On tour with Imran Khan, Pakistan's wildcard candidate

With Khan laid low by an accident at a rally, Samira Shackle reports on his campaign so far.

It’s 7pm on a hot Sunday evening and I’m standing at a barbed wire barricade. Behind me is crowd of disgruntled but enthusiastic Imran Khan supporters, and in front of me some very uncooperative policeman. I’m in Faisalabad, Pakistan, trying to catch Khan on his whistle-stop tour of Pakistan.

In the preceding eight days, he has appeared at more than 50 jalsas (rallies) across the country, travelling by helicopter so he can visit up to three or four – sometimes more – sites in a day. These barnstorming rallies are the cornerstone of his campaign. Khan, with his celebrity status, charisma, and huge personal fan base, knows that he is the main attraction of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, and he’s making sure he gives the people what they want.

As Khan zooms around the country, his staff are trying, as best they can, to keep up by road, which is no mean feat given the huge distances in Pakistan. On the four hour drive from Islamabad to Faisalabad, his team tells me how security has got tighter and tighter over the course of the campaign. For this particular rally, we’ve had to submit our names and other details to the organisers to facilitate backstage access.

But that information isn’t doing us any good with the police, who seem to be enjoying the power trip. We can see the stage gate, which is about 30 metres from the barbed wire. “No-one goes through without a security pass,” says the policeman, smugly. We try to explain that our passes are at the gate, if someone could just go and check our names, but they are having none of it. The senior PTI workers I’m with are unimpressed, to say the least, but their status is doing nothing to budge the police.

Suddenly, there is a kerfuffle. A man has broken through the side of the barricade and is making a run for it to the gate. People are shouting after him but he’s just a retreating back, like the Roadrunner, cutting a shape through the line of armed security guards. “Who is that?” I ask. The reply comes: the local candidate, who has effectively had to break into his own rally.

The security last Sunday may have been over-zealous, but it is with good reason. According to the Interior Ministry, Khan is high up in the “top five” targets for terrorists, with only Nawaz Sharif, current electoral frontrunner and head of the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), facing a greater risk.

While members of the media tend to be on the stage with Khan rather than in the crowd, it’s probably one of the least safe places to be. He is one of the only politicians who refuses to address the crowds from behind a bulletproof glass, although in a concession to security, he has taken to wearing body armour under his trademark salwar kameez. Khan’s frenetic road show across the country has made media access very difficult; journalists have no option but to join on the campaign trail where they can and fight through his army of close supporters to grab 10 minutes with him before he helicopters to his next event.

As it has played out, it was not terrorists that struck Khan down but an unfortunate accident. At a rally in Lahore last night, he fell 10 feet as he was being lifted onto the stage. Luckily, Khan is not in a serious condition, though he is reportedly in considerable pain due to injuries to his skull and back. Images and videos of the incident instantly beamed around the globe. There is a sense of pathos that Khan has been stopped in his tracks, so near the conclusion of his momentum-building tour. In almost every area, the crowds and the energy really have been impressive.

The doctors have advised a week of bed rest. Tomorrow’s huge rally in Islamabad, which was supposed to be the climax of a hectic campaign, will go ahead – but Khan will address the crowds by video link.

This being Pakistan, home of the conspiracy theory, many people are speculating that “external forces” contributed to Khan’s “accident”, and that someone caused it deliberately to sabotage his campaign. Clearly, watching the video, this is absurd. After all, Pakistan is hardly known for its stringent health and safety standards.

More importantly, Khan’s accident may have brought an early end to his rousing public appearances, but it is unlikely that at this stage, it will make much difference. Sharif remains the frontrunner, and Khan remains the wildcard candidate: victory would be a surprise, but it is not totally inconceivable. As Khan said from his hospital bed, in a TV statement released just hours after his fall, it is now up to the voters.

Khan speaks from his hospital bed. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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As we reach the 50th anniversary of China's Cultural Revolution, are we seeing echoes of Mao?

With the official verdict being that Mao was “70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad”, his legacy is never far from the mind of today's politicians.

The Great Hall of the People on the western side of Tiananmen Square in Beijing is normally the scene for formal occasions, such as the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress. In early May, however, it resonated with singing by a group of young women, 56 Flowers, at a concert staged by an organisation calling itself the “Propaganda Department Office of Socialist Core-Value Propaganda and Education”. Tickets sold for up to £200.

The repertoire of the singing group was of a kind heard only rarely in China today. It consisted mainly of anthems from the Mao Zedong era, among them “Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman”, which compares the chairman’s thinking to “the sun that never sets”. The maverick politician Bo Xilai used such songs in his campaign to challenge the central leadership earlier this decade but he is now in prison, serving a life sentence for corruption.

The singers, who describe themselves as “the socialist band fallen from heaven”, wear the sort of scarves worn by Young Pioneers in the Cultural Revolution that Mao launched, 50 years ago this month, to shake up China and assert his leadership.

Some other songs praised the current leader, Xi Jinping, but the event was determinedly retro, demonstrating nostalgia for the era before China embarked on its race for economic growth and before society modernised. In a country where the leaders shape history to their purpose, this was a distinct political statement, and that the performance was permitted at all raised eyebrows among China-watchers. There was even more puzzlement when the organisation that put its name to the show turned out not to exist. Speculation spread that the whole thing had been staged by opponents of the current leadership in an attempt to embarrass it.

While Mao remains the biggest figure in the narrative of the People’s Republic, his three decades in power were marked by killings on a huge scale and the repeated use of terror, ending with the ten-year disaster of the Cultural Revolution. His heritage poses a problem in a country with a vastly changed society that has little affinity with the rampaging Red Guards. The Communist Party-run state needs the Great Helmsman at the centre of its history and its conquest of power. But the kind of nostalgia peddled by 56 Flowers has little relevance in China today, where materialism is more important than Maoist Marxism and where the pressing issues are how to deal with a mountain of debt and reduce excess industrial capacity.

In an unprecedented move in mid-May, the party newspaper People’s Daily ran a severe condemnation of the Cultural Revolution as a grave mistake. However, Mao’s body still lies embalmed in Tiananmen Square, his head is on the banknotes and the official verdict is that he was “70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad”.

Mao launched the movement that convulsed his country after a politburo meeting on 16 May 1966, which identified “representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the party, the government, the army and various spheres of culture” but were merely “a bunch of counter-revolutionary revisionists”, aiming to instal “a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”.

The man who had led the Chinese communists to power in 1949 had been feeling disgruntled. He had been marginalised by his lieutenants Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping following the collapse of his attempt to industrialise the country in the Great Leap Forward at the end of the 1950s and the ensuing famine, which some estimate to have killed more than 40 million people. Mao was nearly 73 but he was not yet ready to be kicked upstairs into a ceremonial post.

Rousing himself for a final power play, Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to assert himself, to destroy the Communist Party’s “bourgeois” bureaucracy and to give China a shake-up as he led the nation’s young people on a crusade to “destroy the old”. Once more, he ruthlessly turned Chinese against Chinese to consolidate his power and to pursue a supposedly revolutionary adventure.

The effects were, as with earlier initiatives, catastrophic – politically, economically and socially – above all, for the many millions who suffered death, injury, torture and deprivations. The party, the army, schools, universities and practically all other institutions were caught up in the maelstrom.

The wrecking of the regime’s control mechanisms cleared the way to the economic reform that was officially approved by Deng after Mao’s death in 1976, as Frank Dikötter shows in his magisterial new book, The Cultural Revolution: a People’s History, 1962-76. But loosening control is the last thing that Xi Jinping has in mind. Since taking power in November 2012, he has pursued a crackdown on dissent and is centralising authority in a way not seen since Mao. At the same time, and in the lead-up to a crucial party congress at the end of 2017, he is trying to use his campaign against corruption to root out opponents and change the way that China works.

Some commentators have described it as a new Cultural Revolution, even though the attempt to impose draconian control from the centre under Xi hardly chimes with the Red Guards’ invocation to “storm the fortress” and destroy the centres of authority. Still, there are echoes of 50 years ago. In a speech published this month, the president denounced “careerists and conspirators” who were undermining party governance.

“We . . . must make a resolute response to eliminate the problem and deter further violations,” Xi added, in a tone that Chairman Mao might have used. The context changes but China’s leaders have always been adept at finding adversaries to be used to advance their own ends – though what happened under Mao should stand as a warning of where witch-hunting can lead.

Jonathan Fenby is the author of “Will China Dominate the 21st Century?” and “The Penguin History of Modern China”

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad