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Opinion

India and China push a new age of Asian nationalism

Minorities in Kashmir and Xinjiang suffer as governments seek to build strong, unified states

A street during the shutdown in Srinagar, Kashmir on Aug 28: Modi says he wants to bring economic development to Kashmir.   © LightRocket/Getty Images

India finally began to end its internet blackout in Kashmir during mid-October, allowing connections for the first time since Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked the troubled region's constitutional autonomy in August.

Speaking on October 13, Modi said it would take four months to end the broader crackdown that put opposition leaders in jail and restricted civil liberties for the majority-Muslim population -- steps India justifies on security grounds.

China has made no similar promises of normality for its own province of Xinjiang, where President Xi Jinping has interned up to 1.5 million ethnic Uighurs and other minorities in "re-education" camps.

Both Modi and Xi have faced heavy criticism for policies that many view as crude ethnic and religious discrimination. Yet the actions of both men are actually best understood as part of a broader and predictable process of nationalism, in which rising powers are willing to take take unpopular decisions in the cause of building unified states with strong, cohesive national identities.

This is not the primary justification either Modi or Xi gives, of course. India's leader says he wants to bring economic development to Kashmir. To the extent it admits what is happening Xinjiang at all, China talks about the risk of Islamic terrorism among the Uighur population, most of whom are also Muslim.

But both cases also reveal the importance Indian and Chinese leaders now place on developing a more powerful state structure and unified identity as part of their emergence as global powers.

In August, Modi's Hindu nationalist supporters argued that India's new policies in Kashmir would rectify a constitutional anomaly, namely granting special autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir after independence in 1947.

China has set out more explicit targets as part of Xi's vision of a "Chinese Dream." Under this, China aims to become a "prosperous society" by 2021 and a "fully developed, rich and powerful nation" by 2049. Importantly, by this second date China wants to wrap up its own "one country, two systems" anomalies in Hong Kong and Macao, and to reintegrate Taiwan back into the mainland.

A Chinese police officer questions in Yining in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in September, 2018: China talks about the risk of Islamic terrorism.   © Reuters

Xinjiang fits this picture. Chinese intellectuals have pushed for a more hard line approach to building national identity. A recent essay in the Financial Times described ongoing debates about how to build a successful state, quoting two influential academics, Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe.

"Any nation's long-term peace and stability is founded upon building a system with a unified race [a state-race]," the duo wrote in a paper in 2012, criticizing weak multiethnic states and arguing that China's government should forge a single "state-race" instead.

None of this is to excuse China and India's recent actions. Modi's Kashmir policy has rightly raised doubts about his commitment to plural democracy. China's use of what are in effect concentration camps will create an indelible moral stain on its impressive economic development record.

But supporters of both leaders have at least a sliver of justification when they accuse their international critics of double standards, noting that many western powers acted in much the same way during similar moments in their own economic development.

The U.S. went through its own process of national completion in the 19th century, treating its minority Native American population abysmally along the way. Much the same was true in Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Ernest Gellner, the British-Czech theorist of nationalism, showed how elites in countries like Germany and Italy pushed to expand the powers of the state and develop homogenous national cultures during this period, often marginalizing minorities in the process through educational reforms or the imposition of a single national language.

In Asia, nationalism is often confused with the rise of populist leaders or a move toward bellicosity in international affairs. But for most developing economies, nationalism is actually much more like the phenomenon Gellner describes -- a mostly internal matter, concerned with the creation of the nation itself.

As well as nation-building, this involves "state-building" too, meaning the construction of a unified and effective national government, in which military power is expanded, a single national market is created, constitutional anomalies are tidied up and state power is allowed to operate throughout a given territory.

As Asia grows more developed, so the capacities of its governments increase too, giving them more power over restive provinces or to promote uniform identities. China's high-tech nationalism, where 100 million users now log in to the Communist Party's "Study Xi, Strong Nation" propaganda app, is merely a particularly advanced example of the type.

Two conclusions flow from this. First, the coming decades are unlikely to be kind to ethnic minorities in countries like India and China. States could build an inclusive vision of multiethnic nationalism instead, as India did after 1947. But nation-building more commonly reflects the preferences of a dominant ethnic or religious group, like China's Han or India's Hindus.

Second, many believed that an era of rapid globalization would lead to declines in the power of nation states. This may even end up being true in some western economies. But in Asia, most nation-states will grow more powerful over the coming decades, not less. Those hoping these resurgent states will mete out favorable treatment to ethnic Uighurs, Kashmiris or even troublesome students in Hong Kong, are likely to be disappointed.

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is author of "The Billionaire Raj."

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