Naina Singh

On 17th March 2020, United State President chose to say out loud what probably most of the world was thinking inside their heads. Trump not only relentlessly addressed current coronavirus pandemic as ‘Chinese Virus’ but also directly attacked China’s narrative-changing drill. To give his impulsive response a fair chance; China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian made an equally bizarre statement a week ago by pointing fingers on US Army, suggesting their involvement with outbreak in Wuhan.

With their undiplomatic and unpleasant exchange of accusations in midst of a global pandemic, World’s two most powerful nations choose to engage themselves in a ‘word-war’ and also dragged other major powers in their self-serving behaviour. ‘A name that shames’ made such a ripple that Chinese ambassador to India Sun Weidong decided to speak for India’s foreign minister Dr. S. Jaishankar himself with a tweet. Sun’s version of the telephonic conversation between two foreign ministers specifically focused on Indian counterpart’s opposition to ‘such narrow mind-set’ and an agreement to ‘not label the virus’[1]. While on the other hand, Indian foreign minister chose to tweet back an even-handed version emphasizing bilateral efforts in the domain and the need for global cooperation, with no reference to the blame-game debate.

India’s first case of Coronavirus was reported on 30th January, a student returned to the Southern State of India Kerala from China’s Wuhan University. From their onwards Indian government kept its focus on evacuating Indian citizens from Hubei province and also suspended flights from China. Before President Trump and the first lady visited India on 24th February for two-days visit, ‘The Wuhan evacuation’ or ‘operation Wuhan’ of Air India was the talk of the town for the month of February. As India appeared unsusceptible to the Virus, the government, experts and the media houses neither directed their attention towards questioning accountability of Mainland China nor the unholy alliance between WHO Director General Dr. Tedros and China. But the very exercise of the ‘rescue mission’ and the reality of the outbreak centre i.e. wet market in Wuhan resuscitated common Indians disdain for Chinese eating habits. A few politicians and the common public of India was definitely blaming China because of its food habits, if not about its deliberate intentions to underplay the whole crisis at first place.

This is the crude reality of the India-China relations where the increasing warmness at the political and diplomatic levels does not necessarily translates or reflects in common perception. Thus, to analyse India’s position at this blame game, it is necessary to highlight how various layers within Indian society approached the very question. The government might have not directly accused China but as rightly noted by Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan [2], distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation, China is and will be guilty in public perception.

The Garrulous Politicians and Just another Occasion for Establishing Cultural Superiority

Though India officially has restrained itself from making any irresponsible remarks against China or about its devious moves to regulate WHO, a few of Indian politicians choose to impulsively response to the whole situation. Ruling Party’s Member of Parliament (MP) and head of its West Bengal unit, Dilip Ghosh established China as the origin place of the COVID-19 and called it for destroying nature. Chinese Consulate General office in Kolkata took notice of his remarks and criticised the irresponsible statement for being “erroneous” [3]. But the ruling party’s obsession with distorted version of Hinduism, led some of its infamously famous politicians to utilize the situation for scripting a cautionary tale of consuming non-vegetarian food.  

Coronavirus was alluded as a nature/divine punishment for non-vegetarian eaters.  Heath minister of Indian state Haryana, Anil Vij suggested the link between non-vegetarian diet and the outbreak of Coronavirus and urged people to have vegetarian diet [4]. On similar note, Puducherry Lieutenant General Kiran Bedi, a formal civil servant evoked the philosophy of “Karma” implying COVID-19 phenomenon as a consequence to be faced for ‘who we consume?’ [5] in a post titled “its not Corona, its Karma”. Despite Centre government’s warning against spread of misinformation and unscientific claims, illogical opinions of MPs like Sakshi Maharaj persisted in shaming particular food habits [6].  Not to mention, the whole “Gau Mutra or cow urine” debacle where Hindu organisations pushed their hogwash presenting cow urine as a cure to an extremely complex virus. Though such irresponsible typecasting by politicians has become a common feature of current Indian politics, it persistently emboldens hatemongers and the fake news phenomenon. All these statements have not necessarily damaged China’s diplomatic standing with India but they have done considerable damage to the social perception of China. In an already struggling societal relationship of these two Asian Giants, these garrulous politicians do not make it easy for the common people to have an unprejudiced understanding of China.

On one hand, Indian Prime Minister opted for diplomatic response to this blame-game challenge by underlining the ‘need to put human beings at the centre’ of this crisis and ‘strengthen and reform intergovernmental organisations like WHO” at global stage of virtual G20 Leaders Summit [7], while on another his party’s politicians chose to line with the ideological undertone of BJP in establishing supremacy of “Hindu” way of life over others.

The Experts: Looking beyond the Sudden Stumble

China’s active display of ‘Messiah complex’ in a crisis which has its very origin in the classical trait of CCP i.e. glossing over the facts and concealing open information to control the narrative, allowed experts to address this trivial debate from a more important point of view i.e. China and the Global World Order. In his initial views on the crisis, Samir Saran, president of one of the most influential think-tank of India, Observe Research Foundation called out China ‘amoral’ leadership. Tiled as ‘Made in China’ pandemic the article criticises China self-interested policies and plans to promote its ‘irresponsible’ hegemony [8]. Brahma Chellaney chose to refer it as China’s pettiness and an attempt of ‘weaponizing’ its dominance of global medicine market against United States [9].  WHO and its Director General’s ‘overt deference’ to China’s cause, a striking difference from WHOs reaction to SARS epidemic [10] also found direct and indirect mentions in the opinion pieces. WHO-China report on the outbreak was noted to be ‘hagiographic’ in its tone and seen as a push for Xi’s rhetoric of “community of common destiny’[11].

The case of WHO has became an explicit proof of China’s growing mastery on the international institutions for promoting its interests and the cost its has for the world. Foreign policy and international scholars sees it as an opportunity for India to redefining its role and forward a leadership role in the multilateral settings. For C Raja Mohan, India requires all the pragmatism it can muster and the ongoing direction should be to ‘strengthen new partnerships’ such as ‘Quad Plus’ and ‘downplay the past associations’ such as BRICS [12]. The expert community has preferred to utilise current crisis to reflect on the recurring Chinese behaviour and broader implications for the world order than just choosing their words to incarcerate China immediately. As Shashi Tharoor and Samir Saran has rightly pointed out, ‘the coronavirus epidemic is a devastating reminder of the consequence of the disorder’ and sovereign states ‘re-assertion of sovereignty must not imply an abandonment of global responsibilities’[13].

Media: Sensationalized Opinions over Contemplative Discussion

Since the dominance of BJP at the Indian politics, the media landscape has transformed a lot. Independent and impartial journalism has been discredited in favour of a tone-deaf and uncritical support of ruling government. Such non-partisan mainstream media houses are constantly pitted against partisan channels such as Zee News, Republic TV, Times Now etc. and the BJP’s IT cell toxicity and fake news making machinery. With the increasing number of Coronavirus cases in India since mid-March, the mainstream media houses have been focused on covering developments within the country but the US president’s outrage did nudge them to make a time-slot for discussing the blame game. On 28th March , NDTV genuinely debated China’s role in the spread of the crisis under the title “Coronavirus: What Was China’s Role?”. The moderators could not help but repeatedly question Dr. David Nabarro, WHO’s Special Envoy COVID-19 in hope of a clear and direct response. But if we shift our focus to sensationalised media reports, one will find enough bashing for China.

Zee News and its associated media channels such as DNA and WION have been pro-active in establishing China’s deliberation in setting the trajectory of the COVID-19. There are articles discussing China’s intentions to ‘unleash’ the virus to destroy US-led World Order [14] and how China ‘fooled’ [5] and ‘betrayed’ [16] the world. Interestingly enough, WION has extensively covered Taiwan’s case and its spat with WHO to supplement its continuous bashing of China [17]. Indian media houses usually self-censor themselves when it comes to the topic of Taiwan but Taiwan’s government efficient management of the crisis has opened the door for Indian media houses to not only broadcast its success but to also utilize the existing tension in cross-strait relationship for their agenda against China.

Besides this, common Indian masses with available access to social media and freedom of speech did not necessarily hold back in blaming China for withholding the information with the world and especially for their food habits. Anti-Chinese conspiracy theories have gone viral and texts requesting boycott made in China products are making daily rounds on people’s WhatsApp. In an interesting development, 40 people, including lawyers and social activists, from Lakhimpur District of my home state, Uttar Pradesh have filled complaint against China’s President for ‘allowing’ the spread of virus and jeopardising the daily lives of millions around the world [18]. In a recent online survey conducted by Bengaluru based think-tank Takshashila Institute indicated that almost 67 percent of the total responded believed that China was responsible for the outbreak and more than 50 percent of them thought calling it ‘Chinese’ or ‘Wuhan’ virus is essential for ensuring China couldn’t escape the responsibility [19].

Considering the outlook of above mentioned spheres, China’s culpability is the unspoken truth and its irresponsible behaviour is dreaded across the lines and sections. The social, economic and psychological pain caused by the unholy association of WHO and China would not go unaddressed at the diplomatic level once India starts to recover from the lockdown and struggle to maintain its already troubled economy. Though former ambassadors and experts want India to be a supportive and reassuring of the seemingly trembling faith on multilateral institutions, India has struggled to make a tangible commitment with the rather limited capability at hand. Being a promising alternative to China is not enough at this point, intentions should be made clear and also supplemented with the required economic and intellectual resources.

India has been wise enough to not get caught between the US-China tussles, but it is in dire need of a pro-active posturing on various fronts than just being a reactionary middle power in the game dictated by US-China. It would also be interesting to look at how people’s increasing mistrust of China will be channelized or rather ignored in India’s diplomacy. As a strong leader Prime minister Modi is capable enough to transform narratives and outlook of a majority in current India society, would it be the case again or people’s loathing of the China will catch up with the bilateral relations between India and China.

Naina Singh is the Associate Editor of the CSSAME website and a PhD Candidate at the Graduate Institute of International Politics at National Chung Hsing University.

References:

[1] The Wire. 2020. “Don’t Stigmatise China: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to India’s Jaishankar”, 25 March, https://thewire.in/diplomacy/wang-yi-s-jaishankar-china-coronavirus-stigma

[2] Rajagopalan, Rajeswari Pillai. 2020. “How Is COVID-19 Reshaping China-India Relations?”, The Diplomat, 2 April, https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/how-is-covid-19-reshaping-china-india-relations/

[3] The Hindu. 2020. “Chinese government condemns BJP Bengal president’s comment on Coronavirus”, 12 March, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/chinese-government-condemns-bjp-bengal-presidents-comment-on-coronavirus/article31044588.ece

[4] Financial Express. 2020. “Haryana health minister seeks to link coronavirus to non-veg diet, says ‘be vegetarian”, 14 March, https://www.financialexpress.com/india-news/haryana-health-minister-seeks-to-link-coronavirus-to-non-veg-diet-says-be-vegetarian/1897963/

[5] The New Indian Express. 2020. “‘Meat’ of the matter: Kiran Bedi mixes karma with corona”, 20 March, https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/tamil-nadu/2020/mar/20/meat-of-the-matter-kiran-bedi-mixes-karma-with-corona-2119093.html

[6] YouTube. 2020. [1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIEJGj5JeeI

[7] Ministry of External Affairs (Government of India). 2020. “Press Release on the Extraordinary Virtual G20 Leaders’ Summit”, 26 March, https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/32600/Press_Release_on_the_Extraordinary_Virtual_G20_Leaders_Summit

[8] Saran, Samir. 2020. “#Covid19: Made in China pandemic”, Observer Research Foundation, 20 March, https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/covid19-made-in-china-pandemic-63531/

[9] Chellaney, Brahma. 2020 “A Made-in-China Pandemic”, 13 March, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/china-exploit-control-of-pharmaceutical-exports-by-brahma-chellaney-2020-03

[10] Saran, Samir. 2020. “#Covid19: Dr WHO gets prescription wrong”, 25 March, https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/covid19-dr-who-gets-prescription-wrong-63708/

[11] Jacob, Jabin T. 2020. “Covid-19 pandemic | China’s propaganda machinery is in full swing”, 23 March, https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/politics/covid-19-pandemic-chinas-propaganda-machinery-is-in-full-swing-5060831.html

[12] Raja Mohan, C. 2020. “With global institutions in turmoil, India needs to be pragmatic and fleet-footed”, Indian Express, 11 April, https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/world-health-organisation-coronavirus-crisis-india-delhi-china-un6356921/

[13] Tharoor, Sashi and Samir Saran. 2020. “COVID pandemic has exposed fragility of global society, governance — and pointed to the way forward”, Indian Express, 28 March, https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/coronavirus-pandemic-shashi-tharoor-book-new-world-disorder-covid19-6335028/

[14] Zee News.2020. “China counts its gains after unleashing coronavirus COVID-19 to destroy US-led world order”, 28 March, https://zeenews.india.com/india/china-counts-its-gains-after-unleashing-coronavirus-covid-19-to-destroy-us-led-world-order-2272177.html

[15] Zee News. 2020. “How China misled and fooled the world on coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic”, 27 March, https://zeenews.india.com/world/how-china-misled-and-fooled-the-world-on-coronavirus-covid-19-pandemic-2271999.html

[16] YouTube. 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGgWD6i-hE8

[17] YouTube. 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kLYAiv4TkA

[18] Live Mint. 2020. “40 people in UP’s Lakhimpur file complaint against Xi Jinping over coronavirus spread”, 1 April, https://www.livemint.com/news/india/40-people-in-up-s-lakhimpur-file-complaint-against-xi-jinping-over-coronavirus-11585715901658.html

[19] The Print. 2020. “67% Indians blame China for Covid-19, 50% say calling it ‘Chinese virus’ not racist: Survey”, 6 April, https://theprint.in/india/67-pc-indians-blame-china-for-covid-19-50-pc-say-calling-it-chinese-virus-not-racist-survey/396496/

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