Since 1949, China has lost one fifth of its arable land to urbanisation and industrialisation and currently only about 10-15% of the land is good for agriculture. China has negotiated with financially-strapped Argentina and Colombia to buy or lease land to grow food for itself. China faces a daunting task to feed 22% of world popu
It is it only the virus that has made China Public Enemy No 1? Or are there other issues? China seeks to overawe her neighbours merely by her bulk and appearance. The post-perestroika collapse of the Soviet Union taught China’s leaders the dangers of political reform. Xi Jinping has since been spooked by the chaos unleashed in the Arab spring.
The term Comprehensive National Power, so beloved of our self-styled intellectuals, is a Chinese construct as though weakness in one pillar can be compensated for by strength in another. It cannot. All of the USSR’s military might could not compensate for a cratering economy, and it vanished without so much as a “by your leave”.
The ultimate determinant of a country’s strength is its people’s will power. The brave Vietnamese could not match the mighty USA in weaponry or economic strength or international connections, yet they brought their adversary to its knees. So, the good people of China have to be on a permanent Long March, in perpetual motion, else they will start asking uncomfortable questions about why their “mighty” nation is a pariah led by a buffoon (he has been uncharacteristically quiet of late).
China’s leaders have a right to seek a larger international role, but obsessed with their own narrative of victimhood (century of humiliation), they do not see that they themselves are bullies. China seeks greater power in the world as a substitute for fundamental changes at home.
“Peace for our time” will not come with Xi Jinping. It did not come for Europe despite British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s delusion after the Congress of Berlin 1878 or when Neville Chamberlain returned after meeting Adolf Hitler in 1938.
At its August 2020 meeting, for the first time ever, the National Peoples’ Congress (China’s rubber stamp Parliament) did not set a specific target for economic growth. But subsequent boasts focused on how quickly the economy had been repaired and was back on track. The goal, according to Xinhua, is to get the “economy firmly back to pre-pandemic vibrancy” (meaning it is not yet there).
Since when did China start acknowledging its challenges? Something serious is afoot.
In August 2020, Prime Minister Le Keqiang had acknowledged that 600 mn Chinese were flexible (migrant) workers, whose average monthly income of USD 140 can hardly pay for one room in a city.
As its economy worsened, in July 2020, Xi Jinping, Chairman of Everything, appealed to the patriotism of Chinese businessmen to build up the domestic market. Memories of the 2015 stock market crash that tested the Party’s hold on the economy came rushing back.
Reputed experts estimate China’s debt to be over USD 40 trillion, three times its GDP. So Chinese banks have drastically reduced lending for the doomed Bilk and Rob Initiative (BRI).
A retiring Chinese general reportedly lamented that he regretted not fighting in a war. This reveals the greatest weakness of China’s fighting forces. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Goebbels (sorry Global) Times published an amazing article on declining masculinity among young Chinese males, and I quote: “…the phenomenon of ‘feminization’ of males… young people are less willing and enthusiastic to protect their country…more and more young people with mental illness…children between 8 and12 should be recruited into junior military schools…in order to train a reserve army for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation…the media and film and television works should idolize more masculine soldiers.”
The Chinese Rambo is on his way!
China’s leaders are so masculine that it took PingPong eight months to tell lies about its casualties in the 2020 Galwan Valley clash with India. A fellow called Mao Zedong never admitted how many Chinese troops had died in his 1962 war with India. One of his successors acknowledged decades later that Chinese had some 2,500 dead and wounded.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) must deal with rampant corruption, and training of debatable realism.
Xi keeps lamenting this, urging his troops to learn how to fight a war (since they cannot win it without fighting—sorry Sun Tzu!) and to be ready to fight within a second. In October 2020, Xi asked PLA troops to be “absolutely loyal, absolutely pure, and absolutely reliable”.
So, when Prime Minister Le Keqiang says the Communist Party’s goal is to strengthen the political loyalty of the PLA and bolster it through reform and training of capable personnel, he acknowledges a core fragility.
China spends more on internal security than it does on external defence. Why? Is it frightened of its own people?
Le Keqiang criticized the bureaucracy, hedonism, and extravagance of party cadres. Xi’s sidekick Chen Yixin announced a campaign to root out “two-faced” people who are disloyal and dishonest to the Party.
Corruption is eating China’s innards. The net worth of 3,000 members of National People’s Congress, according to Global Taiwan Institute, is about USD 500 bn or USD 150 million per member. And they are moving this money overseas. The Gini co-efficient of income inequality in China in 2020 is 58/100 and rising. This is very high for a communist country.
Demography is not destiny but is always a factor in a country’s long-term growth rates. Any country’s potential GDP growth is a function of population and productivity growth. China is greying rapidly, thanks to its stupid One Child Policy (1979-2015). From 39 years today, China’s median age would be 42 years by 2030 and 46 by 2050. China will need huge expenditures on health, social welfare and pensions and its savings rate will decline. China will get old before reaching the levels of rich countries like the United States, Singapore, Japan, and others.
After assuming power in 2012, Xi unleashed a wave of anti-corruption measures (that made him very popular) which felled well over one million civil and military senior officials, including the chief of the domestic security apparatus who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2015. According to Bloomberg, Xi’s family has assets of over USD 1 bn.
In “The Dictator’s Handbook”, two political scientists theorize that authoritarian leaders cannot rule without the support of other powerful players, such as military generals, business leaders and key intellectuals. Their demands must be met and the loot shared. We might call this the “too many pigs at the trough” problem
According to some experts, since 1949, China has lost one fifth of its arable land to urbanisation and industrialisation and currently only about 10-15% of the land is good for agriculture. China has negotiated with financially-strapped Argentina and Colombia to buy or lease land to grow food for China. China faces a daunting task to feed 22% of world population, with only 7% of global arable land. The problem of food security was highlighted when in August 2020 Xi called for an end to wasting food (Clean Plates Campaign), succeeding the 2013 “Operation Empty Plate” campaign. Xi’s plea suggests China is in a food crisis. China’s imports of barley, corn, sorghum and wheat almost doubled in 2020.
In 2005, former Premier Wen Jiabao had said that water scarcity threatened the very survival of the Chinese nation. With one fifth of the world’s population, China has one fifteenth of the world’s fresh water, and China’s per capita water availability is one quarter of the global average. It is reluctant to sign international agreements on cross-border water management.
In 2017, a fictitious Red Flag River Project (meant to be a joke) to divert Himalayan glacial water to China’s arid west created panic among India’s media, since that water creates India’s most important rivers. This response illustrates the level of mistrust in whatever China does.
The four-month drought in 2018 was unprecedented in the country’s history, and even the gospel according to PingPong did not have a solution. A 2018 study by Greenpeace suggests that by 2030, China’s water consumption would surpass water supply, when the glaciers reach their “peak water”.
According to government figures, over half of China’s rivers have disappeared since 2000. Officials blame statistical mistakes and climate change, never themselves.
China’s isolation is the fastest in human history. Within one year, its bluff has been called, and it is largely alone, economically, militarily, politically, and diplomatically, seeking desperately to build coalitions. Sensing the growing international opprobrium against China’s culpability for the virus, even its son-in-law the Director General of WHO has stopped singing paens to Xi Jinping.
In August 2020 Sri Lanka acknowledged that trading its debt for a Chinese 99-year lease on Hambantota Port years was a mistake. The same month, Papua New Guinea refused to repay a USD 74 mn loan used by Huawei to build a fancy data centre that exposed government files to theft, calling it a failed investment. The auditor general of Myanmar warned about continued reliance on Chinese loans. Myanmar’s current national debt is about $10 billion, with $4 billion owed to China. It must repay $500 million annually to China. The Addis-Djibouti standard gauge railway completed in 2019 (USD 4.5bn), Ethiopia’s first railway line in 100 years and a flagship project of China’s BRI initiative in Africa, face tremendous financial and technical challenges for relying on Chinese technology and debt-financing.
Malaysia cancelled some Chinese pipeline projects. Zambians are angry at Chinese nationals doing bottom of the pyramid work—selling second-hand clothes, rearing chickens and roasting maize at roadside stalls, thus competing directly with impoverished locals. In Pakistan, a government enquiry into six power projects produces accusations of massive profiteering and overspending by Chinese firms.
China’s actions in Hong Kong in 2020 are to tell its population that democracy is dangerous and disruptive. People remember that in Tiananmen (1989) the young demonstrators erected a Styrofoam statue of liberty, and over 3,000 got slaughtered for daring to challenge the Communist Party. China is going against the trend of history. When the stomach is full and the body comfortable, the mind dwells on strange thoughts such as freedom and liberty.
This is China’s nightmare.
Ambassador Dr Deepak Vohra is Special Advisor to Prime Minister, Lesotho, South Sudan and Guinea-Bissau; and Special Advisor to Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils, Leh and Kargil.