Lt General VIJAY OBEROI | 31 MAY, 2020
Let us start by having a look at China today. From a number of viewpoints, China seems to be in big trouble. The COVID 19 virus that started in Wuhan is threatening to come back. All Wuhan residents are being tested and the virus is spreading to some new areas.
The Chinese leadership has to focus on two major challenges now. These are the revival of China’s economy and handling the ire of the comity of nations that continue to suffer COVID 19 and its aftermath.
The blame for the global spread of COVID 19 is on China, due to its hiding the virus initially, not sharing the genome of the virus; not permitting outsiders to send their experts to examine details of such a huge spread of the virus and so quickly. Over 100 countries are planning to take China to court. There are some reports, unverified so far, of internal unrest because of a large number of persons missing/untraced during the sway of the virus.
As the Virus continues to affect nearly all countries in the world, anger against China is rising. It is likely to become more vociferous as countries come out of the effects of the virus. China is likely to be legally targeted sooner than later.
Nearly all affected nations have backed a joint Australian and European Union proposal to inquire into the origins of the Virus. India has also joined in. Though Xi Jinping has offered a comprehensive review after the Pandemic recedes, this is just a delaying tactic.
There is also a danger of challenges to the authority of Xi Jinping personally. Although he heads all power centres of China, viz. General Secretary of the Communist Party, President of the People’s Republic, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and Commander-in-Chief of the Military, it does not take long to bring a leader down, when the stakes for the others are very high.
There are some pointers in this regard. These include the sudden removal of China’s Vice Minister of Public Security, Sun Lijun, allegedly for violating “party discipline and law” just weeks after he was hand-picked to tackle the pandemic in Wuhan and to ensure that social order was preserved. Then, the appointment of Tang Yijun, as the new Justice Minister, and the sudden removal of Fu Zhenghua, who was earlier Sun Lijun’s colleague in the Ministry of Public Security.
Radio Free Asia has also reported of high-level security reviews held in the third week of April on the need for greater security monitoring of top leaders. More significantly, it is reported that a new Group, innocuously titled the “Safe China Construction Coordinating Small Group”, was established last month. It is chaired by China’s law & order supremo, Guo Shengkun, and consists of the Ministers of both Public and State Security; the President of the Supreme Court; the Procurator General; the senior leadership of the police and PLA; and the new Justice Minister. According to Xinhua News Agency, its priority is to “prevent and crack down on activities that endanger the political security of the country.”
Till date, 1989 is the only instance in Communist China where ‘political security’ was threatened, when the people briefly took the law into their own hands. No two situations are ever identical, but the one that China now finds itself in might just bear some semblance to it.
After ten years of political stability and economic development following the devastations of the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping had to deal with a faltering economy, hyper-inflation, erosion of bank deposits, and loss of jobs that had created a desperate “tinder-box” like situation by early 1989.
The demise of much admired former General Secretary, Hu Yaobang, on April 15, 1989, ignited it. Public resentment burst forth, threatening the stability of the regime itself. People came out on to the streets in spontaneous demonstrations never seen earlier in Communist China. Resentful adversaries in the Party tried to seize the moment.
The Tiananmen Incident of 1989 followed and spelt the death-knell of the popular and highly capable Deng, but it must be stated that it was only his use of military force that brought China back from the brink. Since then, the watch-word in China has been “stability”, at all costs and at any price.
Between 1989 and 2020, China has been through other economic crises—during the “Asian flu” of 1998 and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008—but collective leadership kept factionalism under control and below the surface, while the Party tackled the economic fall-out and managed public anger.
The economic damage on account of the Pandemic has been massive. Drastic economic retrenchment among China’s principal trading partners will further impede economic recovery plans, given that pre-crisis, the traded sector of the economy represented 38 per cent of GDP. Overall, 2020 growth is likely to be around zero-the worst performance since the Cultural Revolution five decades ago.
China’s debt-to-GDP ratio, already very high’ is a drag on other Chinese spending priorities, including education, technology, defence, and foreign aid. Unfortunately, this comes on the eve of the party’s centenary celebrations in 2021, by which point the leadership had committed to double China’s GDP over a decade. The pandemic now makes that impossible.
There is growing internal questioning and unrest on the lapses in reporting what took place in Wuhan and the silencing of whistle blowers in the early stages of the spread of the contagion. Xi Jinping has mounted a major counteroffensive within China and abroad to cover up his mishandling or misreading of the gravity of the situation. Nevertheless the internal murmuring and dissent is bound to increase in the coming days.
With an annual US $ 10 billion propaganda budget, China spends heavily on Public Relations firms to push CCP's narrative. Over the years, the CCP has invested heavily in prominent newspapers, magazines, reporters, commentators, media houses and digital platforms across the world. There is an equal amount spent in grants to universities across the world to push China's agenda within the domain of education. These are unlikely to work now.
At present, with both internal and external pressures, China seems to have adopted an offensive posture, both diplomatically and militarily. Externally, these actions have stiffened the resolve by many countries against China and its “Wolf Warrior” diplomats, who continue to adopt their earlier posturing. These have further succeeded in stiffening the anti-China sentiment.
In the last over a year, China has also come under a shadow because of its handling of the Uighurs of Xinjiang, which was exposed by the international media in detail. The mass demonstrations of last year in Hong Kong are in bold defiance of Chinese authority—but a crackdown could be incalculably costly.
The youth in Hong Kong describe themselves, overwhelmingly, as “Hong Kongers” rather than “Chinese.” Their resentment of the Communist Party’s growing involvement in their politics and culture has fuelled the crisis. Protests that began in response to the proposed extradition law did expand into a broad-based movement.They are now likely to re-emerge on account of two security related Acts approved by the National People’s Congress only two days back.
Till now, China has dealt the Hong Kong situation with restraint, but with the likely approval of the two new laws and tacit support to the agitating youth by USA, as recently articulated by US Secretary of State Pompidou, the portents are for a major flare up.
The world’s anger at China for various acts and policies of commission and omission will not end or reduce the hostility that is still building up. The lockdowns, mortalities and the disruption of people’s lives on account of the Pandemic are not the only reasons for blaming China.
There are other related major factors against China, like the gigantic increase in unemployment across the globe; the massive economic downturn that will follow; the huge debts that stare at a large number of developing and developed nations which had fallen prey to get massive funds from China in the past; and a host of other negatives.
Above all, the Pandemic has neither ended nor anyone can conjure up its longevity. Hence, it would be a constant reminder to individuals and countries which have been through it. The longer it lasts, the more the blame-game that China has to contend with.
China needs to keep these factors in view as it tries to counter them. Simple solutions like threats, bribery or cajoling by themselves or together are unlikely to work.
The present China, authoritarian and dictatorial and under heavy informational control must start thinking of changing internally in political and social terms, in addition to external changes mentioned above.
China’s ambitions of becoming the next super power need to be mellowed down. Hence, there needs to be reorientation of China’s economic and military growth. Coercions and threats must give way to good neighbourly behaviour, shorn of jingoism and using weaknesses of sovereign states to China’s advantage
As the world changes, as it will, China would do well to change with it instead of creating impediments. This inevitably will be a long process, as COVID 19 seems to be in no hurry to leave us; we need to learn to live with it.
The first part of the article can be read here
Lt General Vijay Oberoi is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff