As the massive protest in Colombo made headlines worldwide, the news spread across Chinese state media and social media platforms. Sri Lanka declaring national bankruptcy and the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa were the most discussed topic on Chinese social media.
The hashtag “Sri Lanka president officially announces his resignation” was viewed over 78 million times on Weibo. The hashtag “massive protest march in Sri Lanka” was viewed 180 million times on Weibo. The Chinese search engine Baidu has set up a special page to track Sri Lanka developments. The twist? Chinese nationalists jumped to blame the US for organising the protests. While many blamed China’s infrastructure schemes for worsening Sri Lanka’s debt crisis, the Chinese had a different target. Most agreed that there was a “colour revolution” and a “CIA-led coup” in the island nation.
“The protests in Sri Lanka were organized by the United States Agency for International Development, with the phantom of CIA everywhere, and called on Western countries not to intervene in the protests in Sri Lanka because it is a colour revolution! Sri Lanka is an important stop on the Belt and Road, and the United States is desperately trying to figure it out,” said Huang An, a Taiwanese singer based in Beijing. Huang has over 6 million followers on Weibo.
Other users shared a screenshot of a tweet by a handle called “SNMilitary”, which claimed the protest in Sri Lanka was engineered by USAID. The Twitter handle added that the protest was a ‘colour revolution’ backed by ‘Western diplomats’. The account claims to be a ‘navy veteran’ and mostly shares pro-Russia tweets.
“A CIA-backed coup in Sri Lanka is a fact. Western diplomats supported them and urged them not to interfere. Things in Sri Lanka are a colour revolution,” said a Weibo user while citing a tweet by SNMilitary.
The popularity of the tweet on Sina Weibo shows the influence of pro-Russia propaganda related to the Sri Lanka crisis on Chinese public opinion.
‘What does bankruptcy mean’ – China wants to know
Besides pinning the blame on the US, the media commentators tried to explain the reasons behind Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and the political turmoil that followed.
On 10 July, the article Crimes and Punishment of Sri Lanka’s Bankruptcy Crisis by Guangzhou’s Southern Weekly was read 1.1 million times on Weibo. The article discusses the domestic reasons for Sri Lanka’s predicament.
“Due to the epidemic, the tourism industry has been hit hard, and related service industries such as aviation, hotels, and catering have declined, resulting in Sri Lanka’s economy getting worse in the past two years. The Sri Lankan government is eager to reform and has borrowed heavily, resulting in high debt and may become the ‘first to fall’ economy after the epidemic,” said the Southern Weekly article, which was originally published in April 21.
The news of Sri Lanka has also made social media users ask about the meaning of ‘declaring bankruptcy’. The hashtag “What does declaring national bankruptcy mean?” was viewed 30 million times on Weibo.
“The financial term ‘national bankruptcy’ was proposed by the International Monetary Fund in 2002 and referred to the situation in which a country’s external assets are less than its external liabilities, that is, insolvency,” Beijing Economic News explained in a video.
Some users blamed the West-led IMF for Sri Lanka’s plight.
The more seasoned Chinese experts tried to examine the crisis through the framework of geopolitics.
“In this Sri Lanka crisis, the United States, Japan, India and Australia plan to ‘form a delegation’ to set up a foreign aid consortium to collectively respond to the crisis. On the surface, the four countries perform their respective duties, but on the whole, they are strengthening the ‘legitimateness’ of the ‘Quad mechanism’ to deal with the crisis. In fact, the ‘Quad mechanism’ is a small group to squeeze China out and contain its influence,” wrote Xu Liping, a researcher at the Institute of Asia-Pacific and Global Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Unclear language, clear message
Beijing is scrambling to find the right narrative for the political turmoil in Sri Lanka.
The Chinese State media repeated some of the earlier talking points challenging the ‘debt trap’ argument for the Sri Lankan crisis.
“Multiple factors to blame for Sri Lanka’s woes,” said the headline of an un-signed English editorial in the China Daily.
China ranks only third among Sri Lanka’s creditors after Japan and the Asian Development Bank, accounting for only 10 per cent of its debt. Its loans have mainly served Sri Lanka’s infrastructure and economic development,” said the editorial.
There are multiple narratives in China on dealing with the situation in Sri Lanka. China hasn’t backed any faction that might replace the Rajapaksas.
“China is not leaning towards one faction or the other… that’s why the previous Sri Lankan governments have all wanted to maintain friendly and cooperative ties with China,” said Liu Zongyi, a senior fellow at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies.
“As for Sri Lanka’s debts related to China, China supports relevant financial institutions to negotiate with Sri Lanka to seek a proper solution. We are willing to work with relevant countries and international financial institutions to continue to play a positive role for Sri Lanka to cope with the current difficulties, ease the debt burden and achieve sustainable development,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Tuesday.
We can safely say that China doesn’t want to extend support to the island nation’s crisis.
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.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)