Friday, March 27, 2020

Tibet gets back to work

My article Tibet gets back to work appeared in The Edit Page of The Pioneer

Here is the link...

It’s perplexing that when China is still in lockdown, work has resumed on infrastructure projects in Tibet. India must watch these developments carefully and take necessary measures

A Tibetan man became the first victim of Coronavirus but not in Tibet but in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. According to The Tibet Sun, Tenzin Choephel, a 69-year-old man from McLeod Ganj (where the Dalai Lama lives), died of Coronavirus after returning from a trip to the US on March 15. It said, “After staying in Delhi for a few days, Choephel returned to McLeod Ganj by a taxi on March 21. On the morning of March 23, he complained of respiratory problems. He was then taken to the Tanda Government hospital where he died.” Meanwhile, in Tibet, the situation is surprisingly “normal.”
Contrary to other provinces in China,  the mountainous region had only one infected patient of the Novel Coronavirus. The patient was a 34-year-old man, who came from the city of Suizhou, the hardest-hit province amid the ongoing outbreak. He was discharged from hospital on February 12. Xinhua reported, “He travelled from the city of Wuhan to Lhasa by train from January 22 to 24. On the evening of January 25, he developed symptoms of cough and fever and was hospitalised.” He was confirmed to be positive on January 29 and after an 18-day treatment he was let out.
It’s difficult to say if this is propaganda or truth. Nevertheless, the high plateau appears to have been less affected than the rest of the Middle Kingdom. If facts are correct, scientists will have to undertake a detailed study of the Tibetan case when the outbreak of the virus recedes.
One reason why Tibet managed to keep cases low is because the authorities over there used Tibetan medicine extensively to fight the disease. For example, when the Tibetan-inhabited area in north-west China’s Qinghai province reported 18 confirmed cases of the infection last month, 17 of them received a treatment involving Tibetan medicine (TM) and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the two independent traditional medical systems.
 Huang Licheng, an official with the provincial Health Commission, was quoted by Xinhua as saying, “The Tibetan medicine played an active role in the treatment.” He further said, “The provincial hospital of Tibetan medicine produced a batch of anti-virus medications featuring Tibetan medicine; 1,000 of them have already been sent to the front lines in Hubei Province, the centre of the virus outbreak.”
This aspect, too, needs to be analysed. At the same time, these harrowing times have shown Beijing’s priorities in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), the first region in China to restart normal activities and that, too, on a war-footing. Guess what started first? Infrastructure projects close to the border with India.
On February 20, China Tibet Online asserted: “Work continues on infrastructure projects in Tibet.” It gave the example of the 11.5-km long Mainling tunnel on the Lhasa-Nyingchi Railway. It is located just north of Arunachal Pradesh: “It (Lhasa-Nyingchi Railway) currently has the most complicated geological conditions and is the most difficult project in China’s construction of a railway on the plateau,” noted the website.
The Mainling tunnel is scheduled to be completed by the end of March: “In order to ensure constructing process, currently, the construction workers are digging the last 60m of the tunnel. About 1,881 workers in Tibet are doing their best to construct the Lhasa-Nyingchi railway. With a designed speed of 160 km/h, it will be the first electrified railway in Tibet.”
But why so much hurry at a time when the rest of China is still under clampdown? Beijing has already invested $3.9 billion in this project and the railway line will be operational by next year. “Workers have completed 44 tunnels out of 47 and 119 bridges out of 120 along the route.”
Yet another development that should worry India is the Dagu Hydropower Station (HPS) project on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra in Assam). Located in Sangri County in Lhoka, the Dagu HPS has a capacity of 660 MW. Two billion dollars have already been invested: “It is a major project supported by the Central Government for Tibet’s economic and social development.” The dam is one of the three cascade dams under construction not far from the Indian border.
It is said that even during the Spring Festival, more than 300 workers remained on duty near the site. Later, they were said to “have successfully returned to construction. The construction site in the valley is busy; a large hydropower station is beginning to take shape.”
Another project is in Sakya county, near Shigatse, the second largest town in Tibet. A mega water project restarted around February 20, a few days before Losar, the sacred Tibetan New Year. “With the biggest investment ever in Tibet’s water project history, the project will help with irrigation, supply water, generate power and prevent flooding,” explained a Chinese website. It further said, “Tibet has arranged 179 projects for this year…Work has resumed on some of these projects.”
On March 3, charter flights were being arranged to bring workers back from the Mainland to Tibet “to resume the construction of major projects in the region.” Tibet Online, another official website of China, mentioned that on that day, TV6031 flight operated by Tibet Airlines landed at the airport of Nyingchi City. It said, “The 105 power workers onboard, from Zhejiang Province, will be assigned to the power grid projects in the region’s most impoverished areas.” Other such charter flights landed in Lhasa, Shigatse and Chamdo.
Quoting a Tibetan power company, China Tibet News said on February 29 that more than 2,800 workers had resumed the construction of 338 projects, accounting for 75 per cent of the total. It included the Ngari Power Grid Interconnection Project, not far from the Uttarakhand and Ladakh border.
The resumption of construction projects at a time when the rest of China was under lockdown is perplexing. Why this frenzy? It’s difficult to answer. A few weeks ago, an intrusion by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was reported in Naku-la, south of the watershed in northern Sikkim, an area supposed to be a “settled” undisputed area.  This was not a good sign.
With the “victory” of Wuhan, triumphantly announced by the Chinese propaganda, the PLA, which played a decisive role, is bound to come out reinforced from the crisis. Can Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is in an extremely weak position today both internally and externally (despite the disinformation war going on a full swing), keep his control over the PLA in the months to come?
Only time will tell. But the speed at which it has resumed the construction of infrastructure projects in Tibet is certainly ominous. A Chinese website published a photo feature. Its caption read: “Multiple rocket launch systems attached to an artillery brigade under the PLA Xizang Military Command fire anti-aircraft rockets simultaneously during a live-fire operation at the elevation of 4,500 metres in Southwest China’s Xizang Autonomous Region on March 11, 2020.”
China will argue that it is only a routine exercise but India needs to watch carefully and take necessary measures to be ready for a new outbreak à la Doklam.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Coronavirus: The Chinese Information Warfare

A Turning Point: Xi's visit to Wuhan
As China seems to recover from the dreaded Covid19, Beijing has started a new battle, an Information Warfare (IW) against the way the world perceives the Middle Kingdom today.
It is true that since the outbreak of the virus at the end of December (the virus had probably been around since several weeks already, but the authoritarian regime in Beijing preferred to hide the truth from its own people and the world), the Communist regime discovered that it had not many friends on the planet. Even Vladimir Putin was targeted when Beijing asked the Russian authorities not to discriminate against Chinese citizens; reports had appeared of police raids in Moscow against people from China evading quarantine measures.
Soon China decided to counterattack. Zhao Lijian, one of China’s sharp shooters was called upon to serve as spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Zhao, who served earlier as deputy chief of mission in Pakistan, is known for his vitriolic twitter attacks against China’s critics.
Referring to a statement of the director of the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC), Zhao Lijian’s latest tweet alleged that the Americans are at the origin of the virus: “CDC was caught on the spot. When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owes us an explanation!”
But the artillery fire does not come from a single sniper, a full-fledged IW has begun from around the time that President Xi Jinping, accompanied by Wang Huning, the propaganda boss in the Politburo’s Standing Committee; Ding Xuexiang, director of the Party’s General Office and General Zhang Youxia, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, visited Wuhan.
One of the first shots came from the Chinese Embassy in Australia who emailed local journalists, accusing them of “politicizing the coronavirus” by saying it originated in China “without any supporting facts.”
Financial Review journalist Michael Smith received an email from the Chinese embassy in Canberra, complaining that he had called the Covid-19, ‘China virus’. Smith asserted that Beijing “has pivoted its propaganda narrative, now insinuating that the virus originated in other countries.”
The symptoms of the Chinese aggressiveness was already seen on February 18 when Hou Yanqi the Chinese ambassador to Nepal issued a statement criticizing an article published in the Nepali press: “The Kathmandu Post published an article which, with a picture of malicious intention, deliberately smeared the efforts of the Chinese government and people fighting against the new coronavirus pneumonia and even viciously attacked the political system of China.”
The lady ambassador went a step further; she accused by name the chief editor of The Kathmandu Post, Anup Kaphle of being biased: “[he] has always been biased on China-related issues. …[he is] becoming a parrot of some anti-China forces.”
As a result, a group of 17 Nepali editors affiliated with various media houses in Kathmandu issued a statement criticizing the embassy for threatening Kaphle: “We would also like to remind the embassy that it breached diplomatic decorum in doing so.”
Hou’s attack on the press was part of a well-orchestrated campaign against any foreign media refusing to follow Beijing’s line.
The Communist mouthpiece The Global Time was not left behind. An Op-Ed stated: “Amid the raging coronavirus epidemic, some Western countries have shown their true colors.” The writer elaborated: “Some Western media outlets have blamed China for the virus' going global and made a big deal out of China's ‘delays’ during the outbreak's initial stage. Now that the novel coronavirus crisis continues to unfold across the world, it's obvious to see which country's handling has been more efficient and effective.”
The media blitzkrieg brings a new narrative, “the origin is the virus is unknown, it could have come from anywhere in the world; China has been a model in handling the sensitive issue; Beijing can now advise the world how to go about it.”
The strategy’s objective is to force the world to forget how and where the virus started or to find out if the first case originated in a Chinese Lab or elsewhere.
Axios, the analysis website commented: “Beijing's coronavirus propaganda blitz goes global,” before elaborating: “As China begins to get its coronavirus outbreak under control, authorities are going on the offensive to rewrite the narrative that the global epidemic is Beijing's fault.”
Axios spoke of China's formidable propaganda apparatus which can obscure the truth and change narratives abroad, just as it can at home.
Bill Bishop, author of the Sinocism newsletter added: “The CCP is masterful at rewriting history, and we’re watching them do it in real time.”
The Editor of Bitter Winter, an Italian website studying China’s Human Rights recounted: “Some days ago, I opened my email and found a message from a Chinese colleague asking whether I was safe from the ‘Italian virus’. I had never heard the expression ‘Italian virus’ with respect to COVID-19, but then learned that others had received similar messages, and that Japanese were being asked by Chinese friends whether they had been affected by the ‘Japanese virus’.
He quoted from a report in La Croix International citing confidential instructions sent by Beijing to Chinese embassies: “while the virus severely hit Wuhan, where it really originally came from is unknown. We are conducting new studies to locate the virus’ true origin.”
Embassies were asked to ‘raise doubts’ in the public opinion, suggesting that perhaps the virus originally came to China from abroad.
On February 26, Xinhua announced the release of a book, which detailed President Xi Jinping’s “outstanding leadership as a great power leader” defeated the virus. The publication proved to the world the “significant advantages of the Chinese system of leadership and socialism with Chinese characteristics,” and show how “the centralized and unified leadership of the CCP Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core won the Great war against the virus.” It was later withdrawn as the victory had been announced too early.
After reading La Croix International’s report, London-based sinologist Steve Tsang stated: “the CCP always had a monopoly on truth and history in China, and now tries to deny that it originally hid the truth on the virus. CCP officers claim they are right even when it is obvious they are wrong.”
Another Op-Ed in The Global Times argued that all this was a symptom of West’s ideological crisis: “The Western media's ignorance and bias of China's system have never appeared more obvious. For decades, the Western media have been trying to persuade their readers that Chinese people have no freedom or democracy, simply because China doesn't adopt the Western-style electoral system,” while Beijing is pursuing a more substantial and efficient set of freedom “designed to meet the needs of the people who most desire long-term peace, stability and development.”
That would be fine, but why such aggressiveness and often blatant distortion of the facts.
What China does not seem to understand is that even if she wins a few IW battles, this will not help her to become a respected State .

Saturday, March 14, 2020

China’s tainted corona

My article China’s tainted corona appeared in the Edit Page of The Pioneer

Here is the link...

While the contagious phase of COVID-19 may ebb and the communist regime may deny the PLA’s role in the battle, the world may not see it in the same light as before

The sudden apparition of Coronavirus on the world stage was unexpected for Chinese watchers. However, it is bound to have deeper implications than the Tiananmen massacre for the future of the Middle Kingdom. Even if the situation stabilises in the next few months, or by the end of the year, the community of nations may not see it in the same light. Undoubtedly, the role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will continue to be discussed for long after the contagious phase of COVID-19 is behind us. From day one, a PLA unit, the Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF), has been at the centrestage of what the communist party of China called the “people’s war” against the “demon” virus.
When I say day one, it means nearly two months after the deadly virus surfaced in Wuhan. The communist authorities were lax between December 1, 2019, when The Lancet’s epidemiological retrospective investigation showed the first confirmed case with symptoms of the novel Coronavirus pneumonia, and January 23, 2020, when the JLSF troops first arrived on the scene.
But what is JLSF? The body was created on January 11, 2016, as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s in-depth military reform measure. According to Xinhua, the JLSF “comprises the support forces for inventory and warehousing, medical services, transport, force projection, oil pipelines, engineering and construction management, reserve assets management and procurement.” Coincidentally, it is based in Wuhan. The first task given to the JLSF of the Central Military Commission (CMC) was to build the Huoshenshan Hospital, an emergency speciality field facility that accommodates 1,000 beds. Believe it or not, it was constructed in just eight days.
At first, 450 Army personnel were flown in to Wuhan. They were joined in by 1,400 military medical staff on February 3 and 2,600 additional medical personnel from the armed forces on February 13. Today more than 10,000 troops (including the militia also serving under the CMC) have been deployed.
Though the Generals were probably reluctant in the beginning, it became clearer to the Communist leadership in Beijing that only the PLA could save China. On January 29, Xi, who is also the CMC Chairman, had to personally intervene to exhort the military to save the nation. And the party. He ordered the military to win the battle, emphasising the importance of “keeping in mind the purpose and carrying the burdens.” He exhorted the troops “to keep the original spirit,” adding, “Our Army is a child soldier of the people, breathing with the people, sharing the same fate and connecting hearts.”
The PLA had to face its own problems.  The crew of the Type 054A multi-role frigate, Changzho, carrying anti-submarine missiles had to be quarantined. The Navy admitted the fear of an outbreak and the captain of the frigate, Yu Song Qiu, and a number of sailors were placed on lockdown. Shore leave rules for crew members aboard the Shandong were tightened to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on China’s second aircraft carrier. By the end of January, there were 54 declared cases of virus in Sanya in Hainan Island where the Shandong is based.
At the same time, the CMC started regulating the relations between the PLA and the civilians: Thirteen forms of activities were banned, including receiving money/securities and asking non-military organisations/individuals to provide money or commodities. Corrupt officers were warned: No illicit enrichment would be permitted.
Probably sensing the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the PLA to participate in the risky operations, the CMC opened a life insurance scheme for those personnel going to the “frontline.” It further declared that those, who would die combating the virus, would be named “martyr” by the Chinese State.
But the real challenge for the JLSF was to control the spread of the virus in Wuhan, which is the strategic hub for the defence industry — it has more than 350 research centres and industrial institutes as well as 1,700 hi-tech enterprises covering aerospace, satellites, rocketry and biotechnology. The future of all these institutions remained undecided.
According to Xinhua, China had to postpone its military recruitment drive, scheduled for the first half of this year to support the country’s epidemic prevention and control work. Wu Qian, the spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defence, asserted: “Approved by the State Council and the CMC, the postponed conscription will be combined with that of the second half, which will run from August 1 to September 30.” Though Wu said that the overall annual recruitment targets would remain unchanged, experts believe that the PLA could be badly affected.
This was also the time when an enigmatic personage appeared on the scene. Chen Wei, a 53-year-old leading Chinese epidemiologist and a Major-General in PLA, is known for developing the world’s first gene-based vaccine on Ebola in 2014. She was also apparently involved in combating the SARS outbreak.
According to the International Business Times, the controversial Major-General injected herself and her six-member team with an untested Coronavirus vaccine. She has created quite a stir on Weibo by her radical approach, especially after she was posted in the Wuhan lab from where the COVID-19 strain could have escaped (the Chinese authorities denied this).
Was this just a gesture to prove her loyalty to Chairman Xi? Just a month ago, Chen had taken over the controversial Wuhan lab, originally a civilian research lab, partly funded by the French Government. When he visited the research facilities in February 2017, Bernard Cazeneuve, the then French Prime Minister, declared: “France is proud and happy to have contributed to the construction of the first P4 high bio-safety laboratory in China. …This cutting-edge tool constitutes a central element in the achievement of the 2004 inter-governmental agreement on Franco-Chinese cooperation in the prevention and fight against emerging infectious diseases.” Something obviously went wrong.
For India, it is important to analyse the implications of the PLA’s involvement in the battle against the virus. Will the JLSF emerge stronger? Can the PLA become a threat to the party, just in case the “people’s war” against the “virus” is won by the Army? Will it re-emerge stronger despite Xi’s efforts to restrict the Army’s influence? What will be the implications for the PLA’s preparedness on the borders with India? It may be too early to answer these questions but even though PLA activities on the Tibetan plateau have reduced due to the outbreak, intrusions were reported recently from Naku-la, south of the watershed in Northern Sikkim, a border said to be “settled” by China. It is quite ominous.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Krishna Menon’s Aksai Chin error

Chinese Memorial to those who died during the construction of the road
My article Krishna Menon’s Aksai Chin error appeared in The Mail Today and DailyO

Here is the link...

Menon was one of the strangest characters to have appeared on the political scene after independence.

During a recent visit to the national capital, as I was approaching the Central Secretariat in Lutyens’ Delhi, I passed a majestic statue of perhaps the most controversial Indian politician since independence. I could not help but wonder why India still honours someone who brought so much disrepute to the nation, particularly as defence minister between 1957 and 1962.

Legacy of a debacle
Though a well-researched book on Krishna Menon was published recently, the author did not elaborate on the implications of having the wrong person, at the wrong place in the years preceding the India-China border war.
Menon was one of the strangest characters to have appeared on the political scene after independence. PK Banerjee, the Indian chargé d’affaires in Beijing in 1962, who often encountered the arrogant politician, wrote in his memoir: “Krishna Menon’s appearance in the Indian political arena was as sudden as it was unexpected... He was enrolled as a barrister. He hardly had any legal practice …[but] became a protégé of Palme Dutt, a lawyer and founder member of the British Communist Party.”
A friend of India’s then Prime Minister, Menon soon became Indian High Commissioner in the UK and, in April 1957, he was appointed the defence minister: “In addition, for all practical purposes, he functioned as foreign minister de facto,” noted Banerjee. Menon was certainly brilliant in many ways, but 63 years later, India still suffers because of Jawaharlal Nehru’s mistaken choice. One of the many blunders that he committed was to post his favourites in positions where they should never have been; this eventually led to the resignation of the then Chief of Army Staff, General KS Thimayya. He also messed up the Aksai Chin issue.
Let us go back to the early 1950s. After the People’s Liberation Army entered Lhasa, the Chinese made plans to improve communications and built new roads on a war-footing. The only way to consolidate and ‘unify’ the Middle Kingdom was to construct a large network of roads. One of these roads was the Tibet-Xinjiang Highway (today infamously known as the Aksai Chin road). The first surveys were done at the end of 1951-52 and construction began in 1953. The official report of the 1962 China War prepared by ministry of defence gave a few examples showing that the construction of the road cutting across Indian soil on the Aksai Chin plateau of Ladakh was known to the Indian ministries of defence and external affairs, and this long before it was made public.

A daring mission
In early 1957, the Army selected an officer to go with a patrol and physically confirm the reports that China was building a road in the Aksai Chin area; the officer was Lt Col RS Basera of 1 Kumaon Rifles. Later, in a note Basera’s son wrote: “His mission was to be tough, exciting and most unique, as he had to proceed under cover to the vast plateau of Aksai Chin and confirm reports that the Chinese were constructing a motorable road from Kashgar to Lhasa.” Disguised as a yak herder, Basera was accompanied by Havildar Diwan Singh from the Corps of Engineers. They were to move with three genuine Ladakhi yak herders. During a briefing at the Headquarters in Leh, Basera was told that it was crucial to maintain utmost secrecy about the mission.

The Military Intelligence (MI) instructed them not to carry any documents that could disclose their identities, no notes should be taken. They were asked to memorise the map and the route: “They had to move in the easterly direction from Leh for about 250-300 km, till they reached the expected location of the new Chinese built road, in Aksai Chin. Initially, they would pass over difficult, undulating terrain, till they crossed the Karakoram Mountain Range and Shyok River,” wrote Basera’s son. Their mission was of national importance, said their handlers in the MI. After a long and adventurous journey, they finally entered Aksai Chin. On the third day, one of the herders suddenly pulled Basera's shoulder and showed him a dark line on the horizon; it was the road. The next morning, they walked in the direction of the road: “The otherwise sluggish yaks too moved forward with renewed energy, matching the sudden spring in the step of their handlers!”

Spanner in the works
At noon, they were now near the raised road, they mentally noted every detail of the road that was not yet tarred. They immediately decided to return and inform the authorities of their discovery. They were asked to report in Delhi. “At the end of the day they were told by a Lt Col from MI, that their report would be sent to defence minister Krishna Menon, who would then discuss it with the PM.”
According to the report written by Basera’s son, “the defence minister surprisingly supported the Chinese side, and even called it a friendly neighbour. He asked the MI director, if the area through which the road passed had been confirmed on a map.
The DMI told him the patrol had not carried a map for security reasons.” But that was not all, the Prime Minister and the defence minister, “more or less rebuked the DMI for sending the patrol. The PM told the defence minister that no more such patrols were to be sent to Aksai Chin till the matter had been thoroughly investigated,” as such patrols could easily vitiate the good relations between friendly neighbours.
When he was given the report, Lt Col Basera felt utterly disgusted: “The long and difficult patrol they had undertaken, now appeared to have been a futile, month-long exercise.” The greatest tragedy is that there must be hundreds of such files, but they are still buried in the almirahs of South Block. Does it help India to hide its own history?