Nepal media feels China’s wrath in coronavirus fallout

Wednesday was Nepal’s Democracy Day, it was the 27th anniversary of Kantipur Media Group, and the day Anup Kaphle was stepping down as editor of The Kathmandu Post. What he probably did not expect was such a high profile send-off from the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu.

A strongly worded statement by the embassy named Kaphle, accused him of being ‘always biased' against China and issued unspecified threats against the paper for a column reprinted (pictured above) from The Korea Herald by former US ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder, that was critical of China’s response to the Covid-19 epidemic.

This was uncharacteristic of an embassy that usually keeps a low profile in Nepal, and has upheld an official policy not to interfere in Nepal’s internal affairs, to go so public with such a direct attack against a Nepal-based media. In the past, the embassy has preferred to work discreetly behind the scenes by channelling its complaints against editors through the Foreign Ministry or Home Ministry.

However, it looks like the reaction from the embassy was not restricted to Nepal, but part of a broader worldwide offensive against negative coverage of China over the coronavirus epidemic, and a backlash from Beijing against those it saw as ‘kicking China when it is down’. Beijing has been critical of especially the United States for using the epidemic for geo-strategic gain.

On Wednesday itself, China cancelled the press accreditation of three Wall Street Journal reporters for a story that in its headline called China ‘the real sick man of Asia’. The Foreign Ministry in Beijing said the story was racist and set back the country’s efforts to combat the epidemic. This is the first time that there have been multiple expulsions of Beijing based foreign correspondents since the time of Mao Zedong.

In Kathmandu, the embassy’s press statement brought a quick rebuke from a group of editors from a cross-section of the media which hit out at the embassy for naming the editor, and issuing threats against the media.

‘We condemn the statement by the embassy which also violates diplomatic norms,’ the statement (pictured above), signed by 17 of the editors of Nepal’s mainstream newspapers and magazines, said.

The Chinese embassy statement lashed out at The Kathmandu Post, and singled out its outgoing editor for special mention. It said the Ivo Daalder op-ed: ‘deliberately smeared the efforts of the Chinese government and people fighting against the new coronavirus pneumonia and even viciously attacked the political system of China ... This fully revealed its ignorance and prejudice on China, deeply hurt the feelings of the Chinese people ...’

The statement concluded with the following sentences: ‘It is regrettable that Mr Anup Kaphle, Chief Editor of The Kathmandu Post has always been biased on China-related issues. This time he 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. The Chinese Embassy in Nepal has made solemn representations to the newspaper and himself and reserves the right of further action.’

Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi immediately tweeted (pictured above) the statement, provoking a firestorm in social media from both those who supported and opposed the issue. Some pointedly reminded her that Nepal was a democracy, unlike China -- and that it had no right to tell Nepal’s media what to do on the country’s Democracy Day. Others criticised The Kathmandu Post for insulting a friendly neighbouring country, and most of those posts used the identical analogy: asking what would have happened if it was an illustration of Gandhi wielding a gun in Kashmir.

The objection seemed to be less about the content of the Daalder op-ed which many did not even seem to have read, and more about the Shutterstock image of Mao Zedong on China’s 100 yuan banknote wearing a mask. There are no reports of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul issuing any statement against The Korean Herald which first published the op-ed.

Many social media users posted pictures of the cover of a recent issue of The Economist (pictured below, left) which also depicted Mao wearing a mask, and asked what the fuss was all about. Others dug up an issue of Himal bimonthly magazine from 25 years ago which photo montaged a Nepali cap on Mao Zedong (pictured below, right) to illustrate a story about the spread of Maoism in South Asia.

In a strongly-worded editorialThe Kathmandu Post on Wednesday fired back: ‘... the Chinese embassy did not just express its discontent with the article published; it went so far as to disparage the Post’s Editor-in-Chief and employ threatening language. The undiplomatic—and frankly menacing—manner in which the Chinese embassy made its objections known is condemnable ... If Nepal is to keep its sovereignty, it needs to ensure that no foreign nation, no matter how powerful, gets to dictate what principles Nepalis uphold.’

China is sensitive to the epidemic bringing out racist stigmatisation of people of Chinese ethnicity all over the world, and feels that it is not getting due credit for its strict quarantine rules to prevent the virus from spreading.

Nepal has felt its geopolitical fallout. For a country that hardly ever sees anti-Chinese protests or criticism of China’s human rights record in the media, the embassy statement and the debate it has sparked will mark a watershed.

Kunda Dixit


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