The real significance of India's Olympics boycott
Welcome to The India China Newsletter!
In this issue, I'll be looking at India's last-minute decision to stage a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, how it was received in China, and what it tells us about where relations are headed. I'll also briefly look at:
- China's reaction to Friday's Quad Foreign Ministers meeting in Melbourne
- What India imported from China in 2021, a record year for trade, and what it's doing to try and curb some of those imports
- India warns medical students about pursuing their educations in China, where there are already 23,000 plus students enrolled
- What the controversial new vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of India's premier universities, has to say about China and why it worries me about the future of China studies in India
- A 40,000 character essay that has been doing the rounds this week on an ‘Objective Evaluation of Xi Jinping’
I wanted to begin with India’s decision last week to diplomatically boycott the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics, which made headlines in India, but in my view, the broader significance about what it tells us about the current state of relations kind of got lost in those headlines. China, earlier this week, after last weekend’s focus on the opening ceremony, issued a response on the boycott and defended its choice of the PLA Galwan regiment commander as an Olympics torch bearer. Here is the exchange Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian had when asked by reporters about both the PLA torchbearer and an Uyghur torchbearer lighting the cauldron :
Q: At the Winter Olympics opening ceremony, the cauldron was lit by a Uyghur torchbearer. Several countries have refused to send officials to the opening ceremony over alleged human rights abuses against Uyghurs. Was the choice of the torchbearer intended to be symbolic or a message to these countries?
A: The so-called "genocide" in Xinjiang is the biggest lie of the century. The above-mentioned remarks of some American politicians about “human rights abuses against the Uyghurs” are nothing less than lying through their teeth. The Beijing Winter Olympics are underway, and the political hype with malicious smear and slander related to the Winter Olympics finds no support and will not succeed. It will surely be condemned and opposed by the international community. As for the torchbearers of the Winter Olympics, I believe you may have noticed that the spokesperson of the International Olympic Committee already responded to that. To start with, according to the Olympic Charter, Dinigeer Yilamujiang has the right to participate in the games and all ceremonies as an Olympian for Beijing 2022. Second, it is understood that there are clear criteria for selecting torchbearers for the Beijing Olympic Winter Games, which requires consideration of various factors including personal will, competition results, age, popularity and ethnicity, so as to fully reflect broad representation.
Q: You just said that Olympics should be used as a medium to build bridges of friendship. So against this backdrop, I would like to ask that China has chosen to put Qi Fabao, a soldier involved in Galwan Valley clashes with India, as one of the Olympic torchbearers. Do you think India’s sensitivities in this regard could have been respected?
A: I have just made a detailed explanation on China’s selection of torchbearers for the Beijing Olympic Winter Games. The torchbearers of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are broadly representative and meet the selection standards. We hope relevant party will view this in an objective and rational manner.
Q: I am not questioning the rationale behind China’s selection or the criteria. Do you think India’s concerns got respected somehow?
A: I have taken note of your statement. What I want to say is that we hope relevant party can view the torchbearers in an objective and rational way and refrain from making politicized interpretation.
The issue got very limited play in the Chinese media — I think it’s pretty clear that the media were downplaying the various boycotts by various countries as the current focus, opening ceremony onwards, is on “positive energy” in the coverage while the games are on (and more broadly, let’s be honest, foreign officials attending or not attending the ceremony is hardly a priority at the moment for the public with the huge attention on the events themselves).
Nevertheless, a few commentators weighed in. Here’s what former the Global Times editor in chief said (incidentally in response to me tweeting our report about it)
Nationalistic commentator Sima Nan, who has quite a wide following, weighed in:
Recently, India and China held military commander-level talks, and the attitude has been restrained. But India’s jealousy of the rise of China's development has not changed. India suddenly announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics on the pretext that Qi Fabao, the "heroic leader of the border guard", would be the torchbearer for the games. Indian national television announced that it would not broadcast the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
My God, this is a serious problem! Do you think that in the feast on the first day of the Lunar New Year, when fried, steamed, cooked, chicken, duck, fish and meat are all on the table, but only a dish of yellow curry sauce is missing, it will have any effect at all on the meal?
Thomas Bach, President of the supposedly neutral and apolitical International Olympic Committee, also defended China’s choice. He had this to say at a press conference in Beijing:
In London 2012, we had a veteran from Afghanistan running the torch relay. Because of the IOC’s political neutrality we do not comment on political issues. If we take a political standpoint and get in the middle of tensions, disputes, confrontations of political powers, then we are putting the games at risk. If at the end you have Olympic games only between national Olympic committees whose governments agree on every political situation, games would lose their universality and lose their mission. That would lead to the end of the Olympic Games.
Doesn’t the first sentence kind of negate all the bromides that followed? We should point out here that Qi Fabao is not a veteran but a serving PLA commander involved in a clash that led to the deaths of 20 soldiers from another country that’s also participating in the Olympic Games. Does Bach think that’s part of the Olympic spirit? Bach’s response, of course, is not all that surprising considering the conduct of both Bach and the IOC during the games in how they have handled the Peng Shuai issue by going out of the way to play a role in the ongoing ruthless whitewashing of her allegations. Peng, who gave a choreographed interview to L’Equipe in the presence of official minders, and who is only 36 years old, announced her retirement during the games, news of which was pretty much blanked out by the Chinese media. She is a former world number 1 in doubles.
My three takeaways on the broader significance of all of this.
1. I think the way the selection of Qi Fabao was seen in India — as a pinprick or an intentional poke in the eye to get India riled up — entirely missed the point. This editorial in the Indian Express, for instance, called it “a deliberate finger in Delhi’s eye.” That wasn’t the point. Strange as it may seem, I actually don’t even think India’s considerations or how this would be seen in India at all figured in the decision to use Qi. I think it was entirely domestic considerations — but this does not make it unimportant. On the contrary, this makes it far more important than a mere pinprick or trolling attempt.
2. This is because, as we have seen with a number of other recent developments that this newsletter has discussed, it reflects how the border dispute with India has really become an issue that’s front and centre again for the first time, I’d argue, since the end of the 1962 war. From the late 70s onwards, as ties normalised, Deng’s idea of “shelving differences” broadly summed up how the boundary was treated within China. This was manifested in how it was played domestically, where it was generally played down, spoken of as being left over from history, and not seen as a central element in the relationship. I believe that is changing, and if that trend continues, will have long-term consequences.
As another example of that, take a look at how a few days ago, Eric X. Li, who interviewed Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan during his Beijing visit, asked for Khan’s thoughts on the India China border situation and on India-China relations. I found that striking, and I don’t think I have ever seen that happening before. It again shows the mainstreaming of the border dispute and that it is widely being acknowledged as a point of confrontation — this is of course commonplace in India, but I see this is as a departure from past practice in how it’s generally been treated in China. Here is their exchange:
3. The torchbearer issue for Delhi reaffirms what it has been saying of late about a growing tendency in Beijing to lower the threshold of what it sees as sensitive (for eg., the letter to parliamentarians protesting their attendance at a Tibet event) while at the same time showing less regard for Indian sensitivities. Indeed, this was pretty much the rationale for China’s deployments along the LAC in early 2020 that sparked the current crisis, as put out for example in Yun Sun’s War on the Rocks piece, which made the argument that India’s infrastructure building on the Indian side of the LAC was seen as a grave threat to China, yet China amassing of two divisions in contravention of past agreements and transgressing the LAC to create a permanent presence in areas where it was not previously present, was seen as an entirely justifiable and perfectly normal response. Then Indian Ambassador to China Vikram Misri also articulated this in a speech last year:
The second obstacle is to take a one-sided view of concerns and sensitivities, where one’s own preoccupations trump any of those flagged by the other side. As EAM Dr. S. Jaishankar has stated, India-China relations must proceed on the basis of the “three mutuals” – mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests. In an international community where we interact as equals, and as important major neighbors of each other, it cannot be that only one side’s concerns are of relevance while the other side’s case goes unheard. Safeguarding territorial integrity and national security holds equal value for both sides. Affixing blame exclusively on the other side is not a helpful approach. And to press one’s own concerns and disregard the other side’s concerns and sensitivities without any explanation or recourse goes beyond disrespect. It actually creates even more obstacles to finding solutions.
Sticking to the theme of “one-sided sensitivities”, the way India’s more close involvement with the Quad is being seen, in a sense, manifests this too. The Quad Foreign Ministers met in Melbourne on Friday. This was what Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian had to say:
I have expounded on our position on the Quad for many times. I also made a response specifically on this subject the other day.
China believes that the so-called Quad group cobbled together by the US, Japan, India and Australia is essentially a tool for containing and besieging China to maintain US hegemony. It aims to stoke confrontation and undermine international solidarity and cooperation.
I want to stress that as the Cold War is long over, the attempt to forge a so-called alliance to contain China wins no support and leads nowhere. Relevant countries should abandon the antiquated Cold War mentality, correct the wrong approach of bloc confrontation and geopolitical games, and contribute to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific.
Comment: I might be wrong but this is the most direct criticism of the Quad I may have seen, more direct than usual slightly broad references to “relevant” countries and what they are doing. I also see less of the past trend of only blaming the US for the Quad and using others as pawns — there is still a lot of that, as we see below — and also commentaries underlining it would fail because India had “an independent foreign policy”, which I see a lot less of too.
Zhao Lijian had more to say on this the day before the Quad meeting:
First, democracy is a common value of humanity, not a monopoly of a few countries. It’s up to the people of a country to decide whether this country is democratic or not. Despite its ruined democratic brand, the US still forces other countries to accept its democratic standards and cobbles together cliques by drawing the ideological line. This is sheer betrayal to democracy.
Second, China presents a boon for the regional order. China pursues peace, development and cooperation and promotes the building of an equitable, open and inclusive security system in the Asia-Pacific Region that does not target any third country. We reject moves to create exclusive cliques and incite bloc confrontation. Like most countries, China recognizes and supports the international system with the UN at its core and the international order based on international law, rather than the so-called “order” unilaterally defined by a single or a handful of countries.
Third, any multilateral mechanism should conform to the overriding trend of peace and development and be conducive to enhancing mutual trust and cooperation between countries. We hope the US and other countries concerned will grasp the trend of the times, adopt a proper mindset and discard the Cold War mentality. They should contribute more to regional peace, stability and prosperity instead of putting a strain on the relations between regional countries.
Comment: While the Quad is seen as an attempt to contain China - and to an extent understandably so, it’s no secret that concerns about China, no matter what the diplomats might say, is perhaps the most important binding glue - yet there is little to no reflection of why that closeness is growing and why Delhi, after truth be told going slow on the Quad for so long, very clearly sees diminishing incentives of doing so. In a briefing with reporters yesterday to speak about the new US Indo-Pacific Strategy document that came out on Friday, an administration official noted that “China’s behavior in the line of actual control has had a galvanizing impact on India.” They are not wrong.
India’s biggest imports are electrical and mechanical machinery, a range of chemicals that are intermediate imports used by industries, active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), auto components, and since 2020, a large amount of medical supplies. According to figures available with India’s Ministry of Commerce, all those key imports continued to rise in 2021. The total value of the top 100 import categories —each of which accounts for more than $100 million in imports —was up by $16 billion in the last year, reaching $45 billion. The top items included both finished goods such as integrated circuits (up 147%), laptops and computers (up 77%) and oxygen concentrators (up four-fold) and intermediate products such as chemicals (of these, acetic acid imports were up eight-fold).
The Times of India reports this week that Delhi is concerned:
The commerce department has asked other government agencies to initiate steps to check the import of non-essential commodities from China and ramp up domestic capacities, wherever possible, amid concerns over widening trade deficit with the world’s largest exporter. The move signals sensitivity towards shipments from across the border, which have been facing greater scrutiny since the Covid outbreak and has seen several countries join hands to look at alternate supply channels from “trusted sources” and reduce dependence on China.
Comment: I am not holding my breath as I’ve heard for a decade or longer about “steps being initiated”. May be I will be proved wrong this time but seeing is believing.
In another sign of how things are changing — one area where ties had really boomed is the education space and China’s emergence as one of the biggest destinations for Indian medical students —a February 8 notice from India’s medical education regulator, which you can see here , explicitly advised students to consider other places for study. There are 23,000 plus Indian students enrolled in Chinese medical colleges. As I reported recently in The Hindu in a piece that also looked at why they chose to study in China, they have been waiting for two years to go back with no timetable on when they can resume classes in China. For medical degrees in particular where practical training is so important, this has lots of ramifications.
The Hindustan Times reported this week:
India’s top medical education regulator on Tuesday warned students against enrolling in Chinese universities as the country continues to ban the entry of foreign students in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The warning by the National Medical Commission (NMC) was issued after India’s external affairs ministry was alerted that some Chinese medical universities were inviting applications for admission to MBBS programmes for the current and upcoming academic years - despite a ban on foreign students from entering China.
It means students who enrol in these Chinese universities this academic year would likely have to take classes online for the near future, and, as a law, only online medical degrees are not recognised in India, the NMC said. The NMC notice pointed out that thousands of Indian medical students studying in China are stranded in India because of the travel restrictions for more than two years, jeopardising their careers.
In the context of admission notices from Chinese universities, the NMC said, “any prospective student needs to be aware that the Government of People’s Republic of China has imposed strict travel restrictions in the wake of Covid-19 and suspended all visas since November 2020”. “A large number of international students including Indian students have not been able to return to China to continue their studies due to these restrictions. Thus far, there has been no relaxation in the restrictions,” the notice added.
It hasn’t at all gone down well in India, as the Hindustan Times also reported last week, that China said it would allow students from Pakistan to return:
A joint statement released by China and Pakistan, all-weather strategic allies, on Sunday said China will arrange for Pakistani students to return but did not give a timeline.
“Pakistan side highlighted that China has become a popular education destination. While ensuring safety against Covid-19, China will arrange for Pakistani students to return to China and resume classes in a prudent manner,” the China-Pakistan joint statement said.
It was issued after Prime Minister Imran Khan met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing after attending the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. China is said to be making similar arrangements for the return of students from Singapore, Mongolia and Sri Lanka.
Comment: I am not entirely sure that the commitment made in the joint statement will actually mean Pakistani students will return in the near term, given the continuing stringency of China’s travel restrictions and as we all know, these commitments are hardly binding. And a “prudent manner” does not suggest urgency.
Also on the education front, Jawaharlal Nehru University, which as many readers know is a premier university in New Delhi, has a controversial new Vice Chancellor. The Hindu reported:
Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit, a political science professor at Savitribai Phule Pune University, has been appointed as the first women Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
In her first statement after the appointment, she listed the construction of Indo-centric narratives, interdisciplinary studies and student-friendly environment as among her priorities. She was appointed by President Ram Nath Kovind, who is the University’s Visitor.
A Twitter account named Dr Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit offered strong opinions on Indian and international society and politics, leading to an outrage on the social media. The account included tweets referring to a section of JNU teachers and students as “losers” and “extremist Naxal groups” who should be banned from campuses. The tweet added that funding should be stopped for prestigious educational institutions such as St. Stephen’s College and Jamia Millia Islamia University, referring to them as “communal campuses”.
On Tuesday, Dr Pandit responded to The Hindu's queries regarding a controversial Twitter account in her name. Asked to confirm if the handle @SantishreeD belonged to her, she said, "Not mine".
I don’t think anyone seriously believes it was not hers. (She also claimed at one point that the account was hacked. Others have pointed out that this account also had tweeted family photos.)
The new VC has also had a lot to say on China. From The Hindu report:
China also came in for a lot of flak, being called a “rogue nation”. Tweets referred to COVID-19 as the China virus and accused the country of “bioterror” and “biowarfare” to gain hegemony and to destroy the Indian economy. In late April, tweets termed media reports of the brutal second wave of COVID-19 “fear psychosis”.
One area though, where she wanted to emulate China, was apparently in its treatment of Muslim minorities. See below:
Why I bring this up is that JNU is probably one of a handful of institutions that does solid research on China, and has trained more scholars studying China and in the language than any other institution in India. The current state of China studies in India is already very limited and inadequate. It remains to be seen what impact this appointment will have, but at such a crucial time in the relationship, when we need more deep — and dispassionate — research and scholarship on China, the last thing we need is anything that will take us in the opposite direction.
Finally, this lengthy 40,000 character essay has been doing the rounds this past week, on an “Objective Evaluation of Xi Jinping”. While it will certainly be inaccessible within China, a couple of friends of mine in China have indeed read it and shared it with me. Geremie Barme has done us another stellar service by translating its conclusion. You can read the concluding portion in full here on China Heritage. The full essay is here but not translated.
The author writes:
China has been in the process of integrating with the world for decades and no single individual can turn back the tide. The Communist Party simply won’t allow the vision of one man to engage in a new cold war with the rest of the world. If Xi really does undermine the shared interests of large groups in society this will result in mass disaffection. That’s why his situation is so precarious at the moment, because it is easier for people to oppose Xi rather than opposing the Communist Party itself. Over time, elites on both sides will collaborate and foment the kind of political crisis that will create a rift between Xi and the Party. Then he will be faced with mass disaffection and people piling on to bring him low. He will end up as a votive offering placed on the altar of political reconciliation.
The author also argues that Xi’s third term (2022-2027) will be his last and he will subsequently see his power dwindle. I’m not so sure if, as he says, that “the shared interests of large groups in society” will come to such a pass to prompt that, but I think there’s little doubt about the elite discontent that he speaks of. I’m sure there will be a lot of elites nodding their heads in agreement with much of his assessment, but whether that amounts to anything is another question altogether.
Thank you for reading! Have a great weekend, and see you next week!