China cannot dictate terms to a free media in Nepal. Can PM Oli resist?| Analysis
On February 19, which coincided with the Democracy Day of Nepal, Nepali media faced an unusual situation emanating from a strongly worded statement from the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu. It said that an article reproduced by The Kathmandu Post on February 18 from The Korea Herald written by former United States ambassador to Nato, Ivo Daalder, was published with “malicious intention”, and that it “deliberately smeared the efforts of the Chinese government and people” fighting the new coronavirus epidemic. The article critical of China’s response to the Covid-19 also carried a picture of China’s leader Mao Zedong on the country’s 1,000-yuan banknote wearing a mask. The embassy accused the newspaper for having “viciously attacked the political system of China.”
But the statement did not end there. By personally targeting the Post’s outgoing editor, Anup Kaphle, it said that there were “ulterior motives” behind the consistent attacks on China, and that “It is regrettable that Mr Anup Kaphle, chief editor of The Kathmandu Post has always been biased on China-related issues.” In most inappropriate and undiplomatic language, the statement further read, “This time he (Kaphle) went as far as disregarding the facts and becoming a parrot of some anti-China forces and, therefore, his ulterior purpose is destined to failure,” adding without specifics, “The Chinese Embassy in Nepal has made solemn representations to the newspaper and himself and reserves the right of further action.” The threat was immediately condemned by a group of 17 editors of Nepal’s newspapers and magazines who said the statement violated “diplomatic norms.”
This was unusual and surprising because so far China has always opted for diplomatic routes through the home and foreign ministries to express its unhappiness over certain events in Nepal. China is also considered to be a pragmatic player in Nepal, and the public opinion is one of a “friendly and supportive” neighbour. Chinese ambassador to Nepal, How Yanqi, who is quite popular in the country due to her fluency in the Nepali language and her affection for Nepali music and culture, immediately tweeted the statement that provoked a fierce debate on the social media with many calling it a challenge to Nepal’s sovereignty and an interference in the functioning of the free media. Some even asked what kind of backlash would be seen in Kathmandu if such a statement was issued by the Indian embassy given the past experiences and in light of India being perceived as an interfering neighbour. But there were strong opposing voices too that questioned the rationale of the article in the first place at a time when a close neighbour “is passing through a difficult time.”
But clearly this is a sign of high-handedness on the part of a diplomatic mission, emboldened by its high comfort level with the ruling establishment in Kathmandu. This also highlights how Chinese engagement with a small country is leading to its diplomacy becoming arrogant. There is no evidence of such a statement from the Chinese embassy in Seoul where the article was first published. But in the case of Nepal, this stems from the efforts of the communist leaders to bend over backwards for China in order to replace over-dependency on India.
Nepal has over the last few years developed deeper bilateral ties with China, a country which had for decades limited its role as a friendly country and being happy with Nepal taking the One China policy and restricting activities of some 20,000 Tibetan refugees present in the country. But slowly, and especially from 2015, the year Nepal was wrecked by the devastating earthquake followed by a border blockade due to anti-Constitution protests by the people of the Terai region, China-Nepal relations moved from a developmental partnership to a strategic one. From being a signatory to the Belt and Road Initiative, Nepal now has access to seven transit points and three land ports in China. Besides crucial infrastructure development in Nepal, the two neighbours have committed a cooperation in wide-ranging sectors from energy to culture, tourism, education, traditional medicine, and others, thereby making bilateral relations a comprehensive and an all-encompassing one. President Xi Jingping’s Nepal visit in October 2019 elevated bilateral ties to secure China the space in Nepal that India traditionally occupied.
These developments have taken shape keeping in view the present Nepali establishment’s desire to cultivate closer ties with China as a counterweight to India. The deep political linkage between the Communist Party leaders of Nepal and China has now come out in a more visible manner. It is to be seen if KP Oli, whose Nepal Communist Party fought the last general elections on a strong “nationalist” agenda (which translates to being anti-India in Nepal), would show the same boldness in dealing with China and reminding the latter that the constitution of Nepal upholds the freedom of speech, and that a foreign power cannot dictate terms to a free media in a democratic polity.
Akanshya Shah is a Nepali journalist and researcher based in New Delhi
The views expressed are personal
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