Making sense of China is never easy. The obsequious domestic media in China churns out little news of value. At best, you have partial, often-biased information trickling out through the western media. So what is it? Has the Chinese state been able to mount an unprecedented campaign against coronavirus that any other country would struggle to match? Or has the top-down communist model badly botched the initial coronavirus response, trying to keep it hush-hush until it got out of hand? It’s hard to find a definite answer either way.Likewise, did the Chinese put pressure on Nepal government not to evacuate its students in Wuhan, or were our government officials more concerned about Chinese goodwill than the health of its citizens? The governments of Pakistan and Cambodia, in a show of unstinting trust in the Chinese government, refused to repatriate their students from Wuhan. In Nepal’s case, whatever the government was planning, public pressure forced its hand, and it is now bringing back Nepali students.
While individuals are the ends in themselves in democracies, in autocracies individual liberties are often trampled with to serve the greater national cause. The liberal-minded folks in Nepal are worried about China and its influence in a democratic Nepal. A respected academic with some experience in dealing with Chinese officials recently asked this author whether deadly viruses like SARS and coronavirus were originating in China because the Chinese scientists were experimenting with biological weapons.
Given China’s characteristic opacity, a question naturally arises: How much do we know China? Will we have to pay dearly if we embrace the Chinese without understanding their true nature? Yet this also assumes that we know democracies like the US and India better. But do we? Does the micromanagement India has overseen in Nepal over the past two decades inspire any more confidence in the ‘largest democracy in the world’? Or the way the Americans have relentlessly pursued their geopolitical interests in Nepal since the 1950s make us trust ‘the strongest democracy in the world’ any more?
China is neither good nor bad on the international stage. It is only pursuing its interests, just like any other country. As Constantino Xavier of Bookings India likes to say, “Thank you, China!” He thanks China for waking India up from its “colonial slumber” and making it realize that it just cannot boss around small countries in the neighborhood—while idly sitting on its bilateral projects—when these countries now have the Chinese option.
We cannot change our neighbors. Nepal will continue to have to deal with the one-party state for the foreseeable future and there is no option to increasing our engagement with China to decrease the over-dependence on India. Again, the choice will not always be easy. But as the Bangladeshi ambassador Mashfee Binte Shams hinted to us in an interview this week, what Nepal should do is develop more self-confidence in dealing with varied external actors, not pick and choose between external powers. Who knows when we will need whom!
It’s wonderful that Nepal is bringing back its students from Wuhan. That is its right, and also the right thing to do. We are not, and don’t want to be, China’s Pakistan or Cambodia.