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China’s hubris confronts a perfect storm

A perfect storm appears to be gathering around China, brewed by growing internal dissent and wobbly external relations amid a global outcry for a thorough investigation on Beijing’s possible role in the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

At home, there are worrying signs that Beijing is cracking down viciously against intellectual dissent. That, in turn, is evoking faint memories of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution era of the sixties and the seventies. During that infamous period, millions including the intellectual and cultural elite of China were bundled together, and sent for 're-education' to the countryside, to acquire 'revolutionary' values befitting the chairman's dreams of a socialist paradise. An unknown number perished in the gulags meant to 'de-class' minds, and attune them to a common social denominator of the countryside.

Some aspects of the cultural revolution horror are now rustling through Xi Jinping’s China of the 'new era,' as the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) steps up hounding intellectuals and dissenters in the post-Covid 19 era.

On Monday, Xu Zhangrun, a law professor at Tsinghua University, was picked up by police from his home at a Beijing suburb. Xu had been earlier placed under house arrest for publishing an essay, which criticised Xi for imposing the one-man rule. The Chinese academic had diagnosed that the concentration of power in a single individual was the underlying cause behind the uncontrolled Coronavirus cascade. In May, the outspoken professor slammed the Chinese leadership of "backtracking toward Mao Zedong’s totalitarian rule… It is high time for China to turn wrongs to rights and return to the path pursuing a modern constitutional democracy and a people’s republic,” he had observed.

Xi’s crackdown in recent months, following the novel coronavirus outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, is now on an upward spiral.

The <em>Los Angeles Times</em> says that in February, the Chinese academy of social sciences had fired Zhou Peiyi, a visiting lecturer from Hong Kong, following her critical response on social media of China’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a separate incident last week, Hubei University sacked professor Liang Yanping for publishing 'incorrect speech' on social media related to Japan and Hong Kong. Liang had initially attracted controversy for relaying views on the Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, which rejected the official narrative, radiating from Beijing, on the pandemic. The Chinese scholar had fallen out with the authorities for supporting Wuhan novelist Fang Fang, whose <em>Lockdown Diary</em> on the coronavirus is acknowledged as a truthful portrayal of people’s suffering in the city.

Amid the chorus abroad demanding a probe and accountability regarding the origin and spread of Covid-19, and the subtext that Beijing may have something to hide, China has gone ballistic in its response. Chinese envoys overseas have taken to ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy with a vengeance. That includes threatening host nations, as well as adoption of aggressive social media postings, with the intent of smothering contrarian opinions that appear to damage China’s international reputation.

More ominously, China is literally on the warpath, adopting a forward deployed military posture in the South China Sea and Ladakh, facing India. In Ladakh, Chinese troops have moved en masse, along with heavy weapons to disrupt a strategic Indian border road that helps connect Leh, Ladakh’s capital with the legendary Karakoram Pass, the gateway to Xinjiang region. Unless repelled by a combination of force projection, dialogue and diplomacy, the Chinese troops can pour through the gates of Aksai Chin — territory claimed by India linking Tibet and Xinjiang – and seriously threaten Indian defence lines in Kashmir.

In the South China Sea, the Chinese coast guard sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel on April 3, triggering an angry response from Hanoi as well as the rest of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

China’s pushy and overbearing demeanour, has, however, evoked a potent military riposte. In Ladakh, India has stood up to China’s military build-up, and made it plain, that it would not be the first to blink.

In order to deter the China from militarily wresting its claims in the South China Sea, the United States has sent two aircraft carriers—the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Nimitz—along with their armed- to-the-teeth naval task forces.

These carriers have already shown their intent to use force, if required, to push back Chinese advances in key strategic areas of this zone. Of foremost importance is the Bashi channel. Located in the Luzon strait separating the Philippines from Taiwan, the Bashi channel seabed hosts a network of internet cables, forming a grand communication hub of Asia. In a clear message to Beijing, the two US carriers had exercised in the Philippine sea, before entering the South China Sea, after crossing the Luzon strait, which embeds the Bashi channel.

The proximity of the exercise close to Taiwan is also significant, signalling to China that Washington will stand by the island in its time of adversity. China, intends to “reunite” Taiwan, even by using force if required, with the mainland, as part of the “One China” policy. But integration of Taiwan with the mainland also serves an immensely important strategic purpose. Once China has a hold over the Taiwan strait, it can ‘hide’ its nuclear submarines in its deep waters, escaping into the wider West Pacific, undetected by US surveillance.

The two US ‘floating airfields,’ currently on deployment in the South China Sea have set another unstated red line—dissuading China from taking over Scarborough shoal claimed by Philippines, which has signed a longstanding defence treaty with Washington, which will kick into life, in case Manila is attacked.

On the diplomatic front, the Chinese have also begun to feel the heat. On Tuesday, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party adopted a resolution for cancelling the state visit to Japan by Chinese President Xi Jinping, in light of Beijing’s enactment last week of a controversial national security law for Hong Kong. Suddenly the chill has returned to China-Japan relations, which were previously warming up following visits by President Xi to Tokyo, and by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Beijing.

Silently, along with India holding fort in Ladakh and taking the lead, the frontline has been activated in the Indo-Pacific as well, which has already taken its call not to fall in line with the diktat of the Middle Kingdom, intent on building, along its periphery, an impossible and anachronistic network of 21st century tributary states..