Indian storm in a Chinese tea cup

Occasional Bytes

by G Hari Kumar

4 min read
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There won't be smoke without fire, goes the saying. But the recent bruhaha over a military coup in China, fuelled mostly by Indian social media and channel networks, has proved this wrong. Even without an ember of evidence, a lot of heat and smoke was generated with claims that President Xi Jinping has been put under house arrest and the army had taken over the control.

Some even posted images of explosions, though there was no report of such things on the global media. It all started going viral after a video of an army convoy was tweeted out by a known China-baiter Jennifer Zeng who is based in the US and linked to the banned religious cult Falun Gong. She herself retracted coup rumours later but that was lost in the din.

Those who touted mass cancellation of flights as a proof of something wrong in Beijing were woefully unaware of two things: one, the cancellation of flights in the preceding weeks were well over 60 percent due to strict Covid measures implemented in the country and two, Beijing usually shuts down before major political events, like the upcoming national congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Media researcher Marc Owen Jones, who is based in Qatar, reported that a Hindi news channel based in Uttar Pradesh was a prime spreader of the coup rumour.

While the Indian readers were buffeted with rumours and baseless claims, across in China there was hardly a murmur about this frenzy, making many wonder why there wasn’t any official reaction to the coup claims. That illustrates how the media in India and China occupy two ends of a spectrum. While in India, imagery, trivialism and hearsays dominate, Chinese media trots along like horse with blinders, seeing only what it is allowed to.

Right now, the Chinese media is busy publishing details about policies that will be discussed during the CCP's National Congress which opens on October 16. At the conclusion of this key meeting, it will be made known who the top leaders of China are as the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) will be paraded out.

Till then nothing is known to the public though the congress held only twice in a decade and ushers in leadership changes.

President Xi Jinping is all set for an unprecedented third term and commentaries praising his strong leadership are abundant in the media, but no discussion is allowed about the constitutional changes made to allow this or about the downside of one person getting all-powerful in a one-party state.

CCP loves to project the strength and stability of its rule and when the congress gets underway, the well-oiled party machinery will stage the same old charade of leaders lining up to hail the leadership. The party has declared Xi Jinping Thoughts as its guiding light and it is unlikely anything will change immediately.

Analysts and diplomats often resort to clues like state media headlines and public appearances of CCP leaders to gauge who is in favour and who is not. The order in which the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee is presented will be watched closely to see who the more equals among the powerful group are.

As things stand, there is no hint that Xi will pick a successor as his aim is to make China the number one nation in the world and that could take more than five years, given the economic setbacks linked to the pandemic and rising international tensions. CCP has already made clear that leadership of Xi is vital at this time but there are apprehensions in some circles that he is swaying away from the path of economic liberalisation and leading the country towards a hardcore Marxist-Leninist course.

In a congratulatory message to the congress, veteran leader, 105-year-old Song Ping, reminded the party about the importance of economic liberalisation and pointed out that it was the only way forward for China. Song, a contemporary of Deng Xiaoping and secretary to former Premier Zhou Enlai, made the statement despite a warning issued by the CCP forbidding former leaders against rocking the boat.

Instances like this signal that not everything is under Xi’s control yet. But those who are willing to critically examine his policies are getting less and less visible and this is leading to some questionable decisions like the Zero Covid policy.

The Covid virus has mutated into different strains and disease patterns have changed. But Beijing still sticks to the lockdown policies of 2020 and this has led to rocky economic scenarios both locally and internationally as supply chains gets disrupted without any notice. In a report released recently, the World Bank slashed the growth outlook for China to 2.8 per cent for this year, down from 5.0 per cent forecast in April.

In an illuminating eight-part podcast about Xi’s rise to power, The Economist correspondent Sue Lin-wong points out that leaving the fate of 1.3 billion people in the hands of a single person is a troubling thought. More so when that country is home to the largest army in the world and controls a significant part of the global economy.

Beyond the political control in China, CCP also has set aim at the rejuvenation of China and restore its pre eminent position it had a millennia ago. Xi will be clearing the deck to launch that next phase in not-too-distant future and that could spell more trouble in Taiwan straits, Indian border and South China Sea as all these areas are claimed by Beijing.

“Xi’s grip is firm and he is enacting a transformative agenda, even if not to the liking of the West. Unlike in previous periods, there is largely one voice making consequential decisions that will shape the course of geopolitical events. Therefore, governments must deal directly with Xi and his policies to mount effective responses,” says Christopher Johnson, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Sound advice if you are a diplomat in New Delhi. Maybe they will also learn how to tune out of the unreliable Indian media channels which see even typhoons in a tea cup.

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