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  • Hamsini Hariharan

Ushering in a “Niu” Year: India-China start descalation in Pangong Tso

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on February 15, 2021 and can be accessed here.

After a turbulent Year of the Rat, the lunar new year has ushered in the Year of the Ox. The festival, the most important annual Chinese celebration, has seen muted celebrations in China this year because of the pandemic.

A new surge of cases, along with more stringent requirements for testing and quarantine, has left many people staying in their cities of residence rather than going home. This has meant that the annual rush for Spring festival celebrations has been less chaotic than usual in China. Indeed, this year, Chinese railways saw a 70 percent dip in rail travel in the days leading up to New Year.

However, the spirit of the biggest festival is an intrinsic part of Chinese society and cannot be curbed. This year’s chunwan or Spring Festival Gala broadcast by CCTV featured not only recurring blackface criticisms but also performances by dancing ox robots, artificial intelligence, and 3D technology. This year, the five-hour-long program also featured performances about celebrating frontline workers, a skit about the lockdown in Wuhan, China’s poverty alleviation, and others. What was particularly interesting is that internet companies like Kuaishou, Alibaba, and Tencent gave out billions of yuan not only through the program but also during the festival to encourage user spending.

Ahead of Spring Festival, Chairman Xi Jinping called for Chinese people to embody the spirit of the Ox—being “selfless, tough and fearless,” as China starts on its 14th Five Year Plan. According to a report by the US Congressional Report Service, “Initial details suggest that Chinese leaders plan to expand the state’s role in the economy and advance national economic security interests; use market restrictions and its One Belt, One Road global networks to foster Chinese-controlled supply chains; and sharpen the use of antitrust, intellectual property (IP), and standards tools to advance industrial policies.” As China faces trade tensions, foreign pressures and restrictions, and an economic slowdown predating the pandemic, the government is keen to focus on economic growth.

Two other incidences around Spring Festival have dominated headlines. The first is the call between US President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping. This was the first call between the two leaders since Biden took office and took place on the Spring Festival morning. The two spoke for around two hours, with the American President mentioning that he had brought up issues of Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan during the call. The Chinese readout, of course, took a completely different line. The new American President’s policy towards China over the next year could determine how relations between the two countries pan out and even dominate world affairs.

The other significant incidence around Spring Festival—one that is extremely relevant for India—is the de-escalation around Pangong Tso. Even as Xi Jinping called for the Chinese military to enhance its combat readiness during the upcoming Spring Festival holidays, both countries began a phased disengagement. Nine months after the deadliest clashes at the border in nearly forty years, the two countries went through nine rounds of talks before disengagement. In fact, by Spring Festival, the People’s Liberation Army had withdrawn 200 main battle tanks from the area. However, disengagement is just the first step—until a better solution is reached, clashes at the border will resume their conflict cycle.

For now, the Year of the Ox (which is also known as 牛or Niu in mandarin) has started on a good start. Traditionally, the Year of the Rat is filled with turbulence, but the Ox, which is supposed to be more hardworking and serene, is giving people hope for a much less chaotic year. How this will play out in the Chinese economy and its relations with India is something we will continue to watch out for.


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