Strangers in the City: Migrant Workers in Indian and Chinese Cities

While political systems, level of State capacity and trajectory of development may vary, cities in China and India have retained many common threads of socio-spatial exclusion of migrant workers

P.K.Anand, Research Associate, ICS

The ‘visibility’ of the migrant workers is the biggest urban predicament that is being witnessed during the nation-wide lockdown, which has now crossed 50 days. The images of their ‘reverse migration’ — whether entirely by foot, or through modes of transportation that are heart-wrenching — lay bare the desperations and anxieties emerging from the loss of livelihood and security.

Not that many of these journeys have happy endings — deaths due to exhaustion, or accidents leave behind more than just a trail of dead bodies. It is equally significant that since the lockdown started on March 25, there also exists a long list of casualties that cannot be pinned on the virus per say — including those related to mental health, often left at the periphery.

The brutal social experiment that is the pandemic has only reinforced and exacerbated the systemic exclusion and dispossession of circular/seasonal migrant workers/footloose workers, who inhabit Indian cities. A report titled Unlocking the Urban, released by Aajeevika Bureau —a non-profit organisation working among seasonal migrants in western India — released on May 1, highlighted the longstanding vulnerabilities of rural-urban migrants in cities. They often receive less than minimum wages, are engaged in manual work which last for long hours, which, are often even dangerous.

They remain unaccounted for by national statistics and are invisible to city-level administrations; precarity undergirds their working and living spaces, rendering them ineligible for social schemes and welfare programmes. These further lead to them being denied access to urban residence and governance; their survival in the cities is dependent on daily negotiations with informal actors, ranging from petty contractors to security guards, and even landlords.

The socio-spatial exclusion of migrants from Indian cities, and their statelessness in some ways, mirrors the nongmin gong (peasant workers) in China’s urban spaces, pejoratively called ‘floating population’; though the Chinese state has changed the terminology to xin shimin (new city residents) in order to fully ‘integrate’ them into urban centres, the desired results have not followed.

China’s Rural-Urban Dichotomy

The demarcation of citizenship in China into rural and urban is a legacy of socialist planning. In 1958, the hukou(registered residence permits), was introduced to regulate the flow of resources, especially labour, and sustain an agrarian countryside, while the State subsidised urban living. The economic reforms of the 1980s led to easing of rural-to-urban mobility, which, in turn, kick-started the long journey of labourers from the rural areas to the industries and companies in coastal provinces. The migrant workers have been crucial in the growth of many megacities in China today.

However, this infrastructural and economic growth of Chinese cities happened even as the migrant workers remained peripheral in China’s urbanity. The urban hukou — the foundation for a well-entrenched city life with access to public services, healthcare and education — is highly stratified and segregated, with eligibility based on the level of education, skills and status. The hukoucreates a division between privileged and entitled urban residents and the migrant workers. Though the migrant workers are tagged as ‘essential’, in reality they are ‘placeless’ and unable to make claims for a ‘right to the city’. The constant fear of eviction from their informal neighbourhoods and being at the receiving end of law enforcement’s brutal high-handedness, mirror the story of their Indian counterparts. Furthermore, the marginalisation of migrants in city spaces has also impacted the lives of their children in claiming access to healthcare and education.

Urban Citizenship

While the high level of decentralisation in China’s political-administrative system give the local governments significant decision-making powers, city governments — especially those in the megacities — remain intransigent in reforming the hukousystem. Beijing has repeatedly mentioned the need to reform the system but it more or less remains on paper. While small and medium sized cities have experimented with various models and pilot programmes, there remains reluctance from the big cities. It highlights the skewed nature of China’s tax and revenue systems favouring the central government, while the local governments bear the fiscal responsibilities. Thus, the big cities are resistant to reforms that add to their burden.

By the same count, with laws and regulations largely divided between the Union government and the state governments in India, local bodies (such as municipalities) are rendered powerless, without significant responsibilities. Such disempowerment of cities create constraints in developing specific and contextual regulations (for instance, in many cities migrant workers are not even enumerated).

Clearly, while political systems, level of State capacity and trajectory of development may vary, cities in China and India have retained many common threads of socio-spatial exclusion of migrant workers.

Originally Published as Strangers in the City: Migrant Workers in Indian and Chinese Citiesin Moneycontrol.com, 21 May 2020

The Malacca Dilemma: No panacea but multiple possibilities

Sanjana Krishnan, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies

The death of Mao Zedong in 1976 gave rise to a series of dramatic political changes that led the emergence of Deng Xiaoping as the next leader of the country. Deng led China through a path that has now made the country the industrial giant it is now. This was made possible through Deng’s policy of ‘Reform and Opening Up’ and the “Four Modernisations”. What fuelled this industrial expansion was a heavy dependence on energy giving birth to a new vulnerability to China, namely energy security. While China is still heavily dependent on mostly its own coal reserves and imports of coal for its energy requirements, the reliance on imported crude oil is also increasing.

In 2017, China became the largest importer of crude oil in the world, surpassing the United States and 70% of this was met through oil imports mainly from the West Asian region. In the coming twenty years, these oil imports of China are expected to grow by 10%. Therefore, energy security and oil supply in particular have profound importance for China considering that the huge and powerful economy of China might derail and dwindle if that oil supply diminishes leading to not just an industrial break down but also impact on the China’s overall credibility as a great power in the world which rests, to a great extent, on its economic prowess. The dependence of the Chinese economy on its oil imports is thus an established and critical fact.

The transport of oil through the maritime route from West Asia to China passes through many strategic choke points. One of the most important among these is the Malacca Strait through which 80% of the energy import to China takes place. More than 50,000 merchant ships ply this narrow strait which amounts to 40% of the world trade. China’s economic security is closely tied to maritime trade security as 60% of its trade value travels by sea. Much of the trade between Europe and China enters the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca. Similar is the case with the trade between China and Africa. Therefore, even for trade, the Malacca Strait holds significance for China.

Lying between the island of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, this narrow stretch of water known as the Malacca Strait is the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean and is one of the most important shipping channels in the world. However, this strait is not depended upon only by China but other major powers too which has been a concern for the Chinese leadership in the past, fearing that these powers might be trying to control the Strait. A control of the Strait of Malacca by anyone will also mean that they control the oil routes to China and thus the economy too indirectly. This created what is known as ‘The Malacca Dilemma’, a term coined in 2003 by Hu Jintao, the then president of China. When it comes to the Strait of Malacca the fear of other states controlling this strategic transit is greater than the ambition to control the Strait itself.

In 2003-04, here was a threat of piracy in the region which the littoral states, namely Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore were able to curb to a large extent. This however gave an opportunity to states like US and Japan to try to get more involved in the region in the name of security, which China heavily criticised. The littoral states invited capacity building  and rejected permanent stationing of any outside power. Singapore, which is in the southernmost tip of the Malacca Strait has excellent relations with the U.S. The relations between U.S. and Indonesia are cordial.

ASEAN being the collective voice of the region has a strong say in the functioning of the Strait. Following the threats by piracy and great power involvement, today the countries of the ASEAN have sought to create a Peace and Security Community (APSC) based on three key characteristics: a “rule based community of shared values and norms”; cohesive, peaceful, stable and resilient region with “shared responsibility for comprehensive security”; and a dynamic and outward looking region in an integrated and interdependent world. But the relations between China and many of the ASEAN states have been soured due to differences in territorial claims in the South China Sea. This has added urgency to China’s need to find an alternative to the Malacca Strait. Moreover, in the recent past, India has increased her naval presence in the Andaman Sea from its base in the Great Nicobar Islands largely due to its own perceived threat perceptions emerging from China’s ‘String of Pearls’ that have emerged as a result of the Chinese activities of the past. Given its projection capabilities in the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy is able to keep a close watch on the PLA Navy in the region.

However, China has a few options in hand which are costly but worth trying. The Kra Isthmus Canal seen to the Asian Panama Canal as well as the Strategic Energy and Land Bridge have both seen a lack of much enthusiasm due the massive cost as well as the lack of trust between China and Thailand. Thailand is considerably powerful and will be hard to press. The Lombok and Makassar Strait are longer routes and would have additional shipping costs which can reach more than $200 billion per year making it a less viable option.

While nothing currently has the capacity to completely replace the Malacca Strait, two options available for China that can completely avoid passing through the Malacca Strait and many of the other strategic choke points is the Gwadar-Xinjiang pipeline and the Myanmar-Yunnan pipeline, although the latter can be affected by Indian presence. These options serve the additional purpose of opening up lesser developed regions of China like Xinjiang and Yunnan. The Gwadar-Xinjiang line will allow the Chinese energy imports to completely circumvent the Malacca Strait. However, the pipeline in Pakistan is faced with major logistic difficulties due to some of the harshest and the most rugged terrains in the world being present there, which can prove technically difficult as well as very expensive to navigate. The region is also ridden with terrorist activities which can potentially disrupt the supply or if the worst materialises, control these and be at an advantageous bargaining point. All these factors stand as difficulties that require investment in the form of infrastructure and security.

The Kyaukpyu Port which is being developed by the Chinese government in Myanmar is another alternative for China. The oil from the west can be docked here and transported to China via the Myanmar-Yunnan pipeline. However, now the pipeline only transports 420,000 barrels per day compared to the 6.5 million barrels per day that pass through the Strait, bound to China. The speeding up of the China sponsored infrastructural development, as a result of the increasing ties between the two countries, which was cemented during the January 2020 visit of Xi Jinping to Myanmar, has the potential to solve this problem to some extent. However, it cannot increase the capacity of this alternative as much as the Malacca Strait. Therefore, comparing the capacities of the various alternatives available to the Malacca Strait, it is evident that there is no single replacement for the latter.  China can rather rely on multiple routes for the transfer of energy sources and trade to sustain the humungous economic machine. It is to be noted that the multiple alternatives, with efficiencies which cannot rank up to the Malacca Strait pose a dilemma in solving the Malacca Dilemma. Thus, the best option that China has in hand is to lower the contestation in the Malacca Strait and to find a peaceful way to work with.

China-Solomon Islands: An overview of a brand new friendship

Tanishka, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies

The Asian superpower China, second-largest aid provider to the Pacific Island countries established diplomatic relations with the Solomon Islands in 2019. A country of just over half a million people, a low-income economy with more than three-fourth of its population living in small villages, is among the lesser developed countries of the South Pacific region. The Chinese offers of infrastructure projects, concessional loans along with aid-in-kind and Solomon Island’s rich timber, fish, and potential seabed resources facilitated the connection between the two countries. China’s other motive for establishing diplomatic relationships in the Pacific is limiting Taiwan’s international space. Solomon Islands switched allegiance from Taipei to Beijing, terminating its 36-year-old official relationship with Taiwan. Out of the fourteen Pacific Island states, China now has ten partners.

For the Solomon Islands, the decision to switch allegiance, came from the recommendations of a task-force deployed by Prime Minister Sogavare, which indicated the past action to establish ties with Taiwan, which was economically more active than China back then was bought by money power. The report pointed out that presently Taiwan has a limited economic capacity while China’s investments cover the entire globe; the switch thus, brings a large potential donor to Solomons. The report can be characterized as Idealistic towards the People’s Republic of China, it also asked an open-ended question —when was the last time the world saw China invade another country?

China assured funding for 2023 Pacific Games hosted by Solomon Islands in the form of grants and the main stadium would be a gift from Beijing. But, the infrastructure project will not provide local employment, as Chinese companies bring their own construction workers. In the future, maintenance of such infrastructure facilities will be a great challenge for the government of Solomon Islands, as it became for Vanuatu, which had no budget to maintain the Chinese-funded national convention centre.

There is an ongoing assessment by Solomons’  Finance Ministry regarding $US100 million loan offered through a Chinese broker[1]. Matters such as restrictions on the usage of loan money, determination of loan’s interest rate and the duration of loan which could be twenty years or more are not yet settled. Denton Rarawa, the previous governor of the Solomon Islands Central Bank showed displeasure over government proposals, warning this could land Solomon Islands in China’s debt trap. We may also note that the traditional donor, Australia imposes strict supervisions on aid programs and pays attention to economic and political reforms in the Pacific region, Chinese assistance, on the other hand insinuate a “no strings attached” strategy as a bait. Clearly, China seeks supremacy over other donor countries to advance its geostrategic interests.

The Solomon Islands has not yet accepted every Chinese offer on the table. During Prime Minister’s first official visit to China, he met with the leaders of Sam group, a state-connected enterprise, and invited them to the Solomon Islands.  But the Solomons rejected a deal that asked for the lease of Tulagi Island for 75 years. The Island is of strategic importance – it was the Solomons’ capital under British rule for forty-six years, then a Japanese base and an American base in World War II. In 1952, the capital shifted to Honiara. The government called the deal with Sam group illegal due to a lack of vital details and ordered its termination. 

This issue raised concerns over China’s intentions. Perhaps, it wanted to challenge the Western world by installing a military base there. Defence experts raised similar concerns a year ago, with Chinese-funded Vanuatu dockyard, which is too big for commercial use but a perfect location for visiting foreign navy ships –  such as a rapid Chinese move to become two-ocean navy. Located not too far from the Australian coastline, if these military bases come up, it can lead to military tensions in an ocean about which Australia did not have to worry since 1942. TheSolomon Islands showcases a desire to be on the right side of history and normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China. It is not the only Pacific Island country to establish diplomatic relations with China in 2019. Kiribati followed its trail. China’s intensified economic efforts could soon take away the four remaining Taiwan’s Pacific allies: Tuvalu, Nauru, Palau and the Marshall Islands. Taiwan has indicated that China has a desire to make the Pacific Ocean another South China Sea. These actions have been disapproved by the United States who itself switched recognition to China four decades ago. It also recently declined the Prime Minister Sogavare’s request for a meeting with the United States Vice President, and it has begun to reassess the aid it provides the Islands. Although China’s plan to install a military base remains a matter of speculation, its search for new markets and the untapped under-seabed resources remains the prime reason for its pursuits in the Solomon Islands and South Pacific region.


[1] The deal was reported by ABC News. The article mentioned a loan deal of $US100 billion instead of $US100 million. It is important to understand that the Solomon Islands is a small economy with a GDP of $US1.3 billion (ABC News. 2020. ‘Solomon Islands discussed $US100 billion loan from Chinese businessman, according to leaked letters’. February 21).

Amid the Covid-19 Pandemic: Assessing US-China Relations

Mohd. Adnan, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies.

Before the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic in the United States, Sino-US relations were seemed to be heading towards achieving a bit of normalcy through agreeing the ‘phase one’ trade deal in mid-January 2020. The trade deal was achieved after a round of heated negotiations lasting over a year, when the US formally announced the imposition of tariffs on Chinese imports, in March 2018. This partial trade deal was considered to be a beginning of the US-China collaboration and normalisation of their strained bilateral relations. However, the outbreak of COVID-19 in the US has prompted many in the US administration, specifically US President, to question the Chinese intentions and its handling of Covid-19 pandemic. In response, China questioned United States’ handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. A war of words has taken place from the both sides over the origin and handling of Covid-19 outbreak since early March. Amid the accusations and blame game from both sides, the relations between these two countries significantly deteriorated in the last two months. Amid the unfolding of COVID-19, this blog post explores whether the United States’ belligerent approach towards China in last two months is mere a tactic to gain domestic support regarding the upcoming election or Sino-US relations are, indeed, moving towards a new height of confrontations.

In late January-early February 2020, amid the backdrop of crucial signing of ‘phase-one’ trade deal, it seemed US-China bilateral relations were heading towards normalcy. While China was struggling to contain the Covid-19 outbreak, US President, Donald Trump, on multiple occasions, had praised China’s professionalism and transparency in handling the Covid-19 outbreak. However, in early March, all these changed, when the cases of Covid-19 started to increase in the US. The Trump administration started to question China’s handling of pandemic. There is little doubt that the pandemic had its origins in China and initially, there was cover up by Party-state at the level of Wuhan. But the criticisms on China’s non-transparency, which did cost the world, shouldn’t be seen as a free pass to the US. Even though the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ on 30 January, many countries including the US did not give the virus outbreak serious attention, delaying formulation of effective measures to contain it.

COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted significant human and economic costs to the US -at the time of writing this, around a million people have been infected and above seventy thousand have succumbed to death. Further, US economy has taken a serious hit and the real extent of this damage will only surface once the situations started to normalise, with many equating it with the Great Depression before the World War II. Unemployment rate in US has hit record high more than 22 million people have applied for financial aid as of mid-April. According to the ‘advance’ estimate data provided by Bureau of Economic Analysis, United States’ real  gross domestic product has contracted 4.8 per cent in the first-quarter of 2020 and it is expected the things will get worse before improving in the second half of the year. The US President’s repeated statements to open economic production at the earliest, indicates the desperation of the administration in an election year.

The approval rating of President Donald Trump has declined since the outbreak of Covid-19. In an article published by CNBC on 25 April, it was noted, ‘in January, (US president) Trump planned to run for re-election on the strength of a booming economy and a pledge to keep fighting the “deep state” government bureaucracy. But that all ended as soon as the coronavirus pandemic gained a foothold in the United States’. To augment this argument, on April 17, in a leaked report obtained by Politico, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent a 57-page written Memo to its electoral candidates advising how to counter the candidates of the Democratic Party. In the short version of this Memo, Republican candidates have been advised to follow China-centric issues; like how China caused this pandemic by ‘lying’ and ‘covering it up’ and ‘hoarding of medical equipment’. Further, it also advised to present, China as an ‘adversary’ and the Democratic candidates, as ‘soft on China’, while Republicans were ‘tough’, being capable of confronting China. Moreover, on 29 April, in an interview with Reuters news agency, Trump directly accused China of seeking his loss in his re-election bid. It seems that the delicate predicament that emerged due to the COVID-19 has prompted the Trump administration to shift the blame towards China in the run up to the Presidential election in November 2020.

Moving on, the recent blame game and deteriorating relations between the US and China is not only limited to domestic compulsions but they are, indeed, moving towards a new height of confrontations. Along with the United States’ belligerent postures, China, too, has adopted an aggressive and assertive approach, which has not been seen in recent years. In the process of blaming each other, a war of information has taken place between the US and China. While Beijing was busy to burnish its image and enhance legitimacy – tarnished by its initial mishandling of the outbreak – by sending medical teams and equipment around the world to assist the fight against COVID-19, Washington DC used every opportunity to ratchet up tensions, starting with multiple accusations on China’s non-transparency and suppression of crucial information. In mid-April, President Trump even questioned the authenticity of Chinese data on the infected cases and reported deaths.

In retaliation, China accused that the US was unable to handle the pandemic therefore it is trying to shift the blame. Theories such as ‘Corona virus was brought by the US military in Wuhan’ and ‘Chinese model of governance is better than the democracy’ were also propagated. On 28 April, amid the accusations of ‘covering up’ and not being ‘transparent’, China’s Executive Vice Foreign Minister, Le Yucheng, in an interview with NBC questioned United States’ handling of the  outbreak and denied the accusations that China has ‘covered up’ and ‘under-reported’ the Covid-19 cases and deaths. He further added, ‘unfortunately, some political figures are politicizing this Covid-19. They are using this virus to stigmatize China. This is not something we are willing to see’. In this war of information to enhance one’s legitimacy and degrade the other, questions have also been raised over the role and authenticity of WHO; the US administration has even halted their funding to the WHO, accusing them of complicity in Beijing’s initial cover-up.

The US is targeting China’s State Owned Enterprises (SOE) – earlier in April, several US executive agencies urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to revoke the license of operation of China Telecom in US territory, citing risks for national security. In this regard, the FCC sent a ‘show cause’ notice to three state-controlled Chinese telecommunications operators including China Telecom. The US is also planning to impose severe restrictions on its own companies from exporting certain technological products, especially the semiconductor production equipment, to companies related with Chinese military.

Amid the devastating effect of COVID-19, world’s reliance on China for essential supply has come into spotlight. The call to bring back home or relocate major US companies’ production units away from China in the height of trade confrontation has intensified. Earlier in April, Larry Kudlow, US National Economic Council Director, advocated the same by ‘paying moving costs’. Further, several US Senators have also been voicing the same in order to reduce dependency for essential supplies.

Issues such as South China Sea dispute, Hong Kong protests, Taiwan, and human rights have been flaring-up between these two states. The pandemic has not constrained China in being assertive in South China Sea – it placed the administrative jurisdictions of Spratly and Parcel Islands under the Sansha administrative unit – a city in the island of Hainan. Apart from that, China has also collided with other claimant countries in the disputed South China Sea. In early April, a Vietnamese fishing boat was drowned by a Chinese maritime vessel. Various other incidents have occurred where Chinese coastguard vessels have been seen posturing aggressively in the whole region including South China Sea. In response to this, the US has increased its maritime patrolling in the disputed area; US warships have sailed through the disputed areas on two separate occasions evoking harsh criticism from China.

The Taiwan issue has remained contentious in US-China relations. While, over the years, Beijing, has been trying to curb Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic relations. The US, on 26 March, enacted a law called as ‘The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative, which  requires the US, to assist Taiwan in acquiring memberships in international organisations where statehood is not a precondition and also proposes to take unspecified action against countries which ‘undermine the prosperity and security of Taiwan’. This move by the US, expectedly, drew severe criticism from China accusing the US of ‘interfering’ in its internal matters by ‘violating’ the principle of ‘One China’ Policy.

While it appears, to a large extent, that the recent anti-China rhetoric by the US administration is politically motivated by domestic electoral compulsions, there are factors that go beyond that. These recent developments only indicate the further deterioration of relations between both the countries. It may be surmised that the trade deal will not necessarily reduce the tensions. Until the US continues to perceive China as a challenger to its hegemony, it is unlikely that relations between them will be of mutual collaboration and cooperation.

Contemporary Dynamics of Sino-Japanese Relations

Mohd. Adnan, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies.

Contemporary Sino-Japanese relations rested on the logic of economic competition and interdependence along with prevalent distrusts and territorial disputes, have become one of the most crucial bilateral relations in the world. Despite competing with each other over various overlapping economic and strategic interests, their increasing bilateral trade have inextricably bound to each other. World’s second and third largest economy China and Japan respectively, at one side, entangled in regional competition to gain influence and their confrontations over disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands situated in East China sea. On the other side, their indispensable economic interdependence has been the key aspect of their complex relationships. In 2012, the relations between them were severely strained over the confrontations on Senkaku islands. However, increasing economic interdependence and United States’ inward looking “America First” approach have provided an impetus for both states to pacify their relations. This paper intends to explore the contemporary dynamics of Sino-Japanese bilateral relationship.

Historically, Sino-Japanese relations have been of a competitive nature rather than mutual collaboration. Japanese aggression during the late nineteenth and first half of twentieth century has left a deep impact on contemporary Sino-Japanese relations. The relations between them got normalized in the beginning of 1970s and subsequently, they have signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978. Japan has invested heavily in and provided much needed essential technologies to China for its development in the post-Mao era. As Kerry Brown in his 2016 article in The Diplomat, explained, without Japan’s assistance in form of ‘technology and knowledge’, China’s opening up and reforms would not have succeeded ‘as quickly and extensively’ as it happened.

The end of the Cold War and relative rise of China created an environment of competition between these two giants. In 2012, the relations between them hit a serious blow when Japanese government purchased three out of five Senkaku islands from their private owners in order to fully legitimize its claim over the disputed islands. China vehemently opposed this act and various anti-Japan protests erupted across mainland China. Japanese products were boycotted by public and relations between them were severely damaged.

The impasse between China and Japan remained intact until a surge of populism was witnessed in 2016 US presidential election. Consequently, the United States partially relinquished its previous neoliberal approach of leading free trade and open market and opted for an increasingly inward looking “America First” approach. This so called “America First” approach allows the US administration to renegotiate trade deals with its major trading partners and its adoption of protectionist approach to pressurise these partners by putting tariffs. This new development in the international market has unintentionally pushed China and Japan to step aside their differences and come to a cooperative platform. Amid US-China trade confrontation and its protectionist approach, first, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Tokyo and a subsequent reciprocal visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinjo Abe was witnessed in 2018. Since then both states maintained their complicated relationships despite competing and confronting with each other in many overlapping economic and strategic interests.

Contemporary Sino-Japanese economic relations revolve around two sets of notion. On the one hand, they are increasingly interdependent owing to the huge amounts of bilateral trade. According to the data provided by Japan’s foreign ministry in fiscal year 2019, China is by far the largest trading partner of Japan and bilateral trade between them well exceeds above US $ 300 billion. Further, China’s vast demography and rising middle class provides a lucrative market to export-led Japanese economy. While, witnessing the increasing rift between the United States and China, Japan’s importance to China has grown in many ways. Japan has been the major source of essential technology for China since its ‘opening up’ in late 1970s. At a time, when the US is barring Chinese companies from acquiring essential technology, China’s reliance on Japanese technology will only increase. Moreover, while the US is retaliating against its major trade partners including China and Japan, increasing economic engagement becomes a necessity for both states to reduce their dependence on the US markets.

The economic interdependence between China and Japan is expected to further increase once the Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership (RCEP) is signed. RCEP is a trade agreement, which emphasises on reducing tariffs, between the ten member countries of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. Last year in November, these states signed text-based negotiations, in which India opted to exclude itself. However, a fissure has surfaced in RCEP because Japan seems reluctant to sign the deal without the inclusion of India. Japan fears without the involvement of India, RCEP will be dominated by China. Though, China is coaxing both Japan and India to get back in the fold of RCEP. It is expected that the Pact will be signed in the year 2020. According to a report published in Xinhua on 5 November, 2019, “once (RCEP) signed, it will form the largest free-trade agreement in Asia covering 47.4 percent of the world’s population, and accounting for 32.2 percent of global GDP, 29.1 percent of trade worldwide and 32.5 percent of global investment”.

On the other hand, since both states are largely export-led economy, they have been competing with each other in third party markets. China and Japan, in recent years, increasingly competed with each other in third party markets on trade, infrastructure projects, and investments, particularly in Southeast Asian countries. Such is the competition that Japan initially avoided to become part of China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) – a land-based and maritime infrastructure projects aimed to enhance China’s influence in and connectivity with the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa. And in 2015, Japan initiated its own policy known as ‘Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ aimed to rival BRI through developing infrastructure projects in foreign countries.

However, in 2017, Japan agreed to cooperate with BRI under certain conditions. A year later, on June 26, 2018, during the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to Beijing, the first ‘Third-Party Market Cooperation Forum’ was organised in which both states agreed to participate in conducting joint venture projects in third-party markets. According to a report published on the website of the State Council of China on 26 October, 2018, ‘At the (aforementioned) forum, more than 50 cooperation agreements were reached between local governments, financial institutions, and enterprises from the two sides, with the total amount exceeding $ 18 billion’. But conducting such projects is fraught with difficulties, given the competitive nature of this agreement and conditions placed by Japanese government on its enterprises while venturing on third-party projects with China. Further Japan’s insistence on quality and financial viability of targeted projects contrasts with China’s ignorance of these elements. For example, in 2018, a high speed rail project in Thailand was planned to be conducted by the companies from China and Japan but Japanese company abandon this project due to the financial risks involved.

From the strategic point of view, there has been a deep distrust and clash of interests between China and Japan. China’s growing assertiveness in East and South China seas and its claim over Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands and South China Sea increasingly discomforts Tokyo. Further, China’s insistence to ignore International Laws such as Permanent Courts of Arbitration’s July 2016 decisions nullifying its claims in South China Sea contrasts the principles and interests of Japan. To counter Chinese interests and claims, in 2015, Japan introduced the vague concept of ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’. Vague in the sense, it does not have a coherent policy and over the years various elements have been added and removed. As the name indicates, it promulgates for an open and free Indian and Pacific Ocean contrasts to China’s claim over South China Sea and its growing influence in Indo-Pacific Ocean. Apart from that, this vague policy also emphasises over freedom of navigation and acceptance of international norms and laws.Through propagation of ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ approach, Japan seeks to mould China in the Western-led International Laws and Treaties, and at the same time, Japan also wants to constrain China’s assertiveness in the region detrimental to its interests.

Further, China’s growing military power and its assertive nature in the region creates a sense of insecurity in Japan. It is a common notion in Japan along with other regional states that China seeks dominance and hegemony in Asian continent. To counter it, Japan propagates a multi-polar order in Asia and adopted a policy of building alliances with like-minded countries, which share the same views and are worried with China’s relative rise. Japan has historical military alliance with the US since the end of Second World War. Recently these two states along with Australia and India have revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue initiative, which earlier, in 2007, came into existence but faded away amid China’s opposition. Quad initiative similar to ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ policy but differ in the sense that it has four member state seeking to counter-check China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Along with the territorial dispute, Japan’s close association with the United States and its opposition to Chinese assertiveness in the region have been contrary to China’s interests. It is widely held belief in China that through the revival of Quadrilateral strategic alliance, the US is trying to contain Chinese influence in the region. Japan’s participation in this alliance is perceived by China as a step to limit its growing influence in the region and taking side in a broader Sino-US rivalry. In other words, China sees itself as a major power capable of dominating Asian Continent and feasible challenger to the US led World Order. It expects from Japan along with other regional actors to conform to its interests and do not take side with the US in the broader Sino-US rivalry.

The relations between China and Japan are one of the most complex bilateral relations in the world. Despite competing and clashing with each other in myriad of overlapping interests and prevalent distrust, their economy is well integrated and bilateral trade have continuously been increasing.  Their bilateral relations, which were severed in 2012 over Japan’s nationalization of Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands, have been steaming up again owing to relative decline of the US in the region and it’s America First’ approach. Both states have been continuously propagating for increasing engagement and cooperation. However, structural and political differences between China and Japan remained intact as they were three years ago before their rapprochement.

Western Balkans: China’s Gateway to Europe

China’s Gateway to Europe

Priyanka Madia, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.

Western Balkans is one of the significant regions in southeastern Europe, which has been waiting to be a part of the European Union (EU) for a long time. Comprising six countries, namely, Albania, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia, together they constitute the south-western arc of Europe. They are among the lesser developed of the European countries but are aspirants for membership of the EU. For China, the region is significant as a gateway to Europe because of their geographical positions and the lower developmental levels, which makes them particularly susceptible to Chinese offers of investment, credits, and trade. This makes the Western Balkans an essential component of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The focus of BRI has been towards developing connectivity corridors across Eurasia. The land corridor or the Belt, in the shape of highways, railroads,  pipelines, and digital networks, intend connecting China’s manufacturing and logistics bases like Chongqing(Sichuan) to Duisburg (Germany). Also, Hungary has emerged as a key logistics base for Chinese companies. At the European end of the Belt, China has invested heavily in acquiring significant ports such as Piraeus in Greece, which are also a terminus for the Road or the maritime routes from China.

The Greek economic crisis gave a golden opportunity to China to establish itself at the port of Piraeus. COSCO, the Chinese state-owned company, has been operating the Greek container port since 2008. In 2017, it acquired 67% of its shares. In view of the strained financial conditions of the Western Balkan countries, which are being exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19, China is in a position to establish its dominance in these countries quite easily, with little support forthcoming from the EU or the U.S. While these countries are not yet members of the EU, they are less constrained in accepting Chinese FDI or credits. This is the reason why the EU is especially apprehensive of the China-CEE or 17+1 Forum, which Greece has joined recently. Several EU members participate in the Forum along with non-member countries, including those from the Western Balkans. The Forum has become a significant instrument to advance Chinese influence in Europe to the detriment of the EU.

Chinese penetration in Western Balkans is being achieved through an array of instruments such as FDI, government-to-government credits, outright grants, favorable trade deals, etc. Despite remaining outside of the EU, the region attracted 147 greenfield FDI projects in 2018, the highest number of investments for six years. Serbia accounted for the lion’s share (70%) of Western Balkan’s greenfield projects in 2018, Bosnia-Herzegovina accounted for 11.6%, despite attracting four fewer greenfield projects than in 2017, according to fDi Markets. On the other hand, Montenegro performed well in 2018, attracting a record 11 greenfield FDI projects. According to the latest annual FDI Markets statistics, Albania and North Macedonia received $184.4 million and $809.9 million of inbound greenfield funds, respectively, as the number of inbound greenfield projects grew by 200% and 80% compared to the same duration a year before.

Soft-power diplomacy such as the setting up of Confucius Institutes, scholarships, and people-to-people exchanges also play an imperative role in terms of penetrating Western Balkans. Under Confucius Institutes, there are higher educational institutes set up in southeast Europe. These institutions host Chinese cultural programs, provide Chinese language, culture, and also host Chinese political, social, and economy-related seminars. Confucius Institutes are operated by the Han Ban, a part of China’s Ministry of Education. Over 10,000 students are currently studying the Chinese language in respective countries of the western Balkan region. Cultural centers set up by the Chinese government are also a vital step to maintain cultural diplomacy.

Another critical component of China’s soft power diplomacy is tourism. Visa liberalization and simplification has attracted a lot of tourist from China and undoubtedly lead to the flourishing of tourism industries in Western Balkans countries. China is also gaining additional credit through its assistance to these countries in their fight against the COVID-19.

The Western Balkans are a congenial target for China’s Eurasian diplomacy and offer them a south-western entry point to Europe. Chinese have been able to identify and understand the regions which are not catching up well with their economy and having infrastructural issues; perhaps China has addressed those regions with a structural solution. Studying China’s involvement in Western Balkans gives an outlook that China is filling the gap which the European Union (EU) has not been able to address. The position of the EU here is being undermined by aggressive Chinese diplomacy, mainly through the BRI.

A geo-economic and political logic drives China’s increased engagement in the Western Balkans. Her main motive could be to use the Western Balkans as a commercial platform for Western Europe, as Beijing is eager to search for markets. While the EU remains preoccupied with its fight against the pandemic and is beset by continuing threat of fragmentation, the COVID-19 pandemic may offer even more opportunities for consolidation of Chinese influence in Western Balkans.

Book Review: Gurudas Das and C. Joshua Thomas (ed.), Voices from the Border: Responses to Chinese Claims over Arunachal Pradesh (New Delhi: Pentagon Press, 2015), 159 pp.

Reena Bhatiya, Research Assistant, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.

The debates on Sino-India border dispute largely fall within the strategic affairs and geopolitical framework of international relations. This book approaches the subject of border dispute by looking at the debates on linear borders, local perspectives on the border conflict as an alternative to a state-centric view. The authors examine the historical evidence of China’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh while investigating the dynamics of territorial politics. The book is structured into three broad themes: the geopolitical aspects of the conflict, the local community’s spatial history before linear borders, their infrastructure development needs and perspectives on the dispute.

Discussing the boundary question, C.V. Ranganathan looks at the rivalry through the prism of changing geopolitical situations while suggesting India for a multilateral architecture in the South Asian region. Srikanth Kondapalli’s chapter yields a persuasive insight into India’s engagement with China on multiple fronts to prevent any change in the configuration of power in the region. This implies that India should not let China become an extra-regional power in South Asia. In the fifth chapter, Jabin Jacob advances the argument that a mixed strategy of combining the local aspirations of Arunachal Pradesh for peaceful and sustainable development with the national security considerations can best fulfill the demand for ‘first line of defense’ to deter China’s ‘new forward policy’. However, he has not dealt in sufficient depth the ways of deepening the democratic spirit and how communities could be engaged in the decision-making processes. These scholars primarily focus on different ways of India’s engagement with China. But the limitation lies in the fact that they reify the state-centric view of the dispute thus drifting away from the main aim of the book.

The strength of the book lies in unpacking local histories of borderland spaces in this region and local community perception of the conflict thereby giving a more nuanced understanding of the territoriality of these regions. For instance, Namrata Goswami looks at the border dispute through the local community’s point of view. She argues that the Lamas vindicated Tawang Monastery’s historical ties with the Lhasa monastery. And, the Adi, Nishi, Apataani communities do not approve of China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh. She emphasizes the need to meet the demands of the development of these communities to improve the democratic structure and infrastructure conditions in the region.
On the other hand, J.R. Mukherjee briefly surveys the Tibetan folklores to question China’s claims over Arunachal Pradesh to highlight that the tribal people of Arunachal Pradesh were never the subjects of Tibet and only had cultural and commercial links. He notes that the ancient pilgrimage route of Takpasiri Mountain in the Subansiri Valley holy to the Tibetans, Monpas, and Tagians of Arunachal Pradesh, is claimed by China.

Further expanding the discussion on local communities, Gomar Basar attempts to understand the Chinese claim in Arunachal Pradesh through a historical analysis of the local dynamics. He traces the historical trajectory of the hill tribes of Arunachal Pradesh from the colonial period and notes that the British ambition to exercise an indirect control over the tribal areas through drawing inner and outer lines led to Chinese intrusions within the outer line area. These intrusions were contested at the time by the Mishmi community inhabiting the outer line as they already considered themselves British subjects.

Adding to the discussion on linear borders, H. Srikant cautions against “nationalist myopia” on the border dispute and considers linear borders as a colonial baggage. Although he argues that the linear borders overlooked the traditional boundaries of the native communities and kingdoms, but he fails to provide a detailed account of the local traditional boundaries. In addition, he suggests that history, geographical realities, administrative, economic activities, customs, language, etc. that generates deep-rooted sentiments and emotions in the region should be taken into consideration while negotiating border issues.

Through his detailed discussion of the pre-modern kingdoms in eastern sector, Mathew Alkester argues that Moyul (present-day Bhutan) belonged to the Tibetan world not Loyul (present-day Arunachal Pradesh). He, thereby, debunks the Chinese claim that Arunachal Pradesh was under Tibet’s control. The main contention of the essay is that cultural and commercial links of these kingdoms with the Tibetan world do not confirm Tibetan political control over them.

Overall, the unbundling of the complex local histories of the frontier region in these chapters could have been coupled with a discussion on the present concerns of the local communities regarding infrastructure demands and preparedness to be able to participate in the gains from any large development projects in their region. An overview of the traditional knowledge systems and community institutions of the Mishmi could prescribe ways to democratically engage them in decision-making processes.

The last section of the book leaves the reader with C Joshua Thomas’s questions on China’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh. a). Did Tibet ever claim Arunachal Pradesh as her part? b). Tibet had ceded the Tawang tract to British India by signing the Shimla accord in 1914 d). Why would the world accept Chinese historiography and refute the Tibetan historiography? The author observes that systemic misunderstanding is a major issue in Sino-Indian relations therefore to prevent India’s hedging; China must come to terms with India.

Largely, this book provides a good overview of the historical and political aspects of the border dispute in the eastern sector and gives the much-needed perspective of the local communities on the dispute and the territorial dynamics of the region. All the chapters display a firm grip over understanding the specifics of the dispute with the larger logics of international politics, but a notable kind of perplexity surfaces over an analytical framework to the issue of border disputes. Although informative, its limitation lies in the lack of a theoretical base while looking into the concept of ‘territoriality’ in international politics. An absence of the theoretical discussion on the notion of territoriality puts this discussion in a vacuum. However, the book paves the way for researchers to develop upon the information provided here and engage with it theoretically, and thus becomes an important contribution to the studies on border issues with China.

Superpowers and spirit of International Cooperation in a Pandemic

Anu, Research Assistant, Institute of Chinese Studies

The grip of COVID-19 pandemic across the globe has showed albeit in a brutal way the extent of global connectivity. However, the responsive measures taken by major powers to deal with the contagion have exposed the hollowness of their commitments for global cooperation, especially at a time when it is most needed. In hindsight, this has been most visible in the actions of the USA and China. These have belied all the commitments made under phase one deal in January 2020, which had been agreed by both after more than two years of tariff or ‘trade-war’. Effects of the levying tariffs and counter tariffs had not only affected the economy of USA and China but also rendered the global economy and market in a doldrums. Hence this deal came into picture reflecting the need of a fair and mutually beneficial global trade practices. Their unilateral actions and their foreign policy decisions vis-à-vis each other during this pandemic – when international cooperation is most required – have questioned their willingness of a truly globalized world with peaceful cooperation.

Talking about China where the outbreak started, it has widely been accused of containing the information. Criticisms have come in despite the containment measures being seen as effective. At this time not only did the US President failed to recognize COVID-19 as a threat by ruling out any possibility of it becoming pandemic; but also resorted to stigmatise the disease despite warning from World Health Organisation (WHO) to not do so.

The US has labeled the disease as “Wuhan Virus”, “Chinese Virus”, etc. and blamed China for the repressive measures against its own population. In March, with China recovering from the first wave, the tables were turned as China blamed the US Army for bringing COVID-19 to its territory, as a ‘bio-weapon’. Therefore, betraying its own vaunted principles of peaceful cooperation and mutual benefit, China did not extend any help to the USA. These counter accusations were given weight – and paralleled – by China’s own diplomatic overtures of ensuring medical supplies and knowledge to other parts of the world. However, President Xi Jinping’s “idea of building a community with a shared future for mankind” also proved to be rhetorical as it “sells” medical equipment rather than donating them.

This blame-game has spiralled into further accusations and counter-accusations, extending to actions against media – the US tightened rules on Chinese state media organizations including Xinhua news agency inside its territory to tackle the aggressively growing Chinese State-controlled propaganda, and by the same count, China expelling journalists working for New York Times, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

While China claimed of successfully containing the virus, the USA was in the midst of rise in positive cases. In such a situation, instead of assisting US from its experiences of fighting the disease, the Chinese Party-state only sought to criticize the USA for its lack of preparedness. Despite overtures through telephone calls between Xi and Trump, where they decided to take joint actions that has not necessarily translated into meaningful action. Further, neither did USA approach China for any joint research on the virus or on measures to counter its spread, nor did China extend any helping hand to the hard hit public health system in the USA.

Both the USA and China have made significant advances in technological innovations in natural sciences; however, neither of them are acting responsibly in such a time of global crisis. Instead of practicing and emphasizing on cooperating in fighting the disease, both are engulfed into diplomatic and rhetorical battles. Rather, both are more focussed on the stability of internal ‘political regime’ and the blame game adds grist to the mill. Their actions and behaviour only cripples the global efforts to harness resources and strengthen the flailing health infrastructure in many countries. Even while multilateral organizations and regional groupings are making efforts to pool resources – example being the SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund – and coordinate,  the actions of the two major powers goes against the grain of a globalized world, that requires everyone to pull together.

Launch-on-Warning in China’s Nuclear Posture

Samanvya Hooda, Research Assistant, Institute of Chinese Studies

Much of the recent commentary surrounding China’s nuclear program has been in conjunction with New START, i.e. US insistence that China accede to an arms limitation agreement. This article seeks to explain a burgeoning aspect of China’s nuclear program: the possibility of adopting “Launch-on-Warning.”

Launch-on-Warning (LOW) refers to a posture in which nuclear weapons are launched at an adversary on detection of an incoming attack, before enemy missiles strike their targets. This implies that decision makers do not have confirmation about incoming missiles hosting conventional or nuclear warheads, and the decision to counter-launch has to be made in a span of approximately 15-30 minutes.  Today, only Russia and the USA adhere to such a posture, carrying forward from decades-old Cold War strategies. This is sustained by significant investment in relevant technology & infrastructure, and excellent command & control mechanisms. 

Currently, Chinese nuclear forces exist only as a deterrent, evinced from a low number of warheads and a policy of de-alerting their nuclear weapons (delivery vehicles and warheads are stored separately). This is in tune with their No-First-Use policy, which may or may not be rendered moot by LOW. To move to such a posture, a certain number of missiles in the country would have to be mated with warheads, ready to respond in a matter of minutes after indication of an enemy launch. In the short term, such “alerted” weapons are only expected to be found on its four ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), soon to be six.  

China’s threat environment covers a wide ambit, ranging from India on its western border to Japan in the east. That said, the only stimuli that may see a move towards LOW are US missile defence and precision strike capabilities. China’s nuclear deterrent is contingent on its relatively small arsenal of approximately 300 warheads being survivable, and “assured” to cause damage when used against an adversary. Precision targeting by the US threatens the “survivable” aspect of the deterrent, while missile defence endangers the “assured” descriptor. Though LOW would be a huge shift in China’s nuclear posture, the option of possessing alerted weapons ready to launch may be perceived as addressing survivability and assured retaliation concerns.

While official statements have not remarked on significant changes to China’s nuclear posture in the offing, there have been some confusing aberrations recently. A 2013 Academy of Military Sciences publication first broached the possibility of Chinese LOW, with a later defence white paper vaguely alluding to “rapid response”.  Even the US Department of Defense remarked LOW may be an “aspiration for China’s nuclear forces”.  Alternatively, a Chinese MFA spokesperson in late 2019 stated that China would not shift to LOW, and called on all nuclear weapon states to divest from the same. 

The foremost requirements for LOW are impeccable command and control, early warning capabilities to detect launches, and “alerted” warheads. Recent reports have predicted joint efforts with Russia for developing early-warning systems (likely space-based) to supplement China’s three phased array radars. A tangential topic of study here is Sino-Russian cooperation in developing, and maybe even operating “strategic” technologies.

In terms of alerted warheads and command and control, recent literature has focussed entirely on China’s SSBNs, undoubtedly important while studying its nuclear program. For LOW however, one shall have to focus primarily on China’s land-based missiles, and to a lesser degree its fledgling air arm of the nuclear triad. LOW in the Chinese context would likely stem from a “use it or lose it” mindset, and with 70% of China’s warheads on land-based systems, they would be the primary focus of a first strike. Consequently, losing these systems would warrant greatest worry in China, pressurising leaders to counter-launch quickly to avoid the risk of having them neutralised. 

LOW entails quick decision making for a counter-launch, as it necessitates action before incoming missiles strike their targets.  Given operating difficulties, the lack of certainty in communicating launch orders to an SSBN within the 15 minutes alluded to earlier makes submarines an undependable LOW platform.  As they boast greater survivability than land-based systems, these assets will likely be used as a reserve for any future nuclear strikes.

The perceived vulnerability of land-based systems has been addressed in recent years by the development of mobile missile units to avoid neutralisation in a conflict, and penetration aids for missiles. The strict negative controls (de-mating of warheads and missiles) employed by the political establishment bolsters command and control, but also weakens survivability of the nuclear arsenal by virtue of increased reaction time. Technical controls are employed through an automated system that allows the Central Military Commission (CMC), to communicate with missile brigades and battalions, or even directly with launch companies. LOW would hence herald a significant change in Chinese nuclear thinking, as it may necessitate delegating some launch authority to field commanders, or even the development of “canisterized” missiles.

A Chinese nuclear ‘alert’ status like the USA’s famous DEFCON remains ambiguous, with speculation of it being a three-tier system. The first-tier is peacetime readiness, with the second-tier believed to be the PLARF making preparations for launch orders, and the third-tier alert being missile forces ready to launch. Will alert levels for nuclear forces be raised in conventional conflict with a more powerful, nuclear-armed adversary? If so, with the PLARF at third-tier alert, would an escalating conflict with the USA see a LOW posture during wartime? It being unclear what stage of what crisis would prompt a higher alert level, there is a small possibility that China only disavows LOW in peacetime, and retains the option for use during war. If command and control during a third-tier alert is considered unimpeachable by the CMC today, this option may already be part of China’s nuclear strategy.    The two points raised above – shifts in the deployment and command & control of land-based systems, and the likelihood of an existing “launch-on-warning during wartime” posture warrant detailed study within the larger scrutiny of Chinese launch on warning. An overt declaration of LOW will undeniably be perceived as aggressive by countries like the US and India, leading to high-risk escalation during future crises. Regionally, though rivals like India do not threaten China’s nuclear forces like the USA, Chinese LOW may well prompt changes to India’s nuclear posture, with a cascading effect on the precarious Indo-Pakistan nuclear dynamic. Globally, the end of the INF already precipitates increased missile deployments in hotspots like East Asia, alongside the probable dissolution of New START looming. A Chinese shift to LOW in the wake of these developments will certainly sound a death knell for arms limitation globally.

COVID-19 Crisis: Is the Communist Party of China facing Crisis of Legitimacy?

Mahesh Kumar Kamtam, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.

Today the world is witnessing an outbreak of a pandemic ‘COVID-19’, unseen in the recent past, illustrating the fragile nature of a globalized world. As the virus outbreak continues to create global reverberations, the case of ‘COVID-19’ becomes even more relevant to the Communist Party of China (CPC). The pandemic could put the regime in a precarious position, threatening the unwritten social contract between CPC and Chinese people, since the legitimacy of the Party is driven by its ability to deliver economic prosperity to its citizens.

China is more connected to the world today than in the past. According to the World Economic Situation and Prospects Report 2020, released by the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), China alone contributed 0.75 percent out of an average 3 percent of the global growth. These indicators not only reflect a major trend in globalization, but also the extent to which China is connected in a globalized world. Global economic integration has driven China’s domestic growth in the past. But with global growth set to slow down significantly due to COVID-19, early predictions show signs of recession. As the IMF rings alarm bells on a possible recession, CPC is set for more challenging times as the world enters an era of instability driven by COVID-19.

Increasing global integration and complex challenges due to globalization have domestic repercussions. The inability to maintain economic growth and rise in inequality fuelled by low growth in future are more immediate threats that could undermine the social contract between the people and the Party causing domestic instability. The rise in ‘uncertainty’ casts a shadow of doubt on the goals set forth by the Party, particularly when China is entering into a “New Era”—where Xi Jinping targets to achieve a “moderately well-off society” (Xiaokang society) by 2021— the hundredth anniversary of the formation of CPC.

What is more worrying for the CPC at the moment is the echoing of the anger from Chinese people themselves against Xi’s rule. Xi has been facing criticism of his handling of the COVID-19 crisis and social stability threatened by a slump in production are one of the biggest challenges that CPC is set to face in the next few years. Although CPC has shown the ability to manage ‘domestic uncertainties’ by delivering economic results, mastering propaganda and controlling the flow of information in the past, these strategies are becoming increasingly ineffective for ensuring legitimacy of the Party and its leadership.

There was mounting discontent among Chinese citizens in the early stages of the outburst of COVID-19 as local officials tried to hide the truth about the outburst. The death of Li Wenliang, the doctor who alerted Chinese local officials during the early stages of the virus outbreak, became a breaking point. Li was forced into silence by local officials who hid the truth about the outburst. This event led to widespread discontent among netizens. Popular social-network sites Sina Weibo and WeChat surfaced with the lyrics of a song, Do you hear the people sing” popularized during the Hong Kong protests in 2019, denoting public anger and failure of early response to COVID-19. CPC blocked the ‘anthem of protest’ in mainland China and subsequently, launched a massive propaganda operation to regain lost legitimacy. Eventually, it was forced to sack Hubei Party chief Jiang Changling and Wuhan mayor Ma Guoqiang in an attempt to calm down public anger and channelize resentment away from the Centre while trying to alleviate growing citizen distrust of the central leadership and Xi, in particular.

The newly appointed Provincial Secretary of Wuhan launched a “gratitude education campaign” during the outbreak, to create a favourable impression of party’s image in fighting COVID-19. However, it backfired as the Party was criticized for placing itself above the hardship endured by Wuhan residents. They were enraged because of poor conditions in hospitals, lack of adequate timely care and soaring food prices. In yet another instance, real estate tycoon and princeling, Ren Zhiqiang penned a powerful article that got circulated on Weibo. He was critical of Xi’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and called him a clown with no clothes on who was still determined to play emperor”.

These incidents provide early indications of Xi losing control over the CPC narrative and thereby, his legitimacy to lead. However, Jude Blanchette, Director of China Studies program at the Center for Strategic International and Security Studies argues that the “CPC has reoriented itself from time to time to meet the changing demands in the society and CPC is more focused on long-term threats’ than the short term disruptions like COVID-19 crisis”.

Indeed, it is true to some extent that COVID-19 may be a short-term disruption rather than a long-term threat to the stability of the Party and Xi’s leadership. The mounting discontent against the state is a sporadic outburst of anger rather than a sustained and coordinated movement challenging the ‘Party’s mandate to rule’. However, we can still expect that it could bring more democratic order in Party though not necessarily democracy, by furthering “intraparty regulations”, promoting information disclosure particularly by local party offices at the time of emergency crisis like COVID-19, thus pushing for more transparency in the Party.

This article was earlier published in The WION under the title ‘Communist Party of China and the crisis of social contract in a globalised world’ on 13 April 2020.