A Chinese influencer takes aim at India, Wang Yi speaks, and a railway to Tibet

Welcome to the second issue of The India China Newsletter, and thank you all for the encouraging response to yesterday's inaugural issue. It's quite exciting (but also daunting) that this is already going out to more than 400 people. I hope this lives up to your expectations!

I spent this morning skimming through a New Year's speech given by Luo Zhenyu, the very successful founder of the Chinese education platform and app Dedao. It has some 50 million users, and is a mix of Apple Podcasts and Masterclass-type lessons. It's roped in a stunning array of Chinese public figures, and users can pay a small fee to listen to their audio shows. It's not as big as another widely popular audio platform Ximalaya that has some 400 million users, but has a different market, framing itself as being particularly appealing to intellectuals and the educated (here's a useful read on the booming Chinese market for paid audio content.

Luo himself is somewhat controversial, having gotten himself into trouble for "boorish" remarks on women and working hours but he is nonetheless an important public figure (and one with a rather sizeable megaphone). When he speaks, people listen. This incredibly long 60 minute speech, available in Chinese here, already has more than 100,000 reads, as most of his offerings do. Google Translate will give you a fair idea of the tone of his remarks (I confess here I rely on it perhaps way more than I should because my two years away from China has all but entirely destroyed my ability to read with any passable speed), but readers in India will need a VPN to access it, such are the strange times we live in. WeChat was blocked in India last summer. Fortunately, I kept up my subscription of the VPN I used in China, but I'm not so pleased about the fact that it turned out to be so useful in India.

If you want to skip the long speech, I thought I'd share two brief takeaways. For one, I found it to be an interesting snapshot of the current zeitgeist - looking back on the hardships of 2020 and suffused with a sense of nationalism, of this being China's moment against all the odds. This was a year, as he put it, when "I did not expect that it would be so difficult to buy a mask; Huawei did not expect that it would be so difficult to buy a chip; international students did not expect that the way home would be so difficult...."  This was the year, he went on, when some of the world called to "decouple from China". Luo had a few choice words for them: "A few decades ago they said: We want to eliminate outdated production capacity... but [then] they said that we robbed them of their jobs. In the past they said: Chinese people do not innovate. Well, we studied hard, we innovated. When we finally came up with a little innovation, they said: You are a threat...."

The second thing that caught my eye was the part about India. India, with its advantageous demographics, was seen by the "decouple from China" brigade as the big hope, Luo said, before going to pooh-pooh any likelihood of that happening. The manufacturing that left China over the past few years, he said, went not to India but to Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh. He then went on to narrate a story he'd heard about why he thought India couldn't replace China, about a Chinese factory manager who promoted a capable Indian worker, who then turned out to be beaten and insulted by those under him because “he was low caste". Luo went on to say the same person couldn't meet clients in five-star hotels or eat with them for the same reason. His conclusion: the manufacturing industry is "not about the population, size, and age that we look at on the surface, we should look at the internal organization of this country."

Why This Matters

This might be just one view (and a superficial and exaggerated one at that) but of late, it seems to be a widely prevalent one. It’s also noteworthy as an intervention in an ongoing debate about the future of Chinese supply chains. This is a debate that Xi Jinping has himself waded into, as I reported for The Hindu recently, as he looked to firmly quash all talk of relocating supply chains and, in a nut-shell, make foreign countries more reliant on China and China less reliant on them.

No surprise then that Chinese State media have jumped on the recent violence at the factory of Taiwanese Apple manufacturer Wistron in Karnataka. "This is a potential risk when manufacturers consider moving their production lines out of China where they have [the] most stable labour market supporting the nation to become the largest manufacturing hub. Does Terry Gou from Foxconn, regret about moving those iPhone lines to India?" asked a reporter with the Global Times, a newspaper that true to its colours, didn’t miss milking the incident while images and videos of the violence went viral on Chinese social media. In India, these interventions only further fuelled talk of a “Chinese hand” in fomenting the unrest (there appears to be a Chinese hand in everything these days!) although it seems quite a stretch to me to see a Chinese hand in the incredibly shoddy labour conditions at the plant, for which the company perhaps only has itself to blame, as my colleague recently reported.

The second reason I found this interesting was because it reflected, to me, how much sentiment towards India has shifted. Between 2016 and 2019, you wouldn't hear a Chinese business figure say anything but positive things about the India market. This was the time when Jack Ma of Alibaba and Wang Jianlin of Wanda all flew to India, met Prime Minister Modi and made big plans. Of course, the situation four years on is starkly different. The Wanda plans didn't materialise (less to do with policy and more to do with land acquisition issues and differences with the state government in Haryana) while Alibaba, and other Chinese tech companies that once bet big on India, are now reassessing their plans in the wake of the events of 2020, when the border crisis has expanded into a reassessment in India too on the future of ties on this front.

Wang Yi Speaks

The end of the year interview given by State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Xinhua was as interesting for what he said as it was for what he didn't. Wang spent some time speaking about ties with the U.S., the EU, ASEAN and Africa. India and Australia didn't figure. And he mentioned President Xi's name 18 times, and highlighted his "personal" involvement in China's diplomacy.

What Else Is Making News

China's Civil Code took effect on January 1. It is essentially an amalgamation of earlier laws and is China's first civil code, covering everything from property and divorce to privacy and intellectual property.
- Sixth Tone has a useful overview of why it matters
- Zhang Can, a judge at the Beijing Intellectual Property Court, explains its significance
- The bit that got the most attention in China, and one my friends have been debating endlessly (I should rephrase - criticising endlessly, as there's no real debate that this isn't a great idea) is a mandatory thirty-day "cooling off" period for divorce cases. Suffice it to say there's not much appetite for the State trying to play marriage counselor in 2020.

A useful update from the South China Morning Post on China's vaccine diplomacy as its regulators approved the first shot. Pakistan and Hungary are among those at the front of the line.

A comprehensive year-end, month by month, look back at the Chinese economy in 2020 from the same paper.

Track laying has been completed for the Lhasa Nyingchi railway which is a segment of the Sichuan-Tibet railway. This brings the rail network in Tibet, as I reported recently, right up to the Arunachal border.

And Finally…

A masterful thread on Twitter from Sam Bowman explaining how Wuhan was able to recover from COVID-19 to celebrate the New Year in style, in response to a question from one of the legions of sceptics suggesting some skulduggery might have been at work. I have lost count of the number of times I've had people ask me if China either had a secret cure or a secret vaccine or if the recovery was all an elaborate hoax. (Forget social media, I've seen that suggested routinely by journalists and public figures on Indian news television too, where one anchor asked memorably, "why don't they share their secret?", a question which I found funny especially because I’ve grown tired of reading China’s State media trumpeting, every single day, their “secret”. Oh, there's an entire white paper out on this too....)

 No one is denying the costly missteps in Wuhan and the culture of secrecy that led to a tragically belated response (and do check out this excellent new AP piece detailing how this culture of secrecy is controlling the investigation into COVID-19’s origins too ). I tend to agree with Dali Yang, as he told me in this interview, that this is systemic and won't likely change. At the same time, I don't have much time for people who, rather than ask hard questions of what their own countries didn't get right and what enabled the recovery in China over the summer, easily fall back on the crutch of conspiracy theories. I suppose that's so much easier to do.