It might seem strange at a time such as this to talk of Chinese anxiety. China has handled the COVID-19 outbreak better than most countries. What is more, it has also quickly cranked up its industries and global public diplomacy to offer testing kits and protective gear to countries across the world, including to its arch-rival, the United States, as well as to India, a country that it has trouble describing as a rival at all.
At the same time, Chinese territorial assertiveness continues without letup in the east and South China Seas, and, of course, along the LAC with India. It is almost as if even a disruption like COVID-19 that has the rest of the world scrambling to manage public health, economic growth and political fallout, is insufficient to knock China off its stride.
And yet, the Chinese people are anxious. The Communist Party of China (CPC) that governs them, even more so. Anxious that the rest of the world not blame China for a novel coronavirus outbreak in one Chinese city turning into a global pandemic. Anxious that its smaller neighbours in Southeast Asia are somehow threatening Chinese sovereignty and security by claiming features that are hundreds of miles away from the Chinese coast with militaries and budgets that are by several orders of magnitude smaller than those of China.
Anxious that other neighbours like Japan and South Korea, despite their strong economic linkages with China, continue to remain in a military alliance with the US to guarantee their security vis-à-vis their bigger neighbour. Anxious that India, despite its critical need for infrastructure development, so easily turns down China’s Belt and Road Initiative and what is more, has a whole lot to say about the project’s shortcomings at every international forum it can find.
Despite becoming the second-largest economy in the world, China remains anxious enough to keep putting up non-tariff barriers to products from other countries even as the CPC General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping gets a starring role at the World Economic Forum at Davos to speak about the benefits of globalisation.
China is so anxious about terrorism that it will intern millions of its Muslim minorities in “re-education camps”. It is a strange sort of anxiety, however, because it also drives Beijing to protect Pakistan-based terrorists from UN sanctions as well as to push the Afghan government to give greater political space to its own terrorists, the Taliban.
It is also an anxiety that compels China to promote conferences on Buddhism across the world even as it tears down ancient monasteries citing fire hazards or the need for urban development. It is the sort of anxiety that drives China to blame other countries for the origin of the novel coronavirus even as it talks to nations about a “community of common destiny”.
It is this anxiety that also prevents the CPC from acknowledging the numbers of its dead in the confrontation at Galwan with Indian troops on the night of June 15 or to honour them with public funerals, the way a supposedly weaker India did for its fallen.
It is an anxiety that originates in the CPC’s unwavering focus on remaining in power. It prevents Chinese officials from accurately reporting data from their jurisdictions, knowing full well the rapid fall from power and privilege that accompanies mistakes or bad news. And it results in national security legislation for the purpose of controlling the same people the Party says it represents.
It is the kind of anxiety that allows uncouth statements and threats by China’s representatives abroad to pass for diplomacy, that causes its “wolf warriors” to worry more about the reception back home than about offending their hosts. The kind that also pushes the CPC to hush up its own doctors even when they are only trying to inform their government to take a virus of unknown nature more seriously. And later, to reclaim these same doctors who fell to the disease, as heroes of the Party.
It is an anxiety, regularly on display when the CPC senior leadership is headlined conducting “inspection visits” to Chinese provinces, and when the most powerful Party organ is called the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. When thousands of officials at all rungs, including nearly a couple of hundred generals in the armed forces, have to be dismissed for corruption in a short period of a few years, it is an anxiety that percolates rapidly down to masses and confuses them about what meaning they are to derive from the lofty rhetoric and goals they have been hearing from the Party for decades.
It is an anxiety that spreads as quickly as a virus and is probably harder to get rid of. An anxiety of Chinese characteristics that other countries around the world must be careful not to catch.