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China’s cover-up of Covid and PLA deaths isn’t working. Neither are the social media bans

Despite tensions at the border, India-China trade grew, and social media users discovered what Indian food like seekh kebab and biryani looks like.

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Despite tensions at the border, India-China trade grew by 15.3 per cent in the first quarter of 2022. China, however, did censor news about a military aircraft crash in the South China Sea and delivered the FK-3 missile system to Serbia. Chinascope brings the latest stories from China that shaped our world this week.

China, over the week

There is no pause in the India-China bilateral trade despite growing tensions. The bilateral trade grew by 15.3 per cent in the first three quarters of 2022 to $31.96 billion, according to customs data released on 13 April. China’s exports to India stood at $27.1 billion and India’s exports to China stood at $4.87 billion.

“The continuous rise in bilateral trade showed the complementarity of two major developing economies despite tension from global geopolitical changes, and India is unable to reduce its dependence on China in the short term,” said Liu Zongyi, secretary-general of the Research Centre for China-South Asia Cooperation at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

Also Read: Shanghai residents can’t post about ‘food crisis’ and China fears US may nuke it some day

But the Chinese economy is far from being safe. The lockdown in Shanghai has already harmed people’s lives and is now likely to disrupt the economy severely. Major factories and exporters across Shanghai have shuttered their production lines because of the Covid surge. On Sunday, Shanghai added 24,820 new Covid cases.

Companies such as Apple and Tesla are looking at long delays in their supply chain because of the Shanghai lockdown. On Saturday, some factories resumed their operations after rules were eased in some parts of the city. Small protests about the lockdown at various residential locations have also been noticed in videos circulating on social media.

Meanwhile, an investigation by the BBC has revealed that the elderly deaths contradict Shanghai’s official figure for Covid-related deaths. “Dozens of elderly patients at a hospital in Shanghai have died after contracting Covid-19, but official government figures claim no deaths in the city have been caused by the disease since 2020,” said the investigation.

Outrage over the management of the Covid surge in Shanghai took over social media trends this past week, while Beijing tried to distract the domestic audiences by criticising the United States.

The hashtag “US is the country that has the most human rights deficits”, the second top trend on Chinese social media platform Weibo, was viewed 92 million times and was briefly restricted from being shared. But instead, social media users criticised the Xi Jinping government for trying to escape criticism of its pandemic control policies in Shanghai by pointing fingers at the US. On Weibo, comments by social media users were deleted to control the criticism.

One of Beijing’s major strengths has been its ability to control narratives on social media because Mandarin Chinese, the primary mode of communication, has, until now, remained largely untranslated. But the Great Translation Project’s initiative to make pro-Russia views from China widely available to the world has China fuming. The independent translation project has grown widely popular, and the state media is now attacking it for “spreading cherry-picked content.”

Also Read: Praise for Imran, blame for India – how Chinese experts spin crises in Pakistan, Sri Lanka

China’s attempts at censorship won’t be extinguished just yet, though. Social media giants Zhihu, similar to Quora, and Douyin recently announced that they will soon start displaying their user’s locations based on their IP addresses. The platforms explained their decision by saying it was to “prevent netizens from pretending to be locals and spreading rumours”.

Sina Weibo, on the other hand, had started displaying users’ location last month after ‘concerns’ about comments on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Covid pandemic started controversies.

Though the decision to display location isn’t the result of any particular law, the online “rumours” have made it difficult for Beijing to synchronise its narrative on issues such as the Ukraine war.

China has also been experiencing a new ultranationalism that is making it difficult for anyone to acknowledge deaths in the military, even when it is an accident.

Back in March, Chinascope had told you about a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military aircraft that crashed in the South China Sea, which the PLA never confirmed. But now, local reports on WeChat suggest that funerals of at least seven PLA pilots were held, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

But instead of providing further details, the government censored the news about the crash on Sina Weibo. The SCMP article about funerals was also blocked from being shared on Weibo, and the sharing of information about the funerals was restricted.

Also Read: PLA soldiers ‘mastering’ Hindi and Chinese court jails man for disrespecting Galwan ‘martyr’

Meanwhile, the US-China story has a new twist in the tale. A bipartisan US Congressional delegation led by Senator Lindsey Graham visited Taiwan this past week, as a show of “support for Taiwan in the U.S. Congress,” according to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA).

The delegation arrived in Taipei on 14 April after completing their trip to Australia earlier. The sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskova hasn’t gone unnoticed in Taiwan, where the military strategists are closely watching the war unfolding in Ukraine.

“The proficient commanding of those asymmetric weapons would remind [mainland] China that the US might have also started training Taiwanese military a few years ago, when [then US president] Donald Trump started selling a series of targeted and specific advanced weapons to Taipei,” said Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy.

Taiwan’s military strategists have already started studying the implications of the Ukraine war for their strategy, according to Reuters. Taiwanese public opinion has focused on learning from the Ukraine war and taking measures to prepare for a future contingency. One of the suggested actions is to extend compulsory military service.

There are, however, other links between Ukraine and China. Some China-watchers have described Serbia as Xi Jinping’s backdoor entry into Europe. China recently delivered the FK-3 missile system to Serbia through an airlift involving its military aircraft Y-20.

The news about the delivery of the missile system was first shared on social media and tracked by the open-source community. China has officially confirmed the delivery of the missile system. “China in recent days sent air force transport aircraft to Serbia to deliver regular military resources,” said Zhao Lijiang in the daily press briefing.

Though Serbia has maintained a neutral position in the Ukraine war, the country remains heavily dependent on Moscow for oil. Serbia is carefully trying to nurture relations with Beijing as Russia’s appeal as a reliable partner is in the doldrums. There have been protests inside Serbia by pro-Russian groups against Serbia’s vote against Moscow at the United Nations.

Also Read: China is all praise for Arnab Goswami as ‘angry host’ trends on Weibo

China in world news

The recently concluded India-US 2+2 Dialogue in Washington DC saw China’s long shadow lurking in the remarks made by Indian ministers and US officials.

“I cannot say openly what they (Indian soldiers) did and what decisions we (the government) took. But I can definitely say that a message has gone (to China) that India will not spare anyone if India is harmed,” said Defence Minister Rajnath Singh at a gathering of Indian-Americans at the Indian Consulate in San Francisco.

During the dialogue, US Defence Secretary Llyod Austin alluded to his views on Beijing’s growing belligerence in the Indo-Pacific. “Beijing is eroding the security of the Indo-Pacific region from its construction of dual-use infrastructure along your border to its unlawful claims in the South China Sea, and we will continue to stand alongside you as you defend your sovereign interest,” said Austin.

In the past weeks, commentators have illustrated China’s role in facilitating Russia’s war in Ukraine. But the signals coming out of Beijing have been mixed.

US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns has called China a “silent partner in Putin’s aggression” in his remarks to mark his first year in office. “Nothing will matter more to our long-term success as an intelligence agency than how well we compete with the [People’s Republic of China] and how well we organise ourselves for that competition over the next few years,” CBS News quoted Burns.

CIA director Burns wasn’t the only one who warned the world about China’s covert activities. The Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) has published an 80-page report about China’s space technology. “China has claimed ‘destroying or capturing satellites and other sensors would make it difficult for the US and allied militaries to use precision-guided weapons,” said the DIA report.

Also Read: China’s worst air tragedy in a decade fuels conspiracy theories, claims of US involvement

India in China

Moving away from the world of politics, Chinese social media users this past week discovered what Indian food looks like. The hashtag “looks like this is Indian food” was viewed 1.8 million times. The trend started after an Indian Weibo vlogger, who makes videos in Mandarin, cooked seekh kebab and biryani in a vlog.

“Now my mind is full of ghee,” said a Weibo user.

Also Read: Xi’s China isn’t just caught up with Ukraine, Taiwan. Someone’s disrupting Russia ties too

Must read this week

Why China will struggle to draw India away from US despite close stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine Shi Jiangtao

The American Fighting for the Future of Women’s Rights in China Zhang Wanqing

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

This is a weekly round-up that Aadil Brar writes about what’s buzzing in China. This will soon be available as a subscribers’-only product.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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