China reacts to Nepal regime change

Chinese Ambassador Hou promptly called on Deuba after he took office, and announced a further 1.6 million doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccines as grant.

The dissolution of the Nepal Communist Party, the slow breakup of the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) and the exit of K P Oli all happened in a year the Chinese Communist Party was celebrating its centennial, sparking concern in China’s social media about instability in Nepal.

China has made no secret about the fact that it wants Nepal’s disparate Communist parties to be united, and actually helped engineer the electoral alliance and later merger of the Maoist Centre and the UML in 2017-18. 

Despite being elected with a strong parliamentary majority, when the power struggle between Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal threatened to split the party, the Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi tried desperately to patch up their differences.

And when she could not succeed, Beijing sent Guo Yezhou, vice minister in the international department of the Chinese Communist Party, and Defence Minister Wei Fenghe to Kathmandu last year. That did not work either. 

Now that the NCP is no more, the UML itself is out of power and on the verge of a vertical split, China’s official media and netizens have concluded rather sweepingly that Nepal now has a ‘pro-Indian’ government.

The Global Times ran an op-ed on 19 July calling Nepal’s new prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba a ‘pro-Indian leader’

The Global Times that often takes the party line, ran an op-ed by Zhang Jiadong on 19 July calling Nepal’s new prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba a ‘pro-Indian leader’ and urging on him not to change the basic idea of ‘multilateral balanced diplomacy between China, India and other countries’. 

Since the Chinese public overwhelmingly relies on state media for information on world affairs, the lively public debates on Chinese social media tend to mirror elite discourses, and often match the official narrative.

Oli used the nationalist card to get himself elected following the 2015 Indian Blockade, and challenged New Delhi on the Limpiyadhura border dispute last year. But, faced with a mutiny in his own party, he seemingly made a U-turn to cosy up to India’s ruling Hindu-right BJP.

This conclusion was echoed in an op-ed on a recent article on 尼泊尔快讯 (Niboer Kuaixun), a Chinese portal reporting on Nepal on We Chat, which said Beijing had found Oli to be an unreliable partner and grown increasingly skeptical of him.

China values the unity of the Communist Party of Nepal more than Oli's personal interest,’ the piece said. 

The Chinese Communist Party had invested a great deal in cultivating ties with Nepal’s Communist parties, and their disunity and political downfall appears to have dismayed many Chinese

A netizen on WeChat pointed out that none of Nepal’s prime ministers since democracy had ever completed a full term, and called this a ‘national tragedy’. Another post on Weibo called out the Nepal government for being inconsiderate about the sufferings of ordinary people who are impacted by political unrest during the pandemic.

An op-ed on Niboer Kuaixun that concluded that Beijing had found Oli to be an unreliable partner.

Indeed, it is worth noting that Chinese netizens seem to echo the official line and are more disappointed with the political instability in Nepal than the people in power. 

The Chinese official media seems to have already made up its mind that Prime Minister Deuba is ‘India’s man’. Another post had a similar sentiment to the Global Times op-ed, saying: ‘We welcome a pro-China Nepal, and we are not against a pro-India Nepal. If it can benefit from both, who can blame Nepal? Just don’t be anti-China.’

Both state media and netizen perception of Deuba and Nepali Congress as being anti-Chinese appears to stem from the fact that his government in 2017 scrapped a $2.5 billion Budi Gandaki dam contract that had been awarded to China’s Gezhouba Group by an earlier Maoist-dominated government.

Zhang Shubin, a Chinese scholar had at the time critiqued the decision saying that such action not only ‘shows an unfriendly attitude towards China, but also demonstrates a tendency to form more intimate relationships with India’. 

Because the Chinese seek mutual respect in economic cooperation, actions such as cancelling a signed contract is taken as breach of trust and impacts on state or party relations with the country in question. This point of view is then subsequently reflected in reaction on Chinese social media. 

The recent post on WeChat 尼泊尔快讯 in fact quotes the warm welcome in India’s public sphere to Deuba as proof that he is Delhi-leaning. It provides screen grabs from India’s News18 channel describing Deuba as being ‘in India’s good books’. Indian politician Subramanian Swamy’s tweet labelling Deuba’s win as ‘good news’ is also cited (pictured below).  

The geopolitical reality is that Deuba cannot afford to be pro- or anti- anyone, and will have to balance Nepal’s relations with its two giant neighbours. Ambassador Hou promptly called on Deuba after he took office, and announced a further 1.6 million doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccines as grant.

A Chinese proverb goes 邻居关系相处好,居家生活无烦恼 (If you get along with your neighbours, your home won’t have issues), so Deuba has an opportunity to correct some of the misconceptions in China about his leanings. The perception has also underlined the need for Nepal’s foreign policy mandarins to have a unified voice when dealing with immediate neighbours that is de-linked from regime change in Kathmandu.

Nepal has changed eight prime ministers in the eight years since Xi Jinping became China’s premier. Each new government in Kathmandu showed a different approach with the same leadership in China, reflecting a lack of continuity in Nepal’s dealings not just with China but with the outside world.

Chinese social media users have been especially vocal in expressing concerns about the crises in Nepal in recent times, commenting about everything from urging Chinese tourists trapped by the pandemic to not protest in Kathmandu to expressing support for helping Nepal during the Covid-19 crisis.

Furthermore, as Chinese netizens comment more critically about developments in other countries, Nepal’s political uncertainty will not only hamper public diplomacy but also the considerable soft power it commands in China

Aneka Rebecca Rajbhandari is a graduate in political science from Peking University. Raunab Khatri is a graduate student in Chinese studies at Yenching Academy of Peking University.