Floods in Henan, Xi in Tibet, State media revisits Galwan, and on surveillance in India and China

Welcome to today's The India China Newsletter. In this issue, I'll be looking back at some of the big stories of the past week, including:
- The massive floods in Zhengzhou and surrounding areas in Henan province
- Xi Jinping's visit to Tibet and why it's significant
- The State media in China revisits the Galwan valley clash
- Some reflections on the big story in India this past week, the Pegasus spyware revelations, from the vantage point of someone who dealt with this issue for years in China: Are we headed in the direction of our neighbour?

The horrifying floods in Zhengzhou and surrounding areas in Henan province were the big story in China last week. Some of the images on social media were truly nightmarish:

Nectar Gan has a comprehensive report for CNN:

At least 33 people have died and eight remain missing in central China, as authorities ramp up rescue and recovery efforts following devastating floods that submerged entire neighborhoods, trapped passengers in subway cars, caused landslides and overwhelmed dams and rivers. Torrential rains have battered Henan province since last weekend, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and causing 1.22 billion yuan (about $190 million) of economic damage, Henan authorities said Thursday....

One of the most horrifying scenes from the disaster occurred underground on Line 5 of the Zhengzhou subway. During the evening rush hour on Tuesday, hundreds of commuters were trapped in rising water as murky torrents gushed into the tunnel and seeped into carriages. Some posted videos and pleaded for help online. Dramatic videos showing people clinging to ceiling handles to keep their heads above the rising waters shocked the nation and made headlines around the world. In another video, several bodies could be seen lying lifelessly on the platform, as rescuers performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on others.
Authorities said more than 500 passengers were evacuated from the inundated subway line, with 12 killed and five others injured. On social media and in interviews with Chinese media, some survivors shared harrowing accounts of how the disaster unfolded on the subway.

The BBC reported how social media has become a key tool as citizens come together --a reminder that civil society can indeed flourish in China when given the space to do so…

When news emerged that some trains were being stranded after rail lines had become submerged, people put together lists of each train number and the resources its passengers needed. Some put together text-only versions of critical contact lists, after discovering that people in some areas could not download images because heavy rains had affected internet speeds. People also helped to organise streams of information so that it was up-to-date and clear.

According to local media reports, residents living near the Tielu Railway Station also delivered food and bottled water to passengers stuck in a train after a related hashtag was viewed more than 800 million times.

While some focused on giving emergency rescue advice, others shared information on mental health support and personal hygiene tips.

A hashtag related to menstruation amid the floods had more than 200 million views, as doctors and social workers reminded women to change their sanitary pads frequently to avoid the risk of infection. Others posted addresses to locations where women could collect free sanitary products.

But there have also been cases where posts about the floods have been censored. These are mainly from individuals requesting help, rather than people criticising the government.

Free Weibo, a site that determines whether posts have been censored, said these posts included reports of people trapped at a school, elderly people in need of oxygen and thousands of people trapped on a campus.

One post asked whether authorities should be held accountable.

Philip Ball, author of "The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China", provides a historical perspective of the floods writing in The Guardian:

Although Mao Zedong affected to reject all ancient beliefs and superstitions in constructing the communist state of modern China, he could not ignore the powerful message that good water management conveyed about the right to rule. His famous swims in the Yangtze were not merely Putin-style displays of machismo, but political theatre that signified mastery over the waters. That’s also why Mao made flood control a priority, ordering the construction of hundreds of dams on China’s unruly waterways. Many were built hastily (and badly) to impress party officials by coming in under budget and ahead of schedule. Some have since collapsed.

Controlling the Yellow River was particularly symbolic. The first large dam on the river, built in the late 1950s at Sanmenxia, 200km upstream of Zhengzhou, was emblazoned with the slogan, “When the Yellow River is at peace, the nation is at peace”. The mythical resonance is emphasised by a gigantic statue of Da Yu that stands guard on the cliff overlooking the dam.

Sanmenxia was poorly designed and never worked as it should, undermined by the heavy load of silt that gives the Yellow River its name. Today it serves as a perfect symbol of the Maoist era – neglected and unloved as massive machines slowly rust on its walls.

But China’s continuing obsession with huge hydraulic projects shows that the Communist party remains as determined as ever to claim the “mandate of heaven”. The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze, opened in 2003, is as much a showcase of state power as it is an exercise in flood control and hydroelectricity generation.

This, then, is why the flooding of Zhengzhou will cause alarm in Beijing beyond the economic damage and loss of life. It serves as a reminder to Xi Jinping’s administration that the consequences of the climate crisis, which will make extreme weather events more frequent, could shake the foundations of the Chinese state. The travails of China’s past give its leaders better reason than most to appreciate how such problems could provoke deep social unrest. For the sake of the world, we must hope that they heed the warning.

Xi Jinping was in Tibet from Wednesday to Friday. A very significant visit, his first since taking over in 2012 (he visited in 2011) and, it appears, the first visit by a Chinese leader in 31 years (since Jiang Zemin's in 1990) if I'm not wrong - a detail I wasn't aware of until yesterday and quite surprised me, given all the importance that's given by the Party to Tibet (I couldn't find any details or recall Hu Jintao visiting as General Secretary, which is itself surprising given he served as the Party Secretary in Tibet previously).

I reported for The Hindu (partial paywall)

His visit to the border region and Nyingchi assumes particular significance coming a month after China started operating the first bullet train line in Tibet, linking Lhasa to Nyingchi near the border with Arunachal Pradesh.

The China State Railway Group said the 435-km line, on which construction began in 2014, has a designed speed of 160 kilometres per hour and would connect the capital city of the Tibet Autonomous Region to the border city of Nyingchi with a travel time of three-and-a-half hours.

The Lhasa-Nyingchi rail is one among several major infrastructure projects recently completed in Tibet’s southern and southeastern counties near the Arunachal border. Last month, China completed construction of a strategically significant highway through the Grand Canyon of the Yarlung Zangbo river, the “second significant passageway” to Medog county that borders Arunachal.

The Lhasa-Nyingchi rail is one section of the Sichuan-Tibet railway line connecting the two provincial capitals, a strategic project deemed important enough for President Xi to officially launch it and described by the Chinese leader as “a major step in safeguarding national unity and a significant move in promoting economic and social development of the western region.” This will be the second railway line connecting Tibet to the hinterland, following the already open Qinghai-Tibet rail.

The first section of the new line, from Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, to Yaan, was finished in December 2018, while work on the 1,011 km Yaan-Nyingchi line will compete the entire railway line by 2030. Zhu Weiqun, a senior party official formerly in charge of Tibet policy, was quoted as saying by state media the railway will help “transport advanced equipment and technologies from the rest of China to Tibet and bring local products out”. “If a scenario of a crisis happens at the border,” he said, “the railway can act as a ‘fast track’ for the delivery of strategic materials.”

How did Xinhua, the official news agency, report the visit? From the official English readout:

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has stressed fully implementing the guidelines of the Communist Party of China (CPC) for governing Tibet in a new era and writing a new chapter of lasting stability and high-quality development for the plateau region.

Xi, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, Chinese president and chairman of the Central Military Commission, visited the Tibet Autonomous Region from Wednesday to Friday for the 70th anniversary of Tibet's peaceful liberation, the first time in the history of the Party and the country.

Xi extended congratulations to the 70th anniversary of Tibet's peaceful liberation, visited officials and ordinary people of various ethnic groups and conveyed the CPC Central Committee's care to them.

Xi said over the past 70 years Tibet has made historic strides in the social system and realized full economic and social development, with people's living standards significantly improved.

"It has been proven that without the CPC, there would have been neither new China nor new Tibet," Xi said. "The CPC Central Committee's guidelines and policies concerning Tibet work are completely correct."

Xi stressed efforts to strengthen developing border areas, emphasized the four major issues of stability, development, ecology and border-area consolidation, and called for new achievements in protecting the ecology of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and advancing its sustainable development.

On Thursday, Xi went to Nyingchi Railway Station, learning about the overall design of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway and how the Lhasa-Nyingchi section has been operated since June 25. Aboard a train to regional capital Lhasa, Xi inspected the construction along the railway. He hailed the railway as a major move to boost Tibet's development and improve people's living standards.

On Thursday afternoon, Xi went to the Drepung Monastery located in the western suburbs of Lhasa. Xi acknowledged the contributions the monastery has made in upholding the leadership of the CPC, supporting the socialist system and safeguarding national unity.

Xi stressed fully implementing the Party's fundamental guidelines governing religious work, respecting the religious beliefs of the people, adhering to the principle of independence and self-governance in religious affairs.

He also stressed governing religious affairs in accordance with the law and guiding Tibetan Buddhism to adapt to a socialist society.

He said that at present, Tibet is at a new historical starting point of its development, and the Party's leadership must be upheld and the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics must be followed.

The publicity and education work of building public awareness of ethnic unity and progress should be combined with the education work concerning core socialist values, patriotism, anti-secessionism, history, and Marxist concepts, Xi said.

On Friday, Xi met with representatives of troops stationed in Tibet, calling for efforts to strengthen military training and preparedness in all aspects and make contributions to the lasting stability, prosperity and development of Tibet.

The Xinhua Chinese readout had a lot more detail, as always. You can get a fairly rough idea of what it says here courtesy Google Translate. It's quite fascinating what they choose to leave out of the English version for an international audience - note the paragraph on his meeting with soldiers of the PLA Tibet Military Command and the paragraph on Party history. This a fairly commonplace occurrence, and one which makes me pay particular attention to the bits that are not put out in English….

Another example on the subject of what is put out in English and what isn't. A number of Chinese State media outlets last week ran a long Xinhua piece on the June 15, 2020 Galwan Valley clash. This piece was deemed important enough by the powers that be to appear on page one of the People's Daily. Note that the People's Daily did not even report on the Galwan clash throughout 2020 let alone on its front page, and if I recall first mentioned it only in February 2021, when military honours were announced for 5 soldiers, four posthumously.

The piece focused on Chen Hongjun, one of the 4 soldiers who died and who received the July 1 medal on the Party's 100th anniversary, which was ostensibly the reason for this piece (usual disclaimer: translated with software and cleaned up here and there, so don't treat this as a literal translation although it is broadly true to the original):

The lofty Karakorum, a towering snowy peak. This is the western frontier of the motherland, and the front line of guarding peace and tranquility. At the entrance of a battalion of the Chinese People's Liberation Army located in Karakorum, there stands a sculpture made by the former battalion commander Chen Hongjun and his soldiers, which consists of a fist and a chariot, symbolizing the "iron fist" that will always guard the snowy plateau.

Chen Hongjun was an outstanding representative of the revolutionary soldiers of the new era, the former battalion commander who has been guarding the plateau border for 10 years, leading officers and soldiers to complete a variety of urgent and difficult tasks. In June 2020, Chen Hongjun was ordered to lead a team to the front line to carry out emergency support missions, in the battle with foreign troops, fought bravely, and never gave up, in order to defend the territorial sovereignty of the motherland and safeguard the core interests of the country. He died heroically for defending the territorial sovereignty of the motherland and safeguarding the core interests of the country. Chen Hongjun was awarded the "July 1st Medal" by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and was posthumously awarded the honorary title of "Hero of Guarding the Country's Borders" by the Central Military Commission.

In June 2020, the foreign troops concerned blatantly violated the consensus reached with us and crossed the line to set up tents. In accordance with the practice of dealing with border incidents and the agreement previously reached between the two sides, the head of a border regiment, Qi Fa Bao, in the spirit of negotiating and solving problems in good faith, went out to negotiate with only a few officers and soldiers, wading through waist-deep river water. During the negotiation process, the other side ignored our sincerity, premeditatedly hiding and mobilizing a large number of troops, trying to force us to give up by virtue of the large number of people.

Chen Hongjun, who rushed to the confrontation point for reinforcements, learned that Qi Fabao was besieged, led people into the crowd to rescue, braving the enemy's stones and sticks, successfully rescued Qi Fabao, but he himself never returned.

On the aforementioned perils of reading what is put out in different languages: this official piece on Chen Hongjun wasn't put out in English, but picked by Global Times's English website which carried a report on it (but not a full word-for-word translation).

The GT English report carried this sentence, ostensibly to provide context, added by its reporters:

“The 33-yeard-old Chen Hongjun sacrificed his life in the frontline confrontation with India in the Galwan Valley in June 2020, along with four others of his comrades-in-arms."

This sentence mentioning “Chen and four others” was picked up by The Print website in India, which then headlined an article:

China revises Galwan Valley clash toll to 5, says PLA troops were ‘besieged’

That would be a fairly significant and important development. The only problem: That sentence wasn't in the Chinese language article published in People’s Daily and elsewhere,  based on which Global Times English carried its story. So GT basically screwed up with its language. It then issued a correction the following day:

“The 33-yeard-old Chen Hongjun sacrificed his life in the frontline confrontation with India in the Galwan Valley in June 2020, along with three of his comrades-in-arms,” not “along with other four of his comrades-in-arms” as stated in the article published on July 19, 2021.

Not the first time GT, which is perhaps given too much due in being treated as authoritative and official by many, has gotten things wrong (I’m sure some will see the correction as an unwitting admission rather than the screw up it probably was).

In my view, GT is certainly a few levels below the Xinhuas and People's Dailys on the 'authoritative scale', which is something worth remembering next time you see something on there. Not that I think, as some believe, GT is unimportant and to be ignored entirely - it does on occasion break stories ahead of the official media and is clearly a source that Beijing likes and feels very useful to sometimes say things it cannot, so I do pay attention to it. What I would add is it is by no means an authoritative voice of the party in the way that its owner and publisher, the People’s Daily, is.

And finally....

The big story in India has been the revelations from the use of Pegasus spyware - you can read all of those revelations on the website of The Wire here.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote on the revelations:

The national security implications of these revelations are enormous. The explosive growth of surveillance technology vendors is a global security and human rights problem. It is not primarily China, but democratic states like Israel and UK, that are selling technologies for deepening the surveillance powers of states. There needs to be a global compact, or at least one amongst democratic states, on regulating these technologies. The global scale of this is succinctly made evident in Ronald Diebert’s book, Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society. In 2020, Diebert, of The Citizen Lab, Toronto, had made it clear that India was one of the countries where the number of victims of sophisticated spyware targeting was by far the most of any country in the world and it is very likely that, as he put it in the book, “Indian police and security agencies are heavy users and abusers of NSO’s spyware.”

China, which milked the Snowden revelations (and still does) to say the West is no better than it is on surveillance, didn't miss the chance to weigh in. The Foreign Ministry said on Thursday, to a question from Chinese media (always a good indicator that it was something they wanted to weigh on as they often get Chinese media to pose questions on those issues)

China National Radio: It is reported that the Pegasus spyware has drawn much attention from the public globally. The software is reportedly being used to monitor the phones of politicians, business people and journalists in several countries. Some media commented that it is strange that the US, which has recently criticized China on the issue of cyber security, is silent on this issue. Do you have any comment?

Zhao Lijian: I noted relevant reports. If what is reported proves to be true, we strongly condemns it. This once again shows that cyber security threats such as eavesdropping is a common challenge for countries, which calls for joint response through dialogue and cooperation on the basis of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit. Peculiarly, the US government has been reticent on this even though it keeps talking about upholding cuber security. The US is ganging up with some other countries to make unwarranted smearing and denigration against China on cyber security. This only gives away its guilty conscience.

Most cyber attacks in the world come from the US, which is an open secret. According to openly available material, the US National Security Agency has built cyber surveillance centers in eight cities including Washington D.C., New York City, San Francisco and Seattle, where the NSA intercepts and analyses flows of global telecommunication data, and monitors large amounts of emails, phone calls and online chats passing across US territory. Supported by its plentiful tools and hacker groups, the US has never stopped launching cyber attacks on others, exploiting loopholes to undermine nuclear reactor equipment and facilities, hacking power grids and implanting malicious codes, and attacking other countries' power grids which led to massive power outage and collapse of infrastructure facilities. The US has long been stealing information from other countries' important facilities and corporate systems, which led to great losses.

I have a question for the US: did the US throw Julian Assange in prison and hate Edward Snowden's guts because they revealed the dark history of the US practice of wiretapping and theft of secrets? We'd like to ask the US to provide evidence for accusing China of cyber attacks. Distorting facts does not help to whitewash the US itself, nor will it be accepted by the world.

Xinhua tweeted:

Of course it's all a bit rich, but expect this to be similarly milked and used to rebut any accusations of China's hacking and surveillance at home, which is systemic and widespread.

Debasish Roy Chowdhury had this to say from his vantage point in Hong Kong:

As an Indian journalist based in Hong Kong, I once tracked with fascination the struggle for democracy in my adopted city even as my country of birth was growing disenchanted with the outcome of that system of governance.

After seven years of Modi, I now watch democracy die quietly in India from faraway Hong Kong, where democracy was never born but it never felt that way, and its supposed passing is widely mourned.

That’s because even though Hong Kong never had representative democracy, it instituted rights, freedoms and standards of governance that were so enviable that their fraying evokes lament. Much more, say, than for the current institutional capture and attacks on civil rights in India, whose geopolitical alignment with the Western world and chronically poor governing standards temper global expectations of it. 

Hong Kong’s security law is considered the end of the city’s freedoms, the twilight of its days as a center of uninhibited capital and information flows. But curiously, throughout the decades that India has lived with its myriad security laws, none of these instruments of legal torture ever seemed to raise any alarm worldwide for the state of its free-market democracy, or dent its ever-growing attraction for global capital. It still doesn’t, as the US happily overlooks all of Modi’s rights abuses.

India’s application of security laws and its media landscape offer snapshots of how a despotic state corrodes civil liberties and slowly captures governing and oversight institutions even as it maintains the facade of democracy.  Unlike the conspicuous show of control in Hong Kong, the despots in India operate in stealth. They disguise media crackdowns in tax probes. They don’t raid newsrooms, they weaponize them against the regime’s enemies. They keep newspapers going even as they shut down free flow of information. They hack democracy by breaking into journalists’ phones, but they never cease to feign their allegiance to democracy.  That’s all it takes to keep moralizing Western politicians at bay.

COMMENT: I find it hard to disagree with what he has said in this extract above. For many years now, it's sometimes the case that a raid or a lawsuit against a newspaper in India or the arrest of someone in a state for saying something on social media triggers the fears 'We are becoming like China!'. The comparison isn't exactly new. I've generally been wary of those comparisons, because, one could argue, some of these cases in India are isolated and I think people in India aren't often aware simply how different the situation in China is where these restrictions are institutionalised and part of the essential structure of a one-party state with zero checks and balances on the ruling party’s power.

Institutions -- those are what would have given me pause for thought in making such comparisons. But increasingly, it's harder to look at those institutions as being the checks and balances they are meant to be in a functioning democracy. What really hits home about the Pegasus revelations is the degree to which so many institutions are simply hollowed out, compromised, and no longer playing the roles they are constitutionally meant to play. The revelations with regard to the Chief Justice, which you can find among the articles in The Wire linked above, all of which I urge you to read, are among the most disturbing. Today, I am a lot less sanguine about those China comparisons than I probably ever have been.

This issue turned out to be on the long side (I wasn't able to send out an issue earlier in the week, so hope this made up for that.)

Thank you as always for reading. Have a good weekend, and see you next week.