The Case of Rising Divorces in China amid COVID-19 Lockdown

Bihu Chamadia, Research Intern, ICS

China announced a nationwide lockdown on January 23 to combat the Coronavirus outbreak. As soon as there was a visible decline in the number of reported cases of COVID-19 in China, the rules of lockdown were eased and many government offices started to function normally. While China tries to pull itself out of the pandemic, there has been another outbreak in the country: the rising cases of divorces.

After the government started lifting the lockdown in late February, marriage registration offices of various districts started receiving high number of divorce cases. The offices of many districts in Xi’an city of Shaanxi province received a record number of divorce cases. According to local Chinese sources, the incoming divorce cases in the marriage registration office in Yanta district in the city of Xi’an had surged to the point where the marriage registration office did not have vacancy till 18 March this year. The situation was similar in other parts of China including Beijing, Shanghai, Yunnan and Sichuan.

Even though an increase in divorce cases is a common trend in China after the Spring Break, according to a report in Global Times, compared to the same period last year, there has been a surge in the number of divorce cases this year. In Tongzhou district in Sichuan Province, the Civil Affairs office received 232 cases from late February till end March, while the number of divorce cases registered last year during the same period was 180.

Marriage as a social institution in China has been facing serious challenges since many years. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, there has been a significant hike in the rate of divorce since the reform and opening up era. But this trend witnessed a steep rise after the liberalisation of Marriage Law in 2003. Once considered a taboo, even the number of divorce cases doubled in the past one decade. In 2010, the total number of divorces in China stood at 1.96 million which has more than doubled recently. Recent figures mentioned by Ministry of Civil Affairs, shows that it stood at more than 4 million in 2019.

The  closing down of factories during the lockdown which had led to the laying off of workers and a dip in household income, was one of the primary factors that contributed to rising tensions between married couples during this period. Moreover, the gendered nature of household chores, where it was socially accepted that men who worked outside the household did not have time to lend a helping hand for household chores, was effectively busted during the lockdown when work happened from home; household work was still managed by the female partner during the lockdown. Women had to shoulder the entire burden of household duties including grocery-shopping and taking care of children with little to no help from her male counterpart. While these issues existed earlier, the lockdown period witnessed an overlapping of mental pressure along with problems such as inequality, gendering in roles and stereotyping of work which eventually accelerated divorce cases after the lockdown was lifted.

Infidelity was another major reason for divorce among married couples. The changes in the Marriage Law in 2003 allowed wives the right to divorce if the husband was abusive or had an extramarital affair. Many cases of infidelity were uncovered during the lockdown which otherwise would have remained under the veil during normal conditions. According to a 2016 report in Global Times, on an average 75% of the divorce cases filed are due to infidelity. In a speech made of 6 November 2019, Zhou Qiang, the Chief Justice of China’s Supreme People’s Court mentioned 74% of the total divorce filed between 2016-2017, were initiated by women.

While issues such as infidelity, financial issues and non-sharing of household burden have been the most common reasons for divorce in China, the lockdown aggravated these issues and exacerbated tensions between couples, and even led to a spike in cases of domestic violence. Divorce lawyers, in particular, have noted an increase in cases related to divorce and pointed that problems which would  have earlier been a cause of little strife in the household were now leading to divorces due to an increase in interaction between couples during this period.

A combination of better socio-economic status leading to new aspirations, increasing tolerance among the masses towards divorce have influenced this trend. But most importantly, the liberalization of the marriage laws in 2003 played a significant role in the rise in divorce cases in China. Changes in the marriage laws in 1981 and 2001  led to a gradual increase in the number of divorce over the years but it was after the amendments in the Marriage Law in 2003 such as lower cost of filing divorce, faster pace of granting divorce and non-requirement of employer’s approval for filing a divorce which made it easier for women to seek divorce leading to the number of divorce in China rise exponentially after 2003 (see graph below).

Parallel to these developments was the rising average income of the female population in China since the reform and opening up.  As average female income rose, the number of divorces also began rising. Earlier, job stability and owning a house were enough for a woman to ‘settle down’ but as women become increasingly educated and financially independent, their expectations also expanded. They no longer accepted to live in an abusive marriage or marriages where there was no compatibility. Moreover, while in the past, custody of the child was often given to the ex-husband after divorce and the wife was ostracized and faced difficulty finding a job – a major deterrence for women to seek divorce- this has changed today due to change in the level of income of women in China. Therefore, an already rising trend in the number of divorce cases witnessed an acceleration during the lockdown period when couples were forced to live together.

Although revoked, the demographic shifts caused by the One-Child policy is now causing a ripple effect both on China’s economy as well as the society. A rapidly ageing  population and a fall in the average age of workforce have become a major concern for the central government as it grapples with lower birth rates and shortage in cheap labour. In 2019, China’s birth rate fell to its lowest in seven decades causing massive concern of the CCP. China’s population dwindles and the rate of marriage also goes down, the Chinese government fears that the number of workforce, taxpayers and consumers will also witness a steep fall.

The growing concern of the government towards rising divorce cases is reflected in the measures taken to address to issue such as free counselling for couples and the introduction of a “cooling off” period to slow down the divorce rate. While earlier it was adopted only by a few local courts, recently, the 13th National People’s Congress that took place in May 2020, voted in favour of adopting ‘cooling off’ as a part of China’s first ever Civil Code. This has caused a massive outrage  among the Chinese population where the Party has been accused of abandoning progressive ideas of promoting gender equality. On the other hand, family planning policy which, in 2016, was amended to allow married couples to bear two children has been absent from the 2018 Civil Code draft. This has led to speculations of government further easing the restrictions on family planning or scrapping the bar altogether on the number of children a married couple could bear.

Despite government efforts to prevent any fissures in the institution, and its push to preserve “traditional values” for a stable and “harmonious society”, divorce cases in China continue to rise. The Covid pandemic has only acted as a catalyst that has unravelled the pre-existing fractures in the society and economy. Rising costs of social pension and shortage in supply of cheap labour have created a huge burden on the falling GDP of the country. As demographers warn that China’s population will begin to shrink in the next decade derailing China’s economy with far-reaching global impact, the need to preserve the institution of marriage has become even more important. The recent adoption of the Civil Code where marriage takes up considerable space in the text of the Code exhibit the gravity the case of rising divorces pose for Beijing.

Cross-Strait Relations amid COVID-19: Multilateralism with Chinese Characteristics

Hariharan Chandrashekaran, Research Intern, ICS

COVID-19 has catastrophically emerged as one of the deadliest pandemics of the modern era, reshaping the dynamics of Cross-Strait relations, which has been characterized by limited contact, tensions, and instability. Although China managed to contain the virus, it was accused of a lack of transparency in communication. Meanwhile, Taiwan, with its proximity to China and an ideal destination for mainland tourists, was expected to have the second-highest number of imported cases during the initial stages of the outbreak. However, it was lauded globally for its swift execution of control, propagating the region’s perception in a positive light. Amid all the chaos globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) endured flak from critics for its approach towards the crisis and alleged remarks of being sympathetic towards the Chinese cause.

COVID-19, China, and the WHO.

Not ceding to a “Chernobyl moment”, after a prolonged period China successfully flattened the curve by effectively mobilizing its resources. It has since picked up the mantle to quickly restore its image through soft power measures such as formally dispatching medical equipment, ventilators and face masks to European nations such as Italy, Spain and other crisis-hit countries; now termed as “Mask Diplomacy”. Also, it maintained communication with the WHO,  providing updates of the virus and its transmission, contrary to the criticisms.

With early reactions being mainly positive from resource-strapped countries, including its African allies, a discriminatory racial incident within the Chinese mainland against African ethnicity hindered its progress. Additionally, claims of faulty equipment and its return questioned the candour of such measures.

Nevertheless, at the 2020 World Health Assembly (WHA), China pledged to contribute $2 billion to aid the WHO response towards the pandemic and the socio-economic development of the crisis-hit countries, especially Africa. Additionally, it called for global solidarity and collective mobilization of efforts against the virus by supporting WHO. But, mounting criticism resulted in the parallel emergence of the “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. 

“Wolf Warrior” diplomacy refers to the growing assertiveness of Chinese foreign policy towards the West. COVID-19 has only amplified direct engagement of China through a battle of narratives against its critics, chiefly the US, condemning it for politicizing the issue. This development marked the Chinese contribution to the gradual shift of discourse from global institutionalism to hypernationalism. This new direction aims to portray China’s story – a country, attempting to “rise to the challenges of global leadership” by striving in a climate of declining multilateralism.

The Taiwan Cause

Harnessing its experience from the SARS outbreak, the Taiwanese government reacted quickly by entering a strict lockdown mode and enforcing stringent policy measures, gaining universal acclaim. Its technological capabilities tracked down the source of the virus within its area; additionally, it developed a range of testing kits to hasten the process of the containment of the virus. Taiwan succeeded in flattening the curve, showcasing a rare, strong well-executed response, even by WHO standards.

Furthermore, Taiwan took a page out of China’s policy of engagement by initiating its version of ‘Mask Diplomacy’. It was achieved by supplying masks (Taiwan is the second-largest producer of masks after China) and providing technological action frameworks to the affected countries, especially Western powers, thereby, emulating its ability to compensate the lack of its economic power. It had significant implications on its bilateral relations through further cooperation such as ongoing Taiwan – Danish cooperation to develop vaccines and the US amending its position by supporting Taiwan’s membership to the WHA, significantly denting the “One China” policy.

However, its achievements were unacknowledged categorically due to the politics of the WHA, which recognizes the region as part of China, leading former’s exclusion from WHO meetings. It resulted in the emergence of pent up anger amongst the nationalist groups who sought to move away from the Chinese identity. However, the government response was limited to castigating WHO by questioning its non-political nature.

Balance of Tide 

It was due to the Taiwanese cause for representation after a prolonged struggle that it finally received the observer status invite to WHA in 2008 Taipei’s observer status at the WHA exemplified a historic shift in Cross-Strait relations. Nevertheless, the Assembly revoked its membership since 2016, owing to the UN Stance on “One China” Policy. Since then, China has actively blocked the prospect, thereby resulting in the reversal of whatsoever gains for positive relations over the years.

In addition to actively blocking Taiwan’s membership bid since 2016, it was also a timeline of heated economic quarrels between the US and China. Also, the Hong Kong protests had a profound impact on Taiwan by significantly affecting the results of the Taiwan presidential and legislative elections in early 2020 favouring the incumbent party and raising its image as a democratic nation. The evolved imagery and the simultaneous allegations on China over lack of transparency immensely accelerated the US legislation of  TAIPEI Act – 2019 to make it US policy to advocate Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. However, it was strongly rebutted by China who described it as an “act of hegemony”.

Nevertheless, the battle of narratives between the US and China resulted in the former halting the financing WHO. Complementing it was the announcement of US terminating its relationship with WHO as an attempt to pacify its populace for its lack of preparedness. Moreover, Australia demanded an independent assessment of the performance of the WHO and China in handling the crisis. Both responses drew sharp criticism and rebuttal from China. Nevertheless, moderates such as Germany and France urged transparency for the global good, resulting in China ceding to the demand for investigations, albeit post-crisis, making WHO a battleground of politics.

Conclusion

In tracing the dynamics of Cross-Strait relations, the ongoing situation not only demonstrates the vulnerability of international institutions’ functionality amidst political crises but also marks a growing shift away from reliance on global institutionalism. However, for Taiwan, this development brought a temporary rejuvenated hope for the government to maintain its independent co-existential nature. In contrast, with China sticking to the “One China” policy, it expects other countries to reciprocate its policy of non-interference[*]. However, the pandemic has catalyzed its assertiveness as evident in the central leadership’s decision to enforce the “New National Security Law” in Hong Kong, creating similar potential implications for Taiwan’s cause foregrounding resistance from the US. To conclude, Beijing has exploited the shift by stressing cooperation over isolation under the umbrella of the WHO by providing a differing perspective of multilateralism with Chinese characteristics that calls for solidarity without interference – a perspective steered by the rising nationalistic Wolf Warrior diplomacy.


[*]This policy of non-interference is in direct contrast to the U.S. foreign policy of selective international engagement that interferes with domestic issues.


China’s Health Diplomacy in Africa during COVID-19: Discerning Prospects and Problems

Dr. Veda VaidyanathanVisiting Research Associate, ICS

LI Nan, a South Africa’s Chinese Embassy representative, left, elbow bumps with Zweli Mkhize, South African Minister of Health, during the handing over for the emergency medical equipment for COVID-19 from China, at OR Tambo Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

Source: AP Photo

At the margins of the third session of the 13th National People’s Congress, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi fielded questions from the press, China’s role helping other countries fight COVID-19 was brought up and China’s assistance to Africa, in particular, found considerable mention. As is usually the case, high doses of morality and altruism accompanied stories of China’s health cooperation in the region. In Wang Yi’s words

China is always willing and ready to help others. When our friends are in distress, we never sit by and do nothing. A case in point is our assistance to Africa during the Ebola epidemic. While some countries evacuated their personnel from the affected areas, China rushed to Africa’s aid despite risks of infection, sending in medical teams and badly needed supplies and fighting alongside our African brothers and sisters until victory was declared.”

However, this does not take away from China’s multifaceted contribution to the African region in its fight against COVID-19. Actors including the state, provincial governments, companies and entrepreneurs have been contributing to different countries in varied forms. The Chinese government sent medical expert teams to Africa’s 5 sub regions while the resident medical teams based in 45 African countries have also been very active and have held over 400 training sessions for medical workers. On the 18th of March, the first teleconference of experts was held between China and countries in Africa. Over 300 people including representatives from over 23 African countries, the African CDC, officials from the WHO posted in the region attended the meeting with experts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Chinese CDC, the first hospital of Peking University. Since then over 30 video conferences have been held. China has also been upgrading health infrastructure, like a $500,000 donation to the Wilkins Infectious Diseases Hospital, the main Covid-19 centre in Harare, Zimbabwe. Provincial actors like Chongqing municipal government sent supplies along with a delegation to Algeria and a team of 12 medical experts from Hunan province brought medical supplies to Zimbabwe.

Chinese media houses have also been critical to its ‘Corona diplomacy’ in the continent. A website hosted by China Daily called “Fighting COVID-19 the Chinese Way” is used to share facts, updates and stories about managing the virus. Another platform called “COVID-19 Frontline” by CGTN is an online live show for medical workers and officials to share information. One of the shows hosted was titled “Fight as one: Exchange of COVID-19 treatment experiences between China and Zambia” where Doctors from the First Affiliated Hospital of Xi’an Jiaotong University, who served on the frontlines in Wuhan shared their experiences with their Zambian counterparts. Similarly CGTN invited experts from Jiangsu Province who worked in Wuhan to share their experiences with colleagues in Tanzania. Links to such platforms have been advertised in the websites of Chinese missions in various African countries. In addition to the Chinese State, Alibaba’s Jack Ma and the Alibaba foundation have also contributed to the African fight against the pandemic by providing thousands of detection kits, PPEs, face shields, infrared thermometers, extraction kits, surgical masks, swabs and gloves among others. Other Chinese firms active in the region have also been donating to local charities.

However, Chinese assistance during the pandemic has not always been received positively in the region. There is an increase in xenophobia and this has resulted in several unpleasant exchanges. One of first reports that came out in this regard saw several Africans in Guangzhou being discriminated against, evicted from their homes and forced into quarantine. This attracted an unprecedented and strong response from a group of African ambassadors in Beijing who “immediately demanded the cessation of forceful testing, quarantine and other inhuman treatments meted out to Africans”. A few weeks later news broke that three Chinese nationals were murdered in Lusaka. According to the Zambian police, the suspects killed the victims who were working in a Chinese clothing company and set their warehouse on fire. While many commentators have discussed how deep-rooted racism is a longstanding issue in China-Africa relations, officials like Zambia’s ambassador to China doesn’t seem to be too perturbed; stressing thatSometimes, our people or your people make mistakes out of anxiety. It is not good to amplify these small negative points. We should pursue cooperation under a bigger picture”.

Nonetheless, one of the major expectations from China, beyond knowledge sharing and supply of medical equipment, is to forgive loans and ease debt repayments. As several countries in the continent are struggling with weak health systems, rising domestic dissatisfaction due to unemployment and cessation of economic activity, they are not in a position to make repayments on debt. Considering that China has been the largest trading partner of the region ($208 billion in 2019), one of the largest investors ($110 billion stock) and holds a fifth of Africa’s sovereign debt, this takes centre stage. A case in point is Kenya: by March 2020, Kenya’s total national debt reached an all-time high of Sh6 trillion ($57 billion), very close to its 70 per cent national debt ceiling of Sh9 trillion ($90 billion), of this its debt to China stood at Sh660 billion ($6.6 million). While China has supported the call of the World Bank and IMF and will join the G20 nations to forgo repayments, officials have stated that they will also conduct bilateral meetings to discuss further debt relief. It is very likely that China will forgive significant African debt, not only because there is a precedent, but also due to the fact that in the post pandemic world, where investigations looking into the origins of the virus are underway, African support will be critical to China.

Similarly, Africa could also gain tremendously from China’s close engagement. As global supply chains are hard hit, intra Africa trade could increase, kick starting the African Continental Free Trade Area, and major economies in the region including Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa could start supplying to other countries and Chinese cooperation in this regard would be vital. There have already been several instances of states turning to domestic production to meet demand. The Ugandan President for instance, launched two production lines at a Chinese firm in Uganda, Lida packaging Products Ltd, that employs over 300 people and has the capacity to produce 560,000 masks a day. Similarly, the tech, digital and e-commerce spaces that have been growing rapidly – including coming up with home grown solutions to problems posed by the pandemic – stands to benefit from close cooperation with Chinese actors. Like many other geopolitical equations, China-Africa relations in the ‘new normal’ will also undergo a reset. A narrative is already building around Africa’s unwavering loyalty to China, especially during the pandemic. For instance, the Chinese ambassador to Zambia, Li Jie, stated that when the pandemic broke out in China, Zambia was one of the first countries to call and extend support and therefore Beijing will provide substantial support to Lusaka in this trying time. It would be prudent therefore, that other actors engaged in the region, like India, pay close attention to the myriad forms Chinese assistance to the continent is taking and how they are received, because it will not only influence Africa’s fight against the pandemic but will also help shape a narrative that projects China as a ‘voice of reason and judgement’ in a landscape that is seemingly devoid of global health leadership.

COVID-19: Chinese Dominance over Global Supply Chains under Threat?

Akshit Goel, Research Intern, ICS

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, nations around the world have scurried to contain the spread of the pathogen which has left the global economy in shambles. The physical measures put in place to ‘flatten the curve’ such as travel bans, lockdowns and social distancing norms have revealed the fragility of global economy. The lockdowns have severely affected the economies at home due to loss in production as major industries and factories are shut down. Further, there is also a dent in consumer spending as households are burning through their savings with their incomes impacted. The combination of these factors spell disaster for the world economy as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts the recession due to the pandemic may be worse than the 2009 global recession.

Prospects such as availability of cheap skilled labor and advancements in technology has increasingly moved the production and assembly chains of major corporations from their countries of origin to nations abroad. This trend of overseas production has left the global economy far more integrated and dependent on each other. This model of production outsourcing has been one of the driving forces that has transformed the Chinese economy into one of the manufacturing hubs of the world. China is part of some of the most important supply chains in the global economy. Availability of cheap skilled labor as well as a well-developed supply chain network alongside an integrated infrastructure which cannot be easily replicated elsewhere has helped China solidify its position as a lucrative source of cheap and steady manufacturing for many large firms around the globe. As income of individuals grew due to privatization and rapid economic growth, private household consumption also rose. This led to the creation of large domestic consumer markets in China which further incentivized manufacturers to move production here. Moreover, these supply chains fuel a major portion of the industries in South-east Asian nations such as pharmaceuticals, automobile, garments, and many more by supplying them with machinery and components which are imperative for their sustenance. The electronics industry is one of the most important industries which is dependent on the South-east Asian supply chains. Therefore, with the outbreak of COVID-19, not only is the Chinese economy affected but due to the shutdown of industries, supply chains across the globe have been disrupted.

The epicenter of the corona pandemic, Wuhan is a major manufacturing hub located in Hubei province. According to a report by Dun & Bradstreet, a business think-tank based in US, 51,000 companies have one or more direct suppliers in Wuhan, while 5 million companies have one or more tier-two suppliers in the region. This supply shock is not only going to affect the South-East Asian nations but rather a major chunk of the globe as supply disruption appears more widespread. Moreover, as per a report by Institute for Supply Management, nearly 75 per cent of companies have reported some form of impact on their business due to disruption of global value chains. Further, around 44 per cent lack any contingency plan to combat this sudden drop in supply as lockdowns chokes production. Wuhan is a major supplier of electrical components and assembly of smartphones for some of the biggest firms in the world such as Apple, which were some of the worst impacted by the disruption. Although the company has invested to diversify its assembly chain into Vietnam and India, it is still highly dependent on China in maintaining its inventory.

Moreover, China is highly integrated in the supply chain of auto parts around the world and with the onset of lockdown, the automobile industry around the globe has suffered. Fiat had to temporarily suspend production in its plant located in Serbia. This was due to a shortage in supply of auto parts from China. This was not a unique occurrence as automobile firms around the globe are facing the same issue. In a similar bid, Hyundai, world’s fifth largest automobile company had to halt production in South Korea. Wuhan supplied the world with auto components worth over USD 2 billion in FY 2018-19. India, although self-sufficient in its supply, still imported auto components worth USD 4.5 billion in FY 2018-19 from Wuhan.

This economic disaster revealed how overdependence on China, simply put, having all the eggs in one basket, could pose a problem. There is now a resounding demand in the global economy for the diversification of supply chains to nations other than China. Some of the main contenders, who could fill this supply vacuum left by China are Vietnam, Cambodia and India. The trend to move out of China gained traction just before the outbreak, in the wake of the trade war between US and China. With the imposition of tariffs, many Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) which had relied on China for manufacturing, had already started to look for alternatives to China. Apple had been, for a while, trying to move its assembly to Vietnam and India. But this is easier said than done as most of these nations themselves depend on China to fuel their industries. Vietnamese manufacturing is dependent on China for the supply of heavy machinery, components and electronic equipment that are required in manufacturing industries. Moreover, these nations still lack the skilled manpower which is required to take on any surge in demand from the US which makes them a lesser reliable supplier. Since the beginning of the lockdown in early February, China has got its grip on the spread of the virus. Factories and industries in Wuhan, and rest of China, are back online with production. But as the supply of manufactured goods begins in China, the rest of the world still grapples with the pandemic with the lockdowns in place which in turn led to shortage in demand for the Chinese industries. Although economists around the world were hoping for ‘V- shaped’ recovery, the reality seems far from it as the pandemic continues to unfold and the scope of the economic damage done by it slowly comes to light.

Can Taiwan’s COVID-19 Diplomacy Help It Make Permanent Friends?

Sanjana Krishnan, Research Intern, ICS

The world today is full of uncertainty due to the outbreak of COVID-19. While the rest of the world is still in the grip of COVID-19, one small island, namely Taiwan has been successful in flattening the curve. This was made possible by the proactive measures it took immediately after the first news of  the outbreak emerged from China. In a way, Taiwan was already in a state of readiness after the outbreak of SARS in 2003.  It was able to respond quickly by integrating the working of various ministries and employing advanced technologies to achieve good results. It implemented measures such as on-board quarantine, 14-day home quarantine, health declarations, fever screening and so on. The travel details of people are stored in their National Health Insurance cards to alert the concerned authority about any spread of the virus by using the GPS technology. This has helped in curbing individual and community spread.

Taiwan, a self-ruled island that has been denied entry into the World Health Organisation (WHO), is not only setting an example to the world by the way it has handled its internal situation but also through its help to other states by exporting medical equipment, especially medical grade masks. The territory is now the second largest producer of masks after China. According to its Economic Affairs Minister, Sheng Jong-chin (沈榮津), Taiwan produces 15 million masks every day. In March, it had relaxed the ban on export of face masks  and in April, shipped PPE and masks to its diplomatic allies and the worst hit countries in Europe. Taiwan  also announced that it would donate 10  million masks to the most needy countries and 100,000 masks per week to the United States. It has also promised to share its electronic quarantine system that employs big data analytics.

These measures helped raise considerably the profile of this self-governed island but, in turn, has attracted Beijing’s anger. Even as Taiwan received praise from various parts of the world for its effective measures and the help extended, China termed these a political game played by Taiwan to gain admission into the W.H.O and the acceptance of the world community. This accusation was made while also pointing out that Taiwan had banned its mask export when China was in its most vulnerable state with respect to the Corona virus outbreak.

China considers Taiwan a part of its sovereign territory, awaiting reunification even by force, if necessary. Today, there are only a handful of nations in Central America and the Oceanic region, that recognise Taiwan. Taiwan has even been kept out of most of the international organisations such as the United Nations, W.H.O and so on. The island is in a geo-political absurdity owing to the fact that even its most important ally, the US does not recognise its status as an independent state, its territory is under constant threat as it is claimed by a powerful state such as China and its sovereign status slowly erodes with both states and MNCs withdrawing their engagement with it due to the threat of upsetting China. In this context, the latest engagement of Taiwan holds significance.

The world is now forced to recognise the advanced healthcare and technological capability of Taiwan. The helping hand extended by the island definitely aids the improvement of its image globally. It has made Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo call for greater inclusion of Taiwan in the work of the W.H.O. This move however, is sure to be blocked by China even though it marks a departure in spirit from the 2009 arrangement that China had agreed to for Taiwan’s participation at the annual World Health Assembly from 2009 to 2016 as an Observer. There has been a change since then. Taiwan has rejected China’s main condition for the former to be a part of the W.H.O, i.e, to accept that it is a part of Mainland China in May this year.

Taiwan today faces an opportunity to strengthen ties with other states and improve its international standing. Beijing has sought to strengthen its relations with Europe by sending them medical equipment. However, this has not meant necessarily that member countries of the E.U. have succumbed to Chinese pressure on Taiwan. Many of these states have accepted help from the island and openly acknowledged this help through Twitter.

Both China and Taiwan have been able to curb the first wave of the virus. But what brings praise to Taiwan is the fact that they did it without any support from W.H.O. Taiwan also shared COVID-19 related data with W.H.O. Although China is trying to bring in a narrative of it being helpful to the world, reports of suppression of news of its early outbreak from the media as well as export of faulty equipment has adversely affected these efforts. This has in turn been a supplementary factor in improving Taiwan’s image. While both China and Taiwan engaged in mask diplomacy, Taiwan has had more apparent and immediate success. Thus, exporting medical equipment, especially masks, has also become a tool of political expression.

Taiwan’s mask diplomacy has chances of increasing the support it gets from other states. The important question here is, how long this support will last and how far it will extend. Supporting Taiwan means directly going against Chinese interests. While such support may appear today as a necessity, this cannot last for long. States often behave differently under normal conditions and under emergencies. The common determinant here is national interest. While it might be in the national interest to accept Taiwan’s help and show acceptance towards it, it might not appear so in the future when such a policy will mean locking horns with a formidable power such as China. As the world gathers more knowledge and experience in handling the pandemic, its dependence on Taiwan will decrease. In international relations, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies. There are only permanent national interests. Some alliances last only as long as some issues do. Therefore, the effect of ‘mask diplomacy’ by Taiwan may last only as long as the pandemic lasts.

China’s waning export-led growth: COVID-19 to accelerate the trend?

Karthik Satheesh, Research Intern, ICS

Since the late 1970s, China had started to shift from a centrally-planned system towards a market-oriented economy. One of the most notable features of the post-1980s China’s economic development was its increasing participation in international trade. Chinese exports rose on average 5.7% in the 1980s, 12.4% in the 1990s, and 20.3% between 2000 and 2003. By 2003, China’s export growth rate was seven times higher than the export growth rate recorded by the world as a whole. By 2006, the year when China recorded the highest trade (exports and imports), trade constituted 64% of China’s GDP.

Many countries have followed the export-led path to growth in the past and have achieved rapid growth in GDP. However, the threat of facing a global demand crunch always looms large for these economies. During 2008-09 (global financial crisis) period, China faced the same situation- its export as a percentage to GDP (see graph below) fell to 24% in 2009 (as opposed to 36 % in 2006) and its GDP growth rate fell from 14% in 2007 to 9% in 2008. This is indicative of the fact that exports were imperative to China’s growth, and when faced with a global demand slump it fumbled. Even though China managed to have a relatively high growth rate in that period, such a situation is a nightmare to an export-led economy.

Since then there has been a steady decline in exports’ percentage in GDP for China. In 2018, this figure stood close to 19%- similar to that of countries like Egypt and Uganda. Meanwhile, GDP growth more than halved during this period from 14% to around 6% growth rate (in 2019).

Source: World Bank

The steady decline in exports and imports points to the fact that China is gradually reducing its dependence on exports. This can be further coloured by the fact that both exports’ and imports’ share in GDP have fallen massively, in this decade. This means that the consumers in China have been absorbing what otherwise would have been exported and as private demands are increasingly being met domestically the imports have also slumped (from 28% in 2006 to 18% in 2018).

China now seems to be focussing on boosting domestic consumption after decades of export-led growth strategy. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, private consumption will soon constitute nearly half of China’s GDP. But is such a shift possible and if so, how? These are a few factors that have significantly boosted domestic consumption:

  • China’s per-capita income has more than doubled in the last decade thanks to its rapid growth. This means that an average Chinese have more than double the means to consume than he had a decade ago.
  • Another factor is the high adaptability and competitiveness of the Chinese retail market which ensures that home-grown retailers are always on the front line to extend goods and services to the booming consumer demand. Chinese retail market has shown extreme resilience and creativity and for the same reason, it is soon expected to emerge as the largest retail market in the world, surpassing the US.
  • Additionally, the fast-moving consumer goods market has shown excellent growth with around 4.3% growth rate in 2017 and it is expected to account for more than half of the whole economy by 2030 according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
  • Consumer behaviour in China has been changing from conservative high savers to potential spenders. This fact is highlighted by tourism spending in the year 2018: Chinese tourists spent around $277 Billion which accounts to nearly 18% of global tourism spending which is higher than any other country.
  • Moreover, as of 2018, nearly 60% of China’s population lived in cities which indicated a high rate of urbanisation (urban population growth is around 2.4% annually). This bridges the gap between the middle-class buyers and the booming retail market in the country, which in turn helps in boosting private consumption.

All these aspects, combinedly, have bolstered the shift of Chinese economy’s dependence towards domestic consumption.

A similar trend could be seen in the shift from an industry-based economy to a service-based economy; in 2006 industry contributed 13% more to China’s GDP than services while in 2016 it was the other way round. A service-based economy is a salient feature of most of the developed countries.

If we observe these trends, China seemed to have been making a steady transition from an export-led industry-oriented economy to a domestic-consumption-led service-oriented economy. However, the novel Coronavirus pandemic has left its economy hanging in uncertainty. According to World Economic Outlook, China’s growth rate is expected to shrink by more than 5% this year; the GDP growth rate is expected to be 1.2% in the year 2020 while this figure was 6.1% in 2019. The great lockdown has affected the Chinese economy very much- retail market, tourism, export declining due to global demand crunch- all of which will have a negative influence on the economy. Although nations around the world are foreseeing a recovery as soon as possible, experts do not expect this to be a v-shaped recovery. The recovery period might give China, which has already lifted lockdown restrictions, an incentive to focus more on its domestic consumption and strengthening its retail market. Even though exports in China has bounced back significantly higher than expected in the month of April (though it has and will remain quite low because of the existence of lockdown in many of China’s partner countries), domestic demand appears to be resilient and increasing– a trend we have been witnessing even prior to the lockdown.

Global merchandise trade is expected to decline 13-32% due to COVID-19 and the WTO has commented that the decline in world trade due to this pandemic will likely exceed the one accompanied by the global financial crisis of 2008-09. The post-pandemic period most likely will witness an accelerating trend of declining dependence on export-led growth for China for various reasons:

  • Deglobalisation: Even before the pandemic struck, deglobalisation was increasingly spreading around the globe, fuelled by the Sino-US trade war and the financial crisis. The pandemic has further instilled a feeling of self-reliance and accelerated this phenomenon- politicising travel and migration, cross accusations and exposure of anarchy in global governance in the recent crisis has contributed to the promotion of deglobalisation.
  • Global Value Chain (GVC) under pressure: By becoming a hub for cheap and efficient manufacturing, China was an integral part of the supply and value chain of many goods. However, after the COVID crisis, major economic players are planning to shift their manufacturing and production facilities back to their own countries, away from China, foregoing the manufacturing efficiency and cost minimisation that globalisation has offered them in the past. This increasing pressure on GVCs means that China’s exports and manufacture sector will be affected in the coming years.
  • Lockdown in partner countries: During the height of the coronavirus outbreak in China (January-February period) exports plummeted 17.2% and in April there was a surprising 3.5% jump in exports. However, even though China came out of lockdown successfully its trade partners are still in lockdown and fighting the virus. Hence, global demand is expected to remain low for the months that follow.
  • Trade war: Even before the pandemic, the US-China trade war shook China’s trade with its largest trade partner, US. A small relief in the trade war came in January, in the “phase-one” deal, when both sides agreed to give concessions on heavy tariffs imposed before. Recently, the cross accusations and mutual blame have further threatened the progress that lies ahead of “phase-one” negotiations and could even aggravate the problem further. A trade-war at this point will be heavy on China’s side and will affect its trade drastically.  
  • Direct interventions: The Chinese government has adopted policies to boost domestic consumption in the country to mitigate the heavy losses in exports that accompanies the slump in global demand. These policies are aimed at brand promotion of Chinese owned brands and on the same hand reducing the market for imported goods. Additionally, there are efforts to establish domestic duty-free shops, encourage domestic tourism and also to attract foreign tourists which could boost domestic demand and result in increased domestic consumption.

The COVID crisis could accelerate the Chinese economy’s dependence on domestic-consumption, owing to the various factors discussed above, that are currently at play. Therefore, the trend that we can expect is a “reducing dependence” on exports in the coming years and an increasing dependence on domestic consumption, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

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

P.K. Anand, Research Associate, ICS

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

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

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

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

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

China’s Rural-Urban Dichotomy

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

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

Urban Citizenship

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

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

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

Originally Published as Urban Spaces | Migrant workers remains invisible in India and Chinain Moneycontrol.com, 21 May 2020

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

Mohd. Adnan, Research Intern, ICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superpowers and spirit of International Cooperation in a Pandemic

Anu Dhull, Research Assistant, ICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mahesh Kumar Kamtam, Research Intern, ICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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