An official Chinese news website published a picture juxtaposing China’s space mission and India’s funeral pyres of Covid-19 victims, with the caption ‘Lighting a Fire in China VS Lighting a Fire in India’.

Public perception about China in India as such is blemished by negativity owing to the perennial political mistrust between the two countries. However, the Covid-19 spread from Wuhan and the bloody clashes at Galwan in the Western Sector of the India-China border last June, especially at a time when India was grappling to tackle the pandemic, brought relations to its nadir. Even though both sides have agreed to withdraw from the northern and southern banks of the Pangong Tso, however, China’s refusal to vacate Hot Springs, Gogra Heights and Depsang plains have created new friction points. Amidst such belligerence, India has been taken aback by the second Covid-19 wave, which has devastatingly paralysed India’s poor healthcare infrastructure, with people dying for want of oxygen, hospital beds and medicine.
In the face of such an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, countries around the world have expressed support and sympathy for the people of India by sending oxygen concentrators, ventilators, medicines, bedside monitors, PPE kits and other paraphernalia. China first expressed its willingness to support India on 22 April, when China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, “We stand ready to provide India with necessary support and assistance to get the epidemic under control.” The timing coincided with the US declining India’s request for importing Covid-19 vaccine raw materials. On 23 April, another MOFA spokesperson, Zhao Lijian pledged that China was “ready to provide support and help according to India’s need”. A few days later, on 27 April, in a meeting of the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh to discuss Covid-19 cooperation, China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi expressed his condolences to the Indian people and also revealed that “the first batch of oxygen supplies have been sent to India”. On 30 April, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s message to Prime Minister Narendra Modi read, “The Chinese side stands ready to strengthen cooperation with the Indian side in fighting the pandemic and provide support and help in this regard.” On the same day, Wang Yi in a telephone conversation with his Indian counterpart reiterated China’s support.
Conversely on 1 May, an official news website of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China (CPC) threw cold water on what was being conveyed to India by the top Chinese leadership, by publishing a contemptuous picture juxtaposing China’s space mission and funeral pyres of the Covid-19 victims in India with the captions “Lighting a Fire in China VS Lighting a Fire in India”, with 150,000 likes, 10,000 forwards and 5,366 nasty comments before it was deleted. Those who follow China know about the army of the so-called xiao fenhong (Little Pinkos) and wumaodang (Fifty Cent Party), a euphemism for ultranationalist extreme leftist blog commentators. Unfortunately, presently in China, some university professors have also joined the ranks of such armies. Professor Shen Yi of the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University not only defended the above-mentioned inhuman post, but also argued that China must learn from the US experience of sending varied signals conforming to China’s reality and national interests. Hu Bian (Editor Hu Xijin of the Global Times, also a synonym for cock and bull story in Chinese) though “requested” these “wumao xiaofenhong” to “Hold high the banner of humanitarianism at this time, show sympathy for India, and firmly place Chinese society on a moral high ground,” but, was the first to defend Professor Shen Yi and pronounce him as a “gentleman” in his blog “after having a discussion with the latter” on the above post. In fact, Chinese media has been predicting such a humanitarian crisis in India from the very beginning. The second wave has proved them right. Wang Siyuan, a researcher with China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) in an article published on Nanya Yanjiu Tongxun (South Asian Studies Newsletter) on 5 May, opined that the pandemic “didn’t prove to be an opportunity for turning around China-India relations,” on the contrary, “India is still determined to forge alliances to contain China.” On the question of international aid, India has chosen the policy of “hankering after the US, attaching importance to Russia, and neglecting China” argues Wang.
Undoubtedly, the post on Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the CPC has ignited a massive debate inside and outside China. My first reaction to the post was to repost it on my weixin moments. Many Chinese friends including those from academia and media expressed their dejection and pronounced it a handiwork of an individual who does not represent the view of the Chinese people and the government. There were people asking that in such terrible times, saner voices in India and China must inject positive energy to the relationship, which I endorse absolutely. Nevertheless, the likes of “wumao xiaofenhong” have vehemently supported the news, and continue to impair the beleaguered relationship, as could be gleaned from the comments of Professor Shen Yi. No wonder people like Wang Siyuan gloat over India becoming the “World ICU from the World Pharmacy”. In the same vein, India’s “vaccine diplomacy” has also been rendered a failure. Obviously, most of it for China’s domestic consumption telling people the “ills” of democracy, on the other hand also hinting India that in the face of rapidly changing regional and international situation, what India will face is not the issue of “boarding a wrong train” but “missing the train” altogether as pointed by Wang Siyuan.
Covid-19 has devastated economies and societies across the world. India managed the initial onslaught of the pandemic fairly well, however, the second wave has paralysed India’s health infrastructure, exposed misgovernance, incompetence and lack of leadership in the face of crisis of such a magnitude. Questions are being asked, as to what did the government do to prepare for this wave in the last one year? Why was the government so quick to declare “victory” over coronavirus, and remained insensitive towards huge religious gatherings, election rallies, and exodus of migrant labourer time and again? Why has the government centralised allocation of oxygen quantity? Why is there lack of transparency as regards the Covid-19 funding and where all the foreign aid is going to? The government has acknowledged aid coming from various countries but not from China, why? According to Hu Xijin, in an article published on 2 May, “China has provided India with more than 20,000 oxygen generators and 5,000 ventilators.” He also revealed that Chinese companies have received orders for over 40,000 units of oxygen generators from India. In Hu’s words, “China has made the greatest contribution to India’s current fight against the epidemic” but “there is no atmosphere of public appreciation of China’s help in India.” Or is China’s support limited to business deals only? According to the figures quoted in Chinese media, between 1 March and 4 April, China has exported about US$1.4 billion of major epidemic prevention materials, mainly including 3.86 billion face masks, 37.52 million protective gowns, 2.41 million infrared thermometers, 16,000 ventilators, 2.84 million boxes of novel coronavirus detection reagents.
I believe the government is answerable to these questions, for Covid-19 has seriously dented India’s economy, manufacturing, job market, and perhaps the prospects of attracting sizeable foreign investment and technology too. It has also dented India’s image in fighting the pandemic in the region, therefore, is likely to redefine India’s regional as well as global standing. India’s economic integration with the SAARC and ASEAN is way behind that of China’s, therefore, rather than looking towards India, countries in the region will continue to find solace in China for salvaging their national economies regardless of their fears about China. The US and Europe are likely to continue their business partnerships with China regardless of coming closer to the idea of Indo-Pacific strategy. Chinese scholarship is predicting that a bruised India may not be able to pool in resources for her being the fulcrum of Indo-Pacific strategy and sustain its influence in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the US.
In the face of such real and imagined challenges, India needs to deal with these realistically. Domestically India must accord precedence to “economy in command” rather than “politics in command” paradigm. Meanwhile, regardless of China gloating, India needs to learn from China, how to manage large populations and build massive capacities for the same. We have seen how China swung into action and instantly quarantined 11 million residents of Wuhan after realising the gravity of the situation. We also know how China activated all-round emergency response mechanisms at central as well as local levels to deal with the pandemic, including deployment of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for manning the supply chains. India could take a cue from these, especially when foreign aid from 40 or so countries is getting piled up at the airports and we are not being able to take it to hospitals across India for days. While competition amongst countries is logical, but for a crisis of this magnitude, global solutions are required. Self-reliance and decoupling don’t commensurate with India’s regional and global ambitions.
B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.