The dragon & the virus | Book Review — Smokeless War: China’s Quest for Geopolitical Dominance by Manoj Kewalramani

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August 15, 2021 2:00 AM

A well-researched book tries to answer the question on every mind: how did China gain because of the pandemic

A file photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Lhasa in western China's Tibet Autonomous Region (AP/PTI)A file photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Lhasa in western China's Tibet Autonomous Region (AP/PTI)

Any book that devotes a third of its pages towards ‘Notes’ is clearly one that has been extensively researched. Manoj Kewalramani has displayed more than due diligence in listing 868 endnotes/citations spread over 109 pages in his first book, which focuses on China’s handling of the 2020 Covid pandemic. The title Smokeless War draws from “a speech delivered by the Chinese foreign minister, during which he described China’s approach to epidemic containment as a smokeless war”.

In the preface, the genesis of this book is ascribed to a question posed on the cover of news magazine The Economist in its April 18, 2020, issue, where it asked: ‘Is China Winning?’ The context to this query was that China appeared to have successfully managed the Covid pandemic in Wuhan and as Kewalramani perceptively notes “what had once seemed to be an existential threat to the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) authority was rapidly turning into a propaganda coup.”

This was the trigger pulse for the author to delve deeper into the complex and multilayered issue of whether China had indeed ‘won’ the ‘smokeless war’ and thereby, was Beijing laying claim to geopolitical dominance, even as the rest of the world was differently floundering in the face of the pandemic?

The scope of the book is ambitious and the questions sought to be explored are: What did the pandemic tell the world about the durability of the CCP? Is the world moving towards a superpower jostle between the USA and China? Does Chinese President Xi Jinping “desire to supplant US global primacy?” If so, what is the model that Beijing is drawing upon, and more importantly, does it have “global purchase?” And a critical question in this long list is—“what about economic globalisation?” Is the Covid pandemic with all its variants likely to signal the end of global economic integration as the post-Cold War world knows it, and will geopolitical compulsions successfully transition to a ‘less of China’ template in the global supply chain?

To pull all these weighty questions into one frame, Kewalramani poses a near metaphysical final query: “More fundamentally, what does winning entail? And victory for whom?” More recent events related to China— its adroit pandemic grapple and the Beijing-Washington bristle—form the core of the book. It captures the transmutation from current news unspooling into freshly baked ‘history’ of a Covid-scarred year with little light or solace at the end of the tunnel.

In eight compact chapters, the author covers considerable ground and touches upon various themes to answer the questions he had identified, often in a non-linear manner. The more persuasive is the illumination of discourse power (huayuquan)— or the theory and tools to shape the narrative— and the manner in which Xi Jinping prioritised this aspect since he became the general secretary of the CCP in late 2012.

In the chapter titled Imposing Amnesia, the author skilfully reconstructs the Covid chronology of Wuhan in particular and China in general from early 2020, and how nascent criticism of local authorities was ruthlessly snuffed out. The Wuhan Diary of well-known author and poet Fang Fang (real name Wang Fang) was maliciously disparaged and online dissenters were tracked and interrogated by China’s Cybersecurity Defense Bureau. A sanitised narrative that insulated the central leadership in Beijing and concurrently valourised the resolute leadership of Xi Jinping was imposed, while the facts about the Covid pandemic and the suffering of those afflicted were led into ‘selective amnesia’ where it was bottled or throttled.

On September 8, 2020, a grand event was held by the Chinese leadership to “commemorate the country’s fight against COVID-19” and an editorial in People’s Daily exhorted the country to “rally behind the CCP with Xi Jinping at its core.” The hagiography about President Xi waxed eloquent, and his leadership and the manner in which he could “form a powerful force to defeat the virus” and “write a magnificent spiritual epic”.

It is instructive to note that in September 2020, Beijing confirmed a total of 4,634 Covid deaths. And in end-July 2021, this figure, as per a global listing, is 4,636—just two additional Covid deaths in nine months! This is either a case of extraordinary public health professionalism or impeccable narrative and number control.

However, this domestic triumph was accompanied by deeply embedded insecurity in the Xi Jinping core team and late 2020 saw a dual anxiety simmering—one about the image of China among its external interlocutors who resented the ‘wolf warriors’; and the second, a perennial fear that every emperor/leader of China has differently experienced: court intrigue and factional jostling leading to an overthrow of the ruler. Kewalramani alludes to a “potentially ruthless political purge” in the run-up to the 20th Party Congress in 2022.

The author concludes by acknowledging the received wisdom about the more likely geopolitical exigency in the near future—“continued contestation between Washington and Beijing, even if it is not of the Cold War variety.”

Kewalramani is to be commended for this earnest and rigorously researched book that is dense by way of the amount it packs, yet lucid and readable. Some minor editorial wrinkles could have been ironed out, but the one major omission that is glaring is the lack of an index. For a volume with 109 pages of notes, no index or bibliography is inexplicable, though Bloomsbury may have its own reasons for this void.

C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi

Smokeless War: China’s Quest for Geopolitical Dominance
Manoj Kewalramani
Pp 319, Rs 699

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