Thursday, March 23, 2023
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Covid kills China’s most influential personalities but Xi goes ahead with New Year address

The deaths resulting from Covid-related complications aren’t just restricted to engineers and scientists; obituaries of celebrities have confirmed the scale of this crisis.

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Public obituaries of famous professors and scientists make it difficult for Beijing to hide the Covid-19 death toll. China ratchets up influence operations against Taiwan in the new year while the semiconductors industry is stuck in Beijing’s neck like a wooden log. The Taliban has signed an oil deal with China worth $540 million. Chinascope looks at news from China – and the world – as the Chinese mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong prepare to head into the Chinese New Year.

China over the week

Data manipulation in the age of rapid information flows can be tricky, even for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In the past few weeks, Chinese research institutions and scientific organisations have published the obituaries of famous doctors, scientists and engineers, making it difficult for Beijing to hide the casualties from the latest Covid wave.

“The Chinese Academy of Engineering reported that 20 members have died in less than a month, compared with an average annual death rate of 16,” wrote South China Morning Post.

The deaths resulting from Covid related complications aren’t just restricted to engineers and scientists; obituaries of celebrities have confirmed the scale of this crisis. According to some obituaries circulating online, 39-year-old opera singer Chu Lanlan of the New Peking Opera fame, who had also performed during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, passed away because of a Covid-related complication.

Another celebrity, 87-year-old Zhao Qing, passed away in recent days, according to an online obituary.

The names of Chinese celebrities dying from Omicron variants BF.7 and BA.5.2 continue to trickle on Chinese social media.

A list of 34 Chinese painters—who have lost their lives since 18 October 2022—was shared on Weibo. Most renowned painters on this list were aged 60 and above.

Meanwhile, China continues to struggle to develop an effective vaccine for the population reeling from mass Covid infection. Chinese vaccine maker CanSinoBio claims to have developed an MRNA booster jab for people who have already received two or three shots of the traditional vaccines available in China.

The new shot produces 23 to 29 times more antibodies than an inactivated jab when given as a booster.

According to Chinese government officials and advisers who spoke to the Wall Street Journal, President Xi Jinping may have retracted stringent Covid policies because of urgent pleas from within the government to scrap them after a wave of protests hit the country.

The disturbing reality of steep Covid infections and deaths didn’t stop Xi from giving a televised New Year’s Address. The Chinese president delivered the speech out of his office in Beijing, where the books on the shelf behind him were visible. Yang Liu, a journalist with Xinhua News Agency, published a brief analysis of the titles on Xi’s bookshelf in his newsletter.

If we try to demystify Xi’s mind, the one way to do so is to notice the world leaders he will meet in 2023.

Meanwhile, on Friday, Xi was seen hosting Turkmenistan President Serdar Berdimuhamedov in Beijing.

“The two sides need to advance cooperation on major projects at a faster pace and unlock cooperation potential in such areas as green energy, natural gas utilisation, energy technologies and equipment to promote cooperation across the industrial chain,” said Xi during Berdimuhamedov’s visit.

Another leader who visited Beijing last week was Ferdinand Marcos Jr, President of The Philippines. Both sides laid emphasis on their bilateral partnership.

“The two countries need to promote cooperation in infrastructure and connectivity, including good implementation of key cooperation projects in “hard” infrastructure and broader cooperation in “soft” infrastructure including telecommunication, big data and e-commerce, to boost the overall economic and social development of the Philippines” said Xi during his meeting with Marcos.

In 2023, Taiwan will prepare for the 2024 presidential election campaign, which China will use as an opportunity to interfere in the island nation’s affairs. Beijing has ratcheted up its influence operations for this purpose.

The Central Committee of the Communist Youth League of China (CYLC), a CCP-affiliated entity, tried to amplify the message that the Taiwanese Air Force couldn’t respond to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s actions across the Taiwan Strait in time.

“Recently, Zhang Yanting, a retired Air Force General in Taiwan, said that PLA military planes cruised around Taiwan and arrived at Taiwan. It only takes 3 minutes to fly over Taiwan land, but it takes at least 6 minutes for Taiwan military fighter planes to dispatch emergency,” wrote the CYLC central committee in a post on Weibo.

The post was based on a claim by Zhang Yanting, a former deputy commander in Taiwan’s Airforce.

“You didn’t make an emergency takeoff at all, and he has already reached the sky over Taiwan,” said Zhang. The hashtag ‘The warplanes of the war defence army arrive on the stage in 3 minutes, and the Taiwan Army listens to it for 6 minutes’ was viewed over 90 million times.

The message was amplified by official Chinese State media as well.

Under the influence of operations, Beijing has, for years, tried to magnify Taipei’s relatively weak military capacity to shape the outcome of national and local elections in Taiwan.

Zhang has made similar comments in the past, but the timing suggests that Beijing has set the ball rolling to influence Taiwanese politics through information operations.

Just a week into the new year, the security environment in the Taiwan Strait and the broader Indo-Pacific region is far from stable.

On 29 December, a Chinese warship sailed near the US-controlled island of Guam, which has been seen as a warning to the latter over its actions in the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing’s quest to develop a homegrown semiconductor powerhouse has witnessed much turbulence in recent weeks.

Now, top Chinese officials are considering halting the costly subsidies for semiconductor companies whose efforts to develop homegrown solutions haven’t yielded results.

In what has been dubbed the ‘chip war’, the race to secure domestic growth of the most advanced semiconductor chips is one of CCP’s top agendas this year.

The Beijing government isn’t just tweaking its investment plan but also taking up the legal battle to challenge Washington’s strategy to destabilise the Chinese semiconductor industry. Recently, Beijing filed a formal complaint at the World Trade Organization (WTO) against restrictions imposed by the US, which limit the sale of advanced chips and chip-making equipment to Chinese companies.

The trade dispute filled by Beijing a few weeks ago took another twist.

Taiwan has filed to join the hearing as a third party because Taipei feels the outcome can impact its semiconductor industry in the long run. Taipei wants a seat on the negotiation table rather than taking any side in the dispute between Beijing and Washington.

Beijing had success with the WTO mechanism through a recent ruling, where it corrected the US’ position that goods made in Hong Kong are ‘made in China’. Beijing will fight restrictions on semiconductor investment and other areas through this WTO mechanism – leaving no stone unturned.

Also read: China is trying to establish permanent control over Aksai Chin: Game theory analysis

China in world news

If there is a diplomat who got to witness the beginning and the peak of the military hostilities in Ladakh, it was former Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla.

“Issue with China, one of the biggest challenges of my career,” said Shringla in a recent interview with ANI editor Smita Prakash.

“The talks we have had so far have been at the level of Army commanders, which is the core commander leading the Ladakh sector, so it is the Army-to-Army talk, but we always had one of our senior diplomats as part of that, and I’m sure the Chinese side had their people. So essentially, the talks were very limited to addressing the issues that were on the LAC [Line of Actual Control] on the Ladakh side on the Western sector, and I think some progress has been made,” Shringla added.

The military-to-military talks with China have resulted in minimal progress, but that hasn’t stopped the Narendra Modi government from taking new steps to secure the border regions.

On 3 September, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated the Siyom Bridge, a 100-metre ‘Class-70’ steel and arch superstructure built on the Along-Yinkiong Road.

“The Indian Army has the capability to face any challenge along the border,” said Singh.

Besides the inauguration of the Siyom Bridge, Singh also launched 27 projects of the Border Road Organisation (BRO).

After the initial overtures between Beijing and the Taliban-led government in Kabul in 2021, the relationship had gone silent for a while. Several experts doubted the former’s ability to come up with new development and infrastructure projects.

The Taliban has now signed a deal with China’s Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Company (CAPEIC) to extract oil from north Afghanistan’s Amu Darya basin. The agreement includes an initial investment of $150 million.

“Under the contract, CAPEIC will invest $150 million annually in Afghanistan, according to Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, with the investment increasing to $540 million within three years of the contract’s 25-year duration” reported China Global Television Network (CGTN).

Though the signing of the agreement showcases Beijing’s interest in resource extraction projects in Afghanistan, the difficulties of furthering the projects in politically turbulent Kabul will continue to pose a steep challenge.

“I don’t know if this is the start of a flood of Chinese deals, but we will continue to see a lot of Chinese companies nosing around in Afghanistan,” said Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institution in London.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has once again tapped into the Chinese credit line for railway upgrades while drowning itself under a mountain of debt. Beijing will give Islamabad $10 billion to revamp its 1,700 km long Main Line 1 railway.

Also read: China’s JL-3 missile can’t cover the US mainland. But it has implications for India

Must read this week

In China, a Dark New Black Market Emerges: Fake Covid Medication – Wu Peiyue

China’s Covid-19 Wave Reaches the Countryside – James Palmer

A Chinese-run gold mine in Balochistan is making millions, but the locals aren’t getting any of it – Syed Fazl-e-Haider

An Anatomy of the Chinese Private Security Contracting Industry – Sergey Sukhakin

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 Zoya Bhatti)

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