The Chinese government is understandably touchy about any criticism of its handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak. No less than the longevity of President Xi Jinping’s tenure as Chinese president is on the line. When the contagion started spreading like Black Dragon Fire at the start of January, the consensus was that much would depend on the speed with which the Chinese leadership could contain it. Having botched his first response to the Wuhan outbreak, Xi could ill afford to let the contagion get out of hand. Thankfully for him, the rate of new infections in China is drastically down and the country is already trying to ease corona-related restrictions.
By showing that he can mount a fightback against corona, Xi is regaining the trust of his citizens. It is unclear if the slowdown in the rate of new infections is a temporary lull or a more permanent phenomenon. Yet it is safe to assume that Chinese leaders will have their hands full dealing with the fallout from the novel coronavirus pandemic for some time yet. They could have time for little else, including the kind of proactive diplomacy Xi has undertaken since the 2013 unveiling of his signature Belt and Road Initiative.
The Kathmandu Post fiasco illustrated the sort of damage-control job Chinese diplomats and foreign missions will be engaged in for the foreseeable future. The focus of Chinese foreign policy in this time will be to establish that Xi handled the corona crisis as well as (if not better than) anyone else could have. This narrative is important to assure Xi’s countrymen that he is still firmly in charge and capable of dealing with any crisis. ‘Uncle Xi’ will never fail them.
Only when he reestablishes his control over the popular narrative and firmly tamps down on any criticism from within the communist party over his handling of the coronavirus outbreak—only then will his focus again shift abroad, to that dream of making China the focal point of a new world order. This could have important ramifications for smaller countries in the region like Nepal. The Chinese leadership distracted, and the ‘botched Wuhan response’ narrative still finding takers, the westerners will try to play up the dangers of allying with an ‘authoritarian’ state like China that evidently doesn’t even care about its own people.
But the communist government in Nepal will continue to be loyal to Beijing, a position that won’t be unpopular with the people. They have not forgotten the pain of the 2015-16 Indian blockade, or China’s indispensability as that important counterweight to India. Moreover, the position of a powerful NCP faction that the American MCC compact has sinister anti-China agenda has found plenty of takers; ask any taxi-driver in Kathmandu. Perhaps there could come a time when China is mistrusted in Nepal. Right now, more common is the view that the western world is trying to demonize China when it is going through one of the toughest times in its recent history.