World

Jacinda Ardern pledges to continue to denounce Chinese human rights abuses. German philosopher declines UAE book award. Why China’s population is shrinking. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Modi punished at polls after Covid-19 resurgence

Catholic nuns from the order founded by Saint Mother Teresa wait in line to cast their votes in Kolkata.
Credit: Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

Great power rivalry

India: As India’s Covid-19 outbreak began to surge to catastrophic levels last month, Narendra Modi appeared to be firmly focused on a different struggle – the battle to win five state elections and add to his stunning political record.

The Indian prime minister was particularly committed to clinching victory for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in West Bengal, which has 91 million residents and is one of the most populous states held by the opposition. Modi attended more than 20 campaign events in the state, including mass rallies that have since been blamed for spreading infections.

Yet the results, released on Sunday, showed the BJP had suffered a humiliating loss, winning 77 of 294 seats in the state assembly.  The opposition, led by Mamata Banerjee, India’s only female chief minister, won 213 seats. The BJP drastically increased its vote from the last election but had campaigned heavily and appeared to believe it could win.

Elsewhere, the BJP held on to power in the state of Assam, but opposition parties, as expected, won the three other elections.

The results have been viewed as a setback for Modi, particularly as much of the voting occurred before the devastating surge in Covid-19 cases. India’s health system is struggling to cope, as hospitals have run out of beds and oxygen. As of Thursday, India had recorded 21 million cases and 230,168 deaths, though the actual figures are believed to be much higher.

On Tuesday, Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi called for a national lockdown. “PM’s ego is bigger than people’s lives,” he said in a tweet.

Modi has resisted imposing a lockdown, due to the economic costs.

Until recently, Modi, a strident Hindu nationalist, has gloated about India’s success in combating Covid-19. But his government now faces images of people dying on the streets and has been forced to rely on international supplies of oxygen, ventilators, medicines and vaccines.

Sushant Singh, of India’s Centre for Policy Research, wrote on the Foreign Policy website this week that the pandemic had left Modi’s “hyper-nationalistic” agenda in tatters. “The edifice of nationalist pride, prestige, and global respect built by Modi on his so-called foreign-policy prowess has been demolished by the pandemic,” he wrote.

As of April 27, opinion polls showed support for Modi had dropped, but he still had a 67 per cent approval rating. Since then, more than 3000 people have been dying a day.

The neighbourhood

New Zealand: Jacinda Ardern acknowledged this week that New Zealand’s differences with China are becoming “harder to reconcile” and insisted that she will continue to denounce Chinese abuses of human rights.

Ardern’s comments follow claims by domestic and international critics that her government has been weak on China after it failed to join several Western-led moves to criticise Beijing over its conduct in relation to Hong Kong and the Covid-19 pandemic. Ardern faced further criticism in recent weeks after her foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, said New Zealand was uncomfortable with expanding the remit of the Five Eyes alliance, an intelligence-sharing partnership with the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia.

But Ardern made clear in a speech at a conference in Auckland on Monday that she will condemn Chinese rights abuses, such as those occurring in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

“As China’s role in the world grows and changes, the differences between our systems … are becoming harder to reconcile,” she said.

“This is a challenge that we, and many other countries … are also grappling with.”

New Zealand’s economy, like Australia’s, relies heavily on exports to China. Unlike Australia, however, New Zealand has joined China’s infrastructure-building Belt and Road Initiative and has also avoided a serious fallout in ties.

In a separate speech at the conference, China’s ambassador to New Zealand, Wu Xi, claimed allegations of forced labour in Xinjiang were “total lies”. She warned New Zealand it should “not interfere in China’s internal affairs so as to maintain the sound development of our bilateral relations”.

Democracy in retreat

United Arab Emirates: Jürgen Habermas is one of the world’s most prominent philosophers and is an ardent advocate of a “public sphere” in which people can engage in free, critical debate. For decades, the German political and social theorist, now 91 years old, has denounced populism and xenophobia and promoted the ideal of a strong, open democracy.

Late last week, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince announced Habermas had been awarded the Sheikh Zayed Book Award’s main prize, which includes an award of $A265,000. Habermas initially said he would accept. The prize, run by Abu Dhabi’s department of culture and tourism, is seen by human rights campaigners as part of a well-funded effort by the United Arab Emirates to present itself as progressive and tolerant.

But Habermas revealed on Sunday he had decided to decline the prize, saying he had not been aware of the close links between the award and the UAE’s political system.

“I declared my willingness to accept,” he told Der Spiegel Online. “That was a wrong decision, which I correct hereby.”

The UAE is an absolute monarchy that bans political parties and, according to Human Rights Watch, detains activists “simply for exercising their rights to free expression and association”.

On Tuesday, the prize’s organisers said they regretted Habermas’ decision but respected it. “The award embodies the values of tolerance, knowledge and creativity,” they said.

Bessma Momani, a political scientist at the University of Waterloo, said in a tweet: “Had the Emirates read Habermas, they wouldn’t have been surprised.”

Spotlight: China is shrinking

The population of China – the world’s most populous nation – is shrinking. Despite ending its one-child policy in 2016, the country’s population is believed to have dipped below 1.4 billion people.

According to a report in the Financial Times, China’s latest official census found the population has declined for the first time since the 1950s. That dip occurred when a famine killed tens of millions of people during the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s catastrophic campaign to reorganise the economy.

China’s National Bureau of Statistics rejected the report and claimed the population grew in 2020 but refused to release the results of the census, which was due to be released in early April.

Zhou Xin, who covers the Chinese economy for The South China Morning Post, said China’s population is clearly declining and it may need to encourage people to have children – a reversal of decades of family planning policies.

“The country is walking into a demographic crisis,” he wrote. “China’s overall population is peaking, if it has not already.”

Despite China’s one-child policy, which was adopted in the late 1970s, its population grew because life expectancy increased and the country previously had a young population. But China now faces a shrinking population, accompanied by growing healthcare and pension costs.

India’s estimated population of 1.38 billion residents may now exceed China’s – the first time in centuries that a country has more people than China. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 8, 2021 as "Modi punished at polls after Covid-19 resurgence".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.