Book Title: Smokeless War
Author: Manoj Kewalramani
The number of people who look at China and its developments in a meaningful way in India can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. Kewalramani is one of them. His ‘Eye on China’ newsletter and his daily tracking of the People’s Daily reflect the enormous effort he puts into his task and the kind of background from which this book has emerged.
Ostensibly, the writer has focused on the emergence of the Covid-19 virus in Wuhan, and its unfolding consequences. But through the narrative, he has provided us insight into the workings of the Communist Party of China (CPC), its changing perspectives towards domestic and international issues, and the direction in which Xi Jinping is taking the country.
The title about the quest for geopolitical dominance is somewhat misleading; in some ways the book is really a kind of an autopsy which gives us an idea of how the internal organs of the CPC function, how they relate to its external policies and the enormous effort put in by the organisation to be the hegemonic force it is within China.
A great value of this heavily referenced book is in its extensive use of Chinese media and writings of Chinese experts. Equally important is its focusing on key party and state institutions, their decision-making and cutting through the verbiage that often accompanies CPC decisions. The one inexplicable shortcoming of the book is that it lacks an index, a somewhat baffling omission.
Among the many rabbits that the CPC has pulled out of the hat through its history, surely its 2020 performance stands out. The outbreak of the pandemic was a huge Black Swan event that not only brought Wuhan and Hubei province to a standstill, but had reverberations around the world. Neither the doctors nor the people of the city knew what had hit them. But within a matter of months, even as the United States and large parts of Europe reeled under the pandemic’s onslaught, China was able to overcome it. After the initial confusion and bungling, China frontally took draconian decisions to lock down cities, conduct mass testing, and took immediate steps to reverse the economic slump that resulted.
What emerges from the book is how the pandemic decelerated some and accelerated other trends in a global system which was already in some disorder. It’s not clear though if Covid lent a special edge to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, with Taiwan, Hong Kong and, of course, India. One strain of the Chinese discourse has been the claim that the Ladakh crisis was engineered by India to take advantage of China’s Covid preoccupation.
Domestically, the Chinese government bit the bullet to move towards promoting consumption-led growth through a concept called dual circulation, where domestic consumption would encourage Chinese producers to make high-quality goods, which, in turn, could also be exported.
The world has looked at the US as the prime mover in the decoupling drama we have been witnessing. However, a good case can be made to say that it is China which is seeking ‘atmanirbharta’ and wants an economy that will deal with the world on its own terms. But this is a work in progress. It’s one thing to moot dual circulation politically, quite another to implement it in economic practice.
Covid acted as a negative catalyst in US-China relations. In January, the two countries had taken the first step to bring their trade dispute under control through a deal, but in two months all bets were off. As Covid wreaked havoc in the United States, the hapless Trump administration found it convenient to step up the attack on China.
Washington’s hardliners — Mike Pompeo, Matt Pottinger, Robert O’Brien — attacked China regularly and US institutions like the Department of Commerce and FBI focused on alleged Chinese wrongdoing. A new element was the tactic of questioning the legitimacy of the CPC, something which was meant to hurt, and which probably did hit home.
A running theme of the book is about narratives, and the manner in which the CPC shapes them and the institutions and practices it uses to do so. From the outset, the writer notes, “Xi has set the tone for a more nimble, innovative and combative propaganda approach.” This huayuquan or discourse power is not simply propaganda, but something backed powerfully by policies that are ruthlessly implemented.
Right through, of course, Xi and his colleagues know that the discourse they need to dominate is the one with the Chinese people. Having been shaken by the initial onset of Covid and the expressions of dissatisfaction and dissent, besides cracking down on dissidents, the CPC has embarked on its dreaded “education and rectification” campaigns. These are essentially aimed at laying the ground work for the 2022 Party Congress and ensure that Xi faces no challenge in extending his tenure as General Secretary. This is not your ordinary party politics, but a ruthless Game of Thrones where losers often end up in prison or are purged from office.