A Chinese strategist's pessimistic outlook for India and China in 2021, and the data tussle behind Alibaba's problems

Welcome to today's The India China Newsletter.

It's shaping up to be one long China news day: more developments on the border (and a somewhat unexpected U.S.-China spat on it too), China denying the WHO investigating team entry, more on the Jack Ma situation with some emerging clarity on the probe into Alibaba, and the most sweeping crackdown in Hong Kong yet after the passing of the new national security law last year -- and we're just halfway through Wednesday.

Qian Feng, who is director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University (and has been a very regular commentator in the Chinese press on the border situation through much of 2020) has a piece today looking ahead to 2021 on the India-China front. He has a somewhat pessimistic take:

Compared with six months ago, India is now more outwardly strong but inwardly weak. It demonstrates ambitions to become a world power without support of mature policies. Under the current international order, it is more important for China and India to work toward a peaceful settlement of their frictions. However, it will be difficult for the bilateral ties to recover in short term before the latest border standoff is fully addressed.

In this light, it is foreseeable that China-India relations will stay at a comparatively low level for a long period of time into the year 2021. India's moves have harmed the Indo-Pacific region overall and particularly with regional post-pandemic era recovery.

The Hindu reports on a farewell address from the outgoing U.S. Ambassador in Delhi, Ken Juster, who said "our close coordination has been important as India confronts, perhaps on a sustained basis, aggressive Chinese activity on its border". Read the full report here.

That prompted a sharp reaction from China's Ambassador in India Sun Weidong:

Juster’s comments were interesting and if I’m not wrong, perhaps the most we’ve seen so far on this issue from either Delhi or Washington confirming India-U.S. coordination on the boundary crisis. Yesterday I had an interesting evening speaking with the Foreign Correspondents Club in Shanghai discussing my book, and had a couple of questions on how the LAC crisis may be driving India-U.S. cooperation. My brief take was while it would be wrong to think India-U.S. ties are completely driven by China, what the border crisis may have done is reduce whatever incentives India may have had in the past, eyeing some stability in its relations with China, to go slow on this front.

Sushant Singh has another interesting piece on the border in Foreign Policy that is worth reading that questions how much the "stalemate on the LAC" (I did warn in yesterday’s newsletter you're going to hear a lot of that term this year) is indeed a stalemate that affects both parties in the same measure:

The past year’s skirmishes between India and China are often described by commentators as a stalemate. While this may be literally true, two factors should alter that perception. First, China has far deeper pockets, especially after a year in which it has bounced back from the coronavirus pandemic while India has fallen into a recession. And second, Beijing has forced New Delhi to focus on securing its land borders at the cost of its strategic military transformation, handing China a clear long-term advantage.

The Print reports today, somewhat underscoring Sushant's point, that India is indeed devoting more resources towards the LAC and “the Army is looking to keep two strike corps for the mountains facing China as part of a larger restructuring plan”. According to the report, two existing strike corps — I Corps and 17 Corps — will be “slightly restructured to focus on the northern and eastern theatres respectively, to tackle any threat from China.”

The always well-informed Lingling Wei at The Wall Street Journal has what I think is the clearest piece I’ve seen yet explaining the heart of Alibaba's troubles, which have somewhat superficially been reduced, in much of the Indian press, to a ‘Xi Jinping vs Jack Ma’ framing which misses a lot of the substantive regulatory issues involved. A lot of those issues, as this piece explains, have to do with data.

CNBC in the U.S. says Jack Ma isn’t ‘missing’ but ‘lying low’ as he has been advised to while the probe continues.

The New York Times reports on today’s big developments in Hong Kong, which have seen the biggest crackdown so far since the national security law was passed last year.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (possibly for the first time) had something not entirely filled with fulsome praise to say about China, after members of the international scientific team who were set to go to Wuhan to investigate the origins of COVID-19 weren't given permissions . This appeared to be a very last-minute u-turn from China as some of those members had already left their home countries and were in transit when told the visit won’t be going ahead. Tedros said he was “very disappointed”.

Brazil's Economy Ministry says it had defaulted on its penultimate capital installment to the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) because the payment had not been authorised by Congress. Brazil's two outstanding installments total $350 million.

The Chinese Communist Party has revised its restrictions on what its members are allowed to say in public in a set of regulations published on Monday. The South China Morning Post has details.

And Finally…

The death of a 22-year-old female employee at Chinese e-commerce giant Pinduoduo after working long hours has sparked an investigation into the company as well as more debate on the “996” overwork culture (9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week). In push back to that, reports the South China Morning Post, some are “setting their own rules in the workplace” and calling it “touching fish”, a term borrowed from a Chinese proverb, “Muddy waters make it easy to catch fish”, which means one should take advantage of a crisis to chase personal gain. The Post says:

The philosophy gained prominence in 2020 amid the pandemic as the country struggled to deal with its economic fallout. Young people slack off by refusing to work overtime, delivering medium-quality work, going to the toilet frequently, and staying there for a long time, playing with their mobile phones, or reading novels at work.