Indian border security force soldiers keep vigil near a military bunker along the Srinagar-Leh National highway on June 17, 2020. Photo: AFP

China is facing lower economic growth and rising unemployment, exceeding 70 million during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many citizens are unhappy with the handling of the pandemic by the ruling Communist Party of China.

Some have even started speaking against the ruling party both in Hong Kong and on the mainland. Because of rising dissent, China has passed a new law for Hong Kong that targets voices of dissent against the Communist regime.

The imposition of this law in Hong Kong could severely damage ties between Beijing and Washington, which were already strained after China initially hid what it knew about the pandemic from the rest of the world. 

The internal situation of rising dissent in China against the CPC creates a need to divert the attention of Chinese citizens from internal issues to external issues. The border issue with India along the Line of Actual Control could be such a diversion strategy.

Border issues play a role in making the population focus on diplomatic issues the country has with its neighbors, instead of internal issues, and also create an “us versus them” mentality among the citizenry. The increasing nationalistic sentiment among the Chinese population created by border tensions could benefit the CPC and reduce criticism against the government. 

The internal situation in China is similar to that during the Great Chinese Famine between 1958 and 1962. A well-known journalist and Communist Party member, Yang Jisheng, in 2008 wrote in Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962 that almost 36 million people died in The Great Famine and the birth rate declined steeply.

The government, which had imposed rapid changes on agricultural production, was blamed for the famine, which occurred in the absence of the natural calamity of war. The government’s poor decision-making was blamed for the famine and internal dissent against the CPC increased. Yang Jisheng argues that the Sino-Indian war of 1962 was a result of China trying to divert attention from internal affairs and deal with dissent during the period. 

The internal situation in China during 1962 after the Great Famine is similar to the current situation during the Covid-19 crisis. The CPC has come under recent criticism for its handling of the pandemic and lack of transparency. High unemployment and negative growth in gross domestic product are also points of concern for the Chinese population. 

In 2019, India unilaterally changed the status of Jammu and Kashmir, revoking Article 370 from the Indian constitution. New Delhi also claimed that the Aksai Chin territory held by China was a part of India. It is possible that China is trying to win over nationalistic sentiment by using force at the border as retaliation against that claim. The People’s Liberation Army taking action for the benefit of China will also create nationalistic feelings among the population that will reduce criticism. 

The current border tensions are not very different from those that led to the 1962 war, which also occurred during times of public criticism against the Chinese government. The possibility that the current border tensions with India were strategically planned to reduce tensions between the Chinese population and the CPC cannot be ignored. 

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Vidhi Bubna

Vidhi Bubna is a freelance writer based in Mumbai who covers politics, defense, economy and international relations.