s political, economic and religious elite, ultimately seduced by Chinese economic opportunity and willing to turn a blind eye to developments in Xinjiang, Uyghurs in the South Asian country had little alternative but to drift towards the country’s militants.
Militant madrassas yielded, however, to Pakistani government pressure to stop enrolling Uyghurs. The militants were eager to preserve tacit Chinese support for anti-Indian militants operating in Kashmir.
Pakistan’s foremost Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, went as far as signing in 2009 a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese communist party that pledged support for Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang.
Despite eagerness to address Chinese concerns, Pakistan and China’s selective support of militants is likely to continue to offer radicalized Uyghurs opportunity.
“Jihadis and other religious extremists will continue to benefit from the unwillingness of the military and the judiciary to target them as well as the temptation of politicians to benefit from their support,” said former Pakistani ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, discussing overall Pakistani policy rather than official attitudes towards the Uyghurs.
Cultural anthropologist Sean R. Roberts noted that Central and South Asia became with the reopening of the borders in the second half of the 1980s “critical links between the inhabitants of Xinjiang and both the Islamic and Western worlds; and politically, they have become pivotal but contentious areas of support for the independence movement of Uyghurs.
The 1979 inauguration of the of the 1,300-kilometre-long Karakoram highway linking Kashgar in Xinjiang to Abbottabad in Pakistan, one of the highest paved roads in the world, served as a conduit for Saudi-inspired religious ultra-conservatism, particularly in southern Xinjiang as large numbers of Pakistanis and Uyghurs traversed the border.
Pakistani traders doubled as laymen missionaries adding Islamic artefacts, including pictures of holy places, Qurans and other religious literature to their palette of goods at a time that Islamist fighters were riding high with their defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan and the emergence of the Taliban.
Increased religiosity became apparent in Xinjiang.
Women donned veils in what was traditionally a more liberal land. Students of religion made their way to madrassas or religious seminaries in Pakistan where they came into contact with often Saudi-inspired Pakistani and Afghan militants – trends that China is trying to reverse with the construction of an Orwellian type surveillance state coupled with stepped-up repression and intimidation.
“The cross-border linkages established by the Uyghurs through access provided by the highway, Beijing’s tacit consent to expand Uyghur travel and economic links with Pakistan through Reform Era policies, and Beijing’s explicit consent in supporting anti-Soviet operations – all prompted the radicalization of a portion of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs,” concluded China scholar Ziad Haider more than a decade ago.
The process was fuelled by the recruitment in the 1990s of Uyghur students in Pakistani madrassas by the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, both of which were linked to Al Qaeda. Some 22 Uyghurs captured by US forces in Afghanistan ended up in Guantanamo Bay.
The eruption of protests in Xinjiang in the late 1990s and late 2000s against rising income differences and the influx of Han Chinese put an end to official endorsement of a religious revival that was increasingly seen by authorities as fuelling nationalism and facilitating Islamists.
Seemingly stubborn insistence on a Turkic and Muslim identity is likely one reason that China’s current assimilation drive comes as Xinjiang’s doors to its neighbours are being swung open even wider with the construction of new road and rail links as part of the People’s Republic’s infrastructure-centred Belt and Road initiative.
Forced assimilation is designed to bolster China’s expectation that increased economic ties to South and Central Asia will contribute to development of its north-western province, giving Uyghurs a stake that they will not want to put at risk by adhering to nationalist or militant religious sentiment.
The crackdown and forced assimilation is further intended to reduce the risk of a flow of ideas and influences through open borders needed for economic development and cementing Xinjiang into the framework of China’s infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiatives that spans Eurasia
The assimilation effort is enabled by China’s Great Fire Wall designed to wall the country off of free access to the Internet. In doing so, China hoped in Xinjiang to halt cultural exchanges with Central Asia such as political satire that could reinforce Uyghurs’ Turkic and Central Asian identity.
The breadth of the more recent crackdown has complicated but not halted the underground flow of cultural products enabled by trade networks.
Mr. Roberts noted as early as 2004 that Chinese efforts aiming to regulate rather than reshape or suppress Islam were backfiring.
“Interest in the idea of establishing a Muslim state in Xinjiang has only increased with recent Chinese policies that serve to regulate the practice of Islam in the region,” Mr. Roberts said at the time.
The transformation of the North Korean military and political system
How is North Korea’s political system currently changing, pending the Great Transformation with the USA and South Korea, wanted and carefully directed by Kim Jong-un?
In the future the Great Leader wants to have a new ruling class suitable for the economic and strategic changes which will affect North Korea in the coming years.
Far-reaching military and economic changes, with the support of Iran, the Russian Federation, China and other countries.
According to Kim Jong-un, without prejudice to the regime’s structure, everything else must change.
In the framework of this change, the State and the Party must be turned into quick and agile tools in the hands of the Leader and of his partly-renewed inner circle.
Kim Jong-un’s primary goal is to control the initial phase of North Korea’s economic transformation, as well as to keep the grip on the Armed Forces and the Party, and to finally create a new ruling class for managing denuclearization and the economic transformation.
In the case of North Korean Armed Forces, the new appointments have mainly concerned the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, the Chief of Staff Department of People’s Armed Forces – with new appointments also in the Directorate of Operations – and, finally, the Director of the General Political Bureau of the Armed Forces.
In the specific hierarchy of the North Korean military system, these are the three most important posts.
Furthermore, each of the three above mentioned roles implies the alternating or fixed presence of the Workers’ Party of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the Political Bureau.
Therefore the new appointments are No Kwang Chol, former first vice-Minister of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, replacing Pak Yong Sik, while Ri Yong-gil replaces his former boss, Ri Myong-su.
Ri Yong-gil was Commander of the North Korean Armed Forces, as well as member of the Party’s Central Committee, but he was later removed from office in February 2016.
As early as 2013 he had been Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces and, despite the recent events, he had a stable and secure military career.
From 2014 to 2018 Ri Yong-gil was also Head of the Pyongyang Committee of the Workers’ Party.
From 2012 to 2013 he accompanied Kim Jong-un on many visits to nuclear and bacteriological-chemical sites.
Considering the symbolic relevance of the North Korean power, he is probably one of the true leaders of the nuclear and bacteriological-chemical program of the North Korean Armed Forces.
Ri Yong-gil was at first Party’s official and later became officer of the North Korean Armed Forces, while always keeping political and party positions rather than technically military ones.
Moreover, Kim Jong-un is still playing many of his cards on the Defence Ministry.
It is a source of foreign currency and of excellent profit in relation to the friendly powers, as well as of social control and of real and effective foreign policy.
Under the current leader, Kim Jong-un, six new Defence Ministers have been appointed.
Pak Yong-sik is one of the Ministers removed from office.
Probably he had some business roles, but we cannot rule out that in the future he can start again his career, interrupted on the basis of unpleasant news about his role as businessman in the phase of the Sunshine Policy with South Korea.
He had been member of the Council of State, of the Central Committee and of the Political Bureau of the Workers’ Party of Korea, as well as of the Central Military Commission and finally of the Political Committee of the Pyongyang Defence Command.
Clearly Kim Jong-un is measuring his potential enemy lobby.
And he is certainly planning the generational and political change of all the important positions of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea.
As we will see later on, the new Minister No Kwang Chol was Head of the Second Economic Committee, which is in charge of the defence industry and hence connected with North Korea’s supervision and construction of conventional and nuclear weapons.
He is an excellent manager loyal to Kim Jong-un.
He held various posts in the North Korean political system.
These newly-appointed people have certainly been selected due to their absolute loyalty to Kim Jong-un and the Party,but we must better analyse the decision-making process of the North Korean Armed Forces, as well as their specific role.
The naive analysts who think that Kim Jong-un is “prisoner” of his ruling class have understood nothing of North Korea’s political and economic mechanism.
For the Leader, both loyalty and professional skills are needed. He is willing to get over some affectation or groveling too much, but Kim Jong-un wants the best of his technocracy, subject to loyalty to the Party and to himself.
And, above all, subject to the absolute non-involvement in any financial and commercial activity having even the slightest hint of irregularity.
Corrupt people are always at the mercy of the enemy’s blackmail.
The Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, however, is currently placed under the dual and symmetrical control of the State Affairs Commission of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea and of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
Nevertheless the Ministry deals mainly with the logistics and training of the Special Forces and operates with approximately 36 external organizations.
The Ministry acquires the orders, requests and notes from the basic military units and later organizes and distributes them between the Central Military Commission, the General Staff and the Party’s Ammunition Department.
The Ministry also deals with military finance and operates with commercial companies and production units which can export goods and hence supply the country with hard currency.
In fact, as already noted, at least 36 commercial companies operate in the field of export and internal distribution.
But someone talks about 50 of these companies.
The naive Western analysts were wrong in believing that the People’s Armed Forces were a “terrible cost” for the people and a huge obstacle to economic development.
The opposite was, and is, true.
Therefore the military system operates, above all, with the 44thBureau of the People’s Armed Forces, in controlling most of North Korea’s hard currency flows.
The Technology Transfer Department has also relations with both the companies owned by the Party and by the Ministry’s Ammunition Department.
In particular, it deals with the acquisition of information technology and advanced weapon systems.
The General Department of Logistics deals above all with the network of factories and farms supplying food and clothing to the People’s Armed Forces.
Sometimes they operate for the civilian and foreign market of food and clothing.
The Ministry, however, is subject to the control of the State Affairs Commission, which originates both from the Government and the Party, as well as from the Central Military Commission, which anyway results from the Party-government link only.
It is worth recalling that as early as 2000, the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces directly controlled the Political Department, the General Staff, the Military Security Command, the Reconnaissance Bureau and the Coast Guard Command.
Later, around 2007, all these structures became an integral part of the Ministry itself, which was placed under the control of the National Defence Commission.
In 2016 the latter saw its powers restricted and was placed under the State Affairs Commission’s control.
It should also be noted that, unlike Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un has revolutionised the People’s Armed Forces more than any other predecessor.
For example, there was the handover in February 2009 – just before Kim Jong-un’s role as heir to Kim Jong-il was officially declared.
As you may recall, this happened in September 2010.
At that stage, only seven of the most important positions in the North Korean military system were changed. It was the beginning of Kim Jong-un’s grip on power.
The North Korean Leader had carefully analysed all the military and economic positions well before his full rise to power.
From July to November of that year, the Political Committee (PC) of People’s Armed Forces was combed through by the North Korean leadership.
It was, in fact, the first scrutiny carried out by the Organization and Guidance Department after 1996.
There were some surprises: for example, the PC ships that secretly fished in Japanese waters; some military promotions in exchange for “bribes”; some accounting problems and some suspicions of corruption.
As is typical of his political role, Kim Jong-un has been very harsh in putting an end to these situations and punishing these behaviours.
In fact, in 2017 many executives of the Political Bureau of People’s Armed Forces were removed, with repercussions on the military forces that,as can be easily imagined, affected also the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
Only after this long “purge” did Kim Jong-un focus on negotiations with South Korea and the USA.
In November 2017 Son Chol Ju, one of the officers promoted with the position of Colonel entrusted “with upper management and tasks”, was appointed as Head of the Organizational Affairs Department of People’s Armed Forces, but his appointment was made public only in May 2018.
As already noted, Son Chol Ju has replaced Jon Nam Jin and, most likely, also Kim Wong Hong.
Until that date Son Chol Ju had been the Director of the Political Bureau with the portfolio for organizational affairs, where he had spent his entire career.
Before taking this post, Son Chol Ju was political Director of the Air and Anti-Air Force, in addition to being Head of the respective political committee.
Probably Son Chol Ju was Head of the Political Bureau with the Propaganda portfolio, especially in the Pyongyang region.
In the meeting held on April 2018 Kim Jong Gak was elected to the Political Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
These changes of the North Korean ruling elite, however, show the extreme and non-negotiable power now reached by Kim Jong-un, unlike what claimed by the most naive, but very widespread, Western analyses.
This is one of the signs that, in a North Korean extremely important phase, the Party wants to control its “separate bodies”, with a view to avoiding “political advantages” and the systems of influence – even the foreign ones – as well as all the grey and black areas of finance which must currently be transformed and be directly controlled by the Party and its ruling class.
In this phase we need to study the careers of important personalities such as Jo Kyong Chol, the Director of the Military Security Command since 2009, as well as full member of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and member of Kim Jong-il’s Funeral Committee.
Jo Kyong Chol was essential in strengthening Kim Jong-un’s power – a member of the “old guard” that wanted continuity, independence and military power for North Korea.
Hence he has accepted the new system of international relations in North Korea.
Currently Kim Jong-un certainly wants the regime’s continuity, but also and above all the emergence of a ruling class capable – by training, background and political culture – of organizing the North Korean stability in a phase of opening to the world market.
Ri Song Guk, another fer de lance of Kim Jong-un’s current political and military system, currently leads North Korea’s Fourth Army Corps – after leading the 39th Division – a very special military structure deployed near the Yellow Sea and the Northern Limit Line.
He is the current Director for Special Operations of the Central Command.
Yung Jong-rin is serving as the Commander of the Supreme Guard Command – therefore he is responsible for Kim Jong-un’s personal safety, but he had the same post with Kim Jong-il and is hence the Commander of the most technologically advanced security service in North Korea.
He has been member of the Central Military Commission since September 2010, as well as member of the Party’s Central Committee, and General since April 22, 2010.
Hence Kim Jong-un is preparing the ruling class that will defend North Korea’s interests in its new, gradual and slow globalization.
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