Off the Record 046: The Chinese are coming
Issue 046 • 25 March 2022
It’s March 25, 2022, and you’re reading Off the Record, the weekly newsletter from The Record. We are an independent, ad-free, digital news publication out of Kathmandu, Nepal.
I’m Pranaya Rana, editor of The Record, and in this newsletter, we’ll stop, take a deep breath, and dive into one singular issue that defined the past week.
Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening from Kathmandu in full bloom. Spring is in the air and the city is decked out in color. Flowers are blooming, leaves are green, shoots are sprouting, and there are bees, butterflies, and birds around. Although the weather feels hotter than it ever was during this time of the year, the evenings are cool and pleasant, among the best times to be in Kathmandu.
But Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is not coming for the weather. He has larger, heavier concerns on his mind. That is what concerns our long read for the week, but before we get there, a quick recap of what’s been making the news.
The week started out with tragedy as Police constable Urmila Shrestha was killed in Morang’s Letang during a scuffle with locals. Shrestha had been deputed to the Shiksha Bikas Secondary School in Letang’s Kheruwa on Sunday after a teacher had been accused of sexual harassment by a 12-year-old student. Teachers and administrators had called the police to hand over the accused. An irate mob of locals, however, attempted to attack the accused, leading to a clash with the police. In the scuffle, Shrestha was stabbed in the neck by a knife and succumbed to her injuries. Twelve locals and 16 police personnel were also injured. Five people were taken into custody on Monday and a temporary curfew declared until the situation settled down.
There hasn’t been much activity politically this past week as the parties are still looking for electoral alliances for the upcoming local elections. The Maoists and Unified Socialists are actively seeking an alliance as they both know that their positions aren’t too strong. The Nepali Congress, which leads the governing alliance with the Maoists and Unified Socialists, has so far been hesitant to tie up. The Congress is in a good position, with most of the leftist parties having recently split, and it doesn’t feel that an alliance would necessarily be in its favor. Increasingly desperate, the Maoists are reportedly willing to ally with erstwhile rivals, the UML. KP Sharma Oli, however, appears to be in no hurry to ally with those who led to the unraveling of the Nepal Communist Party, and eventually deserted him. Oli is in good spirits and believes that the UML too will win a comfortable majority of local constituencies.
The Nepali Congress is slated to take a decision on whether or not to tie up with another party on Friday, but I’m not optimistic. The Congress doesn’t have much to gain from an alliance with two relatively weak communist forces so it will likely go at it alone. Like I said last week, the upcoming local elections look increasingly like a two-way contest between the Congress and the UML.
With elections nearing, the government opened up applications for over 98,000 temporary police this past week, leading to serpentine queues of hundreds of aspirants. Nepalis from diverse backgrounds, including the unemployed, homemakers, students, and advanced degree holders, have applied for temporary police, who will be assigned as security and poll observers at booths across the country. The position pays roughly Rs 45,000 for 40 days of work, showing that there is great interest among Nepalis to work for a decent wage. Now, if only most regular employment opportunities paid a similar salary. Just for comparison, Nepal’s minimum wage is Rs 15,000 a month by law but many jobs don’t even pay that much.
Oh, and before I forget, last Friday, Nepal was ranked the happiest country in South Asia on the United Nations’ World Happiness Report. The metric itself was propagated by Bhutan and that should already be suspect, given Bhutan’s history of expelling its citizens and calling itself happy. Make of the report what you will but I am skeptical given just how devastating the Covid-19 pandemic has been to millions of Nepalis.
That about does it for this week’s wrap-up. Let’s now take a closer look at what is on the agenda during the upcoming visit of Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi, and all that it portends for Nepal-China relations.
The deep dive: The Chinese are coming
Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi arrives in Kathmandu for a three-day visit. (Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Diplomacy is as much about appearance as it is about action.
Take, for instance, a visit to the Tibetan refugee camp in Jawalakhel by the ambassadors of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and France on Wednesday. They reportedly visited to inquire about the refugees’ lives and livelihoods and whether they had access to daily necessities, according to Annapurna Post.
The Wednesday visit, two days before the arrival of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, is laden with symbolism. The Tibetan issue has long been China’s chief concern in Nepal and it has also been the largest cudgel that the West has employed to harangue China. So I seriously doubt that it was out of idle curiosity — or even genuine concern — that the Western diplomats visited the Tibetans on Wednesday. They did so to send an explicit message to the Chinese — that the West has not forgotten Tibet.
Diplomacy, it seems, is really more about appearance than action.
Many Tibetans feel betrayed by the West and that they could do more to help Tibetan refugees. Indeed, despite the controversial role of the Americans in arming and abetting the Khampa rebellion against the Chinese invasion of Tibet, lobbying on Tibetan issues in Nepal comes down largely to demanding identity cards and stoking the issue whenever China comes to town.
But Wang’s visit itself is not without symbolism. Yesterday, Wang flew to Kabul from Islamabad, the first high-level Chinese visit to Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover. He then flew to New Delhi from Kabul, a trajectory that was not lost on keen watchers. Of course, New Delhi wouldn’t have been pleased if Wang had flown in directly from Islamabad, so he took a circuitous route.
Wang’s arrival in Nepal is portentous, coming as it is on the heels of the Nepali Parliament’s passage of the US-led Millenium Challenge Corporation’s Nepal Compact. China had “noted” the passage by Parliament, which in diplomatic parlance tends to translate to “not very pleased”. China had been lobbying hard for Nepal to reject the MCC and Beijing was reportedly very surprised when Kathmandu, despite the extent of street-level protests and opposition by numerous political leaders, passed the Nepal Compact. China sees the MCC as a victory for Washington and that fallout is a large part of why Wang is here.
There will no doubt be numerous technical agreements that Wang will sign and issues of import that he will discuss in his meetings with Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, Maoist chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal, and UML chair KP Sharma Oli. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will remain high on the agenda with Anil Giri of The Kathmandu Post already providing a laundry list of agreements to be signed.
I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of the BRI as that would require a separate newsletter on its own. But suffice it to say that, not much has happened since Nepal signed up to the BRI in 2017, the same year that Nepal signed up to the MCC. Nepal has identified nine projects that it would like China to help finance under the BRI. These include the much-touted Kathmandu-Kerung railway, roads connecting Rasuwagadhi-Kathmandu, Kimathanka-Hile, Tokha-Bidur, and Dipayal to the Chinese border, and three hydroelectric/transmission projects. Kathmandu hopes that China will agree to conduct a detailed project report (DPR) for the Kathmandu-Kerung rail during Wang’s visit.
These are all lofty projects and will require at least another decade or so to materialize, even if the Chinese do acquiesce. Nepal’s problem has always been that it is unable to do its homework. When high-level dignitaries visit, Nepal welcomes them with its hands out, but not much else. The projects identified under the BRI have not moved forward, not because of Chinese hesitancy but largely because of Nepal’s inability to conduct studies, pursue negotiations, and approach China with a realistic plan and budget. That, of course, is in addition to numerous domestic political shenanigans. In Nepal, changes in government necessitate a change in foreign policy. Whichever party comes to power has its own interests and thereby, forces the country to align to those narrow parameters. A UML or Maoist government is seen to be more amenable to the Chinese while a Congress government leans westward.
It was this confusing coterie of interests that led the Chinese to push for a broad-based left alliance, resulting in the formation of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), the largest communist force in Nepali history. The NCP might have come to an ignominious end but that had more to do with the personality clash between co-chairs Oli and Dahal, much to China’s dismay. There are rumblings that China is once again attempting to reforge the NCP. UML vice-chair Bishnu Poudel is currently in Beijing, meeting with Song Tao, head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Department and a seasoned Nepal hand. Poudel is believed to have been instrumental in the unification of the UML and the Maoists into the NCP, for which he was rewarded with the position of general secretary in the erstwhile party. With elections approaching, this year could see a repeat of 2017, when the electoral alliance between the UML and the Maoists paid off handsomely and resulted in their unification.
That we are able to comment so substantively on China’s relations with Nepali parties and politicians is in itself a recent development. Just a decade or so ago, the Chinese were content to remain largely in the shadows, dealing with a handful of chosen politicians like Agni Sapkota and Krishna Bahadur Mahara, both from the Maoists. But in the last decade-or-so, China has become increasingly more vocal and visible. Its diplomats, once quiet mandarins, are now fierce wolf warriors, defending their country from all slights, real or perceived. In Nepal, Ambassador Hou Yanqi has been very active — socially and politically — than any of her predecessors. She did not mince words when taking The Kathmandu Post’s former editor Anup Kaphle to task for republishing an opinion article critical of China, calling him a “parrot of some anti-China forces”.
But this newfound assertiveness has not won China many friends. Many are starting to see in China the same attitudes that India has displayed over the decades — dismissive, scornful, belittling, and meddling. All the goodwill that many Nepalis have towards China — and they really do — could come crumbling down the moment China is seen to be no different than India when it comes to interfering in Nepal’s internal affairs by propping up one government while toppling another.
Of course, as a superpower, China will press its interests. Nepal is the one that will have to decide how to deal with its increasingly assertive northern neighbor. Nepal cannot afford to replace Lainchour with Baluwatar. But Nepal also cannot continue to abide by the Chinese on every issue. At the UN, Nepal stood with China in 2020 over a proposed national security law in Hong Kong that led to widespread protests. Again, in 2021, when Western countries denounced China’s treatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang, Nepal once again backed China. At home, Nepal has cracked down on Tibetan refugees, refusing to issue them identity cards and placing them under constant surveillance.
All of these are prices Nepal has paid for China’s magnanimity, or so we’re told. Because China is a generous, friendly neighbor, it is in our interest to keep it happy. But if this is the bargain that has been struck, China too must live up to its end. Why have the Tatopani-Khasa and Rasuwagadhi-Kerung border points been closed for nearly two years now? Why have Nepali students and Nepali business persons not been allowed to go back to China two years since the pandemic began? Why was the Sher Bahadur Deuba government so quick to dismiss reports of Chinese encroachment in Humla when the survey team dispatched had not even returned from its reconnaissance?
These are pressing issues that Nepal must bring up with China and reportedly, they are on the agenda during Wang’s visit. But discussion alone is not enough. Nepal must be able to extract concessions. If realpolitik is the name of the game then Nepali politicians and bureaucrats must be willing to push to get as much as we give. How much is Nepal willing to compromise on? Nepal is a country with a robust press, an open society, and guaranteed democratic freedoms. Are these up for negotiation? Can we expect more statements like those against Anup Kaphle? Will Nepali journalists be penalized for writing about the Dalai Lama? And the Tibetans, will they be treated as sacrificial lambs?
These are all questions that Nepal will have to confront at some point or the other. The realpolitik school will say that concessions have to be made and the interests of great powers must be addressed while a more idealistic school will say that Nepal cannot afford to compromise on basic freedoms like freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion. I’m not sure which side I fall on. Geopolitics isn’t always a game of either/or. And I’m quite certain many others feel the same way. There’s a middle ground to be found here, I’m sure.
All of this — and more — was discussed yesterday at an event I attended. Organized by the Center for Social Inclusion and Federalism, the program broadly discussed Nepal-China relations, the BRI, and trade and transit. Much of it was a rehashing of everything that has already been said so I will not recount it. What I found surprising was the fact that there was not a single person on the three panels who was fluent in Mandarin. Among the eminent ambassadors, scholars, and journalists, no one read Chinese, no one spoke Chinese and I doubt any one of them is even on Weixan/QQ. In any other country, this would’ve been appalling. How can anyone be an expert in a foreign country if they don’t even read that country’s language? Would we excuse Western scholars if they write extensively on Nepal but don’t speak a Nepali language? I doubt that. But in Nepal, it is just the way things go.
The tragedy is that we don’t know enough about China. So many of our ‘experts’ have not even visited China and tend to view the country exclusively through a Western lens or through what interlocutors in Kathmandu whisper in the shiny halls of fancy hotels. I sincerely believe that we need more people like Aneka Rajbhandari, a young student who is fluent in Mandarin and tends to trawl the Chinese blogosphere for what is being discussed. How will we ever deal with our neighbors if we don’t understand what they are passionate about, what they enjoy, what they talk about, how they see us? China is a country of a billion people and China is much, much more than just its government. Newspapers, especially those with deep pockets, would do Nepalis a great public service if they could just tell us all this.
I know, all of this will seem weak, misguided, and unimportant when confronted with geopolitics and billions in cash. But soft power has its own merits. (On a selfish note, and if anyone at the Chinese embassy happens to come across this newsletter, what I would give to witness a retrospective of the films of Zhang Yimou on the big screen.)
As I write this, Wang Yi has landed in Kathmandu. I am certain he comes bearing gifts and that will likely be enough to tide Nepal’s political class over until the next elections. There will be promises made and agreements signed. Wang will likely pledge more aid to Nepal and Nepal will once again restate its adherence to the One China Policy. This has all become a little tired. Nepal and China must both find a way to move beyond.
On The Record this past week:
Sajeet M Rajbhandari reads six children’s books over six days to his little sisters and reports on her thoughts
Prasansha Rimal on addressing gender-based violence in cyberspace
Tim I Gurung on why the success of his book about the Gurkhas matters
Happenings this week:
Sunday - Police constable Urmila Shrestha was killed during a clash with locals in Morang’s Letang. A scuffle broke out after locals attempted to attack a teacher accused of sexually harassing a 12-year-old school student.
Monday - The Kathmandu District Court sentenced Prithvi Malla to just six months in jail and a Rs 1,000 fine in the drunk driving death of a woman. An intoxicated Malla had run over and killed Lila Devkota in December 2019. Many have accused the judges of being exceedingly lenient on Malla, who comes from an influential Kathmandu family.
Tuesday - The Supreme Court issued an interim order against the Election Commission’s new rule requiring local representatives to resign before they are allowed to register their candidacy to contest elections again. The rule had been challenged on the grounds that it was unfair to local representatives as provincial and federal representatives did not have to resign prior to filing their candidacy.
Wednesday - Dozens of factories in Birgunj, Duhabi, and Bhairahawa lost power after the Nepal Electricity Authority cut supply due to a failure to import enough electricity from India. During the current dry season, Nepal imports electricity from India due to low flow in the rivers that feed its hydropower plants. But on Tuesday, it was outbid for the supply given skyrocketing electricity prices in India. Nepal had bid IRs 7 per unit which fell well short of the clearing market price of about IRs 11 per unit.
Thursday - The Tanahun District Court remanded Purna Bikram ‘Paul’ Shah to judicial custody after the district attorney filed a rape case against the actor seeking a 12-14 year prison sentence. Shah is accused of having sexual relations with a minor who was 16-years-old when he was in his 30s. Any sexual activity with a minor is considered rape according to Nepali law.
Friday - Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in Kathmandu with a 25-member team for a three-day visit. Wang will reportedly be going on a hike to Shivapuri at 6.30am on Saturday and then meeting with his counterpart Narayan Khadka.
Article of the week:
‘Disenfranchised — Millions of Nepalis have no voting rights’ — Marissa Taylor reports on how millions of Nepalis who are working in foreign lands are unable to exercise their franchise as Nepal has no provisions for absentee voting.
That’s all for this week. Off the Record will be back in your inboxes next Friday. I shall see you then, in your emails, for the next edition of Off the Record.
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