Monday, March 20, 2023
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China finally releases Covid data but citizens don’t believe it’s just 60,000 deaths

‘Wolf warrior’ diplomat Zhao Lijian was removed as the foreign ministry spokesperson and moved to the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs.

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Beijing says 59,938 citizens have died in the latest Covid wave. China and Bhutan host boundary talks in Kunming. India’s trade with China rises to $135.98 billion, marking over a 21 percent year-on-year increase. ‘Wolf warrior’ diplomat Zhao Lijian was removed as the foreign ministry spokesperson and moved to the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs. Beijing sends a new envoy to Kathmandu. Chinascope tries to separate fact from fiction on China’s current affairs and international politics. 

China over the week

China has finally acknowledged the steep death count resulting from the latest Covid wave that has packed crematoriums in urban areas. 

“The analysis showed that from December 8, 2022 to January 12, 2023, a total of 59,938 deaths related to Covid infection occurred in medical institutions nationwide…about 90.1% were 65 years old and above, of which about 56.5% were 80 years old and above,” said Jiao Yahui, director of the Department of Medical Affairs of the National Health Commission.

Doubts about China’s reported Covid deaths had grown from echo to a loud clamour that officials couldn’t simply ignore. The Chinese state media even published op-eds to justify the lack of reporting on the latest wave of Covid deaths. 

“This method (counting all deaths within 28 days of a positive test) is relatively convenient but the caveat is that this approach is too general,” said Liang Wannian, deputy dean of Tsinghua University’s Vanke School of Public Health, in an interview with China Daily. 

But it was only a matter of time Beijing would have had to come clean to acknowledge the number of people lining up at crematoriums to bury their loved ones.

“The images – taken by Maxar in late December and early January and reviewed by CNN – show a funeral home on the outskirts of Beijing, which appears to have constructed a brand-new parking area, as well as lines of vehicles waiting outside of funeral homes in Kunming, Nanjing, Chengdu, Tangshan and Huzhou,” reported CNN.

The death count-related hashtag was viewed over 230 million times and continued to rise after the news was made public on Saturday. Chinese social media users raised doubts saying the actual Covid death count could be higher.

“In fact, there are too many limitations in only counting those who are in the hospital. Those who cannot be queued and cannot enter the hospital, or many people who did not go to the hospital may die,” wrote a Weibo user. 

Though the Chinese state media is trying to create a narrative, the current wave of Covid has peaked, but more pain might be on the way in rural areas. 

People will return to their homes for the Chinese New Year later this week. Unlike in past years, there are no restrictions and the virus is likely to spread further into semi-urban and rural areas of China. 

After the recent elevation of Qin Gang as the foreign minister, another major development has made the headlines. 

Zhao Lijian, the face of China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy, has been moved to a minor foreign policy department within the foreign ministry. Zhao is no longer the spokesperson and has been moved as one of three deputies in the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs. 

Zhao Lijian’s sort of ‘demotion’ in the foreign ministry was widely discussed on Chinese social media as Zhao has gathered his supporters for his rather brash style of responding during daily press briefing. 

The hashtag related to his new role was viewed over 40 million times on Weibo. 

Zhao Lijian’s sideways benching to temper his renegade rhetoric doesn’t mean that the department where he has been moved has no relevance to China’s diplomacy. The Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs is at the forefront of many boundary-related matters that involve India – and its neighbours. 

China’s boundary talks with Bhutan have been shrouded in mystery as very skimpy details have emerged in public. 

Now, a Bhutanese delegation led by Dasho Letho Tobdhen Tangbi, Secretary of the International Boundaries of Bhutan, met with Hong Liang, Director-General of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China. 

“In a frank, friendly and constructive atmosphere, the two sides had an in-depth exchange of views on border issues and reached a positive consensus on the implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding on the “Three-Step Roadmap” for accelerating the Sino-Bhutanese border negotiations. The two sides agreed to advance the implementation of all steps of the “three-step” roadmap in parallel. The two sides agreed to increase the frequency of expert group meetings and to maintain communication through diplomatic channels on holding the 25th round of Sino-Bhutanese border talks at a mutually convenient time,” said the readout of the meeting published by Xinhua New Agency. 

Beijing and Thimphu had signed the memorandum in October 2021. But we don’t have the details about what the ‘three steps’ entail. 

We can expect a maximalist negotiation tactic from Zhao if he is allowed to lead these discussions in the future. But it’s unlikely he will be the lead face as he is one of the three deputies in a department which isn’t considered as relevant as Policy Planning Department or the Department of Asian Affairs

Also read: Tales of Covid deaths out on Weibo but China playing censor-in-chief

China in world news

India’s trade with China touched a new high of $135.98 billion in 2022, marking a year-on-year rise of 21.7%, according to the latest data released by China’s General Administration of Customs. In 2021, the India-China trade crossed the $100 billion mark for the first time. 

A detailed analysis of the customs data published by Chinese Customs can be found here

We should remember that China acts as the last mile assembler of various electronic goods and other technology equipment, which are tied to supply chains in East Asia and Southeast Asia. As India’s economy grows, the trade data will continue to appear skewed as China remains a pivotal piece of supply chains in Asia – and the world. 

Donald Lu, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, was recently in Delhi to deliver an important message on the India-China border dispute. 

“We have not seen that the PRC (People’s Republic of China) has taken good faith steps to resolve the border conflict. Quite the opposite, we have seen aggressive Chinese moves along India’s border, most recently in India’s Northeastern States,” Donald Lu said in an interview with NDTV 24X7

“In 2020, when the Chinese military attacked an Indian border post in the Galwan valley, the US was the first to criticise Chinese aggression and to offer support to India,” Lu added. 

Other US officials have underscored their support for India’s crucial role in Indo-Pacific’s security.

Kurt Campbell, the US Indo-Pacific Coordinator, has said India would be the priority of US diplomacy in 2023 while speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) event titled Indo-Pacific forecast 2023.

Army Chief Manoj Pande has said that China has increased the deployment of troops along India’s eastern border while discussing the recent clash with the PLA in Tawang. 

“There has been a slight increase in the number of troops we find opposite our Eastern Command, but we are keeping a close watch on the movement and activities with all surveillance resources available at our disposal,” said General Pande. 

After the return of Pushpa Kamal Dahal as the Prime Minister of Nepal, China’s efforts in Kathmandu to install a pro-Beijing government appear to be going well. 

Chen Song is China’s new ambassador to Kathmandu and replaces the former controversial envoy, Hou Yanqi. 

Must read this week

Xi Jinping’s plan to reset China’s economy and win back friends – James Kynge, Sun Yu and Xinning Liu 

China’s Epidemic of Mistrust – Lynette H. Ong

The First Battle of the Next War: Wargaming a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan (report) – Mark F. Cancian 

Wealthy Chinese, Fed Up at Home, Find a Haven in Japan – Miho Inada

Inside China’s crackdown on tattoo culture – Mengchen Zhang

The Forgotten Romantic Who Became Britain’s First Sinologist – Asian Review of Books 

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He is currently a MOFA Taiwan Fellow based in Taipei and tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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