By Lt Gen P R Shankar (Retd)
The 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party should have been a great celebration of ‘joie de vivre’ for the Chinese people. There were two shades to it. The media blitz kept promoting the CCP approved version of China’s history. The celebration had great pageantry, pomp and powerful speeches. On one side Xi Jinping delivered a speech highlighting the achievements of the nation under the CCP. He harped on the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. He praised his people for the ‘new world’ they had created. He made a great deal of the ultimate triumph of the communist system over all other forms of government. His speech highlighted the total control of the CCP over China its people and its politics. He also spoke of an ‘unshakeable commitment’ to unification with Taiwan.
On other side Xi Jinping, dressed in a Mao suit, delivered a combatant speech. He warned that those who tried to ‘bully, oppress or enslave’ China would ‘crack their heads’ on a ‘Great Wall of steel’. He also said that China will not allow ‘sanctimonious preaching’. It is this aspect of his speech which is interesting. It was two toned. While it served as a warning for all of China’s enemies who are trying to bring the nation down, it also reflected a fear that the Chinese were feeling still threatened to be bullied, oppressed and enslaved. The wall mentality crept in. Clearly this is not the confident approach of a superpower to lead the world! It is something else. Where does this aggression and defiance come from? It comes from an innate sense of insecurity or fear. At a time when CCP should be celebrating hundred successful years, which it has been touting for the past year, their leader makes a an aggressive speech of psychological shakiness overshadowed by the pall of the Chinese virus.
Xi Jinping’s strident speech indicated that nothing could stop China’s rise and that it was preordained. However, in a very lucid article in New York Times, it has been highlighted that nobody is trying to bully, oppress or enslave China. In fact it was a bipartisan American effort which helped China rise from the depths of poverty which Mao’s leadership had sunk it into. Overall, the view that China’s rise is as much unstoppable as Germany’s supposedly was, a little over a century ago, remains a cliché. It might just not happen beyond a point. Hereafter China’s rise will be opposed tooth and nail by a plethora of nations. It is also no secret that China’s constantly seeks recognition as a benevolent and generous great power. A significant amount of effort is put in to highlight this aspect in its information and propaganda campaigns. An article in Nikkei Asia analyses this craving and calls it China’s ‘pettiness complex’. Part of manifestation of this complex is to showcase China’s magnanimous side. However as China keeps handing out gifts of dubious nature and burnishing its image, it has also established a reputation for itself as a petty mean-spirited bull(y). Petty powers, like petty human beings, are victims of an insecurity complex. They are seized by overpowering anxiety to show toughness at all times to convince themselves that others take them seriously. For a petty power like China a facade of strength is more important than anything else. That was exactly what was on display in Xi Jinping’s speech. This is also reflected in events as they are unfolding. Are we seeing the beginning of unmaking of the bully? I call it the ‘China in the Bull(y) Shop’ syndrome.
For the past one year and a half we saw propaganda, information and influence operations by wolf warriors who kept extolling Chinese success in controlling the virus, developing vaccinations and combating it. Any needle of suspicion swinging towards China was snapped at ferociously. However where did it end? The world is now even more convinced that the Virus was an escaped by product of the activities in the Wuhan Lab. Everyone is also convinced that but for Chinese incompetence, inefficiency, lying and malfeasance the pandemic could have been better handled by the world. We would have been in less grief. Of course their vaccines are from a different planet for a different virus. Not for the one which came out their Wuhan Lab. Garry Kasparov, the world chess turned human rights champion summed it up aptly by saying ‘China gave us the virus, and the free world gave us the vaccines’. The repeated failure of Chinese vaccines despite the propaganda that it would lead the world out of the pandemic is also an indication that its technology is suspect. This has been compounded by the fact that the worlds outlook about China has remained negative despite its best efforts to project itself as a leader. Many countries of note also have a dim view of China’s human rights record and little confidence in Xi Jinping’s handling of foreign affairs. The bull(y) is being recognised for what he is!
Let us turn to the economy which was being touted as a runaway success till recently. As per New York Times, it has started to level off. Many other analyses echo the view that Chinese growth could peter out. Rising cost of raw materials has been eating into the profits despite strong exports. People are shopping more but small businesses are suffering. Inflation is starting to make a comeback. The uncertainty of the pandemic is weighing in. China’s actual economy might not quite be as strong as we are made to believe. Other indicators reinforce this fact. China has recently pulled the plug on another mega IPO of its Uber-like Didi Global Inc. This is the second such ‘pulling of the plug’ after the Alibaba IPO. More such actions are in the pipeline for other intended IPOs. At the heart of this crackdown is fear that these firms could become bigger than the state. It is also a case of the Chinese bull(y) at work internally. After all no one can be bigger than the bull(y). It is also significant that China fears foreign investments in such industries where there are vast amounts of data. Besides this , China’s bond defaults hit a record high of $18bn in first half of 2021. These include state owned firms. Overall shakiness is apparent. Further Chinese businesses are getting adversely affected by sanctions on individual firms due to issues related to Xinjiang abuses and military business ties. To top it , China is unwilling to use its anti-sanctions law since it will lead to decoupling in technology. The bull(y) is being called out. Overall, China might bully small and weak countries but is not standing up to the big and strong countries.
The bull(y) shop of China has started showing up in geopolitics also. Everyone is familiar with its attempts at territorial grabs in the South China Sea and Eastern Ladakh. The bullying has now gone a notch higher. It recently issued out a warning to Japan to nuke it if it interferes in the Taiwan dispute. This is a paranoid side of China which is emerging. The days when it was preening to be responsible power seem to be over. Its foray in Afghanistan is now tinged with uncertainty. There is greed and fear to get involved there. Its days of a free ride over US shoulders are over. It is seeking all kinds of formulations to stabilise Afghanistan. It is learning fast what it takes to be a superpower. From all counts it is now depending upon Pakistan to deliver Afghanistan to it. Well. Well. If one has a sleazy ally like Pakistan, be sure to count your body bags! That is what has happened in the recent bus attack in Kohistan where nine Chinese dam workers were killed. In a typical bully type of reaction, the Global Times editor-in-chief on warned Pakistan that if it is not able to eliminate the terrorists responsible for the attack, Chinese missiles and special forces can be put into action to accomplish the task. So are we going to see boots on ground? Welcome to the superpower world. I have always maintained that in order to be a superpower, one has to shed blood. That has just begun. Let us see how the bull(y) reacts beyond the rhetoric of Global Times.
China is a mean spirited bull(y) which is preening as a large hearted magnanimous global leader. It was, is and will remain the mean spirited bull(y) well into the future. Simultaneously, the geopolitical, military and economic landscape for China is changing. Its further rise will be unaided. Its expansionism will be opposed. However the current momentum of China’s rise will continue to take it up till it hits a plateau. As the ageing effect of the population starts taking hold on all facets of life, their decline will commence. Their long term headaches are just beginning and they know it. How will this affect the Chinese outlook in future? They are sure to show a sense of deprivation and being denied. Resultantly, the chances of showing greater aggression and mean spiritedness is high. How does this bull(y) attitude affect us in India? There is now no doubt that China and India will remain antagonistic to each other well into the future. In such a scenario, China will try every trick in the bag to bully us into submission. There will be direct efforts and indirect tricks. There will be physical and psychological tricks. However we need to realise that the China story has time limits on it before its vulnerabilities start taking hold to normalise it. There will be cracks beyond the bull(y) façade which will appear. Watch out for them since those are our opportunities. We need to stop over recognition of Chinese strengths which are often overstated and unearth their weaknesses so that we are balanced in our response. In all analysis in India, China comes out as the mighty power and Indian strengths are often underplayed in every sector. The challenge before India is that how does it play its strength against the weakness of China in the bull(y) shop.
-The writer was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda