India’s forgotten lessons from Wuhan, Covid-19 aid, and after Xi, who?

Welcome to today's The India China Newsletter.

In today's issue:
- Reflections on the current Covid-19 surge in India, lessons from Wuhan from one year ago, and what it tells us about political leadership
- Covid-19 aid to India and China
- China's new travel curbs for India
- After Xi, who? A new paper on likely scenarios

The Covid-19 surge in India shows no signs of abating. Not a day goes by without hearing some terrible news of loss afflicting friends, colleagues and loved ones. Yesterday we lost a beloved colleague, senior photographer Vivek Bendre. Vivek was such a generous person and I had the pleasure of working with him in 2008-09 when I was at our Mumbai bureau.

I was in Mumbai, a complete newbie, zero knowledge of Maharashtra politics (and goes without saying, zero Marathi and very limited Hindi), and landed in the middle of the lead up to the 2009 general elections. I preferred the business stories but in election time covering rallies and political speeches and the like filled me with dread, especially because of my linguistic limitations. I would feel an immeasurable sense of relief every time I would see Vivek's name on the same assignment. He was always there to help and I knew if he was around, the assignment would go smoothly. I am filled with regret we haven't been in touch and the news of his passing was such a gut punch.

In Chennai where I am, there were 4,000 cases yesterday, higher than what we ever encountered during the first wave. It was two months ago that we were hosting an India England international test match - with spectators - and our daily case count was 130. Allowing this surge was such a self-inflicted wound and we are all paying the price. Sure, there was a collective failure at all levels - I personally know many people who should  know better but happily abandoned all protocols and I’m pretty sure we all know folks of that ilk - but surely, and ultimately, the buck stops with the leadership.

One only need to go back to the origins of this pandemic in Wuhan to see the importance of political leadership. Dali Yang put it well in response to my questions, when we spoke exactly a year ago about what went wrong initially at Wuhan:

At what level would the decision have been made to play it down?

There was clearly a political issue here. If you look at their behaviour, the [national] CDC people suspected something was much worse and reported it to the WHO the same day through the National Health Commission, which was the right protocol. They also shared the genetic sequence with the world relatively soon [by January 12] which allowed countries to begin designing their own tests. But at the same time in Wuhan, consistently for so many days they were saying this is not a serious issue. There were zero cases reported all the way until January 16, so you are talking about more than two weeks.

What explains the reporting of zero cases for those two weeks?

Well, they did have zero cases because they used such restrictive criteria! New infections could not be counted as cases if they had no exposure to the seafood market [where the first cluster was reported]. The Wuhan municipal leadership instituted the new criteria to keep the numbers down. In fact, quite remarkably the US made the same mistake as well later. Did they intentionally hide the situation or did they make a bad decision? My hunch is maybe it’s a bit of both. They were not thinking in the right way from the start, but in retrospect it looks extremely misguided.

How relevant was the fact that Wuhan was hosting its annual Party Congress sessions from January 6 to 17 in their decision-making?

This was crucially important. This system has gotten used to the idea that you cannot allow anything to upset the political atmosphere during those times. Ironically, in 2003 during SARS, it was the national meetings that were happening.

What would have been the role of the national leadership in this time?

We know the national authorities sent a team to Wuhan on December 31 which stayed for several days. They sent another team in middle of January. There is an issue of accountability here. One, could they have done better? Two, could they have made better sense of the information? I think they have emphasised the local authorities are the primary unit of responsibility, so they claim they deferred to the provincial leadership. There is also an issue in terms of ranking. Even if you sent the vice minister from the National Health Commission, the provincial leader outranks the vice minister. Even if you send the minister, he cannot simply order the provincial leader. So structurally, it’s a situation such that the national ministry cannot simply come in and dictate. It is a great irony actually, this is not a federal system but in this issue the local authorities in particular are responsible, until of course they couldn’t hide it. Then we later had the municipal leadership come and say they had no authority from above to announce anything. What we have is a system of complexity where all the parties are shirking their responsibility, and in this case everybody is culpable.

Did we learn anything even as we have been so keen to point out the mistakes made in China? Here is a sobering thought. The Wuhan cover-up, when deaths were under-reported and doctors were told to keep silent, happened for *three weeks* in January. December 30/31 was when Li Wenliang and other doctors were sounding the alarm. January 23 was when the Wuhan lockdown began. Sure there were initial mistakes, but also worth reflecting that the Wuhan leadership was finally sacked, and since then, the political messaging from China, even when there have been almost zero local cases, has been unwavering in terms of the dangers of recurrence, mask use, and protocols. Also worth reflecting that the Wuhan cover-up happened, as inexcusable as it was, when we knew little about this virus. Contrast that with what we have seen here the past few weeks.

The consistent messaging from the political leadership, amid election rallies and holding the Kumbh Mela, was that normalcy is back, and we had won the war. Sure, politicians of all hues have been criss-crossing the country and putting elections above everything else, but the buck stops with the government in power which has been abysmal in public messaging and in preparing us for what we are now witnessing even when we know what we are dealing with.

I am not saying this lightly: this is, in my opinion, failure incomparably worse than what happened in Wuhan. And at least in Wuhan, their leaders were all sacked.

The South China Morning Post reports today:

China has vowed to encourage its private companies to help India in its battle against a drastic surge in Covid-19cases which has seen repeated daily global records of new infections and local media reports that patients are dying because of a lack of oxygen supplies.

Wang Xiaojian, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in India, said the country had the firm support of China’s government and its people in the fight against the pandemic. “We will encourage and guide Chinese companies to actively cooperate with India to facilitate acquiring medical supplies, and provide support and help according to India’s need,” he said, in an embassy statement on Monday night.

In separate remarks, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China and India were in communication over the pandemic response, and that Beijing would provide materials, if requested by New Delhi. He also called on India’s fellow members of the Quad security alliance – Australia, the United States and Japan – to help the stricken country. “I hope these nations can jointly provide India and related countries with support and assistance within their capacity to fight the epidemic, and fulfil their due international responsibilities and obligations,” Wang said.

The dig at the Quad came at the MFA briefing in response to this question from Bloomberg, which must have delighted the MFA spokesperson:

Bloomberg: Just to return to the question on India. The recent meeting of the Quad (India, Japan, Australia and the US) said that "one of the things we would be doing is looking at assisting on COVID-19". Yet, the current situation is one of the countries is in dire trouble in India, and there doesn't seem to be any help coming from those countries. Do you see there is a difference there between effectiveness of Quad and the help China has promised or that China can provide?

Wang Wenbin: First of all, I would like to reiterate that the epidemic is a common challenge that can only be addressed by concerted international efforts. We have also made it clear that China is willing to provide support and assistance to India in its fight against the latest surge of infections. We hope that all countries can stand in solidarity to fight against the virus, the common enemy of mankind.

I also take note that leaders of some countries and international organizations are calling for strong international support to countries in need, as one in six Europeans had been vaccinated, one in five in North America but just one in 100 in Africa, which was unacceptable. The international community should reflect upon and stay on high alert to the huge "vaccine divide" between developed and developing countries. China was the first to put forward and act on its commitment to make vaccines a global public good. We resolutely oppose "vaccine nationalism", and will work with the international community to promote fair and reasonable distribution of vaccines. We also call on countries in more advantageous position to take concrete actions to support and assist developing countries in obtaining vaccines, so as to secure an early victory in mankind's common fight against the epidemic.

You mentioned some activities carried out by certain countries within the relevant framework, we hope that they will also follow such principles and spirit, and jointly provide support and assistance to India and those in need within their capabilities in line with the vision of building a community with a shared future for mankind, and fulfill their due international responsibilities and obligations.

This decision from Sichuan Airlines did not, however, signal helpfulness:

Media reports on how this was halting medical supplies and leading to a huge surge in costs prompted a response from the company:

A logistics arm under Sichuan Airlines said that it is discussing a new plan to resume cargo services to India, as the country has been going through a COVID-19 resurgence.

The response came after Indian media reported that Sichuan Airlines had suspended all its cargo flights to India for 15 days, and said that such a move brings "major disruption" to private traders' efforts to buy medical supplies, including oxygen concentrators, from China.

"We are re-evaluating the original plan of suspending cargo services to India, and actively discussing a new plan to guarantee cargo services to the region," the company said in a reply sent to the Global Times on Monday.

The Covid-19 surge in India has been a trending story in China for the past few days. Zhang Wenhong, a leading epidemiologist, weighed in:

A senior Chinese epidemiologist predicted that India may face a larger coronavirus outbreak in the coming days if the Indian government does not take decisive measures. The expert noted that the virus variants are not the major cause of the current incontrollable situation.

In the past 24 hours, India recorded 346,786 new confirmed coronavirus cases bringing the total number of cases to 16.6 million. Due to the severe situation, the death toll continues to climb.

Some experts considered that the virus variants in India became a major reason for the resurgence of cases, as the variant in India could carry an additional mutation. However, Zhang Wenhong, China's leading infectious disease expert and head of the Shanghai COVID-19 medical team, said on his Weibo account that this was not the reason for the current uncontrollable situation in India.

The B.1.617 COVID-19 variant was discovered in October 2020 in India and as of April 20, over 20 countries have found the variant but there has not been such a massive outbreak like in India. Besides, the transmission rate of the variant found in India is similar to the variant found in the UK, which is higher than the variant reported in South Africa.

According to the study of the effect of mutant strains on serum neutralization and the impact on vaccines, it was found that samples of local vaccines and serum of recovered patients have a reduced neutralization of the virus variant but it is still effective against mutant strains, Zhang said. While the total number of inoculations in India is just behind of that in the US and in China, given its huge population, the single-dose vaccination rate is 8 percent, which is still relatively low and can't stop the virus from spreading to more places.

In March, India abandoned social distancing and other preventive control measures and held various traditional festivals and political rallies. The government did not fight the epidemic in an active manner since the beginning which led to the worsening of the situation, the Chinese expert further elaborated, adding that only strict public health measures and decisive polices, with the help of the public, could help the South Asian country to get through the current crisis.

The other big story in the Chinese press was the initially indifferent U.S. response - which Washington is now scrambling to make amends for - and the backlash in India which is of course being milked by the Chinese media:

Since the Trump administration, "America First" has been placed in the center of US foreign policy, and although Biden has never openly said "America First," he is practicing it. And it has become a bipartisan policy especially on vaccines, Jin Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Studies at the Renmin University of China, told the Global Times on Friday.

Lü Xiang, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said that "India has become the victim of US empty promises." The Indian government has held great hope for producing US-developed COVID-19 vaccines as US President Biden proposed the plan during the first Quad summit in March. Maybe encouraged by this lip-service, the Modi government relaxed epidemic controls and with the loopholes of local governance, "the epidemic situation in India has gone wild," Lü told the Global Times.

One story the Chinese media isn't reporting - China is making it near impossible for its own nationals in India to return, I report for The Hindu (partial paywall):

China’s Embassy in India has since Friday put in place curbs that have made it harder for its nationals to return to China, amid the surge in COVID-19 cases.

The Embassy told Chinese travellers it will no longer issue “health codes” they need to return if they transit either through Nepal or Sri Lanka. Indian citizens and foreigners based in India have been barred from travelling to China since November last year.

The Embassy spokesperson responded:

Note how his statement was artfully worded. Our story said the changes made it harder for most nationals and the Embassy won't issue health codes IF they transit from Nepal to Sri Lanka, Nepal being the most popular and practical route back. Notice he is denying something we didn't say and is misquoting our report as saying “no longer issue green health code to Chinese nationals”.

Word play aside, this is the real situation: China’s Embassy in India has basically cut off most viable routes for their nationals, and only issues health codes now if they transit through Oman -- a country that has stopped all flights for India! -- or Germany, through which flights now cost 60,000 RMB one-way and last I checked, flights from Frankfurt to China are sold out until end-May. So they are essentially allowing only one very difficult route and cut off all more viable routes. Folks who have tested negative were getting Red health codes (denied) if their perfectly valid flight itineraries were through Nepal or elsewhere. Their motive is pretty clear to me, his non-denial denial aside. And I know many Chinese nationals here who are pretty infuriated.

In The Hindu, I spoke to Shivshankar Menon, former NSA, on his excellent new book, and on the future of India-China relations after what, he said, were moves by China to “tear up” the modus vivendi last year.

You can read the interview here or listen to the podcast.

A new paper from Richard McGregor and Jude Blanchette at the Lowy Institute on possible scenarios post-Xi. Recommend reading in full.

But even assuming Xi does retire in 2027 or 2032 — in part or in full — it stands to reason that he would continue to exercise enormous power, as did Deng Xiaoping after 1989. The record of once all-powerful leaders voluntarily and fully relinquishing power, formally or informally, is not robust. Rarely do leaders willingly abdicate, and when they do, they often play the role of informal kingmaker.

That’s it for this issue. Thank you for reading, and take care.