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Chinese Dream : How the Dragon is sneaking into its neighbourhood and beyond
  • chinese president Xi Jinping
    chinese president Xi Jinping
President Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream’ of achieving great power status and the country returning to its days of glory, has been unfolding in various forms in different parts of the globe. Closer home in Europe, this is visible in the increase in the number of Chinese companies looking for M&A opportunities, and of course, the exponential rise in the arrival of Chinese tourists.   However, if one really wants to observe China’s great game unfolding, one should look more closely in its neighbourhood and in Africa. 

There are a numerous reports in the media of how over the last five years, China has thrown to the wind its policy of ‘non interventionism’ in the internal affairs of other countries, and covertly and sometimes overtly engaged in influencing decision making, to further its own agenda. This has been more visible in those nations  with weak political and economic structures. Meanwhile, Xi’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) has emerged as one of the primary vehicles through which the ‘China Dream’ objective is to be achieved.

In the recent past China has aggressively taken on the task of raising a support base in political parties, industry, media and academics in countries where it has economic or strategic interests. And how has all this been done? Largely, by 'buying' over the support of key functionaries in these sectors. While in smaller countries this task is often undertaken by the Chinese embassy , in developed economies, China uses its agents of influence, who are often of Chinese origin, to reach out to their targets.

Beijing has used Africa as its laboratory to hone its skills in 'buying' its influence into a country. So whether it is Zimbabwe or Senegal or Namibia, it has taken advantage of the corrupt leadership in these countries to grab contracts, extract natural resources or strike any other deal of convenience. Reports of Chinese corruption in Africa make for a long list. For instance, over the past decade, two of China’s biggest telecom companies, Huawei and ZTE, have been implicated in corruption cases in more than 14 African countries. Senegalese President Macky Sall is reported to have prioritised his government’s cooperation with China as compared to the European Union (EU) or the US. All this for a reason, claim insiders. So while Chinese construction company Henan Construction has been in the forefront of bagging major infrastructure contracts in Senegal, the President’s family has expanded their business interests in China.

In its neighbourhood, apart from countries like Cambodia or Pakistan, another country that is gradually on its way to becoming China's backyard, both literally and strategically, is Nepal. The current Nepal Communist Party government, with KP Oli as Prime Minister, has been viewed to be pro-China. Hence, it has come as no surprise that in recent times a number of infrastructure projects have been awarded to Chinese companies, many of which, one learns, have been awarded even without following the due tendering procedures.  Separately, the Chinese embassy in Nepal is reported to have identified political leaders, government advisers and academics  to influence the decision making process in Nepal at all levels.  According to people in the know, one such person is Rajan Bhattarai, a senior member of the Communist Party of Nepal and recently appointed as Advisor to the PM on Foreign Policy, a post he has held earlier from May 2009 to Feb 2011. Bhattarai is also a member of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) on Nepal-India relations, a body that has been set up to recommend on the next course of Nepal-India relations. 

According to a contact in the Nepal Institute for Policy Studies (NIPS), the Chinese have been funnelling money to Rajan Bhattarai on the pretext of conducting research studies on various topics. In one such case, in early 2018, the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu is said to have commissioned a study on Nepal-India boundary issues, for which Bhattarai was reportedly paid Nepalese Rupees 25,00,000 (approx Euro 20,000). Interestingly, the report, that was forwarded by Bhattarai to the Chinese embassy appeared to have been lifted from the final report submitted by the EPG on Nepal-India relations. This contact, who has read Bhattarai's report for the Chinese embassy, states that when portions of the EPG report was leaked in the Nepalese media, he immediately recognised the similarity between the two reports. In his current role as Advisor to the PM, Bhattarai appears to be a prize catch and one of China’s key sources in Nepal.

The stakes for China are much higher in developed countries, as can be seen in Australia, where trade with China accounts for nearly a quarter of its total trade. With China’s upwardly mobile population taking to western food, a large chunk of Australia’s agro products head north to stores in China’s numerous cities. The wealthy Chinese have also been buying property in Australia, while Chinese investment in the country has grown.   But all this has come at a price. There are a plethora of reports on Australian intelligence agencies having evidence of China using its agents of influence to ‘donate’ millions to Australian political parties, with the objective to expand the Chinese Communist Party’s influence in the country. 

In 2015, the Australian intelligence unearthed the case of Roger Uren, who had retired in August 2001 as Assistant Secretary of the Office of National Assessment (ONA), an agency that advises the Australian PM on classified matters. Investigations over the next few years have revealed that Uren and his wife Sheri Yan, a US citizen of Chinese origin, had established a complex network of contacts in Australia, who were being used to part with important information or influence decision making. All this came at varied costs, with bribes ranging from Rolex watches, exotic holidays to hefty ‘donations’.  

Similar cases can be found in many other countries and such instances are increasing. If the Dragon's expansionist agenda is not constrained  timely, it is likely that the Chinese Dream may challenge the very foundation of the current international world order. 
Francesca Marino