Managing China: Nepal’s challengeAs Chinese involvement in our lives increases, situations where our core values come in conflict will increase.
The news of the collective rebuke by Nepali media editors of a recent statement from the Chinese Embassy attracted significant attention in South Asian media and beyond. The Wire, published in India, reported: 'Nepali editors condemn Chinese embassy for a statement criticising Newspaper'. The Press Trust of India announced: 'Nepal editors condemn China's embassy; say they're fully committed to practising 'freedom of the press'. The South China Morning Post published from Hong Kong said: 'Nepalese newspaper accuses China of ‘veiled threats against editor’ over coronavirus coverage'.
At issue is a syndicated opinion piece on coronavirus written by a former US ambassador and published in this newspaper. The article blamed China’s authoritarian government for keeping the news of the detection of the virus confidential when it was first identified. It argued that if the news had been shared with the international community in time, it might have helped the virus' early containment. The delayed dissemination was the result of the centralisation of power in China's authoritarian system. Authoritarian systems are incapable of crisis management, it said.
The Chinese Embassy considered the article malicious and anti-Chinese. In a public statement, it accused this paper's editor at the time, Anup Kafle, of anti-Chinese bias and warned the embassy’s 'right of further action'. It did not say what those actions could be.
Protests from foreign missions are common when they feel their interest is deliberately undermined. Generally, these protests are aired at the diplomatic level. They take the form of confidential meetings between the disputing parties or, in case of a published newspaper article, a letter to the editor rebutting the arguments in the 'offending' write-up. But issuing a public statement threatening the editor of the publication is unusual.
Rejuvenation and red lines
Xi Jinping is on a mission to 'rejuvenate' the past glory of China. In the pursuit of this mission, the Chinese Communist Party is engaged all over the world in promoting the superiority of the Chinese political system over other systems, particularly over liberal democracy and in glorifying the achievements of the party. As it engages with the world, its policies and actions come into the public glare and are often criticised. The Chinese are fine with the criticism as long as any of the 'five red lines' they have set up is not crossed.
The red lines are: Criticism of the Chinese political system; support to the Tibetan independence movement or the Dalai Lama; criticism of Chinese policy in Urumqi, Xinjiang; support to Falun Gong and Taiwan/Hong Kong's independence and democratic aspirations. The Post article attracted the embassy’s wrath because they inferred that it crossed their first red line.
Clive Hamilton, a professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia, discusses in his scholarly book Silent Invasion: China's Influence in Australia (2018) the growing threat of Chinese attack on Australian values. He cites numerous cases where the Chinese Embassy was directly involved in schemes to stifle free speech in Australian universities; steering Australian media from critical reporting on China, and influencing Australian public opinion in favour of the Chinese Communist Party's global strategy.
China's encroachment tactics follow a pattern: Buying politicians with largesse and junkets to China; financial inducements to people of influence, particularly politicians, civil society leaders, and media personnel; generous grants to host country educational institutions and think tanks until they become dependent on the Chinese money; and after that, threaten to withdraw the money if they do not toe the line.
Hamilton concludes with the question: 'Yes, China is important for our economy, but how much is our sovereignty as a nation worth?’
Jonathan Manthorpe, a well-known journalist and recognised China expert, discusses China's incursions into Canadian public space in his compelling treatise 'Claws of the Panda: Beijing's Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada' ( 2019). He cites several cases of media manipulation; espionage and personal threat including to those in the media who, in the Chinese Communist Party's view, cross the red lines. Manthorpe questions how much Canada should give in to the Chinese Communist Party's design to secure China trade. There are numerous other similar published cases from other countries.
The statement from the Chinese Embassy was a brazen affront to the Nepali media's constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of the press. It was intended to force the Nepali media to self-censure when it came to publishing anything that may offend the Chinese government. Our journalists understood it; stood up and asked the embassy to back off. If we had a strong, confident government, the government would also have come out in their support. After all, it was an attack on our constitution. But it did not. The government lacked the courage to do so.
Since coming to power, the Oli government has presented China as a saviour of our development problems. It has relied on China to meet its large project ambitions. Anything that might displease China could risk its promised economic support. The Oli government does not want that. The so-called fraternal ties between the Nepal Communist Party and the Chinese Communist Party also inhibit the government from criticising the Chinese.
The cause of the spat between the Chinese Embassy and our editors is, at its core, a conflict between the fundamental values of the two countries—ours liberal democratic and theirs communist. As our relationship with China becomes more widespread and the Chinese involvement in our lives increases, situations where our core values come in conflict will increase. For example, Nepalis of Tibetan origin may yet again come out protesting China's Tibet policy. Our media may publish articles on the concentration camps (called training camps by the Chinese government) of Muslims in Urumqi or supporting Hong Kong's democratic aspirations.
Given China's power and sensitivity to criticism, managing such situations will be a challenge. It is about time our government asked itself the question similar to the one that bothered Hamilton and Manthorpe: How much do we want to surrender our values to keep our friend in good humour?
What do you think?
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