Internet Censorship in China: The Struggle to Swat “Flies” Away

-Ankit Kumar, MA Student, MA in Chinese Language and Culture Studies, Centre for Chinese and South East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi


On 14 September 1987, the very first recorded email stating, “across the Great Wall, we can reach every part of the earth” was sent from China to Germany with much optimism.  Subsequently, in 1994, the Internet was made available for public use in China.

The Chinese government first encouraged internet growth for business, entertainment, education, and information sharing, but it was closely monitored to prevent dissent, and the spread of Western ideas. Consequently, the Golden Shield Project came into existence in 1996.  The Golden Shield was first termed as the Great Firewall (GFW) of China by Sang Ye and Geremie Barme in 1997 in an article for the Wired magazine. It can be understood as a highly complex and sophisticated system for filtering and monitoring online content. Apart from allowing the Chinese government to monitor the inflow and outflow of information via the Internet, restrictions set in place also paved the way for significant censorship.

Internet censorship in China is ever-evolving as it adjusts according to real-time situations. Chinese netizens and scientists are finding it increasingly difficult to access information from external sources owing to the restrictions on various globally used social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Whatsapp, among others, as well as search engines such as Google. Moreover, the scale of Internet censorship has only increased in intensity under President Xi Jinping. The recent Chinese government regulation requiring mobile apps operating in China to submit their business details to the government, is a prime example of how the government is effectuating rigid control, especially over the tech sector.

Background of Censorship in China

The practice of censorship in China has a long history. The invention of printing under the Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.) laid the foundations for publishing. It flourished under the Song dynasty (960–1279 C.E.) owing to the advent of movable type printing technology in the 1040s C.E. for printing books. Song rulers responded to the significant increase in publications by formulating laws and regulations to control the production and dissemination of books and literature. This development set the foundation of censorship in China, with subsequent dynasties following a similar pattern of deliberate and direct censorship.

The rise of the Internet in China during its early days empowered citizens to access information from within and outside of China, resulting in an increase in their awareness and interest towards the outside world. The Chinese leadership also recognised the power of the Internet towards understanding public concerns and shaping public opinion as the Chinese people explored its potential.

The ever-growing accessibility of the Internet also facilitated the emergence of various groups which played a vital role in disseminating politically sensitive information and establishing discussion forums for underground organisations. As a result, the government became increasingly worried about the potential for large-scale organised political dissent, which could pose a threat to the government. For instance, during the late 1990s, the Falun Gong (a spiritual group founded by Li Hongzhi in China in the early 1990s, and labelled as an “evil cult” by the Chinese government) became the first spiritual group to spread its reach within and outside of China using the Internet.  In 1999, the Falun Gong held a demonstration in Beijing to protest against the control and authority of the Chinese government. Following this highly organised demonstration, the Communist Party of China (C.P.C.) took severe measures against the members of the Falun Gong Movement, whose membership and activities had grown through email and mobile communication, facilitated by access to the Internet.

In recent years, various restrictions have been imposed upon the cyberspace in China. This has been facilitated by governmental actions such as ensuring that the Chinese public commits to a form of self-censorship under the Public Pledge of Self-Regulation and Professional Ethics for China’s Internet Industry, issued by the Internet Society of China. Every major Internet-based company such as Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, and Sohu, and even universities such as Peking University and Tsinghua University in China have “voluntarily signed this pledge and implemented self-censorship by proactively restricting information that is deemed undesirable.

Why China Censors Its Citizens

China implements Internet censorship primarily to maintain stability by preventing the dissemination of information that could incite social unrest or organised political dissent towards the government. This control over the flow of information allows the government to curtail dissent and maintain effective control over the population. Additionally, censorship enables the government to control the narrative surrounding sensitive political issues like protests, democracy, social inequality and political criticism. This, in turn, allows the Chinese government to ensure that only information aligned with its official stance is accessible to the public. Elizabeth C. Economy, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says

“The Chinese government is in a state of “schizophrenia” about media policy as it goes back and forth, testing the line, knowing they need press freedom and the information it provides, but worried about opening the door to the type of freedoms that could lead to the regime’s downfall.”

A study conducted by Harvard University researchers in 2013 found that the Chinese leadership has allowed social media to thrive in the country, allowing people to express diverse opinions about the government and its leaders, as long as the discussions of events with potential for collective action are effectively curtailed. This implies that while individuals in China are free to express themselves individually, to an extent, they remain collectively constrained in terms of expression. Another study conducted in Beijing by researchers Yuyu Chen and David Y. Yang in 2019 found that students who were randomly equipped with the tools to bypass Chinese censorship were 42.4% more likely to be aware of the Hong Kong protests and 13.7% more likely to be aware of the 2011 Arab Spring protests. The researchers’ analysis suggests that censorship in China restricts access to sensitive information and suppresses citizens’ demand for it. Nonetheless, the surveyed students displayed notable changes in their knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and conduct after accessing foreign news outlets. The same study also discovered that 64% of students accessing uncensored internet are more likely to indicate their interest in pursuing higher studies at foreign universities. Additionally, they also developed a negative perception of the Chinese economy and model of governance.

How China Censors the Internet

Over the span of the last thirty years, China has constructed a complex network of sophisticated surveillance systems. The Golden Shield Project, also called the National Public Security Work Informational Project, remained operational until 2008, before being replaced by the Golden Shield Phase II Project. The new system incorporates advanced technologies and methods, such as artificial intelligence and big data analytics, to improve the government’s ability to monitor and censor online content.

Furthermore, in 2015, Beijing introduced a new instrument known as the Great Cannon. Unlike the Great Firewall, which blocks Internet traffic from entering or leaving China, the Great Cannon has the ability to alter and replace content as it traverses the Internet. In addition, the Chinese government is known to employ various techniques such as D.N.S. filtering, I.P. blocking, U.R.L. filtering, keyword blockage, and packet filtering, which is directed at curtailing the Chinese public from browsing and accessing content deemed undesirable by the C.P.C. In a paper titled How Great is the Great Firewall? Measuring China’s DNS Censorship, researchers used GFWatch, a platform which tracks the Great Firewall, for their study. They stated that upon testing 534 million different domains, approximately 311,000 domains have been blocked in China.

The government also requires all internet service providers and website owners to register with authorities and comply with strict regulations on content and user data. Chinese Social media platforms such as WeChat and Douyin are subjected to extensive monitoring and censorship as well.  Chinese Internet censors consist of human moderators supported by artificial intelligence, which enables them to effectively censor the Internet experience of the Chinese population. According to various reports, as of 2013, China has employed over two million moderators to police the Internet.

Censorship Under Xi Jinping

In the years since Xi Jinping rose to power, Internet censorship has become stricter with the changing political landscape of China. In 2016, President Xi officially announced that “all the work by the party’s media must reflect the party’s will, safeguard the party’s authority, and safeguard the party’s unity,”. Since then, the Party has dictated the course of Internet censorship in China, moving beyond Party media, to other media houses as well.

In 2015, President Xi ordered a heavy crackdown on virtual private networks (VPNs), which severely limit their usage within China’s online boundaries, and also restrict the sharing of information with the outer world.  A Chinese biologist expressed dissatisfaction with Internet censorship restricting research in China in an essay titled, ‘Why Do Scientists Need Google?’ in 2015. He wrote:

“If a country wants to make this many scientists take out time from the short duration of their professional lives to research technology for climbing over the Great Firewall and to install and to continually upgrade every kind of software for routers, computers, tablets and mobile devices, no matter that this behaviour wastes a great amount of time; it is all completely ridiculous.”

As can be seen, Internet restrictions in China have even hampered the pursuit of science.

Last year, the Urumqi fire triggered widespread public anger, quickly spreading through social media despite China’s strict Internet controls. Although sharing restricted information or criticising the authorities often results in censorship and harassment, Chinese platforms initially struggled to handle the large volume of videos and messages related to the incident, similar to the public reaction to Dr Li Wenliang’s death during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Chinese users creatively evaded censorship using hashtags like “A4” and “white paper exercise” on Weibo, symbolizing the government’s constraints on free speech. They also used VPNs, to as great an extent as possible, to access and share uncensored content as the protests progressed. However, Chinese authorities responded by implementing a stringent form of censorship referred to as Level I Internet Emergency Response, in order to restrict the dissemination of content beyond the country’s borders. These directives, issued by China’s cyberspace administration, represent the highest level of content management in China.

How Chinese Netizens Respond to the Censorship

In the early 2000s, the Internet was used by influential bloggers and social media figures who lobbied for reforms, organised rallies, and exposed corruption. The term Human Flesh search engine (人肉搜索引擎 renrou sousuo yinqing) was popularised during this time, in which Chinese netizens rallied to conduct investigations and hold people accountable.

Recently, many Chinese citizens have developed ingenious tactics to circumvent censorship on social media platforms. According to data collected by the citizen lab, more than 9,054 keywords such as “May 35” (or its Chinese version 五月三十五, related to the Tiananmen Protests), “disagree” (不同意), “personality cult” (个人崇拜), “my emperor” (吾皇), “animal farm” (动物庄园), among others, are banned in China. As a means of circumvention, many Chinese netizens have been using alternative keywords, and puns on messaging apps such as WeChat and Weibo to avoid censorship, making the detection difficult for both AI and humans. For example, the keyword “Henan” (河南) was replaced with “Helan” (荷兰), while protesting against the Henan bank scandal. Similarly, the keyword “mitu” was used while discussing the #MeToo scandal in China.

Chinese citizens, in huge numbers, had started to question the handling of the COVID-19 crisis by the local governments. This criticism was met with online censorship by the authorities. Initially, Weibo users discovered that the local authorities shadow-banned any posts containing the word 武汉 (Wuhan) or 湖北 (Hubei), in order to censor any criticism. In response, Chinese Netizens swiftly resorted to using “wh” and “hb” as substitutes for Wuhan and Hubei, respectively, to post their grievances. These substitute keywords represent the pinyin initials of both regions and are readily understood by other users.

Similarly, during the “white paper revolution” many protesters used the Friedmann Equation, along with blank white paper, to demonstrate against the stringent COVID prevention measures. This equation was used for two reasons. First, Friedmann’s phonetic sound is similar to the English word “Freedom”. Second, the Friedmann Equation denotes the expansion and change in the universe. By using this equation, they aimed to advocate for a change in the present system of control, and seek freedom from the strict COVID prevention protocol.


Deng Xiaoping famously said, “if you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in”. When China entered its Reform Era, enacting the opening-up policy in 1978, it tried to achieve a balance between “opening up” to the Western world in terms of trade and economics, and shielding its citizens from Western ideas. However, as trade and investment between China and the world increased over time, not only did Western goods start flowing in, but ideas that were uncomfortable, or undesirable in the eyes of the C.P.C. also started entering China. Chinese authorities, since then, have been continuously engaged in swatting these “flies”. This can be seen more prominently after Xi Jinping assumed office in 2013. Since then, he has passed many strict laws and regulations such as the National Security Law (2015), Online Publishing Service Management Rules (2016), Cybersecurity Law (2016), and Data Protection Law ( 2021), among others.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese government rapidly censored many posts on social media, as exemplified during Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary incident. Due to the high level of censorship, many Chinese citizens could not even post SOS messages on social media. Furthermore, Chinese authorities have begun to scrutinize finances and implement anti-monopoly measures against technology companies, signalling a collective effort in fortifying the censorship system and restricting online mobilization. However, Chinese netizens have developed their own methods and techniques, which include employing puns, and alternative keywords, among others, to counter the measures taken by the C.P.C. As noted, even a scientific equation was employed as a symbolic method of protesting against government policies.

Censorship in China has had a historical existence in China, however, the manner in which it has taken centre stage in the C.P.C.’s efforts to control the Chinese public in recent years is of great importance. As has been discussed above, censorship has been implemented in various ways, employing a plethora of methods, including laws and regulations, bolstered by technological advancements. At the same time, the resolve of the Chinese people to circumvent the established rules and norms in order to express themselves is commendable.

Book Review: Leslie T. Chang, Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China (London: Picador, 2009) pp. 448, ISBN: 9780330447362

Chitra Nair, Research Intern, ICS

Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China by Chinese-American journalist Leslie T. Chang is an enthralling exploration of the lives of young women working in the factories of China. Chang states that her project aimed to question foreign media’s portrayal of migration in China as an act of desperation with little to no benefits for the workers. Through this book, she sought to understand and question the differences in the experiences of a young teenager “going out” in modern China and the way migration had previously been portrayed.

The book is set in Dongguan, an industrial city in Guangdong Province, popularly called the “factory of the world”. Millions of workers from villages “go out” (出去 chū qù) to Dongguan in order to escape their banal lives in the villages. Chang delves into the experiences of two girls, Lu Qingmin and Wu Chunming, expressing their aspirations, anxieties, and resilience through their narratives. She skillfully integrates these accounts with the socio-cultural context of an industrialising China to provide the readers with a thorough grasp of the milieu of which these migrant workers are a part.

Chang combines comprehensive interviews, personal anecdotes, and three years of extensive fieldwork to paint a vivid picture of the factory girls’ daily lives, and explores their interpersonal relationships. Furthermore, she examines the complicated dynamics prevalent within the factories, where rivalries and friendships become entrenched in the pursuit of financial success. The author further explores how social media and technology have shaped the experiences and goals of these young women, offering insightful information on how globalisation and modernisation have affected these factory girls at an individual level.

Chang’s ability to bring out the distinct personalities of the factory girls through her narration and present them as real people in contrast to nameless workers that one reads and hears about in the news is commendable. Through her immersive storytelling and in-depth research, Chang provides an intimate portrayal of the lives of these factory girls, revealing the complexities of China’s rapid industrialisation and its double-edged impact on the lives of young migrant women. She emphasises the strange role their gender plays in allowing them to migrate in search of economic independence. Their male counterparts, however, are not afforded such opportunities since they are much more valued and there is a certain reluctance to let them migrate so far away from home. Thus, it is usually the women of rural China who migrate to industrial areas in times of need to support their low-income families. The author then highlights a certain sense of freedom provided to these women despite the exploitative working conditions. Living far away from their family affords them the choice to migrate to places where their parents, values and “outdated knowledge” (p. 120) hold little to no influence in their lives. Their economic advantages allow them a sense of authority over their household and village, the ability to jump jobs without inhibition and date men who are unlikely to obtain their parents’ approval.

At the same time, the factory girls have to tackle an array of obstacles as they traverse the complexity of urban life, including long working hours with little pay, the pressure to send money back to their parents, social isolation, sex-delegated positions, complete alienation from both the process and product of labour, demand for proficiency in English and Cantonese for upward mobility and constant harassment from their superiors. The demands of factory work are physically and emotionally draining, leaving little time or energy for personal or social pursuits. These migrant women often sacrifice their education, relationships, and personal goals including any hopes of finding love, stability and having a family to meet the demands of their jobs. Despite the possibility of upward mobility, it can be difficult for many migrant women to break free from the vicious cycle of industrial work. Their ability to transition into higher-paying or more gratifying and organised occupations is hampered by their lack of formal education, limited English proficiency, and the preponderance of low-skilled work in urban regions. In this manner, their prospects for social mobility and personal development are constricted.

Chang subtly interweaves the research she conducts on her lineage and relatives throughout her book. In an interview, Chang states that by incorporating her family history into the book, she presents a “historical parallel” about people migrating from their villages to seek better opportunities. This autobiographical component helps bridge the gap between the author, the factory girls and the readers. Furthermore, it emphasises the importance of being aware of one’s background when attempting to comprehend other’s experiences. In this way, the personal aspect of Factory Girls enriches the story and provides readers with a deeper understanding of both the author and the factory girls. However, it is important to note that the author herself, is not a migrant worker and some of her perspectives on the lives of these workers may not correspond to their own.

While Factory Girls offers a detailed description of the lives of these migrant women, it sometimes lacks the overarching social context. The main focus of the novel is on Lu Qingmin and Wu Chunming’s accounts. At times, this leads to the author overlooking the more significant structural problems that influence their reality. For example, the author highlights that the girls seem to live a very apolitical existence, removed from the happenings of the Communist Party of China and its leaders but at the same time does not explain whether this may be due to ignorance or an actual lack of the influence of politics in their lives. The latter is difficult to believe since Dongguan is located in a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), with labour laws that aim to attract Foreign Direct Investment, and do not benefit these workers. It must be noted, however, that this omission does not diminish the overall impact of the book.

Through this book, the author provides a well-presented, cohesive and captivating account of the female migrant workers in Dongguan, who constitute a majority of its labour force. Chang highlights the tenacity of these women as they navigate and adapt to a rapidly changing China. Chang’s Factory Girls is not the first book on the subject of the migration of women in China, but the majority of them have tended to concentrate on internal or external migration for different reasons, such as marriage. These include works by Davin, and Fan and Huang, among others. Other works have explored the concept of “leftover women”, and have focused on societal pressures faced by unmarried women, however, Factory Girls stands in contrast, given its in-depth exploration of several themes, thus, adding significantly to the existing discourse.

By focusing on their individual stories, the author sheds light on broader themes of financial independence, urbanisation, and the impact of English proficiency in guaranteeing upward social mobility. Through this book, she accomplishes her initial goal of understanding the lives and motivations of young migrant women and ensures that it is a unique contribution to the existing literature on women, migration, and China.

Southeast Asia considers a Shift Away from the Dollar: Can the Renminbi take the Centre Stage?

Author: Prateek Gupta, Integrated Programme in Management, IIM Indore

Southeast Asia, comprising diverse economies, is a rapidly evolving and dynamic region on the global stage. Demonstrating resilience amidst global uncertainty, it has emerged as an economic powerhouse. Overcoming challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine War, and the global economic slowdown, Southeast Asia has established itself as a prominent center for global trade and investment. The countries encompassing this region include Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, among others. Projections indicate that the economy of the ASEAN-10 countries is expected to achieve a growth rate of 5.6% in 2022, 4.6% in 2023, and 4.8% in 2024, on average.

At the moment, the Southeast Asian region heavily relies on the US Dollar (henceforth USD) as its primary foreign currency. A significant portion, exceeding 80%, of the outstanding international debt securities within Southeast Asia are denominated in dollars. Moreover, between 2015 and 2020, the majority of cross-border payments to, from, and within the region were conducted in dollars, solidifying the currency’s predominant role in Southeast Asian trade payments and financial markets. For intra-regional cross-border payments, Southeast Asia typically utilizes accounts held by members of the Clearing House Interbank Payments System (CHIPS), headquartered in New York. In 2021 alone, CHIPS settled nearly $1.8 trillion in daily dollar payments, further emphasizing the region’s dependence on the dollar. Due to the underdeveloped nature of regional currency pair markets, separate transactions involving each currency against the dollar are executed to facilitate conversions between different regional currencies.

The Dominance of US Dollar: Reasons

The dominance of the USD as a global reserve currency can be attributed to several factors. First, the US economy enjoys a high level of trust and confidence worldwide, primarily due to its deep and highly liquid financial markets. Boasting the largest economy globally, with a staggering real GDP of $20.94 trillion dollars, the United States holds a prominent position. Interestingly, although the US economy represents only a quarter of the global economy, approximately 60% of the world’s foreign reserves are denominated in USD. Second, the USD holds the status of being the most preferred medium of exchange in international trade and finance. Despite the Euro’s dominance outside of Europe, nearly 70% of exports are invoiced in USD. Moreover, as stated in a report by the Asian Development Bank, between 80 and 90 per cent of exports from Southeast Asian countries are invoiced in USD. Lastly, the historical perception of the USD as a stable currency has also played a significant role in its global prominence. Its stability and widespread acceptance make it an attractive choice for international transactions, trade, and investment. Between 2010 and 2022, it is evident that the value of the USD has appreciated by approximately 44%. These factors collectively contribute to its enduring dominance as the global reserve currency.

Emerging Challenges and Motivations for Change

Concerns regarding the dependence on the USD have prompted officials and policymakers in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand to announce measures aimed at reducing their reliance on the USD, particularly in intra-regional trade payments. Several factors contribute to their apprehension. First, these countries are wary of the potential economic repercussions resulting from the tightening of US monetary policy. Such tightening measures could have a significant impact on the region, making it vulnerable to fluctuations in US monetary policy that may not align with their domestic economic conditions. For example, numerous nations heavily reliant on the USD encounter challenges in reducing inflation within their own economies, primarily attributed to the strong nature of the USD. This susceptibility to external monetary policy adjustments raises concerns about potential spillover effects. Additionally, the dominant status of the USD as a reserve currency, grants the United States a degree of authority and power in influencing a country’s choice of trading partners. This influence is exemplified by the sanctions imposed on Russia following the Russia-Ukraine war, which have hindered the ability of several countries to engage in transactions with Russia.

Moreover, the United States enjoys the privilege of maintaining large current account deficits and accumulating substantial debt. Such imbalances and economic instability within the US can have repercussions on the region. Countries burdened with significant dollar-denominated debt may face heightened vulnerability to currency fluctuations and the reversal of capital flows, thereby increasing the risk of financial crises. In September 2022, the debt rose up to its all-time high, $30.93 trillion. This is extremely deleterious for the economies in the region. Taken together, these concerns drive the efforts of Southeast Asian countries to mitigate their dependence on the USD and safeguard their economic stability. As a result, there is a growing interest in non-dollar financial channels in the region. China sees these challenges and motivation as an opportunity to push the Renminbi as an alternative to the USD – and eventually to make it the dominant global reserve currency.

The Rise of the Renminbi (RMB) in Southeast Asia

The RMB is progressively gaining prominence in trade and investment activities within Southeast Asia, signifying a notable shift in currency preferences. Broadly seven factors contribute to this growing adoption of the RMB. First, as China’s economy has expanded and become increasingly integrated into the global economy, the RMB has attained recognition as a significant international reserve currency. Consequently, the use of the RMB for trade and investment within Southeast Asia has witnessed a surge, leading many countries in the region to accumulate substantial reserves of the Chinese currency. A noteworthy development took place in June 2022, as the central banks of Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia renewed an emergency liquidity arrangement initiated by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC). This arrangement, funded by the RMB, provides a mechanism for Central Banks in times of market stress. Its existence is anticipated to foster greater intra-regional utilization of the Renminbi and facilitate enhanced financial integration.

Second, the escalating economic influence of China in Southeast Asia, coupled with its endeavours to establish the Renminbi as a global currency, serves as another impetus for the rising adoption of the Renminbi in the region. China has facilitated this process by opening up its domestic market to numerous foreign financial institutions, thereby fostering the use of the Renminbi on a global scale. Third, one of the key factors driving the appeal of the Renminbi in Southeast Asia is its demonstrated stability amidst the substantial depreciation experienced by other major currencies. This stability has bolstered confidence in the Renminbi as a reliable and resilient currency for trade and investment activities within the region. As of April 2023, China’s foreign exchange reserves have increased to USD 3.205 trillion, surpassing market expectations of USD 3.192 trillion. According to data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the USD’s share dropped to 58.4% by the end of Q4, which marks the lowest share of global reserve currencies held in dollars since 1994.

Fourth, the imposition of sanctions by Western nations against Russia in response to the Ukraine war conflict has expedited the internationalization of the RMB. These sanctions have prompted countries to seek alternative currencies for conducting international transactions, and the RMB has emerged as a viable option.

Fifth, the rise of the RMB in Southeast Asia has been further bolstered by a series of initiatives specifically designed to promote the adoption of the Chinese currency. Notably, the China-led Belt and Road Initiative has served as a crucial platform for expanding the usage of the Renminbi in infrastructure projects throughout the region. This initiative has facilitated increased transactions in the Chinese currency, thereby enhancing its prominence in Southeast Asia. Additionally, the establishment of Renminbi-denominated bond markets has played a significant role in facilitating businesses’ access to financing in the Renminbi. This development has simplified the process of obtaining funding in the Chinese currency, further promoting its utilization in the region. Furthermore, the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI) merits attention as a notable multilateral currency swap arrangement among the ten member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The CMI has contributed to addressing the short-term liquidity difficulties in the region and to supplementing the existing international financial arrangements.

Sixth, China has undertaken significant measures to promote the international use of the RMB by removing restrictions on its usage in current account transactions and gradually expanding its scope in capital account transactions. Notably, under the capital account, China has broadened the sources of offshore funds, allowing Chinese enterprises to make overseas direct investments in RMB since 2011. Furthermore, recent regulations have facilitated offshore lending by mainland banks, thereby facilitating the flow of RMB across borders. To further support the internationalization of the RMB and provide a contingency source of liquidity, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) has established bilateral local currency swap facilities with overseas central banks and monetary authorities. These arrangements aim to facilitate the use of the RMB in international transactions and ensure the availability of liquidity when needed.

Seventh, the ascent of the Renminbi (RMB) can be attributed to its inclusion in the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Special Drawing Rights (SDR) basket of currencies on October 1, 2016. This significant development facilitated China’s deeper integration into the global financial system. Moreover, the inclusion bolstered the credibility of the RMB, as other countries began to shed their reservations and recognize it as a freely usable currency. This event symbolized China’s expanding presence in global trade and subsequently led to a substantial surge in the international use and trading of the RMB.

According to a report by Reuters, in March 2023, the RMB has surpassed the USD to become the most widely-used currency for cross-border transactions in China. The data shows that the RMB accounted for 48.4% of all cross-border transactions, while the dollar’s share declined from 48.6% in the previous month to 46.7%. This indicates a shift in the usage of currencies for international transactions in China, with the RMB gaining prominence in cross-border trade. There are also both positive and negative impacts of adopting RMB as a reserve currency on the Southeast Asian region.

Impact of the adoption of RMB as a reserve currency on Southeast Asian countries

The adoption of the RMB as a reserve currency can have several notable impacts on Southeast Asian countries. First, given that China serves as a significant trade partner for most Southeast Asian countries, the adoption of the RMB as a reserve currency can streamline trade transactions between them. This simplification can lead to reduced currency exchange costs and mitigate foreign exchange risks. Consequently, bilateral trade can be bolstered, fostering stronger economic ties. As a result, there will likely be an increase in cross-border RMB usage and cross-border RMB settlement.

Second, the adoption of the RMB can facilitate the objectives of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement, which was signed in 2020. By embracing the RMB, Southeast Asian countries can enhance economic integration with China and other participating nations.

Third, inclusion of the RMB in currency reserves can diversify the holdings of Southeast Asian economies, reducing reliance on a single currency. Such diversification enhances resilience to currency volatility and provides a hedge against external shocks.

Fourth, adopting the RMB can provide Southeast Asian businesses and investors with access to RMB funding sources, such as offshore RMB bond markets. This expanded access to financing options and investment opportunities in China allows for greater diversification and financial flexibility.

Fifth, it is important to note that the RMB market in Southeast Asia may currently have limited liquidity and depth compared to more established currencies like the USD. This can present challenges in areas such as pricing, hedging, and accessing sufficient RMB liquidity for trade and investment needs.

Sixth, embracing the RMB as a major currency could have geopolitical ramifications for Southeast Asian economies. These nations must exercise caution in managing their interactions with other major global powers, ensuring a delicate equilibrium between their economic priorities and political dynamics.


This research paper examined Southeast Asia’s gradual shift away from the USD towards the Renminbi (RMB) and its potential implications. The RMB’s growing importance in Southeast Asian trade and investment is driven by factors such as increased trade with China, currency swap agreements, and the establishment of RMB clearing centres. Adopting the RMB as a major currency offers advantages in trade facilitation, access to RMB funding sources, and regional financial integration. However, the adoption of the RMB faces challenges related to economics, geopolitics, and trust. While the economics and geopolitics support the RMB’s rise, there is still a level of scepticism and hesitation due to trust concerns associated with China. The trajectory of Southeast Asia’s shift and the role of the RMB will be influenced by factors such as internationalization pace, market development, regulations, and geopolitical dynamics. Ongoing monitoring, collaboration, and adaptable strategies are essential to maximize benefits and manage risks with respect to the Southeast Asian Region. In conclusion, the feasibility and impact of the RMB taking centre stage in Southeast Asia depend on effective implementation, regional cooperation, and a balanced approach. With careful planning, coordination, and trust-building efforts, the adoption of the RMB can enhance trade, investment, financial stability, and regional economic integration, bolstering Southeast Asia’s position in the evolving global economy.

Addressing the Challenge of the China-India ICT Gap

Subhadip Mondal, Research Assistant, ICS

In the field of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) India is trailing behind China. In June 2021, the Chinese government published its white paper on 6th generation mobile communication (6G), but India took another year to come up with its working plan regarding 6G implementation. Back in 2019, Beijing rolled out 5th generation mobile communication (5G) services whereas it was only in 2022 that India’s Union Cabinet approved the auction of its 5G spectrum. In India’s case, Chinese companies were kept out, and this decision has come at a time when diplomatic relations between the two countries has been erratic since the Doklam stand-off. New Delhi is not alone in the move to keep Chinese companies out of its ICT infrastructure development. In 2019, former US President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order to exclude Chinese 5G companies from the American telecom network. The Biden Administration has maintained this effort and persuaded its allies to curtail the predominance of Chinese ICT companies. These measures raise questions about the extent of Beijing’s dominance in ICT. These include: how the present scenario came into being, what would its impact be on India, and the measures New Delhi may adopt to tackle the emerging scenario. This research blog will try to answer these questions on the basis of a study of the official documents, reports, white papers, and research articles.

China’s Telecom History

The roots of China’s growth in ICT date back to the liberalisation of the Chinese economy in the 1980s. As this initiative caused a boom in the ICT sector, Beijing upgraded its indigenous ICT capacity. To enter the Chinese market, foreign vendors were required to form Joint Ventures (JVs) with Chinese partners. Their import capacity was also limited, depending upon their localized production and transfer of technology. These measures helped in the development of indigenous industries. Although, by 1996 Beijing had choked the import of telecom equipment, in 2008, China accounted for over one-fifth of Qualcomm’s global revenue, which is an American company. This came from the royalties for Code-Division Multiple Access (CDMA), which was used for the 2nd generation (2G) and 3rd generation (3G) communication. This pushed Chinese companies to take up a more elaborate participation in international standards-setting processes for the telecom sector. This facilitated the rise of Chinese companies in the field of advanced communication technologies like 5G, 6G, and so on. Due to this, as of 2021, China had the greatest number of 6G-related patents, most of which were filed by Huawei, the State Grid Corporation of China, and China Aerospace Science and Technology. It is thus evident that Beijing’s leap from dependence to self-reliance in ICT (including 6G technologies), is due to the long-term policies and strategic investments made by the government of the PRC.

China’s Growth in ICT

The PRC government’s investments in ICT through state-owned enterprises (SOEs), private companies and systemic policy changes helped Beijing break the dominance of foreign companies. For instance, as of 2019, Huawei had received over 75bn USD in financial assistance from the state, which helped the company avoid foreign competition by a huge margin. In terms of long-term policies, in 2015 China’s State Council published their ‘Made in China 2025’ policy. The policy highlighted the state’s intention to make major breakthroughs in telecom technology including 5G. The 13th Five Year plan was the first such plan that laid the road map for the implementation of 5G connectivity. It also highlighted projects linked to Quantum Communication, Big Data, and Smart Grid, among others. The 13th Plan even proposed workshops and training to cultivate young minds and talents which would play a crucial role in implementing these projects. Beijing’s edge in 5G helped its advancement in Quantum technology. Last year China Telecom announced a secure quantum phone service using 5G. In the same year, China launched a quantum satellite which would help Beijing to establish secure communication around the globe. As of September 2022, China’s 5G users numbered around 1.01 billion.

China and 6G

Beijing’s white paper on 6G stressed that the successful commercialization of 5G will lay the foundation for the development of 6G. So, the success of 5G propelled the government to take up initiatives for the implementation of 6G. The roadmap for this was laid down in the 14th Five-Year Plan, which expressed special interest in the successful roll-out of 6G. To this end, it proposed to increase 5G users by 56%, and to promote the commercial deployment of Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6).China’s 6G roll-out plan focussed on attaining high data transfer rate and negligible latency, which will be crucial in handling Big Data. To handle multiple data points and data, the plan proposes to integrate the 6G network with Artificial Intelligence (AI). The plan also showcased the need for new cyber security infrastructure, given that new technologies bring new threats. The roll-out of 6G will enhance the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), given that under Xi Jinping China is employing Military Civil Fusion (MCF) to position the country to compete militarily and economically in an emerging technological and strategic environment. 6G-powered AI will help in modernizing the PLA, and its zero-latency capability will help the PLA gain supremacy in the field of unmanned vehicles. The high data transmission and low latency will have further military benefits as well, such as gathering intelligence, visualizing combat operations, and delivering precise logistical support.

India’s road toward 6G

Developments in China’s military capabilities and the related ICT sector potentially constitute a challenge, if not a threat for India. In February 2022, India rolled-out its Work Plan Roadmap on 6G. However, for its success, the implementation of 5G services needs to be successful. The laying down of policies for 5G dates back to 2018. In that year, the National Digital Communication Policy (NDCP) was published. It was the first such policy to highlight the importance of 5G. Then, in February 2019, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) published a white paper regarding the enabling of 5G in India. In their report, the 3300-3600 MHz spectrum was earmarked for Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). This band can be used for Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) over 5G to achieve transmission with less latency. ISRO has completed the test run of QKD using the Navigation with Indian Constellation (NavIC) receiver. The Government of India (GoI) has taken other initiatives for successful implementation of 5G as well. On September 2020 TRAI came out with a White Paper regarding the plan to integrate 5G communication technologies within the infrastructure of Smart Cities. But the ground reality falls short in achieving the targets set by these policy papers. These inconsistencies thus impact the overall strength of India’s ICT infrastructure and also the future of 6G in India.


China’s edge in the ICT sector has helped in the advancement of its influence in foreign countries, which undermines the diplomatic and strategic interests of India. Through the Digital Silk Road initiative, Beijing has invested in digital infrastructure in multiple countries. For instance, Huawei is developing 5G networks across both Pakistan and Myanmar, which constitute a source of strategic concern for India.

To tackle these digital threats, it is important for India to develop a robust ICT infrastructure. For this, GoI needs to work on achieving the targets fixed by its policy papers. TRAI’s paper on 5G projected 70 million 5G connections by 2025, but by modest estimates made by the Indian media, as of February 2023, the total user base stand around 20 million.

Beijing’s ICT capability, especially in terms of 6G, makes it imperative for India to invest more in its own ICT research and development. It also needs to train young scholars and engineers which will be the back bone for implementing new projects and carry out advanced research in ICT. In this respect, institutions like IITs and Central Universities will play a crucial role. Furthermore, India needs to invest more in its Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) so that they can undertake advanced researches to gain edge in advanced communication technologies. Later, this expertise can be exported through India’s ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’. This would help New Delhi to counter the growing influence of Beijing in its neighbourhood. These initiatives are investment-driven. Since India holds the presidency of the G20 this year, this is an opportunity to secure investment from like-minded nations for the development of ICT infrastructure in India, and counter China’s growing dominance in the field.

Book Review: Brendan Taylor, Dangerous Decade: Taiwan’s Security and Crisis Management (London: Taylor and Francis, 2019) pp.264 ISBN 978-0-367-43748-0

Amogh Sharma, Research Intern, ICS

On A ‘conflict hotspot’ is what Brendan Taylor, author of the book ‘Dangerous Decade: Taiwan’s Security and Crisis Management’ calls the situation across the Taiwan Strait. A Professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University(ANU), Taylor is a specialist in Asia-Pacific and East Asian’ flashpoints’ and Asian security architecture. In the book, Taylor argues that the situation in Taiwan looks increasingly precarious, and flaring tensions could create a major strategic conflict. A crisis could brew slowly as a new Cold War grows to hold over the US and China or erupt suddenly with an accidental collision of military ships or aircraft operating in the Taiwan Strait. He proceeds to say that the possibility of conflicts over Taiwan is real and intensifying by the day and despite this, it is not being treated with the seriousness and urgency the situation deserves. Taylor espouses robust countering mechanisms to deal with the situation to avoid an affair with global ramifications.

The book is structured into four chapters, and the author has used this division to present the situation as of 2019. Building upon previous books by Richard C. Bush and Michael J. Cole that dealt with the previous two decades, Taylor focuses on changes and potential flashpoints in the Taiwan Strait towards the end of the 2010s. The first three chapters deal with the past, present, and potential conflict zones between three powers in the region. The first chapter takes a historical perspective on the conflict, and  Taylor describes China, Taiwan and the United States’ stakes in the conflict.

The gulf between the first two stakeholders, Taiwan and China, is growing rapidly today. The author cites a Lowy Institute survey that says those under the age of 29 living in Taiwan consider themselves ‘exclusively Taiwanese’. Post-Mao leaders have adopted a wait-and-see approach; reunification has always been an inevitable fact for the Chinese leadership. However, with each progressing year, younger generations in Taiwan identify lesser and lesser with being “Chinese”, and mainland China is wary of letting this sentiment grow. The author says Xi has been tougher toward Taiwan to retain the image of a single group of people.

The third stakeholder in this scenario is the United States. Washington has traditionally been a deterrent against Beijing’s use of force against Taiwan while at the same time dissuading Taiwan from splitting away completely. But the rapid rate at which Chinese military advancements overcame Taiwanese forces and continued to catch up with the US has resulted in a rise in stronger anti-China sentiments among the American leadership, which Taylor spends significant time dealing with through the actions of the Trump administration such as their reaffirmation of the Taiwan Relations Act in the 2019 National Defence Authorization Act. Growing strain between the US and China has detrimental effects on cross-strait peace, which was seen during Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan trip in 2022.

Taylor is at home in the second chapter. Using his expertise in South Asian military architecture, he compares the nation’s military capabilities and relates them to varying escalation points. This raises questions at first glance. Does the existence of a certain number of frigates imply that in a conflict, they could be pointed all at once towards Taiwan? It is to be thought about Chinese conflicts with Japan, India, the Philippines and other countries. Will these conflicts not play into the deployment of Chinese forces in the Strait?

Despite an expanding military toolbox, Beijing deemphasised the use of military coercion against the island, fearing an American response. But with American influence slowly declining after Tsai Ing Wen’s reelection, China seems to be getting restless. Taylor cites this as an example of international stakeholders not taking the situation seriously. As Chinese power grows, he notes, so does the number of new methods it can use to address its ‘Taiwan problem’. Due to  growing Chinese power and declining US influence, Chinese incentives to navigate this situation via force only increase. Even a slight miscalculation or misconception could be deadly, according to the author.

The author borrows the term tipping points from Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian journalist, to describe four possible situations in the Cross-Strait scenario which could cause the whole status quo to go awry, forming some of the book’s best reads in Chapter Three. According to the author, these tipping points might lead to the collapse of peace across the Strait and result in a full-blown worldwide conflict, which he begins by describing an ‘accidental’ crossing of Beijing’s ‘red lines’. The “red lines” are a  vague concept, almost akin to the US “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan. Even sending a senior official for the opening of new American Institute in Taiwan was seen as crossing a Chinese “red line”. Taylor cites historic flashpoints which could easily have caused a kerfuffle such as the accidental Taiwanese missile firing in 2016 and the infamous intentional crossing of the median line by two J-11 fighters in March 2019.  Taylor points out that due to the lack of a formal agreement between Taiwan and China like the  Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea for Asian nations, there are no systems of checks and balance between the two.

Taiwan’s salience for the US remains its commercial importance. The idea that Taiwan could become a proxy in this new cold war was brought up, and the author delves briefly on how the Taiwanese can use it to their advantage. Although Taiwan is not a formal US ally, the author believes that the level of US commitment towards Taiwan could influence their relations with other East Asian nations like Japan. He continues that the stakeholders are standing along a hair-triggered border. Even a slight infraction could result in calamitous results. 

In the fourth chapter, the author lists possible ways this circumstance could go, and they all get progressively dire, from peace agreements to catastrophic conflict. The policy options like the inclusion of Taiwan in the CPTPP, and potential bargains between the two countries do not even account for the world-changing COVID-19 pandemic or the Presidential race in the United States as it was published in 2019. The policy options suggested by the author emphasise a step-based-situational approach instead of a long-term thought. Overall, the text exhibits Brendan Taylor’s understanding of the dispute with the larger logistics of the three stakeholders involved. The only issue is that three years have passed since its publication, and the “status quo” has changed.  The ADIZ intrusions that caused large-scale unrest were absent when the book was published. However, it is an interesting entry for even a lay person to enlighten themselves about the ‘conflict hotspot’ in the east.

Book Review: Rewriting Gender: Reading Contemporary Chinese women

Taal Seth, Research Intern, ICS

Book Review: Rewriting Gender: Reading Contemporary Chinese women by Ravni Thakur, London, Cynthia Street, 1997, published by Zed Books Ltd, ISBN 1-85649-410-1 (Paperback)

Through Rewriting Gender, Ravni Thakur conducts research on the lives of women in post-Mao Chinese society. She imagines gender roles as discursive practices, reproduced through their representations in literature and other texts. To this end, she conducts discourse analysis of prevalent works of literature written by women writers as well as their literary criticism that were published between the end of the Cultural Revolution (1976) and the suppression of pro-democratic protests at Tiananmen Square (1989). The author chooses this timeline as it coincides with the rise in the number of women authors at this time. Moreover, it allows her to study reflections on ideals of gender set in place by Confucianism, socialist realism as well as by the changing face of Chinese society under Deng Xiaoping.

The central theoretical argument of the book is that the social institution of gender is a discursive practice that gets produced by and reproduced in literature. Thakur employs Michel Foucault’s concept of knowledge production as the basis of her theoretical framework. To apply this work in her particular research, she uses Pierre Bourdieu’s tenets of literary analysis and knowledge production within the ‘the literary field’ for discourse analysis of Chinese literature. She creates a distinction between orthodox and heterodox thoughts on gender roles and the position of women in society, which is reflected in the prevalent literature of the period. She observes that the theme of socialist realism was enforced in orthodox literature. Through socialist realism, Thakur refers to a literary theme wherein characters within a story are expected to stand as role models for the readership, and the stories are supposed to deliver a moral message in line with the tenets of Chinese socialism. This is done on the basis of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of ‘discourses of power’ (which she relates with orthodox discourses in Chinese literature) and ‘discourses of resilience’ (represented in the heterodox gender discourse in Chinese literature).

The introduction of the book highlights its two main questions: what is the orthodox discourse on gender roles and how does heterodox discourse challenge it? The book is divided into two parts to answer these questions. Thakur uses the first chapters of each part to lay down the theoretical background. In the first part of the book, ‘Orthodox Gender Discourse and the Literary Field,’ she reviews secondary literature on the discourse of ‘labour heroines’ championed during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, when the popular political attempt was to revive and accelerate economic growth within and through Chinese society. In contrast was the post-Cultural Revolution period, when women’s natural worth was founded in motherhood and familial loyalties.

Thakur argues that the most obvious signifier of orthodox thought in Chinese literary circles is the very attempt to club women writers together and to assert that their work has a distinct voice from men’s. She primarily reviews literary criticisms on the works of women authors such as Ru Zhijuan, Zong Pu, Zhang Jie, Shen Rong etc. and argues that this literature is stuck in a prison architectured by China’s party-state, which limited authors from exploring uncharted themes. Thakur also argues that literary criticism for women’s work falls short, since there was no framework in place to critique women’s work; this is because of the sudden rise of women authors in China along with the very small number of women critics to prepare a framework.

The second part of the book titled ‘Responses to Gender Discourse,’ engages with literary works that display heterodox thought. In this part, the author reviews works of writers whose criticism was analysed in the first part. Specifically, she studies characters and settings, the theoretical model for which is outlined in Chapter 4 (A Methodology for Character Analysis). Through this section, she breaks down the myth of the nuxing wenue or women’s writings, by bringing forth the divergent themes, stories, and styles of writing in different popular works authored by women (displayed in Thakur’s analysis of Zhang Jie’s The Ark and Zhang Xinxin’s On the Same Horizon). Thakur argues that whilst the orthodox discourse enjoys institutional power, heterodox discourse has the power of resistance, of bringing radical ideas into the minds of the public. This is reflected in her book title that expresses that the literary field is a breeding ground for change in gender roles that are being rewritten during this period  (‘rewriting gender’).

Thakur’s research testifies that there is a strand of literature in China which subjectifies women by exploring the voices of women characters instead of adopting the orthodox mainstream thought propagated by the Chinese state. In this part of the book, there is a self-conscious change in the question asked itself. Heterodox discourse challenges the orthodox discourse not by questioning particular tenets of socialist realism, but by asserting that there should be no singular thought that attempts to describe all women — that Chinese women are subjects who cannot be judged through one arbitrary framework.

While the book employs theories about literary and discourse analysis that originate in the West, they are adapted to the specific Chinese context thoughtfully, with attention given to the type of literary communities that exist in China, how works of literature are published and distributed, and the scope of the agency women are given to write their own stories. This is reflected in the attention paid to literary criticism given to the writers’ work, keeping in mind the institutionalisation of this criticism. In this way, Rewriting Gender provides a strong methodological framework for discourse analysis of the literary field to understand social relations in China.


The views expressed here are those of the author(s), and not necessarily of the mentor or the Institute of Chinese Studies.

Smog Stories: A Tale of Two Cities

-Amogh Sharma, Research Intern, ICS


Every winter, newspapers in India are flooded with articles about the national capital, New Delhi, succumbing to haze-filled skies and poor air quality. Citizens are subject to distressing reminders of the increasing pollution, with schools being shut for as long astwo weeks to protect young students from respiratory issues like asthma and pneumonia. Decreased visibility leads to horrific accidents on highways. This seasonal return of poor quality is the smog problem. Another Asian capital, the city of Beijing, was often involved in the same conversation. However, there is a difference in the way the situations were handled in both cities. This blog aims to observe and investigate these differences.

International Guidelines

The word smog is a portmanteau of the words smoke and fog. This term was coined in 1905 by Dr Henry Antoine Des Voeux to describe a “smoky fog” in the skies of London. Around the 1950s, the term gained widespread usage to describe the air conditions around London and Los Angeles. In 1987, the WHO published its report[4] on global air quality guidelines for the first time. The guidelines were crafted as quantitative, evidence-based information whose goal is to assist policymakers in creating policies that mitigate the risks posed to public health by air pollution. These guidelines have been regularly updated, the most recent in 2006 and 2021. The quantitative measure used to formulate these guidelines[5] is often the PM2.5 concentration levels in micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m³). PM2.5 is a particulate matter made of particles 25 microns or smaller in diameter. It is considered one of the most dangerous due to its prevalence and harmful effects. PM2.5 particles are released from running vehicles, factory production, stubble burning in agriculture, construction processes, and residential coal burning. Natural events like forest fires and dust storms also release these particles. Although new research says no level of PM2.5 is healthy, the recommended levels are 5 µg/m³. In highly polluted countries, incremental steps of 10, 15, 25 and 35 µg/m³ were recommended by the WHO. Using these stats scientists have been able to correlate the amounts of particles in the air, and corresponding stresses to humans.

Empowering the World to Breathe Cleaner Air | IQAir

China’s Smog Problem: A Case Study of Beijing

By 2008, China was the second-largest energy consumer in the world, but fossil fuels met only 8 per cent of its demand. Increasing population, urbanization, and industrialization increased airborne pollutants immensely. Today, China is the largest producer and consumer of coal, and coal is one of the significant causes of PM 2.5 pollution.

In Beijing, the smog problem can be traced as far back as 600 years. The Chinese language has many terms for ‘smog’, but wumai and hui-mai are the most popular terms. ‘Wumai’ has been used to describe a mixture of smoke and fog for decades, but wumai as a concept of dangerous pollution took weight only recently as in 2013. Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences published a report on fighting climate change had pointed out that the haze and smog problem was at the worst it had been since 1961. This event was called the “Great Eastern China Smog”. At the time, Wang Anshun, Bejing’s mayor called the city “unlivable”.

In 2012, 78.6% of energy was provided by coal production. Seven of the top twenty-five cities located in industrialized areas (which were heavily dependent on coal) were in the vicinity of Beijing. The mountain regions to the west and the north blocked this heavy pollution in Beijing, up to 1000 µg/m³ at some points in 2013. Other factors adding to the grey skies over Beijing included vehicular exhaust, crop burning and fireworks.

Great Eastern China Smog, 7 December 2013
Smog Shrouds Eastern China (
Same region, 3 January 2022
A Winter Haze Over China (

Beijing’s Plan of Action

To address this severe air pollution crisis, the State Council of China created one of the toughest Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan towards the end of 2013. Three regions were targeted Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region (BTH), the Yangtze River Delta region (YRD), and the Pearl River Delta region (PRD). The strict regulations entailed rigid industrial emission standards, phasing out small and polluting factories, upgrading the industrial boilers, promoting clean fuels in the residential sector, and strengthening vehicle emission standards. 

Between 2013 and 2017, PM2.5 concentrations in Beijing decreased from 68 µg/m³ to 42 µg/m³. From 2017 to 2021, air quality improved further in the next five years to just under 35µg/m³. The regular monitoring and regulation of the action plan showed marked improvement in the air quality index. In the past ten years, China’s ranking dropped from the top to 22nd in the PM2.5 concentration rankings. There is a marked difference in satellite images of the region taken by NASA’s Terra satellite. However, as Anshun says, the companies that “irresponsibly relocate” to neighbouring areas of Hebei and Tianjin are not solving the problem at all.

India’s Smog Problem: A Case Study of New Delhi

New Delhi has faced international controversies regarding its air quality for ages. In 2010, concerns were raised about the city prior to its organization of the Commonwealth Games. There was quite an uproar in early 2014 when New Delhi surpassed Bejing as the world’s most polluted city in the Environmental Performance Index. The PM2.5 rating was around 100 in New Delhi, much higher than Beijing’s 68. In 2017, Delhi was once again in the news when the visiting Sri Lankan team refused to play in the adverse conditions. In 2021, this value was 85 for New Delhi, but almost a 50% drop for Beijing at 34.

Between November 1 and 7, 2016, New Delhi faced a Severe Air Pollution Episode (SAPE) called the “Great Indian Smog“. Industrial activities, construction released pollutants, vehicular exhaust gases, dust from roads and power plant emissions were often listed as the principal culprits in this scenario. However, an additional cause was the casual stubble burning by farmers in the neighbouring agricultural belt. Farmers traditionally burn the stubble in their fields yearly to prepare for the subsequent crops. These farmers are reluctant to use more environmentally friendly methods like hiring machines to uproot and roll the stubble back into the field because of the costs involved. NASA’s Terra satellite shows numerous fires burning across the region; the soot mixes with the seasonal fog, creating the harmful smog.

New Delhi’s Plan of Action

India has undeniably made efforts to combat this issue in recent years, including New Delhi’s large fleet of CNG buses. The government added parking fees for nights to discourage driving to work, and the number of metro trains was increased. United effort from government and non-government players has been essential to the changes visible in the capital. The most significant push was provided in 2017 by the GRAP (Graded Response Action Plan) in New Delhi, created by the Central Pollution Control Board.  If the air in Delhi were severely polluted for more than 48 hours, trucks would not be allowed to enter the city, and all construction work in the region would be halted. Several similar measures were clearly defined in the plan. Experts believe that the creation of expressways to bypass the city, a ban on PET Coke as industrial fuel, and the introduction of BS-VI fuel have also helped this drop.

Data from Delhi Pollution Control Committee, 2019

In October 2021, while announcing a new ten-point “Winter-Action-Plan” Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal was quoted as saying that despite the ambitious graded action plan, pollution in Delhi was a direct consequence of stubble burning in neighbouring states. A collaborative plan is of absolute necessity.

Berkeley Earth (18/04/2022) Map of Air Quality
Red is unhealthy, Orange is unhealthy for sensitive groups, Yellow is moderate, Green is good.
There is still a long way to go for both countries.

A recent satellite image from Berkeley-Earth’s website shows us the levels of pollution still present in these regions. The governments in both cities had set ambitious targets, but even these are too small to counter the devastating effects. Even as recent as April 2022, Delhi is a stark maroon and there is a similar story for Beijing. At some point, the nations have to decide between their extensive development and competitive strategies and take a far-sighted approach. It is increasingly important to shift from just bringing down a mere stat like PM2.5 or AQI, and listen to the people who suffer every day because of it.


However, there is a marked difference in how these crises were handled in Beijing and New Delhi. Beijing favoured a heavy top-down approach, and similar strategies cannot be applied in New Delhi. For example, the “Parade Blue” phenomenon in Beijing, where stringent policing by the Chinese government makes for clear skies around special events. Such measures are not possible in India, whereas in Bejing, it was censored from the internet. In an authoritative political regime, it is easier to enforce rulings without opposition. It, however, remains to be seen how New Delhi is able to adopt a participative approach to tackle this issue in the Indian context.

The Blog was written under the guidance and supervision of Dr. Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman,Independent Researcher and Consultant (International Relations, Transboundary Rivers and Borders) and Visiting Faculty (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati). The views expressed here are those of the author(s), and not necessarily of the mentor or the Institute of Chinese Studies.

Biden’s Dilemma to or not to Lift Tariffs on Chinese Imports

-Hemant Adlakha

Lift China Tariffs? – WSJ

Increased tariffs didn’t cause high inflation, lifting them is not going to curb it either, experts say

Easy monetary policy, expansionary fiscal policy, rising oil prices, the war in Ukraine, and not the additional tariffs on Chinese imports are among the key factors for the record-high 8% US inflation currently. Facing the midterm elections this fall and with approval ratings as low as 39%, President Biden is under mounting pressure to reduce the additional tariffs from the Trump era. However, with over 82% of Americans holding a negative view of China at present, will or can Biden risk lifting China tariffs and appear looking weak before the US’s enemy number one?

In March 2018, when President Trump announced his administration’s decision to increase tariffs on imports from China, the move was welcomed by most Americans. Those endorsing a “trade war” with China ignored the view that the so-called punitive measures against China would adversely impact US consumers and the economy. This is a midterm election year but President Biden’s approval ratings are as low as a miserable 39%. Biden is now eighteen months into his presidency and still struggling to evolve the administration’s China policy. His dilemma at the present is, should he 1) risk selling “reduce China tariffs” as a panacea to solve a troubled economy to the US voters; 2) “reduce China tariffs” and risk appearing weak before China?

Contrast Nixon’s opening of America to China half a century ago with Biden shutting off China to America today. No one in the early 1970s accused or even considered the Nixon administration “going weak before the communists in Beijing.” Instead, his handshake with Mao was hailed as a geopolitical venture orchestrated by Kissinger. Moreover, no China but the Soviet Union was the US’s main enemy then. However, President Biden today is confronted with a China most Americans fear as the most important threat to US interests.

It is beyond dispute that the imposition of 25% tariffs on Chinese imports worth over $300bn into the US four years ago, also called the US-China “tariff war,” was the beginning of Washington’s long-term China policy of confrontation and containment. It is also beyond doubt that eighteen months into the Biden presidency, notwithstanding the raging Ukraine war in Europe, the United States has become more singularly focused on one country: China. Recall President Biden’s recent Asia visit which took him past China into Japan and South Korea but the US political elite and media alike applauded the five-day Indo-Pacific trip for its one-point agenda, i.e. an aggressive and belligerent China.

Biden chose to kick off his first Asia visit on May 20 by going to Seoul, with the aim of meeting newly elected South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in order to shore up the US-South Korea alliance which had been “weakened” under the previous Moon Jae-in era; he then traveled into Japan and launched the 13-country Indo-Pacific Economic Fram work on his first evening spent in Tokyo; on his second day in the Japanese capital his agenda was to reinvigorate Quad – the four-nation quadrilateral security mechanism anti-China clique which is increasingly being referred to as “Asian NATO” not just in Beijing but also in Washington, Tokyo, Canberra, and New Delhi.

Additionally, although it is claimed the IPEF is Biden’s attempt to fill up the so-called vacuum in the Asian economy created after President Trump had pulled out America from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Yet the truth is this was more of Biden’s assertion that “America is back” in Asia-Pacific geopolitics. On the other hand, the Quad leaders’ summit, the second in-person meeting of the leaders of the four countries in just eight months, was aimed at signaling to Beijing that despite Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, and the record-high inflation in the US, the Biden administration has not lost focus on the fact that China is its main enemy.

On May 24, as Biden wrapped up his maiden journey into Asia and returned to Washington, he created two records to be remembered by posterity. One, Biden became the first sitting US president in this century who did not visit China in the first year of his presidency. Second, Biden now also holds the record of the longest gap since the last visit to Beijing by a US president – Biden’s predecessor Trump last visited China in November 2017. The second of the two records is more significant and has major implications not only for US-China relations but also for world politics.

It is important to know why Biden skipped going to China during his maiden trip to the Asia-Pacific region. To be fair to President Biden and to his China team, it was announced way back in January this year that his itinerary would not include Beijing. But why? For the following reasons.

First, it is indeed true when Biden took office it was a fraught moment for the US-China relationship. Let us just suffice by flagging the two key issues facing the world’s most important bilateral relationships left behind by the previous administration, the Sino- American relations. One, Trump’s economic warfare against China over the past several years had, as was expected, not only bizarrely failed but also harmed the US farmers in particular and consumers in general. Two, the timing of the US withdrawal from the TPP and China’s forging ahead with the largest regional economic and trade grouping – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, not only saw China’s economic influence in Southeast Asia expand but at the same time the US political and economic presence in the region entered a phase of dangerously huge uncertainty.

Second, in such a scenario, President Biden was faced with two choices before formulating a new China strategy. One was to carry on with the tough stance on both China and Xi Jinping displayed throughout his presidential campaign, during which he even called the Chinese president a “thug.” The other was to explore an out-of-the-box way to seek conciliation with China. The second option deserved serious consideration for a few simple reasons, namely a) China was not at all a weak economy like the Soviet Union before it collapsed in the 1980s; b) China not only had a strong international standing but was well-integrated into the world economy; c) China had a stable leadership. However, the politician in Biden dominated the economist in him. Biden chose to “punish” Beijing by making sure that “China does not succeed in surpassing the US as the world leader.”

Third, as observed by some US political analysts, not including a visit to China as part of Biden’s recently concluded Asia tour itinerary, has as much to do with US domestic audiences as with US foreign policy or the China policy. This also explains why as Biden took office, he promised to reverse several of the Trump administration’s policies but not the China strategy. Obviously, the Biden administration was aware the dislike for China had been rising among Americans – 46% in 2018, 67 % in 2021, and an unprecedentedly high percentage of 82% today. These figures explain the unmistakably close link between popular negative views and the current administration’s approach toward China.

A more crucial factor in addition to the anti-China “wave” currently prevailing in the United States is what Susan B. Glasser, the veteran US political analyst observed in her column in The New Yorker: “There is no doubt that Biden’s had a brutal second spring in office. The sense of metastasizing crisis threatens to overwhelm any other story about his leadership.” Further, citing the Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik’s observation that in the past four midterm elections public had made up its mind about the leadership in

Washington, she added “June is more or less the last chance for a president and his party to somehow change course and avert a looming political debacle in the fall.” The politician in Joe Biden knew very well the American voter had welcomed Trump’s economic warfare against China. The poor economist as he is, President Biden, ignored when told increased tariffs on Chinese imports had no negative impact on the Chinese economy but acted as a boomerang on the US economy. Now, clueless as to what to do with four-decade high inflation, and also without a clue whatsoever about how to reverse his declining approval rate, Biden is under mounting pressure to lift the tariffs in order to woo voters in midterm elections this fall. But the big question is, Biden, whose favorite line before becoming the US President had been “Here is the deal,” and who, as President, has become infamous for saying “What can I do” and “I can’t make that happen,” can he go against the popular will and lift China tariffs and risk looking go weak before Beijing in a midterm election year?

The views expressed here are those of the author(s), and not necessarily of the mentor or the Institute of Chinese Studies.

ADIZ Antipathy in Cross-Strait Relations

Amogh Sharma, Research Intern, ICS


On the 1st October 2021, the Ministry of National Defense of Taiwan reported the sighting of 38 PLAAF aircraft in Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. The combined fleet of jet fighters and nuclear-capable bombers flew in the vicinity of Taiwan-controlled Pratas islands in the southeast of Taiwan. These aircraft were met with radio warnings and scrambled Taiwanese jets. The Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang gave a statement immediately after the incident, criticising these military aircraft manoeuvres by China within the Taiwanese air defence zone, which he deemed an act of “bullying.”

The Chinese responded by sending over 150+ sorties into the ADIZ over the next five days, which outnumbered the total number of incursions previously in that year. These events have been followed by daily flybys of Chinese aircraft and have created uncertainty in the region. This uncertainty builds up between the two sparring states, and observers fear broader, more calamitous incursions.

ADIZ and Aerospace

These aircraft incursions occurred in Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). In the dawn of commercial flights, nations attempted to generate a uniform code for regulating the air via international treaties. In 1944, the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation established the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). In its first three articles, the convention defines airspace and each country’s exclusive sovereignty over its airspace. The airspace is a legal entity enshrined in the convention. A country’s airspace extends 22 km from its boundaries (12 nautical miles).

The United States was the first country to define its ADIZ in the 1950s, and Annex 15 of the ICAO defines it as a “Special designated airspace of defined dimensions within which aircraft are required to comply with special identification and/or reporting procedures additional to those related to the provision of air traffic services (ATS).” There is no legal provision for the ADIZ yet. Many countries have, however, maintained it for security purposes. It is customary for aircrafts entering the ADIZ to give identification and seek authorisation from the country controlling the zone. The ADIZ is merely a safety measure, but since it is not an international rule, it is often the site of disputes and conflicts. Especially in the cross-strait region of China and Taiwan.

China’s Ambition in the Region

President Xi Jinping has stressed that “China has never, and will never, invade or bully others or seek hegemony.” This statement is in direct contrast to Chinese actions surrounding Taiwan. Despite repeatedly pledging a ‘peaceful reunification, it is a fact that China still considers Taiwan a ‘renegade province’.  There is no doubt amongst Chinese policymakers that reunification of Taiwan is a target for the PRC; their views vary on when and how this should happen. In his book, ‘Return of The Dragon‘, analyst Denny Roy talks about two schools of thought: the ‘patient’ and the ‘impatient’.  The patient group adheres to Deng Xiaoping’s approach of building cross-strait ties and trust, using both to integrate Taiwan over time slowly. The impatient group does not believe there is time for this slow integration, but a quick resolution, even if  a military occupation is used,  is necessary. These ideas have surged in popularity under the current regime. As Xi asserted during the initial years of his presidency, it is time the two sides reach a ‘final solution‘. Xi Jinping, during a meeting with the Taiwanese delegation at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia. (October, 2013) said “The issue of the political divide that exists between the two sides must step by step reach a final resolution and it cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”

It is unclear how favourable this solution shall be to both parties, as legislations like Article 8 of the ‘Anti-Secession Law’ in China, which allow the use of force for reunification, continue to offset democratic Taiwan. Nevertheless, Xi has made reunification a centrepiece of his ‘China Dream’, a return to glory for the Middle Kingdom. In March 2018, while addressing the National People’s Congress, Xi thundered that Taiwanese separatism ‘will be condemned by the Chinese people and punished by history’.  And four days after the highest burst of aircraft activity in Taiwanese ADIZ in recent memory (one day before Taiwan National Day in 2021), Xi remarked that “The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled,”

ADIZ Incursions and Reactions

The 180 km-wide Taiwan Strait is divided by a ‘Median Line’, which till the late 90s was the boundary line between the two countries. When Chinese forces grew in strength over their island neighbours, so did their confidence in crossing this line. Now, the 80 km line is far from the 22 km sovereign airspace, but the flagrant violation of previous understandings after increased power gave a glimpse of Chinese views on this issue.

Map and research by Louis Martin-Vézian of CIGeography

In April 2019, two PLAAF J-11s crossed the median line by 43 nautical miles and stayed there for an abnormally long 12 minutes. Usual violations are accidental due to poor weather or pilot error, but this was the most extended violation since the 1950s. Observers suggest that the motive was provocative rather than accidental. Since the Ministry of National Defence (MND) of Taiwan began recording violations of the ADIZ in 2020, these instances have kept increasing; peaking on specific occasions like National Days or the Huan Kuang exercise.

Beyond just political reasons, several legalities hinder Taiwan’s international appeal against China’s provocations. The United States, which has been a significant player in pushing for ADIZs, does not recognise Taiwan’s ADIZ. Moreover, Taiwan has been excluded from the ICAO since the 70s, when China was given its spot.  Effectively this makes them a single country for the ICAO. Hampered by these liabilities, supported by a weakened US in the region and a rising rival to the East, Taiwan can only try to keep up and maintain vigil over its security.


Taiwanese reunification with mainland China is a central aspect of Xi Jinping’s future vision of China. With a declining American influence, the fate of Taiwan looks increasingly precarious. Not just limited to economic and diplomatic pressure, China is using its military strength aggressively. 

China has ambitions in the South China Sea and regards Taiwan as a pivotal link to its growing power range. Taiwan is a symbol of American presence in China’s periphery, and the increasing rivalry between the global giants is a cause of concern for the small island nation. Taiwan is at a critical junction, a confluence point for two powers, and a hotspot for conflicts. It is an uneasy status quo, and renewed strategic recourses are the need of the hour. Temporary measures like observer status in the ICAO for Taiwan (similar to its presence in WHO until recently) and discussions regarding regulations of ADIZ could be some steps in a direction towards greater peace.

The Blog was written under the guidance and supervision of Dr. Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman,Independent Researcher and Consultant (International Relations, Transboundary Rivers and Borders) and Visiting Faculty (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati). The views expressed here are those of the author(s), and not necessarily of the mentor or the Institute of Chinese Studies.

RUSSIA-UKRAINE CRISIS: China Looking for ‘Opportunity’ amid Ukraine War

Hemant Adlakha,   Vice Chairperson, ICS and Associate Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Myths are an essential part of all forms of human narrative. Myth-making, likewise, is central to all academic disciplines. Diplomacy or foreign policy as a field of study is no exception. Even more significantly, both construction of myth as well as sometimes relying upon myth for making policy choices are treated as normal professional habits. Is it any wonder therefore diplomacy has been called “a kind of art of the impossible?” We don’t know if the Chinese are genuinely unique in myth-making in the practice of diplomacy. But what is certain is that more than any other society China is known to be a storehouse of mythologies, traditions, dragon-fantasies, and mysteries. Likewise, Chinese diplomacy too is shrouded in mystery and remains an enigma. More often than not, the Chinese do things that are completely at odds with the rest of the world. China’s Covid-19 combat strategy of “Zero virus” versus the global “living with coronavirus” policy is just one latest example.


In a recent post, the pre-eminent foreign policy expert and Harvard Professor Joseph S. Nye, Jr. has tried to elucidate why President Xi Jinping – as against the whole world’s expectations – won’t mediate an end to the Ukraine war. Nye offers three reasons why Xi has chosen to do so: domestic political vulnerabilities, lack of courage and imagination to do “Teddy Roosevelt Moment” and go on to win a Nobel Peace Prize, and third and most important is to prefer to stay on the side-lines and continue to hold on to the belief of “no limits” in his relationship with “dear friend” Putin.

Is China having a good war in Ukraine?

Contrast Nye’s prognosis with two other views. One by a Beijing-based veteran international relations observer, who recently stated in his column that Xi knows “there are limits and those limits have, in fact, been reached.” The other view is at variance with both Nye and the Beijing-based foreign expert. It claims China is in no doubt that the US-led NATO aims at regime change in Russia and that the US/NATO are fighting the war against Russia as part of the US National Security Strategy 2018 which openly declared “US military objectives were to wage ‘great power conflict’ with countries like Russia and China.” Hence, Xi is not at all interested in withdrawing support to Moscow. The three contrasting views above have lead us to ask: are the Chinese really good at myth making? Or as the Chinese say, why is it the West always gets it wrong about us?

China calls it ‘crisis’ in Ukraine

In the current world crisis situation caused due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, everyone in Washington and Berlin and Paris is wondering why is China risking its global trade and international image by refusing to give assurances that it will not “bail out” Russia as against the Western sanctions? Why is China willing to get entangled with countries with which it has a quarter of its total trade as compared to Russia with which it has only 2.4% of its total trade? How credible is the view that with Russia as an ally totally diminished, China is not having a good war?  

China’s myth-making

It is quite telling how Beijing, in reply to the above questions, has responded by creating the following myths: first, by abstaining on the UNSC vote on condemning Russia for invading Ukraine, China has convincingly conveyed to the world that China is likely to stay on the side-line; the second big myth Beijing has been successfully spreading is that the real target of the US push behind the Russia-Ukraine war is Beijing, not Moscow; the third myth China has effectively woven exclusively targeting the European Union is Beijing’s serious concern that the European countries are threatening a harder-line stance towards China.

China won’t mediate in Russia-Ukraine war

Additionally, the biggest of all myths the Chinese have created is the manner in which Beijing has successfully projected its “marriage of convenience” equation with Moscow as better than having a “security alliance” between two aspiring partners or allies. It is indeed remarkable how the US has been led to believe that, in spite of China and Russia being poles apart in their respective analyses of international politics, the two “bosom buddies” have been lumped together as threats to US national security. Look at how Shi Ze, who once served as China’s diplomat in Moscow, recently summed up the different worldviews of China and Russia: “China and Russia have different attitudes. Russia wants to break the current international order….Russia thinks it is the victim of the current international system, in which its economy and its society do not develop. But China benefits from the current international system. We want to improve and modify it, not to break it.”

Perhaps totally unaware of the Chinese art of myth-making, veteran international affairs observer and Le Monde war correspondent Michael T. Klare has called the Chinese leadership’s support to Russia as “faulty assessment.” “Historically speaking, the Chinese Communist Party leadership has been careful indeed to gauge the ‘correlation of forces’ when facing foreign adversaries. They provided considerable military assistance to the North Vietnam without being viewed by Washington as requiring counterattack. Similarly, on Taiwan they [Beijing] have so far avoided any direct move to seize it by force and risk a full-scale encounter with potentially superior US forces,” Klare opined.

China spins Russia’s war in Ukraine

Sun Tzu-style strategic thinking

On the contrary, as the war in Ukraine enters 42nd day, and despite reports filtering in that Russia has decided to withdraw its assault on Kyiv, Beijing feels it is in a pretty comfortable position that the war has not yet ended. A Chinese economist has recently unravelled the Sun Tzu-style “secret” military thinking known to all those residing in Beijing’s Zhongnanhai or inside the “forbidden city.” In a signed article in Professor Li Wei of Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in the Chinese capital has revealed that a school of thought in Beijing believes, the raging war in Europe is just like the opportunity that followed the “9.11” terror strike in New York – the US devoted itself to combating Islamic terrorism and eased its pressure on China.

Finally, citing Hu Xueyan (1883-65), the only member of the merchant class who was decorated by the late Qing rulers for his business acumen, Professor Li Wei wrote: “The only thing you need to be a successful merchant is the vision. As in business, so in (military) strategy.” So what can China effectively do as the war in Ukraine rages on? One of the most intriguing questions since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been whether China knew of the invasion plan when China and Russia issue their joint statement on February 4? If true, it would mean Beijing indeed had been planning to act on a strategy inspired by Sun Tzu’s advice, also known to be the basic mind-set of the Chinese philosophy’s Yin-Yang concept – “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” Or as Li Wei put it, to end years of the US-led “Trumpian” hostility towards China, the leadership in Beijing has now decided to act. Accordingly, instead of “waiting to hitchhike,” the mood in Beijing now is to take the initiative into its own hands. Much more on this in my next post.

The article was originally published by the IDR on April 27, 2022, under the title “China’s leaders Look for ‘Opportunity’ Amid Ukraine War”