The Chinese have, over the years since Communist takeover of the mainland in 1949, perfected the art of propaganda through deception and subterfuge. There is no better evidence of this than the manner in which the powers-that-be in Beijing have, through the 2020 party congress, projected the handling of the coronavirus pandemic as a major victory for the Xi Jinping dispensation.
True to style, President Xi Jinping has been instrumental in covering up the colossal failure in preventing the pandemic and in keeping its outbreak under wraps from international focus in the initial weeks.
In the controlled atmosphere that prevails in a totalitarian setting, the authorities have been able to cap the internal dissent and criticism of the regime but in the outside world the country is seen increasingly as being unreliable.
For a while it seemed Xi Jinping would lose ground to his detractors, but he and his regime have been able to ride the storm and emerge seemingly unscathed except in muted forms of public dissent.
When Jinping was declared President for life at the party congress in 2018, he made sure that the rest of the top leadership was also insulated from being removed. Today, with the vested interest that they hold in Jinping’s continuance lies their own longevity in power.
Consequently, the whole concentration in the just-concluded party congress was on projecting a larger-than-life image of the Communist party and its leadership — that it had done no wrong and cannot do any wrong. The world was indeed cajoled into believing that China lost just over 4,600 lives to the pandemic when the actual figures are suspected to have been much, much high.
On the international stage, the Chinese fatality figures were touted as being only a fraction of figures in the US, Italy, Spain, France, UK and some other countries. The Chinese also pooh-pooed claims that they had been responsible for the deadly spread of the virus by their failure to warn other countries of the impending crisis.
The Chinese Communist party’s gambit in projecting the control of the pandemic in China as a symbol of the country’s resilience and fortitude may not have convinced many, but the masses in China had no option but to quietly accept the flawed hypothesis lest they be dubbed renegades.
That there are sizeable sections in China that are skeptical of claims made inspires hope that some day those who shun propaganda would come to the fore. But no one knows when that would happen if at all.
It was a measure of Chinese strategems that seeing the wind blowing against them at the recent World Health Organisation meeting of member-countries Xi Jinping joined the others in seeking to get to the root of the outbreak of the pandemic and of the way it spread. This was typical Chinese tactical retreat with the intent of going on with deception while claiming saintly action.
Evidently, the Chinese hegemonic designs in claiming territories in the South China Seas, their secret goading of tiny Nepal to lay claims over a road that India asserts as its own and uses as a shortcut to the pilgrim spot of Kailash Mansarovar and Chinese muscle-flexing even in the East China Sea vis- à -vis Japan are signs that Xi Jinping’s hawkish attitude has a lot to do with what the party expects of him.
The hardening of the Chinese stance against Taiwan and Hong Kong is also dictated by the Communist party which is using Xi Jinping as a means to perch China as a super power beyond or parallel to the US in the global scenario.
While the loss of Chinese credibility was a fallout of and spread of coronavirus, another effect of the party congress was an endorsement of Xi Jinping’s tough line against rebellious Hong Kong which has held its freedom dear in the face of Chinese repression in the mainland.
That the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong will be ruthlessly suppressed is well on the cards but what it would lead the country to is still a dilemma. For now, any credible challenge to Xi Jinping is very unlikely despite sections in China being secretly opposed to him.
The party would be happy with Chinese muscle-flexing in southeast and east Asia for which it would give credit to Xi Jinping. The border skirmishes with India are also part of a plan to reaffirm China’s supremacy and to embarrass India.
The fact that India has been largely muted in its opposition to China’s apparently wilful negligence in allowing coronavirus to spread worldwide is India’s way of keeping off escalation despite our closeness to the US. New Delhi’s role in the WHO soft-pedalling the issue of seeking observer status for Taiwan in the world body is also a signal that India wants durable peace with Beijing.
Yet, it would be naive of China to think it can bully India like it did in 1962. The India of today is much better equipped to deal with any external challenge.
The party conclave chose not to set any target for GDP growth in the current year in an oblique acceptance that all is not hunky dory with the economy. That despite the growth rate having dipped in the wake of coronavirus, foreign investment no longer forthcoming, and unemployment soaring, the country’s concentration is still on an extraordinarily high defence budget is a reflection of the priorities that guide China even in these difficult times.
The writer is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.