A buffer zone at Gogra, an India China public opinion 'struggle', and Chinese investments in India decline
Welcome to this issue of The India China Newsletter, which has been on a two week-hiatus since the July 24 issue. I hope this detailed issue will try and make up for the long absence (it’s a long issue, so you may wish to click on the headline to open this to read in your browser).
In this issue, I'll be looking at:
- India and China's latest disengagement at the border and what that means for the broader situation along the Line of Actual Control
- A rather extraordinary Chinese expert's analysis of a supposed Indian "information war" aimed at China and what it tells us about Chinese analysts’ views of India
- How Chinese experts are reacting to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's recent Delhi visit and the growing closeness in India-U.S. ties
- The tragic death of an Indian student in China
- China's crackdown on private education
- Can China learn to live with the virus? And will it?
- China's Sputnik moment
My colleague Dinakar Peri reports in The Hindu (partial paywall) on the latest disengagement along the LAC, announced late last week:
“As per the agreement, both sides have ceased forward deployments in this area in a phased, coordinated and verified manner. The disengagement process was carried out over two days, August 04 and 05. The troops of both sides are now in their respective permanent bases,” the Army said in a statement.
All temporary structures and other allied infrastructure created in the area by both sides have been dismantled and mutually verified, the Army said. “The landform in the area has been restored by both sides to pre-stand-off period.”
This agreement ensures that the LAC in this area would be strictly observed and respected by both sides, and that there was no unilateral change in status quo, the Army said.
With this development, the focus of further talks would be on disengagement at PP15 in Hot Springs, according to a defence official. Some progress had been made but some issues remain, he observed.
In Eastern Ladakh, India and China have two mutually agreed disputed areas, Trig Heights and Demchok, and 10 areas of differing perception. Officials said that since the stand-off last year, additional five friction points have emerged. These are Km 120 in Galwan area, Patrolling Point (PP) 15 and PP17 and Rechin La and Rezang La on the south bank of the Pangong Tso, the second official said.
Ajay Banerjee reported in The Tribune:
The impasse over another friction point — PP 15, also referred to as Hot Springs — will need further discussions as the LAC claims of both sides differ and overlap.
The 832-km LAC in Ladakh is undefined on the ground and both sides have claims and counterclaims. Sources confirmed to The Tribune that the mutual disengagement from PP 17-A was expected to be physically implemented over the next 3-4 days. The disengagement at this point would entail increasing the distance between fully armed troops of either side, it’s like creating a “wider buffer zone” to prevent any flare-up. Currently, tanks, guns, missile launchers and troops are lined up within striking distance of each other on the Ladakh plateau, which is at an altitude of 14,000 ft. The Gogra disengagement was agreed upon at the 12th round of India-China Corps Commander-level talks held at the Chushul-Moldo border meeting point on July 31. There was no discussion on disengaging from the Depsang Bulge, a 972-sq km plateau.
Shishir Gupta in the Hindustan Times says India is ready for the long haul to tackle the remaining points as long as that may take:
Given that it took nearly eight years to resolve the 1986 Sumdorong Chu military stand-off in Arunachal Pradesh, the Modi government is prepared for further rounds of military negotiations without any unilateral dilution of the Indian position on the present stand-off in East Ladakh while maintaining a hawk eye over the eastern sector. “It is an endless night,” said a senior official.
The Indian position put across by forcefully by Ladakh Corps Commander Lt Gen P G K Menon is that all contentious frictions points between the two armies must be resolved. This includes Depsang Bulge and Gogra-Hot Springs, where the PLA continues to be in an aggressive mode. The Modi government is very clear that the way to restoration of bilateral ties with China goes through the resolution of the Ladakh LAC as a first step. Any proposal suggesting 1980s parallel diplomacy—restoring economic ties while the military stand-off is on in East Ladakh-- is out of question for the Modi government. This is because the PLA is fully deployed across the LAC in East Ladakh with the PLAAF strengthening its air bases in the Western Theatre Command with advanced fighters and missile systems.
While India is negotiating with China on peaceful resolution of the western sector, the Indian intelligence has alerted the military of increased PLA activity in the Eastern sector. The July 23 visit of Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping to Nyingchi across Arunachal Pradesh has caused concern as he was briefed about the military situation on the LAC in eastern sector.
Since May 2020 PLA aggression on Galwan, Gogra-Hot Springs and Pangong Tso, the PLA has also tremendously improved military infrastructure across the Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh sector with new fortified bunkers and missile systems. The PLA has deployed Russian S-400 missile system at Nyingchi with the second one possibly deployed at Hotan in Xinjiang region. For the past one year, increased communication activity has been noticed all along the 3,488 km LAC with Chumbi Valley activity across Nathu La in Sikkim a matter of serious security concern.
COMMENT: That the talks have been long, painfully slow-moving and hard bargaining tells you the PLA is certainly testing India’s resolve to hold the line. The road ahead will be long, and the prospect of normalcy in the broader relationship seems extremely low for the time being.
On the Eastern Sector that Shishir talks about, the Global Times reported last week:
The newly opened Lhasa-Nyingchi Railway in Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region recently hosted its first military transport mission, a move analysts said on Wednesday served as a boost to the capability of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
New recruits at a combined arms brigade affiliated with the PLA Tibet Military Command recently took a Fuxing bullet train on the railway to an exercise field at an elevation of 4,500 meters, js7tv.cn, a news website affiliated with the PLA, reported on Wednesday.
This is the first time the Lhasa-Nyingchi Railway, an important part of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway, has hosted a troop transport mission, and marks another step forward on the systematic development of China's military transport, js7tv.cn said.
Opening on June 25 as the first bullet train line in Tibet, the 435-kilometer railway connects Lhasa with the city of Nyingchi. It takes only about three and a half hours for a one-way ride, cutting almost half the time it takes to travel between the two cities by road.
Trains are a key means to transport military personnel, equipment and supplies on a large scale, as it can serve to complement road transport, which is slower but can transport more, and air, which is faster but can transport less, a Chinese military expert who served in Tibet told the Global Times on Wednesday, requesting anonymity.
On the Lhasa Nyingchi railway line, former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha in The Telegraph contrasts the speed of construction with one example of what he had witnessed in India:
I am mentioning the example of the two railway lines, one in India and the other in China, to underscore the vast difference in approach of the two countries as far as project formulation and execution are concerned. I am not going into the reasons for the rampant time and cost overruns involved in the execution of projects in India and, surprisingly, even material over-runs in many projects. India cannot be a great country with such lethargy in project execution.
This piece caught my attention this week. This is quite an extraordinary commentary on August 5 from Liu Zongyi (h/t to Kannan Gopinathan for bringing it to my attention). You will notice Liu’s name appearing often in English language publications like the Global Times where he is quoted as an expert, and he writes frequently for Chinese outlets on India China relations. His latest piece, published in Guancha, goes after Indian opinion makers accusing them of poisoning public opinion in India towards China. He takes names.
My comment follows after the extract. (Usual disclaimer: translated with software and cleaned up by me here and there, don't take as a literal translation but it is faithful to what's conveyed in the original).
First, India's information war against China began in the 1950s, when it mainly centered on the border and territorial disputes between the two countries. In the debate between the Chinese and Indian governments over the border issue, the Indians used their English language advantage to confuse the international community by promoting the idea that the Sino-Indian border was demarcated according to the principle of geographical watershed and "legitimate" international treaties. After the Sino-Indian border conflict in 1962, in order to cover up the Nehru government's mistake of pursuing a "forward policy" against China and encroaching on Chinese territory, India fabricated statements that China had betrayed its trust and launched a surprise attack on the Indian army without preparation, to deceive its domestic people and smear China in the international community. [Similarly] on June 15, 2020, after the Galwan conflict, reports and commentary articles in the English-language media of the international community almost overwhelmingly blamed China, arguing that the Chinese side deliberately provoked the conflict and launched a surprise attack on Indian troops, while India was the victim of the bloody conflict in Galwan.
India's smear campaign and negative propaganda against the Belt and Road Initiative and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have caused a great deal of misinformation among the people of South Asia, and have also given the U.S.-led Western countries the opportunity to oppose and resist the Belt and Road Initiative. In recent years, India has been desperately trying to provoke not only China's relations with South Asian countries, but also rumors to provoke China's relations with the world and create tensions and conflicts. The most obvious example is the issue about the origin of the novel coronavirus. The Indian media has made a lot of noise about the new coronavirus being a Chinese biological weapon leak. Indian scholars, media and legal groups were nearly the first to raise the issues of the alleged biological weapons leak and the "Chinese reparations” theory.
Several former ambassadors to China, such as Shyam Saran, Vijay Gokhale and Gautam Bambawale [Note: Shyam Saran wasn’t a former ambassador to China] published articles in Indian or Western media attacking China's political system, claiming that the spread of the virus was due to the lack of transparency and freedom of expression in the Chinese system, and praising Taiwan's model for fighting the epidemic and promoting the so-called "democratic anti-epidemic theory".
When the epidemic is completely contained in China and new epidemics occur in Europe, the United States and India, due to the ineffectiveness of anti-epidemic measures, try to divert the attention of the domestic public, even hoping to contain China. By the second half of 2020, the Indian ruling class felt that their own political system and governance model were threatened, and India's slander and attacks on China rose to an ideological level, while constantly provoking conflicts between China and the United States, hoping that China and the United States would fall into a cold war or even hot war. India has further strengthened its strategic coordination with the U.S., Japan, and Australia, and is actively discussing the establishment of a global value chain and industrial chain that would exclude China and replace it.
India has long positioned China as its biggest threat and opponent, so India's information war against China is an all-government, all-society model, involving not only government departments and their affiliated agencies, but also political parties, social groups, think tanks, media, and even scholars and individuals. The Indian government plays a leading role in the information war against China. Due to the long-standing lack of effective exchanges and communication between the two countries, and the fact that India has too few experts proficient in Chinese history, culture, and language, Indian researchers rely mainly on Western sources and media reports to study China, thus creating more misunderstandings and suspicions about China in Indian society.
Indians at home and abroad, either on their own initiative or driven by relevant Indian authorities, are also involved in the process of creating and spreading disinformation involving China. It has become almost instinctive for Indians to vilify and discredit China. Srikanth Kondapalli, a well-known Indian expert on China, often says good things about China in China, but will do his best to smear China in Indian and international settings. The author heard firsthand at an international academic conference in Germany in January 2020 that he cited alleged evidence from the Internet that smears China in a number of ways to prove that the Chinese government supports terrorism in Pakistan. Raja Mohan is one of India's most prominent scholars in the international arena and one of the spokesmen for Indian diplomacy. He regularly publishes articles that distort China's diplomatic strategy and advocate that the U.S. and the West should engage in ideological competition with China. Raja Mohan is very close to and interacts frequently with Ashley Tellis, a prominent Indian American scholar.
COMMENT: Why does this matter? Less for Liu’s argument than what it tells us about what Chinese opinion makers think — and how they think — about India. If we often rightly introspect about how much we in India need to better understand China, this is a great — even if somewhat alarming — example of how it works both ways (and maybe it’s worse the other way, because you don’t have the same diversity of views).
It’s also a great example of this sense of denial that I’ve come across over many years from Chinese experts and officials when it comes to Indian public opinion — I’d even say pretty much disregarding the basic legitimacy of public opinion in India. The events of the past year have greatly damaged public opinion, it’s plain for anyone to see, but the fact that a leading Chinese expert in India sees all negative views as only as some government conspiracy — and a conspiracy of ‘elite’ opinion makers misleading the rest — tells you they’re in denial.
The conclusion of the piece is interesting. Liu goes on to say how China should respond to this “information war”, and he is critical of how it has done so, so far. (The line about “useless” information being provided by propaganda departments to Chinese Embassies is quite striking.) It is another matter that it is of course a bit rich for him to talk about an information war given, as this newsletter has detailed in the past, the consistent disinformation we have seen from Beijing particularly on the border crisis (where it has released selective videos and painted India as the aggressor — as I often remark, which would make India the first transgressor to transgress and end up losing hundreds of square km of territory) and not to mention on COVID-19 too (in suggesting the virus didn’t originate from China, that mRNA vaccines don’t work, etc).
In the face of the disinformation created by the Indian side, China must resolutely counter it:
(1) Solve the problem through bilateral and multilateral diplomatic channels: first, China should release the evidence to the international community if it has the exact evidence; second, make diplomatic protests to the Indian government; and finally, expose India's ugly acts of slandering and discrediting China to the international community. China can call a meeting in the UN Security Council to criticize India and other countries for their slander and discrediting, so as to cause a sensational effect and make the international community aware of the falsity of the information disseminated by the Indian and Western media.
(2) Our propaganda department should effectively do a good job of external propaganda and carry out propaganda in a language that the international community understands and in a way that is easily accepted. External propaganda cannot take the form of internal propaganda, and at the same time, it is not a matter for the propaganda department alone. China's foreign propaganda, especially to friendly countries should be approachable to the news media, and the work should be meticulous, rather than formal. Some of our embassies abroad have complained that the domestic propaganda department delivers tons of useless Chinese propaganda materials to the embassies; for example, a friendly country complained that when their press delegation visited China, the Chinese embassy was very arbitrary in choosing the candidates, instead of selecting really influential people to join the delegation. When the delegation arrived in China, they could not even meet with the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson. They can only talk to think tanks, then travel and shop.
(3) We should release information in a timely manner after a major incident to avoid passivity. This time, after the Galwan incident, our country took into account the face of the Indian side and some information was not released, leaving the Indian side the opportunity to create false information.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's recent visit to India triggered quite a bit of attention and debate in the Chinese press. Rather than go through all of it, I thought this recent oped from Lin Minwang of Fudan University, writing in Global Times (Chinese), which got some traction online, was quite reflective of how the growing India-US convergence is being seen in Beijing's strategic community (usual disclaimer: translated with software and cleaned up by me here and there, don't take as a literal translation but it is faithful to what's conveyed in the original):
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken embarked on a trip to India July 27-28. This was his first visit to India as Secretary of State and the third senior U.S. official to visit India since the Biden administration took office in early 2021. The first two were U.S. Defense Secretary Austin (who visited India in March) and Presidential Special Envoy for Climate Kerry (who visited India in April). Unlike the agenda of the previous two visits, Blinken's agenda was more "comprehensive and high-end," aiming to deepen the comprehensive global strategic partnership between India and the U.S., covering a wide range of issues at the bilateral, regional and global levels. To this end, in New Delhi, he met not only with Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar and Indian National Security Advisor Doval, but also with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The central themes of Blinken's trip were three: the Indo-Pacific Strategy, Afghanistan and China. US-Chinese strategic competition is escalating and becoming more and more obvious, and especially after the outbreak of COVID-19, India believes that the relationship between China and the US has undergone a "qualitative change", thus taking a bold step forward in the "Indo-Pacific strategy". The first video summit of the leaders of the four countries is a big step forward for India.
On Afghanistan, the U.S. hopes that India can play a greater role in air support for Afghan government forces, but it remains unclear how much of a role India is willing to play. At the same time, India and the United States are also coordinating their positions, and even if the Taliban takes power again, the two countries will not easily recognize its legitimacy.
The word "China" is inseparable from recent visits by senior U.S. officials to India, and so is the case with Blinken. This is because the root and target of the convergence of the Indo-US Indo-Pacific Strategy is China. The United States through the "Indo-Pacific Strategy" wants to enhance India and contain China, India through the "Indo-Pacific Strategy" wants to pull the United States together to contain China. The "China factor" has become the glue that unites the U.S. and India as strategic partners.
The U.S. and India are using each other in their policies toward China, borrowing from each other. Since the Biden administration took office, it has tried to deal with China "from a position of strength". The U.S. has also pulled India together to show its "position of strength". Of course, as the United States of America's Democratic Party government, Blinken's trip to India inevitably "knocks" the Modi government for democratic regression. To that end, Blinken arranged a dialogue with civil society leaders seemingly as an aside to say that both the U.S. and India are committed to the democratic values that are part of the foundation of their relationship. However, this is clearly a gesture by the Biden administration. When the U.S. puts "anti-China" at the forefront of its strategic interests, the "hammering" of India can only be for show, because after all, the U.S. has often adopted "double standards" in its values.
On the notion of shared India-US values, which got a lot of play from Blinken during the visit, I thought this was quite a telling response from China's Foreign Ministry a day after the Blinken visit that maybe didn't get as much attention as it should have:
Zhao Lijian: I want to stress that democracy is a common value shared by all, not a patent owned by any country. To achieve democracy, there are various ways rather than a fixed formula or a standard answer. "One-man, one-vote" and a multi-party system is not the sole form of democracy. Democracy should not be used as a label or tool to belittle or smear other countries or stoke confrontations. Which country is a democracy and which an autocracy should not be determined by a very small number of countries. Debasing others while elevating oneself in itself is not democratic at all.
I would like to point out that, the yardstick to measure a political system lies in whether it suits the national conditions of a country, whether it brings about political stability, social progress and betterment of people's livelihood, whether it is endorsed by its own people, and whether it makes contribution to the cause of human progress. Some self-proclaimed democracies are deeply troubled at home by wealth disparity, social division, racial divide and political polarization. Is that how their so-called democracy looks like? In some countries, it's "no money, no vote" and partisan interests above public interests. Is that democratic politics or money politics? Some countries blatantly meddle in other countries' domestic affairs, shift blames, and suppress and contain other countries' development. Is this what the so-called democracy is all about? Is this democracy or actually hegemony?
A really terrible and sad story — Sutirtho Patranobis in the Hindustan Times on the murder of a 20 year old Indian student studying in Tianjin. A foreign student has been taken into custody, cause of the murder as yet unknown. As Sutirtho reported earlier, the case has been almost entirely blacked out in the Chinese press and came to light only when the student’s parents spoke to the media, and Indian journalists then raised the question at the MFA’s briefings.
The Chinese police have taken into custody a foreign student at Tianjin Foreign Studies University (TFSU) in connection with the murder of a 20-year-old Indian, a student at the same varsity, last week, people familiar with the development said.
Aman Nagsen, a resident of Gaya in Bihar, was a student of international business studies at the university located in the city of Tianjin, around 100km south of Beijing. He was found dead on the campus on July 29. Preliminary examination of the body and the crime scene by Tianjin police confirmed that Nagsen was murdered, the Chinese foreign ministry told HT in a statement.
“Around 8pm on the night of July 29, Tianjin Municipal Public Security Bureau (PSB) received a call saying that an Indian student was lying on the floor of the dormitory with no sign of life,” the statement said. “The initial investigation of the Public Security organ found the case to be homicide, and the suspect is another foreign student at the university. Compulsory measures have been taken on the suspect and the case is still under further investigation,” the statement added.
HT has separately learnt that Nagsen was stabbed to death with a sharp-edged weapon. Neither the nationality of the suspect nor the motive behind the murder — what seems like a rare serious crime on a Chinese campus involving two foreigners — could be immediately confirmed. It also could not be known if the murder weapon was recovered by the investigators. The Chinese foreign ministry said it was in communication with the Indian embassy in Beijing on the case. The Indian embassy was informed about the case first on July 30 and then again on the following day, it added. “Relevant Chinese competent authorities had notified the Indian embassy in Beijing of the situation of the case on July 30 and 31, respectively, and maintained communication with the embassy,” the statement said.
India China bilateral trade is booming, but investments, perhaps of equal if not more interest to Beijing, are declining sharply after recent curbs. Interesting numbers from the South China Morning Post:
With Chinese investors facing rules restricting their participation in Indian companies, players in India’s flourishing tech scene have turned to Japanese conglomerate Softbank and other Western investors to fill the void.
The value of venture deals in India rose to US$7.9 billion in July, according to data by research firm Preqin. But venture capital (VC) investments from mainland China plunged from US$1.2 billion in 2018 to just US$76 million in the first six months of 2021, data research firm Venture Intelligence found.
Softbank contributed about one-fifth of the US$10 billion in fresh funding that investors poured into Indian start-ups in 2021, according to data analytics firm Global Data, giving rise to new unicorns – privately held companies worth US$1 billion or more. Softbank’s US$2 billion infusion into India this year has gone to a mix of start-ups, from food delivery firms to fintech players to the online insurance marketplace, as the country’s tech industry boomed after Covid-19 lockdowns fuelled greater use of digital services.
There are also signs that Chinese money is making a comeback in the Indian tech scene after a dramatic drop last year. The flow of funds from Hong Kong – often seen as a proxy route for investments from mainland China – plunged from US$168 million in 2018 to a mere US$2 million last year, according to Venture Intelligence, after New Delhi announced rules last May aimed at preventing Chinese firms from buying up weaker Indian companies during the Covid-19 pandemic. But in the first six months of the year, funds from Hong Kong rose to $80 million.
The fall in investment contrasts with the trade scene. India’s trade with China in the first half of 2021 rose by a record 62.7% — the highest increase among China’s major trade partners — with total two-way trade now surpassing the pre-pandemic levels. Among the imports on the rise are solar modules. From Global Times:
India ranked as the third-largest buyer of China’s solar modules in the first five months this year, showing that India’s efforts to decouple its solar industry from China are failing, industry observers said.
According to statistics released by the China Photovoltaic Industry Association on Thursday, India accounted for 9.1 percent of China’s solar module export value, equal to $7.46 billion, rising from 4.9 percent during the same period in 2020.
New Delhi plans to raise customs duties on solar products. From April 2022, it will levy customs duties at a rate of 40 percent on solar modules and 25 percent on solar cells.
An article by The Diplomat in March said that as of 2020, India produced 36GW of solar energy out of 90GW of renewables, and nearly 85 percent of its solar equipment was imported from China. The top five exporters to India in terms of module volume during 2020 were Chinese enterprises including LONGi Green Energy Technology and JinkoSolar.
The crackdown on private education firms was the big story in China last week — the third biggest shakeup recently after the Alipay IPO suspension and subsequent antitrust probes, and then the crackdown on ridesharing company Didi. The Wall Street Journal says it ain’t over yet:
In recent months, China has blown up what would have been the world’s largest initial public offering, launched probes into some of its biggest technology companies, and wiped out more than $1 trillion in market value while investors scramble for cover.
There are many signs it isn’t over yet.
Investors, analysts and company executives believe the government is just getting started in its push to realign the relationship between private business and the state, with a goal of ensuring companies do more to serve the Communist Party’s economic, social and national-security concerns.
The government’s far-reaching ambitions under Xi Jinping promise serious and often unpredictable implications for business, these people say—and keeping foreign investors happy isn’t a priority.
That means more risk for people who have plowed billions of dollars into China’s fast-growing companies hoping to capitalize on the only tech industry that can rival Silicon Valley.
“This round of governance storm has not yet reached the stage of calming down,” said Fang Xingdong, a former internet entrepreneur and founder of Beijing-based think tank China Labs. China’s biggest private companies have benefited from years of lax regulatory oversight, he said, and it will take a long time for authorities to address it.
Since November, Chinese regulators have taken more than 50 actual or reported actions spanning antitrust, finance, data security and social equality, a July 29 roundup byGoldman Sachs Group Inc. shows—more than one move a week.
From a peak in February, some $1.1 trillion of market value has vanished from the stocks of six top Chinese technology companies, including Alibaba and Tencent. That is a drop of more than 40%.
BofA Securities strategists have recently recommended investors shift holdings from Chinese growth stocks into shares elsewhere in the Asia Pacific region, and called the recent history of foreign investors participating in China’s high-growth stocks “incompatible with likely upcoming strategies.”
The WSJ also reports, can Indian firms seeking capital stand to gain?
Chinese education stocks have lost billions of dollars in market value in the past couple of weeks as Beijing announced regulations that could wipe out much of the after-school tutoring sector.
But money is rushing into another populous Asian giant. Indian online-learning platform Unacademy raised $440 million at a $3.44 billion valuation from investors including the SoftBank Vision Fund and Singapore’s state investment fund, Temasek, the company said Monday. Unacademy’s valuation has jumped more than 10 times in the past 18 months, according to the company.
And its rival Byju’s, backed by China’s Tencent and Sequoia, is India’s most valuable unicorn at a valuation of $16.5 billion, according to market research firm CB Insights. General Atlantic and Tiger Global are investors in both companies. Byju’s could be looking for an initial public offering within the next 18 months, according to local media.
Venture-capital investment into Indian education-technology companies last year amounted to nearly $1.5 billion, six times the level in 2019, according to Bain & Co. Both the number of deals and average deal size has picked up.
China is currently dealing with its biggest outbreak since the pandemic began. Lockdowns are getting ever more widespread, international travel is being tightened, all while other countries are opening up.
The South China Morning Post today asks an important question: can China learn to live with the virus?
Some public health experts are now asking whether it is time to ease the tough pandemic controls in China and learn to “live with the virus”.
In Shanghai, Zhang Wenhong, head of infectious diseases at Huashan Hospital, said in a Weibo social media post that the latest outbreak had shown the risk of Covid-19 will always be there and the challenge was to “have the wisdom to live with the virus in the long term”.
That is something other countries are starting to do and China may have to follow suit, according to Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor in health security at City University of Hong Kong.
“Other states, whether by choice or circumstance, are moving towards coexistence with the virus. While such a policy will entail higher death rates and greater long-term disruption, it will also enable those states to regain lost economic ground faster,” Thomas said. “Realistically this is China’s only option, given the failure of the global community to stop the virus from becoming endemic.”
He said China could not afford to wall itself off as the world tried to recover from the pandemic. “Even though the lockdown policy works and will continue to do so, the cost of that policy is increasing relative to the lost opportunity costs,” Thomas said. “At some point within the next six to 12 months – barring a significant variant of concern emerging – those costs will be unsustainable for China.”
Some countries are opting not to eliminate Covid-19 cases but to minimise disruption through a mitigation strategy to reduce severe illness and deaths rather than case numbers. Singapore is one of them, switching from a “zero case policy” in June so it now treats the virus as endemic, like flu or chickenpox – though it still stepped up its response during a recent spike in cases.
Britain – which has one of the highest death tolls from Covid-19 in the world – has gone further, relaxing most restrictions, including a mask mandate, in mid-July despite a surge in cases. About 73 per cent of the country’s adult population has been fully vaccinated, and in the week to Saturday there were more than 188,000 cases but deaths were relatively low at 627.
Rutherford from UCSF said the goal was to “minimise death and hospitalisation, which we believe the vaccine does”. “To achieve this, we will have to tolerate some amount of infection. The Delta variant makes this calculus more difficult, but we’re trying to cope with it through lower-level interventions, like mask wearing, and not go back to stay-at-home orders and business closures,” he said.
New Zealand epidemiologist Michael Baker, a professor of public health at the University of Otago, said countries that relaxed control measures after achieving relatively high vaccination coverage – such as Britain, the US, Israel and EU nations – had seen a sharp rise in cases, but the vaccines had been highly effective in preventing hospitalisation and death.
“From a public health perspective, it would be reckless to allow widespread transmission of this virus before a country has reached high vaccine coverage, particularly for vulnerable groups. Even then, the evidence is that it is important to maintain public health measures to dampen down transmission,” Baker said. “These countries all have good health infrastructure and capacity, which is also helping to soften the impact of these rising case numbers,” he added.
That could be a problem in China, where there are 3.2 intensive care beds per 100,000 people. In the US, the number is 27 and it is 24.6 in Germany.
Baker said the elimination strategy had strong support in New Zealand. “There are some, including myself, who think that we should not necessarily ‘learn to live with Covid-19’ until we know more about the long-term effects of this virus on human health,” he said.
In China, Feng Zijian, president of the Chinese Preventive Medicine Association, told China Newsweek magazine last week that the country would need to maintain strict control measures – at the border and when there is an outbreak – until it reached a high vaccination rate.
Some 1.77 billion vaccine doses had been administered as of Saturday in the country of 1.4 billion, according to the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
Feng said China would have to make a decision on adjusting controls once more people were vaccinated, but noted it was difficult to assess the impact of mass vaccination given the low number of Covid-19 cases. He also said the health care system would need to be prepared for any changes to the measures to avoid its hospitals becoming overburdened.
Thomas from City University said another problem was that China’s two main vaccines, made by Sinopharm and Sinovac, were not as effective as others against Delta, which could leave the population more at risk if the country reopens its borders.
“It is … having large segments of the population sick and unable to work or travel that will be economically and politically challenging for the government,” he said. “It is feasible for China to live with the virus but there are several challenges that it must address before it can do so safely.”
COMMENT: The most striking comment, for me, in Zhang Wenhong’s essay that the piece above referred to but didn’t mention, was his comment that learning to live with Covid, would be HARDER for China than what it has gone through over the past year, and to get people to stop fearing the virus. That will be difficult given the messaging we have had for months now. I don’t see China’s strategy changing for now for many reasons, including given the current response, the fact that it has touted the success of its zero Covid as a contrast from the West, and for the fact that in my view, there would be particular challenges for China’s system to deal with such a change in strategy and to live with the virus if that at all happens. I think this is a system better geared to deal with a strict enforcement/zero Covid approach.
Incidentally, “live with the virus”, a much maligned phrase that most Chinese observers on social media seem to think is reckless suicide and deride as what failed and irresponsible Western countries (and India) do, is NOT an argument for abandoning all curbs and protocols - that’s a straw man - but striking a more calibrated balancing act on the return to normal VS Covid lockdown spectrum. It IS a spectrum — and given recent moves in Beijing including needing permission from your employer to leave the city, suspending all issuing of passports or passport renewals, and of course the continued denial of health codes to tens of thousands of Chinese nationals abroad who haven’t been able to return home for months (and some, including those in India, for more than a year — something that has gotten little to no coverage in the Chinese press), it’s fair to say which side of it China is on, and likely to stay on.
Worth reading this from Dan Wang in Foreign Affairs, who is indeed always worth reading, on China’s quest for technological self-sufficiency (and how the Trump administration may have unwittingly spurred its efforts).
That’s it for this issue. Thank you for reading, and have a good week!