The arc of the moral universe said Martin Luther King Jr, always bends toward justice. However, there is another arc whose curve is ambivalent and malleable. This arc is also an art whose exploitation depends upon the dexterity and guile of its artist. This is the art of discourse. No one has perfected this art in a more sustained and sinister fashion than the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Beginning with Mao Zhedong, the CCP and its leaders have unfailingly resorted to the medium of discourse to further their cause and disseminate their convictions. However, in the hands of current President Xi Jinping, this method, has assumed proportions hitherto unimagined.
Marshall McLuhan, the doyen and one of the cornerstones in the study of media theory, once famously exclaimed that, “the medium is the message.” Manoj Kewalramani, Fellow China Studies at the Takshashila Institution, in his book, “Smokeless War”, expounds in a compellingly lucid fashion the use of discourse by China and Xi Jingping to further the nation’s boundless aspirations and grandiose ambitions. “Huayuquan” in Chinese refers to the right to speak and be heard, or to speak with authority. The Huayuquan factor became ubiquitous during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic as China purveyed a narrative whose warp and weft left the world in no doubt about either its intent or action.
The title of the book is a clever take on a propaganda issued by the Chinese apparatchiks. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic which after its first manifestation in Wuhan, went about wreaking havoc all over the world, the Chinese foreign minister in a speech, waxed eloquent about China’s stellar efforts in containing the pandemic. He compared such containment measures to waging a “smokeless war.” This analogy, in due course assumed the proportions of a cliché even as it was repeatedly used and abused ad nauseum by governments across the world. As Kewalramani illustrates with great precision, the narrative of a smokeless war was a deft masterstroke that permeated beyond the realms of healthcare. It was a battle for narrative, a clamour for legitimacy and even an unashamed attempt at posturing.
The response by China to the global medical catastrophe exhibits in an unalloyed and unvarnished fashion, the untrammeled craving for China to assume global prominence, or dominance even. While the European Union was dithering and faltering in its failure to act with alacrity, China adroitly “stepped in” to fill the “breach.”
As Kewalramani writes, “the arrival of Chinese medical teams in Italy was live-streamed on social media and showcased by state media. Cinitalia, a bilingual magazine produced by Chinese state media organs, was sent to Italian parliamentarians to highlight the positive aspects of the bilateral relationship. The local Chinese embassy used rather creative graphics, depicting medical professionals from China and Italy carrying the burden of their nations amid the crisis to promote solidarity on social media. Chinese foreign ministry officials in Beijing would take this PR campaign one step further. Spokespersons Hua Chunying and Zhao Lijian both shared doctored videos purportedly showing Italians chanting Grazie, Cina! and clapping as the Chinese national anthem played in the background”. However, not everything turned out to be hunky dory with such showmanship of pandemic diplomacy.
As the author points out reports of defective and damaged COVID-19 test kits and poor quality face masks began streaming in from various countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Turkey, Slovakia, Britain, Georgia, India, Nepal and the Czech Republic. These quality constrains stirred umbrage and provoked outrage amongst the affected population. Apprehensions sprang over the very intentions of the self-proclaimed saviour of the world. “Anger over the prospect of economic exploitation amid an unprecedented health crisis” began to do the rumours.
Beijing, by this time had worked itself up into a full blown ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy mode’. Named after two blockbuster movies Wolf Warrior and Wolf Warrior II, this type of diplomacy refers to an aggressive and offensive approach taken by Chinese diplomats to defend the cause of China. Foreign Ministry spokespersons, Hua Chunying and Zhao Lijian are emblematic of this confrontational style of diplomacy and they take to Twitter on a regular basis to hit out at critics of China. Kewalramani writes, “Beijing’s response to these concerns ranged from awkward, defensive and even damaging statements criticising the media, foreign officials and governments to taking tangible steps to strengthen certification of products and supervision of manufacturers. For instance, in early April, the Chinese foreign ministry’s Hua Chunying hit out at ‘irresponsible’ media reportage about ‘so-called quality problems of Chinese anti-epidemic products’, adding that she hoped such reports were not ‘published out of ulterior motives’.
The Wolf Warrior Diplomacy is also apparent in China’s discourses dwelling on topical and existential issues such as human rights. The propaganda and proclamations are marvelously devised glossy blitzes that seek to obfuscate not just truth, but reason itself. Whenever boxed into a corner on controversial issues such as the treatment or mistreatment rather, accorded to the Uighur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang province, or the heinous attempts at muddying the principles of democracy in Hong Kong, the Chinese media uses the tactic of discourse to double up as a strategy of deflection.
For example, the leaders of the G7 countries after a three-day summit in June 2021, issued a joint statement goading China to "respect human rights and fundamental freedoms". China, immediately wasted no time in lashing back against the G7 and accusing them of “political manipulation.” A Chinese spokesperson in no uncertain terms and in language that left no doubts about the Chinese perception warned the world’s premier leaders to "Stop slandering China, stop interfering in China's internal affairs, and stop harming China's interests”.
As Kewalramani informs his readers. China has also adroitly exploited socio-cultural forums as effective conveyances of deflection. “For instance, the Chinese Society for Human Rights Studies (CSHRS) would co-host an event at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to discuss Racism and Social Discrimination in the USA. Another such webinar with international experts organised by the CSHRS had Mao Junxiang, director of the Human Rights Studies Center at Central South University in China, telling them that ‘American society emphasizes universal equality. But, in reality, you will find out that disadvantaged groups lack of equal protection and many of them die from socioeconomic inequality. It’s only an ideal that all men are created equal’. In the meantime, Beijing would vigorously defend its own human rights record in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, particularly pushing back against what it said were ‘malicious lies’”
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which many feel is a convenient euphemism for sophisticated New World colonialism also seeks to “lock” countries in accepting, if not assimilating the Chinese discourse. The BRI envisages the birthing of a staggering network of infrastructure projects encompassing highways, railways, energy pipelines and everything in between. The driving motive behind such a multi-trillion dollar initiative being the unlocking of a regional thoroughfare from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea, gradually moving towards the establishment of a transportation network that would connect Eastern, Western and Southern Asia.
As Samir Saran and Akhilesh Deo of the Observer Research Foundation write, from Xi’s perspective this ambitious move represents ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. One of the primary beneficiaries thus far of the BRI ‘largesse’ has been Pakistan. China has pumped in a whopping sum of $46 billion into the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a sprawling crisscross of mega industrial projects intended to rapidly upgrade Pakistan's required infrastructure and strengthen its economy by the construction of modern transportation networks, numerous energy projects, and special economic zones. It does not take a genius to thus decipher where the Pakistani loyalties lie.
In a recent television interview the seasoned Australian journalist Jonathan Swan exposed the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan for the show-horse pony that he was rather than the voracious chest-thumping condemner of Islamophobia as the politician himself has been self-gloating all along. Upon being asked about the plight of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, Khan made a capital mockery of himself by first confessing that China was one of Pakistan’s greatest friends, before feebly trying to argue that he was only concerned with atrocities and injustices occurring within his own nation and its borders (meaning Kashmir) and when laughably reminded that Xinjiang was in fact near his own border, finally falling flat on his face by meekly mumbling that all discussions between China and Pakistan on such issues would be held only behind ‘closed doors’.
The power of discourse also takes an uncompromisingly telling stance on any form of dissent against either CCP or Xi. The outspoken Chinese billionaire Jack Ma learned this the hard way. The founder of Alibaba, one of the world’s largest technology behemoths, Ma was on the cusp of launching an IPO for his Ant Group (an IPO that would have been the biggest in the world eclipsing the IPO of Saudi Aramco) before making a controversial speech that did not take a benevolent view of the Chinese financial system.
Rumours have it that this talk irked Xi and the business tycoon was summoned by the establishment. Brakes were put on the Ant IPO and Ma himself went missing for three months triggering all manner of speculation ranging from the absurd to the astute. By the time he finally reappeared putting all doubts to rest, shares in his companies had plummeted, wiping nearly $76bn off their value. If a globally influential charismatic figure like Jack Ma could have his wings so brutally clipped what about the dissenter who happens to be a commoner.
Kewalramani gives a chilling account of three people who genuinely voiced out their anti-establishment concerns only to experience the might of an unforgiving law - Xu Zhangrun, a professor of law at Tsinghua University, property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang and retired Central Party School professor Cai Xia.
Xu Zhangrun, a hardnosed critic of centralisation of power targeted Xi not just for his mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak, but also at his supposed ineptitude in handling broader domestic and foreign policies. Snidely referring to Xi Jinping as ‘The Axle’ or ‘The Ultimate Arbiter’ Xu, denounced ‘the cabal that surrounds’ the Axle ‘for cultivating ‘dangerous systemic impotence at every level’. “Xu was subsequently detained in July. He was picked up by Chengdu police from his home in Beijing on suspicion of having solicited prostitutes during a trip to the capital city of Sichuan province. His friends and family rubbished the allegations. Speaking about his detention, Australian Sinologist Geremie Barmé said that Xu had foreseen something like this and was thus extremely cautious about being set up. He was eventually released six days later. Tsinghua University, however, would immediately sack him for violating ‘standards of professional conduct for teachers’.”
Ren Zhiqiang had once discharged his responsibilities as China’s Deputy Commerce Minister. He had an extraordinary predilection for playing dice over his own wellbeing. His sustained anti-establishment fusillades had earned him the moniker Big Cannon. His social media accounts were wiped out in the year 2016 under the allegations of sharing ‘illegal information’. Ren played out his luck once too many after an online article carried his criticisms of the government’s handling of the pandemic.
The article was a virtual evisceration of Xi. “Criticising Xi’s speech at the 23 February televised conference, during which he addressed over 1,70,000 cadre, Ren wrote, ‘I saw not an emperor standing there exhibiting his “new clothes”, but a clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing being emperor.’ He then lashed out at the Party for using ‘propaganda to hush (the) scandal’ of its mishandling of the early outbreak. The reality shown by this epidemic is that the Party defends its own interests, the government officials defend their own interests, and the monarch only defends the status and interests of the core. Precisely this type of system is capable of a situation where only the ruler’s order is obeyed with no regard for the people. When the epidemic had already broken out, they wouldn’t dare admit it to the public without the king’s command. They wouldn’t dare announce the facts of the matter, and instead used the method of catching and criticizing rumors to restrict the spread of truth, resulting in the disease’s uncontainable spread.” Ren was promptly detained by Beijing before being expelled from the Party on charges of corruption and an opaque charge of ‘smearing the party and country’s image, distorting the party and the military’s history, being disloyal and dishonest with the party’. Ultimately, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
The third dissenter in the troika, Cai Xia, came across as nothing short of idyllic. Imagining a China adorned by the principles of a form of constitutional democracy, embellished by rule of law, human rights and freedom of speech, Cai harboured notions that would put even Thomas More’s Utopia to utter shame. But unlike Ren or Xu, Cai fired her volleys from outside China. Lambasting Xi for the manner in which he pushed through the 2018 constitutional amendments and lampooning the wanton detentions of dissenters and entrepreneurs, Cai demanded nothing short of Xi’s removal. “The Party itself is already a political zombie. And this one person, a central leader who has grasped the knife handle, the gun barrel, and faults within the system itself—that is: one, corruption among the officials; and two, the lack of human rights and legal protection for Party members and cadres. With these two grasped in his hands, he has turned 90 million Party members into slaves, tools to be used for his personal advantage. When he needs it, he uses the Party. When he doesn’t need it, Party members are no longer treated as Party members. He can easily put you somewhere and label you as a corrupt official.” Predictably, she was formally expelled from the Party and labelled a ‘traitor’ and an ‘anti-China’ and ‘anti-CPC voice.’
Chinese discourse has also to a great extent successfully arm-twisted multilateral agencies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) in stalling every attempt at conducting an informed and unbiased investigation into the actual origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. After what seemed like an interminably long wait, China finally permitted a few experts to enter its territory as part of a multinational team under the aegis of the WHO. “A New York Times investigation later in the year would reveal the intense diplomatic tussle and pressure that Beijing had used to constrain the WHO’s actions. The report claimed that according to two people who were part of the WHO mission, along with ‘diplomats and others’, the agency had ‘agreed not to examine China’s early response or begin investigating the animal source.... It could not even secure a visit to Wuhan’. The WHO team did eventually travel to Wuhan amid concerns about the credibility of its work, but ‘they stayed for about a day and visited two hospitals. They did not go to the market’. There was also intense Chinese scrutiny over each word of the final report that the team would publish towards the end of February.”
The research that has gone in the writing of the book is humongous. A China specialist himself, Kewalramani has done stints in China with the Chinese broadcasting network CGTN. In addition to bringing his own variegated experience to bear, Kewalramani also banks on a plethora of world renowned China experts, journalists and political commentators. It comes as no wonder then that the notes, references and additional reading section appended at the end is half as thick as the main body itself.
‘Smokeless War’ is a valuable addition to the books on China and is unique for dealing with a subject that is most often overlooked by many.
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