Information Bulletin of the BRICS Trade Union Forum
Issue 32.2020
2020.08.03 — 2020.08.09
International relations
Foreign policy in the context of BRICS
India, Russia Discuss Issues of Interaction for SCO, RIC, BRICS Meet (Индия и Россия обсуждают вопросы взаимодействия для ШОС, РИК, БРИКС) / India, August, 2020
Keywords: top_level_meeting, global_governance

India and Russia discussed the issues that will be taken up between both countries at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), RIC (Russia-India-China) and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) platforms. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Igor Morgulov had a telephonic conversation with First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of India Harsh V Shringla.

According to a press statement, the parties discussed current topics of bilateral cooperation, the schedule of Russian-Indian meetings at various levels, as well as global and regional issues, including issues of interaction between Moscow and New Delhi at the SCO, RIC and BRICS platforms.

Both leaders agreed to continue to maintain working contacts.

Russia has proposed SCO Foreign Ministers meet in Moscow on September 10, the meet will also see the participation of Pakistan and China. According to diplomatic sources, "On the same day, Russia has also offered to host BRICS Foreign Minister's meet."

Informed sources here told ANI that this meet was scheduled during pre-COVID times and India can only confirm its participation after evaluating the current situation, as of now there is no official confirmation that India will take part in the scheduled meetings in Moscow.
BRICS nations stress on environment goals (Страны БРИКС делают упор на экологические цели) / UAE, August, 2020
Keywords: ecology, expert_opinion, sustainable_development
Author: Meena Janardhan

The five BRICS nations have called for improving the environment and promoting a circular economy in national plans as steps towards recovery in the fight against COVID-19. At a recent meeting of environment ministers of the BRICS nations that was organised through video conferencing, the nations pointed out that the impact of COVID-19 poses a serious challenge to achieving the aspirations of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Goals (SDGs).

The BRICS group is composed of five major emerging countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – which together represent about 42% of the population, 23% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 30% of the territory and 18% of the global trade.

The meeting was organised under the presidency of Russia. The meeting's primary concern was the danger that COVID-19 has posed for the world and the redevelopment of the economies. India will get the BRICS presidency in 2021.

In a joint statement, the BRICS countries said, "We express our concern that the impact of COVID-19 pandemic poses a serious challenge to achieving the aspirations of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs when the world is expected to be entering the decade of action. The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened social vulnerabilities, resulting in significant job losses, particularly in the informal sector which has been most affected and that providing adequate means of support to this sector is crucial."

The ministers panel also acknowledged that the need for initiatives to improve the environment, promote the economy, and make it sustainable. The focus would also be laid on sustainable modes of production and consumption of national economy amongst the BRICS nations as a mark of economic growth. The BRICS nations also emphasised the assistance of the developed nation for climate finance to a developed nation.

Stating that India could provide the platform wherein all best practices in environmental management in BRICS countries could be showcased, Indian Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said, "India believes that equity, common but differentiated responsibilities, finance and technology partnerships are key pillars towards attainment of global goals of climate change mitigation and adaptation."

A Ministry statement said that the minister also elaborated on the efforts made by India in areas related to sustainable urban management, tackling marine litter, air pollution and cleaning of rivers. He added that the aspiration of BRICS countries were similar and called for sharing of best practices among the BRICS nations towards attainment of sustainable development goals. The Minister also stressed the need to implement various initiatives under the BRICS and for speedy implementation of the BRICS MoU.

Highlighting the efforts made by India in controlling air pollution, Javadekar said in 2015 India launched the air quality index monitoring in 10 cities. Today it had been extended to 122 cities. He added that in 2019 India launched the national clean air programme (NCAP), the goal of which is to reduce particulate pollution by 20-30% relative to 2017 levels by 2024.

In a landmark meeting last year in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, the leaders of the five countries had expressed their commitment to sustainable development in its three dimensions – economic, social and environmental – in a balanced and integrated manner.

The 73-point Brasilia Declaration issued by the BRICS Summit stated "All our citizens, in all parts of our respective territories, including remote areas, deserve to fully enjoy the benefits of sustainable development. International cooperation in this field, as in all others, must respect national sovereignty and domestic legal and institutional frameworks and arrangements, as well as practices and procedures." The Declaration reiterated the importance of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and called for redoubled efforts for its timely implementation. It called on developed countries to fully implement their Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitments and to provide developing countries with additional development resources.

The BRICS leaders also reaffirmed their commitment to the implementation of the Paris Agreement adopted under the principles of the UNFCCC, including the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.

They urged developed countries to scale up the provision of financial, technological and capacity-building assistance to developing countries to support mitigation and adaptation action. They expected that the first replenishment of the Green Climate Fund (GCF) by the end of 2019 will significantly exceed the initial resource mobilisation, ensuring that financial contributions by donors match the ambition, needs and priorities of developing countries.
RIC, BRICS and SCO. The Pandemic and Its Consequences (РИК, БРИКС и ШОС. Пандемия и ее последствия) / Russia, August, 2020
Keywords: expert_opinion, political_issues, covid-19

By Nivedita Kapoor

RIC, BRICS and SCO will have the unenviable task of managing bilateral divergences, setting the future agenda and retaining relevance for its constituents – all in the midst of contestation about structure of a future world order, writes Nivedita Kapoor, Junior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation's Strategic Studies Programme. The article is published as part of the Valdai Club's Think Tank project, continuing the collaboration between Valdai and Observer Research Foundation (New Delhi).

It was in 2001, with the signing of the Declaration on the Establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), that the Eurasian intergovernmental organization established itself in the current form. India became an observer at SCO in 2005 and a full member in 2017. The year 2002 saw the first meeting of foreign ministers under the Russia-India-China (RIC) plurilateral, with annual meetings beginning from 2007. The idea of BRICS (originally BRIC) was floated by Jim O'Neill in 2001 but the first summit meeting took place only in 2009, with South Africa joining the group in 2010.

The timeline is of particular significance here, as these mechanisms emerged out of a specific set of domestic, regional and global conditions prevailing at the time, impacting the decision-making of Russia, India and China – all three of which are key players in the above-mentioned groupings. While the emerging powers were anticipating a future multipolar international system, they sought to maintain cordial relations with the US and other western powers. The US, while aware of the consequences on the world system of a rising power, had not announced its intention to contain China. The latter, on the other hand, was insisting on its peaceful rise through economic development of its people. This gave enough space to other powers to hedge their bets by following a diversified foreign policy instead of being forced into bloc mentality.

However, these trends have been under stress in recent years – characterized by increasing US-China rivalry, breakdown of Russia-West relations, backlash against globalization, rising inequalities and decline of multilateral cooperation. For at least the short term, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these growing fault lines and revealed the extent of decline of liberal internationalism, reflected in the ineffectual response of international institutions to mount a worldwide joint response. These trends – in which Russia, India and China remain deeply entangled – will impact RIC, BRICS and SCO in terms of their role, agenda-formation and future trajectory in unique ways.


The RIC plurilateral had already been under the scanner as the foreign policies of member-states underwent significant developments in the past few years. The annual foreign ministers' meetings, while producing joint communiqués, did not lead to lessening of bilateral tensions resulting from the RIC engagement or advance 'institution building' or produce 'concrete cooperation programs.' The fractured Sino-Indian bilateral equation was identified as the major reason for this even as Russia balanced its relations with both its strategic partners.

There has also been a shift in the balance of power relations within the group. As India has become closer to the US in the Indo-Pacific, raising the importance of other plurilaterals like Japan-America-India and the Quad, China has pursued an increasingly aggressive policy in its neighbourhood. The rise of China has led scholars to classify it as the 'greatest challenge' facing India, with relations steadily getting 'adversarial' both in bilateral and regional realm.

In this context, the RIC has found it increasingly difficult to build on its aim of 'consultation and coordination on regional and global issues of mutual interest,' given that India and China have diverged on the content of these principles. As foreign minister S Jaishankar noted in the most recent RIC meeting held online that the main challenge remained not just of 'concepts and norms' but of 'practice.' While the importance of sustained dialogue between even adversarial powers remains relevant and some areas of coordination exist, RIC has broadly been more about 'goodwill' and less about 'strategic cooperation.' Moreover, contrasting views on shape of the future world order also put a strain on the plurilateral, constraining its ability to lead to genuine trilateral coordination.


Unlike RIC, BRICS has over the years succeeded in institutionalizing its relationship among members through several initiatives (New Development Bank, Contingency Reserve Arrangement, regular ministerial meetings of various sectors, working groups). This has leant more stability to the organization that is currently grappling with setting up its future agenda and where it will face the greatest complication. The growing Sino-Indian rivalry is expected to limit the 'range of issues' where members will be able to find consensus.

Even before the pandemic hit, questions around future agenda of the organization and the 'core strategy' were swirling around. Russia's desire for 'expanding foreign policy coordination' as its 2020 chair looks increasingly elusive; driven once again by the limitations Sino-Indian equation poses. BRICS is yet to establish itself as an 'independent variable' in global affairs given the wide divergences in policies of member states. The internal, bilateral contradictions combined with fears of 'great-power rivalry and strategic decoupling' between US and China will complicate foreign policies of BRICS member states – posing a challenge to organizational agenda formation and raising risk of an 'internal split'.

Due to the causes discussed above, the post-pandemic BRICS will find it harder to expand beyond economic and financial cooperation – especially in the ambitious aims found in its Brasilia declaration of reform of the multilateral system and cooperation in regional situations. While the utility of its current mechanisms can hardly be denied and cooperation with flexibility is a plus point in this time of flux, the very factors that were its advantages in the past now pose a challenge to the future development of BRICS; threatening to limit its voice in building a multipolar world order.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization

The SCO, which admitted India and Pakistan as full members in 2017, has traditionally focused on security issues like terrorism, separatism and extremism. India's desire to join the Eurasian organization was seen as a 'geopolitical hedge' by some as well as reflective of its desire for increased coordination with Central Asia. But the presence of Pakistan has raised questions about bilateral Indo-Pak issues complicating the organizational agenda and hindering its ability to 'reach consensus' on different issues. Another challenge, just like in the case of RIC and BRICS, will be the Sino-Indian rivalry.

Even though issues of Afghanistan, connectivity and counterterrorism make SCO an attractive body, concerns had been raised about diminishing clout of SCO in achieving results on the ground much before India joined the group. Russia and China too have had differences in SCO, with the former wanting to focus on military issues while the latter desires coordination on economic issues. Given that China did not find SCO willing to accommodate its agenda, it has pushed ahead with bilateral ties in the region on the back of OBOR. The Russian effort to expand the organization by backing Indian entry was aimed to lead to 'multipolar cooperation' and 'dilute Chinese domination.' However, the developments in Sino-Indian equation has since soured the achievement of this goal and introduced additional complexity to internal institutional dynamics. While the argument for advantages accrued from SCO cooperation in areas of common concern remains, the difficulty it has faced in coming up with concrete action plans or organizational work have brought it at a crossroad.


As noted above, Russia, India and China have seen rapid developments in their respective foreign policies in recent years. Whether it is the breakdown of Russia's relations with the West or closer Indo-US relations or an increasingly aggressive China – it has been a period of constant change in an unstable international system. This has also prompted an enunciation of different projects to deal with the uncertainties and expand their respective influence – from Greater Eurasia to Indo-Pacific to One Belt, One Road. In addition, the Sino-US and US-Russia rifts have been described as 'systemic' and expected to continue for some time.

It is these heightened bilateral rivalries and their resultant impact on strategic postures of emerging powers that has brought into stark relief the inherent limitations of the above-mentioned organizations – further exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world order. While this does not preclude the importance of multilateralism, the prevailing conditions have raised questions about the priority ascribed to varied institutions by member-countries. As the systemic changes intensify, it is expected that 'nature and scope' of these relations will vary – affecting the functioning of multilateral institutions as well.

As a result, RIC, BRICS and SCO will have the unenviable task of managing bilateral divergences, setting the future agenda and retaining relevance for its constituents – all in the midst of contestation about structure of a future world order. As established multilateral institutions face questions of legitimacy – having been found wanting in dealing with the wide-ranging impact of COVID-19 – the alternative offered by the institutions under discussion too portends disappointment.

There is little doubt that the trio of Moscow, New Delhi and Beijing will play a role in shaping a future world order. However, the organizations in which they play central roles will face numerous challenges, as discussed above, in their efforts to achieve a similar goal. While the ongoing uncertainty is only a by-product of the churn underway in the global system, the future looks more complicated than ever for RIC, BRICS and SCO.

Valdai Discussion Club
BRICS Countries Strengthen Cooperation on Disaster Risk Management (Страны БРИКС укрепляют сотрудничество по управлению рисками бедствий) / Russia, August, 2020
Keywords: top_level_meeting, social_issues, cooperation

Russian Ministry for Civil Defence, Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters (EMERCOM of Russia) chaired a Meeting of BRICS Joint Task Force on Disaster Risk Management via videoconference.

Representatives of the five countries made reports on the use of modern information technologies as the main tool for preventing emergencies, as well as shared experience in organizing communications during the interaction of fire and rescue units.

"The rapid acceleration of global processes linked with climate change and technological progress is leading to an increase in the number and scale of catastrophies and disasters," said Mr Oleg Manuylo, Director of the Civil Defence and Population Protection Department, EMERCOM of Russia, in his opening remarks. "With such changes we are required to develop and upgrade high-tech systems for the prevention and elimination of emergencies."

Modern technologies used by the EMERCOM of Russia make it possible to simulate the development of the current situation and implement effective management decisions. Thus, the Ministry uses over 180 information systems for early forecasting of emergency situations. For example, in 2019, an automated Integrated State System for Prevention and Elimination of Emergencies was put into permanent regular operation, which contains over 780,000 passports of territories and facilities with notes on potential man-made and natural risks. In addition, the Ministry IT experts developed a new emergency management software - the "Atlas of Natural and Technogenic Hazards and Risks". The Russian Side also shared experience of using space monitoring system to simulate various situations and predict their consequences.

Nowadays the EMERCOM of Russia applies a comprehensive approach to solving issues of preventing emergencies within the framework of a single information space that combines the resources of federal and regional executive authorities as well as local governments.

The Russian Side noted that communications is the technical foundation of the management system. In this regard mobile communications centres are effective for establishing communications during emergencies and disaster management operations in the BRICS countries. High mobility makes it possible to equip them on the sites of search-and-rescue operations. For its part, the EMERCOM of Russia has expressed its readiness to share its experience of establishing communications during emergency response.

Following the meeting, the sides reaffirmed their intention to further enhance pentalateral cooperation aimed at strengthening capacities to combat disasters and reduce natural disaster risks.

COVID-19 fight more important than illusory geopolitical game in South Asia (В Южной Азии борьба с COVID-19 важнее иллюзорной геополитической игры) / China, August, 2020
Keywords: covid-19, political_issues

On July 27, the foreign ministers of China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nepal held a COVID-19 combat conference via video link. The webinar, proposed by China and positively responded by other three countries, was China's first with some South Asian neighbors focusing on COVID-19 fight.

During the video conference, the four countries consolidated a consensus of solidarity against COVID-19 with a decisive decision to battle the virus and gradually promote cross-border trade with "fast-track channels" for personnel and "green channels" for logistics. They also championed the World Health Organization for its leading role to battle the raging pandemic. China made a special commitment to extend aid in public health sectors of the other three countries, while promised to increase availability of the vaccines to them when the vaccines are readily available.

In addition to facilitating the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Trans-Himalayan Multi-dimensional Connectivity Network, China also supports the extension of the CPEC to Afghanistan in order to strengthen the deeper connections between the four countries and the Central Asian countries.

Despite the positive tone the conference means for the region, India media was having a sour grape. Some claimed China was duplicating India's South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation conference held on March 15. They said China is striving for more diplomatic space in South Asia while some said China is playing geopolitics by helping regional countries fight the coronavirus. However, India didn't sit back in the face of this deadly pandemic, either.

As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on July 17 during the United Nations Economic and Social Council video conference, "India has extended medical and other assistance to over 150 countries."

Given India's border tensions with both Nepal and China, New Delhi was actually concerning that it was absent in Beijing's direct talk to Islamabad, Kabul and Kathmandu.

Moreover, India has taken the conference with preset geopolitical prejudice. China said that cooperation among the four countries should uphold the concepts that "neighbors wish each other well" and "having good neighbors is good fortune." But India interprets this as an "insinuation" that India is not a "good neighbor" for South Asian countries.

India also regards South Asia and the Indian Ocean as its own "sphere of influence." It views others entering it as outsider interference. New Delhi also thinks that economic cooperation between China and South Asian countries is an "erosion" of India's power. This is a big step backward from the accords of the ninth BRICS summit held on September 5, 2017 in Xiamen, where Chinese President Xi Jinping met Modi. At that meeting, Xi expressed hope that India could view China's development in a correct and rational manner, and that both countries should insist on basic judgment to see each others' development as opportunities, but not threats.

What's more, India, considering itself as a "big brother," has always treated its South Asian neighbors with a hegemonic attitude. It has taken an expansionist and offensive stance on the territorial boundary disputes. It has also forcibly included all disputed border areas into its own national territory. By doing so it has unilaterally expanded its territory by marking the map. This has led to the deterioration of India's relations with almost all its neighboring countries.

As a populous country, India is becoming an epicenter of COVID-19. In this case, how can India realize interconnection with its neighboring countries? And how can it resume work as soon as possible?

French President Emmanuel Macron once said in his discussion with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison about responses to COVID-19 that "the urgency is for cohesion." These words are also applicable to India.

The author is a research fellow with the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University.
Investment and Finance
Investment and finance in BRICS
Economic Decline Reversal Vital for BRICS as Long Recession Could Undermine Growth - NDB (Смена спада в экономике имеет жизненно важное значение для БРИКС, поскольку длительная рецессия может подорвать рост - НБР) / China, August, 2020
Keywords: ndb, expert_opinion, economic_challenges

Economic growth in BRICS countries will be jeopardized if the recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic continues over a long period, Leslie Maasdorp, the vice president and chief financial officer of the New Development Bank (NDB), told Sputnik, adding that long-term investment in infrastructure was crucial at this stage.

"We are very concerned right now that if this recession goes on for long, it could really undermine the economic progress that a lot of BRICS countries have made in the last 20-25 years. Brazil has gone through a rapid growth phase in the early 2000s, for almost ten years, South Africa has also grown in the period leading to the financial crisis and now has been stagnating for many years ... It's very important for the countries to try and reverse this economic decline and we want to help them with that by investing in infrastructure," Maasdorp said.

BRICS member countries are working intensively to protect the economic gains made over recent years, despite the short-term difficulties caused by the ongoing pandemic, the NDB vice president said.

"All of our economies are going through major contraction. There is economic decline, a significant reduction in economic growth in all of our countries. South Africa is in recession, Brazil is in recession, India's growth will be significantly down from 2019. China's growth is also going to be significantly down.

The BRICS countries, as a whole, are very focused now on ensuring that they can get the countries back to the economic growth scenario," Maasdorp remarked.

The NDB views long-term infrastructure investment as a crucial means of ensuring future economic growth and consolidating past gains, which will help member countries navigate their way out of the current crisis, the vice president added.

"And in doing that, banks like ours have become even more critical because we invest in infrastructure. We finance projects for long-term infrastructure like power, ports, railways, airports, bridges, etc. This is critical infrastructure that connects markets, connects people, and lays the productive basis for the economy to grow in the future and it raises the productivity of the economy. It becomes even more important during times of economic decline, like the current economic recession, to invest in infrastructure... so that when the economy gets back onto a growth path you have that infrastructure in place," Maasdorp said.

As of June, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that the global economy will contract by 4.9 percent in 2020 due to the disruption to world markets caused by the coronavirus disease pandemic.

The world's economy is expected to rebound with growth of 5.4 percent in 2021, according to the IMF, although this figure has been revised down from predictions made before the onset of COVID-19.

World of Work
Russia starts supplies of Avifavir anti-COVID drug to South Africa (Россия начала поставки препарата против COVID Авифавир в ЮАР) / Russia, August, 2020
Keywords: covid-19, social_issues, pharmacy

South Africa has recently seen a rapid increase in the number of patients with coronavirus infection

MOSCOW, August 3. /TASS/. The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) and the ChemRar Group of companies have begun supplying the Avifavir anti-coronavirus drug to South Africa, RDIF announced in a press release.

According to the press release, Chromis, a joint venture established by RDIF, Russia's sovereign wealth fund, and ChemRar Group, announced the signing of a distribution agreement with South Africa's 3Sixty Biopharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of 3Sixty Global Solutions Group, to deliver Avifavir, the first Russian anti-COVID drug, to South Africa.

The RDIF stressed in the statement that South Africa has recently seen a rapid increase in the number of patients with coronavirus infection and in terms of infections, South Africa currently ranks 5th globally.

Earlier, 3Sixty Biopharmaceuticals signed an agreement to import Remdesivir to South Africa, which is injected intravenously in hospitals. However, because South Africa has a shortage of hospitals it needs other effective ways to treat patients with COVID-19, the RDIF said.

"Avifavir is effective in the early and middle stages of infection. Treatment of outpatients with Avifavir can help decrease the number of hospital admissions and reduce the burden on the healthcare system," the RDIF said.

"South Africa is the second BRICS state after Brazil to which RDIF and ChemRar have agreed to supply Avifavir. Thanks to the agreement with 3Sixty Biopharmaceuticals, doctors in South Africa will obtain an effective tool to treat patients at an early stage, preventing the progression of the disease and risk to the lives of patients," Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, said as quoted by the press release.

Avifavir is produced by a joint venture of RDIF and ChemRar Group. It is one of the two registered COVID-19 drugs in the world. Avifavir has also become the first Favipiravir-based drug in the world approved for treatment of COVID-19. It has shown high efficacy in clinical trials, disrupting the reproduction mechanisms of coronavirus.

On May 29, Avifavir received a registration certificate from Russia's Ministry of Health and became the first Russian drug approved for treatment of COVID-19 patients. On June 3, the Ministry of Health included Avifavir in the seventh edition of the guidelines for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the novel coronavirus infection.
Covid-19 in Modi's India: Virulent politics and mass desperation (Covid-19 в Индии Моди: жестокая политика и массовое отчаяние) / South Africa, August, 2020
Keywords: covid-19, expert_opinion
South Africa

This is the fifth article in a six-part series that looks at how the Covid-19 pandemic is playing out in the BRICS countries.

Part one: Introduction. Part two: Russia. Part three: Brazil. Part four: China and Hong Kong. Tomorrow: South Africa.

Unlike presidents Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, President Narendra Modi did not dismiss the dangers of Covid-19. He imposed the first national lockdown, for 21 days, on 24 March 2020, when India had 600 cases and 10 deaths, declaring that the virus would be vanquished in that period.

That didn't happen, of course, but meanwhile, his callous indifference to the travails of ordinary Indians and preference for symbolic gestures over a sustained and substantive public health response transformed the pandemic into a humanitarian crisis.

Four months later, India is growing at a faster rate than the US and Brazil, behind which it follows closely in total cases (1.5 million) and deaths (35,000). Further, as a master of manufacturing and using crises as a mode of governance, Modi has exploited the pandemic for repression, political gain and corporate profiteering.

The worst humanitarian crisis since Partition

India's lockdown was announced at night with four hours' notice and no arrangements in place, especially for the poorest. By the second week, workers with lost jobs or unpaid wages, daily-wage and self-employed informal sector workers all found themselves unable to afford food and rent. With no transport available, migrants to the cities were left with no choice but to walk the country's interstate highways to return to rural homes that might offer some subsistence.

Migrant workers and their families walk along a road during a lockdown imposed due to the coronavirus in New Delhi, India, on Saturday 28 March 2020. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the unprecedented move this week in a bid to replicate China's relative success containing the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo: Anindito Mukherjee / Bloomberg via Getty Images) With interstate borders shut, the walkers were subject to all manner of abuse – from extortion by unscrupulous truck drivers, to police beatings for violating the curfew-like conditions, to corralling by state governments into makeshift shelters. This long march of the working poor was on the historical scale of India's 1947 Partition. The trains that the government eventually ran in early May 2020 to take workers back to their homes (charging them full fare) brought their own troubles. More than 300 deaths resulted from these inhumane journeys.

A migrant worker that was unable to catch a bus feeds her children on the side of National Highway 24 during the lockdown. (Photo: Anindito Mukherjee / Bloomberg via Getty Images) The finance ministry "responded" days after the lockdown began, offering free rations and minimal cash support to workers who had lost their jobs. This was barely enough, and cruel given the government's overflowing buffer grain stocks. Eventually, of course, those who made it back to their villages will be forced to return, given the failure of rural livelihoods that forced them out in the first place. With some 119 million jobs lost in the first two weeks of the lockdown itself, it is not clear what they will come back to.

Neoliberalism and Hindutva

While the workers' current plight is almost entirely due to the government's inexcusable incompetence and disregard for the poor, it offers a window into how decades of neoliberal economic policy have combined with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) politics of Hindu majoritarian nationalism to distribute vulnerabilities along hierarchies of class, caste, and regional and religious identity.

Migrant workers and their families board buses during a lockdown imposed due to Covid-19 in New Delhi 28 March 2020. (Photo: Anindito Mukherjee / Bloomberg via Getty Images) India's estimated 120 million migrant workers are part of a footloose proletariat whose ranks have been swelled over decades by the combined effect of agrarian crisis and the loss of rights over land and commons as a result of mining, dam building and industrial expansion. These precarious workers eke out a marginal living in India's vast informal sector, their cheap and disposable labour used to build and run the cities that they can't afford to live in.

Their precarity is exacerbated by the fact that the Indian republic has failed dismally to extend social rights to its poorest and most vulnerable citizens. This is especially evident in healthcare. Never well-funded, investment in public healthcare has seen a further cut under Modi as the American model of super-speciality private hospitals and privatised health insurance has been promoted. The price-gouging by private hospitals as the pandemic surged brought home to the middle classes what has long been a reality for the poor, who continue to die of treatable diseases like TB because they cannot afford treatment.

Crowds of migrant workers wait to board buses to return to their native villages as a nationwide lockdown continued in an attempt to stop the spread of Covid-19 on 28 March 2020 in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts New Delhi. (Photo: Yawar Nazir / Getty Images) The workers who carry out essential personal care and sanitation functions inside hospitals and outside, the vast majority of whom are Dalits (oppressed castes), are last in line for personal protective equipment (PPE) and other protection. The virus arrived with returnees from abroad, but it was vegetable vendors who were brutally evicted by zealous resident welfare associations. The spread of the virus among members of the Tablighi Jamaat (a transnational Islamic sect) after a convention in Delhi in mid-March 2020, before the lockdown had been imposed, provided yet another excuse to viciously scapegoat Muslims. People from the north-east states were harassed as "Chinese" and held responsible for originating the virus.

Migrant workers, daily wagers, labourers and homeless people sleep on open ground as India remained under Covid-19 lockdown on 9 April 2020 in New Delhi, India. (Photo:Yawar Nazir / Getty Images) Meanwhile, Modi made sure to strengthen his populist rapport with his core constituents – the middle classes and upper castes – calling on the people to see the lockdown as their sacrifice for the nation, and asking for their participation in grand symbolic spectacles, ably aided in this by the "lapdog" corporate media who also worked hard to absolve him of any responsibility for the humanitarian crisis.

Weak public institutions, systematically suborned by the Hindutva regime since 2014, have exacerbated the crises. The Indian Council of Medical Research, responsible for setting public health and treatment protocols, has issued data and guidelines that are frequently changing, unreliable and confusing, aimed at portraying a government in control. The Supreme Court, which has increasingly aligned itself with Modi's Hindu nationalist statecraft, was culpably slow in directing the government to assist migrant workers.

Family members of an Indian migrant worker wait to cross the border of Uttar Pradesh to reach their home regions as the country relaxed its lockdown restriction on 19 May 2020. (Photo: Yawar Nazir / Getty Images) Crisis as opportunity

While India's fascist leaders couldn't make the trains to take workers home run on time, they have been extraordinarily efficient in matters closer to their heart. The national lockdown enabled them to quell the widespread protests against the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act ongoing since December 2019. Protest sites have been cleared, and legal cases have been prepared against activists of these movements, with hundreds arrested, especially Muslim students, many under draconian national security laws.

Like the arrests of leading progressive figures despite concerns about Covid-19 in overcrowded jails, these are part of the government's ongoing war on dissent. So is the use of emergency disaster management powers to charge or arrest journalists for reporting on failures in the state's pandemic response.

Meanwhile, in Kashmir, the Covid-19 curfew has compounded the repression and daily hardships of the military occupation in place since August 2019.

Muslim women protesters in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir, shout anti-Indian slogans during a protest against Indian rule. (Photo: Yawar Nazir / Getty Images) In a classic case of "shock therapy", the government has used the economic ravages of the pandemic to further privatise public assets. A $22-billion economic recovery package was announced in late May 2020. Broadcast as worth 10% of the country's GDP, close scrutiny revealed the new outlay to be only 1-2% of the GDP.

Aimed at creating an "atma nirbhar" (self-reliant) India, the package advances plans to allow commercial mining of coal, increase the foreign direct investment limit in defence manufacturing from 49% to 74%, auction six more airports to public-private partnerships, and open up the space sector to private firms. Several BJP-run state governments have announced labour "reforms" that do away with basic employment standards, and an attempt is being made to ram through significant dilutions to the Environmental Impact Assessment law while parliament is suspended. "Self-reliance" has also been invoked to speed clearances to Indian companies for poorly-tested coronavirus drugs and vaccines.

A pandemic relief fund dubbed PM-CARES set up by Modi is widely suspected to be a scheme to pad the BJP's war chest. Believed to have raised about $1.4-billion from the public and private sectors, it is a profoundly opaque operation, exempt from right to information requests, public audit or parliamentary oversight. There is little evidence so far of it being spent on immediate livelihood and healthcare needs, except for its contribution to "self-reliance" by giving large contracts for substandard ventilators to little-known, but possibly politically sympathetic, companies.

Diverse resistances

Institutional autonomy, if not quite resistant, has been asserted by some non-BJP state governments, such as that of the Left Front in Kerala, or the Congress in Chhattisgarh and Punjab, to put in place more effective pandemic responses.

Refusing to be passive victims, migrant workers have engaged in militant protests, demanding wages, food and transport. Major trade unions have demonstrated against the introduction of labour "reforms" in several states. Doctors and health workers have mobilised for back pay, better PPE and home isolation facilities for themselves.

It is above all the dense networks of social movements and civil society organisations that have picked up the task of care, and provision for the stranded migrant workers. Along with the feisty independent media, they have exposed the state's inadequate response and pressured authorities to expand relief measures.

They have put forth new proposals for increasing public healthcare and social security, as well as for alternative economies and ways of living. Stretched thin and working under the burden of Modi's authoritarian rule, however, no large coalition of progressive actors or social movements has emerged in response to the pandemic, unlike in South Africa.

Looking ahead

With the lifting of the nationwide lockdown since 1 June 2020, Covid-19 cases have been spreading across the country. The monsoons have brought their annual burden of dengue, malaria, encephalitis and other mosquito-borne diseases. Climate change-related locust swarms in several states and a massive cyclone impacting the Bay of Bengal coast have added to a rural subsistence crisis, striking an economy already in freefall before the pandemic.

Modi's chief response to all this has been to attempt to suppress bad news and put out positive, often patently untrue, spin, including the claim that India is a global leader in combating Covid-19. He and Home Minister Amit Shah have returned to their political chess games, using the BJP's massive war chest to buy off state-level opposition legislators to ensure a majority in elections to the upper house and to topple governments in non-BJP-run states, as well as to fund the party's campaign for the November 2020 election in Bihar.

Will all this eventually backfire for Modi? It's hard to tell, given his solid and assiduously cultivated support base. The leader of the opposition Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, is becoming more combative, but the Congress is in disarray, and there is little sign yet of the coalition of regional and national parties needed to defeat the BJP's electoral chokehold. Undoing its political hegemony will require a broader coalition, bringing together those – like the migrant workers – struggling for social citizenship, and those – like the Dalit and Muslim activists – facing increasing repression as they assert their right to a secular civil and political citizenship. DM/MC

Aparna Sundar is an independent researcher. Alf Gunvald Nilsen is a professor of sociology at the University of Pretoria.

This article is the fifth in a collection that comes out of a collaborative project comparing neoliberal politics and social movement responses in the BRICS countries, generously supported by the National Institute for the Humanities and the Social Sciences (NIHSS) in South Africa. It is republished with permission from The Wire, an independent online publication in India, and the original can be found here.
BRICS New Development Bank to Open Office in Moscow 'in Near Future' - Vice President (Новый банк развития БРИКС откроет офис в Москве «в ближайшем будущем» - вице-президент) / Russia, August, 2020
Keywords: ndb

The New Development Bank (NDB) is poised to make an announcement regarding the opening of its Moscow office, which was first revealed at the 2019 BRICS meeting, the bank's vice president and chief financial officer Leslie Maasdorp told Sputnik.

"The bank is well on course to open a regional office in Moscow in the near future. In due course, an announcement will be made in this regard," Maasdorp said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the bank's original plans.

Despite the epidemiological crisis, the NDB has been able to maintain full functionality through remote working, and the bank has successfully distributed financial aid and launched new projects.

"Despite COVID-19, the NDB has been able to function optimally from an operational perspective ... The bank has been able to fully execute on all its functions from remote locations. This includes our core activities such as identifying new projects, disbursing on existing projects, conducting our fundraising activities in both local currency as well as USD. NDB was able to launch its debut $1 billion benchmark bond issue in a virtual format," Maasdorp said.

Commenting on the proposal to increase the share of BRICS national currencies in NDB's financing, which has been raised by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, Maasdorp said that the bank has already been providing loans in national currencies and will continue to do so.

"In short, NDB has the necessary infrastructure in place to raise funding in the currencies of our member countries. We will continue to offer loans in USD, which is the dominant currency of our loan portfolio. However, member countries will have the option to request loans in the currency of their choice," Maasdorp said.

The vice president cited a bond program worth 10 billion RMB ($1.4 billion) issued in China and a 2019 bond program in Moscow that was worth 100 billion rubles ($1.4 billion).

During the BRICS meeting in November, Putin also said that the Russian ruble could be used more actively in financial transactions as Russia has relative macroeconomic stability and the currency is fully convertible.

Bolsonaro's handling of Covid-19 has unleashed a layered crisis in Brazil (Борьба Болсонару с Covid-19 спровоцировала многослойный кризис в Бразилии) / South Africa, August, 2020
Keywords: covid-19, expert_opinion
South Africa

This is the third in a six-part series that will look at how the Covid-19 pandemic is playing out in the BRICS countries.

Part one: Introduction. Part two: Russia. Tomorrow: China.

Around the world, people are bored in quarantine. But not in Brazil. Here, politics has accelerated at a frantic pace, led by a potentially suicidal president. Unlike Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán or Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Jair Bolsonaro did not take advantage of the pandemic to concentrate power and restrict civil liberties. Instead, he seeks to enhance support for his moral and political agenda: an inverted revolution, in the fashion of fascism.

Let's review the context. After a successful decade, in which modest improvements for those from below combined with the usual privileges of those from above, Lulism lost traction. By Lulism we understand a mode of regulation of class conflict that engaged the passive consent of the subaltern classes to a government project led by a trade union bureaucracy entrenched in the state, which ensured modest but effective concessions to workers.

Demonstrators wearing face masks hold signs during a rally against President Jair Bolsonaro and Governor of Rio de Janeiro Wilson Witzel at Copacabana beach on 28 June 2020. (Photo: Andre Coelho / Getty Images) A decade of relative social pacification ensued against the backdrop of economic growth fuelled by the commodities super-cycle. However, the conjunction of the June 2013 days (the largest cycle of mass demonstrations in Brazil's history), corruption scandals, and economic recession, shifted the ruling class' approach from inclusive neoliberalism to social dispossession, and from conciliation to class warfare. This is the background to the 2016 deposition of Lula's successor, Dilma Rousseff; the arrest of ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and Bolsonaro's victory in 2018.

For those from above, Bolsonaro offers the framework of authoritarian neoliberalism, which is the police state. Without a programme of his own, he outsourced the management of the economy to a genuine Chicago boy, Paulo Guedes. As a filling, he advances a retrograde behavioural, cultural and scientific agenda which the elite tolerates, but considers distasteful. Its support for the former captain is a marriage of convenience, as it ideally seeks Bolsonarism without Bolsonaro.

Members of the 'Levante de Mulheres' (Women's Uprising) raise their fists during a rally against President Jair Bolsonaro in front of the National Congress on 2 July 2020 in Brasilia, Brazil. (Photo: Andre Borges / Getty Images) However, Bolsonaro has ideas of his own: a dynasty, with the military as its party and the evangelicals as its social base. In order to understand the popular support he enjoys, it is important to consider that the escalation of the government's political violence reflects a social unease regarding the ongoing fraying of labour relations. In a world marked by the deepening of informality and widespread job insecurity, the resentment of subordinates against those perceived as "privileged" extends to the rights of organised labour.

In place of the unions, informal workers are welcomed by evangelical churches instrumentalised by the fundamentalist right-wing which, through a theology of prosperity, offers them both spiritual support and the will to work. After all, in order to function in an uncertain and violent environment, the entrepreneurship that typifies the informal economy requires massive doses of self-discipline that, in practical terms, only popular religiosity is capable of providing.

Mirassol and Corinthians players before a match between the football clubs as part of the State Championship semi-final at Arena Corinthians on 2 August 2020 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The match was played behind closed doors and with precautionary measures against the spread of Covid-19. (Photo: Alexandre Schneider / Getty Images) Bolsonaro counts on elective affinities with the evangelicals to build an organic base, as part of his effort to convert the virtual support that elected him into real mobilisation – internet users into blackshirts.

In this, Bolsonaro follows an invariable script: he chooses enemies to attack, while portraying himself as a victim. Bolsonaro accuses people, but also institutions and the press, as obstacles to his project, contriving a logic of self-fulfilling prophecy. So when the president accuses Congress of boycotting him, he shifts responsibility for his failures to those who "don't let him rule", while at the same time mobilising popular support to face the institution that, in the eyes of citizenship, synthesises rotten and corrupted politics.

Visitors wearing face masks walk in the Sao Goncalo Municipal Centre of Northeastern Traditions on 2 August 2020 in Sao Goncalo, Brazil. The city of Sao Goncalo authorised the opening of the centre on weekends. (Photo: Luis Alvarenga / Getty Images) When Congress reacts, the president's narrative is legitimised, and therefore he raises the tone. When it shuts up, the president advances another square. In this game of inversions, Bolsonaro appears as subversive, while the left brandishes the constitution in defence of order.

Bolsonaro's simple answers to complex problems in Brasília correspond on internet channels to the narrative of a hero who faces successive villains, as in a video game. In this logic, the government's achievements do not matter, because the rule of political effectiveness is different: to inflame its supporters and naturalise what was, until recently, intolerable. Bolsonaro rewrites what is normal, expanding the aspirational horizon of his base.

President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro waves as he rides a motorcycle in Brasilia, Brazil on 25 July 2020 after testing negative for Covid-19. Bolsonaro, 65, tested positive for the disease on 7 July. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Andre Sousa Borges) It is a movement that cannot recede, but, on the contrary, only accumulates mass, speed, and violence in snowball fashion. As such, the president summoned his base to demand the closure of the National Congress on March 15. Three days later, a demonstration was planned by various social movements, unions and left-wing party activists in defence of education, which under the circumstances took on the shape of a counter-demonstration.

It is in this context that Covid-19 landed in Brazil. The March 15 act ended up cancelled, but some diehard supporters took to the streets and were personally greeted by the president. Against the background of Bolsonaro's negationism, the demonstration of 18 March became a successful national hitting of pots and pans. It unexpectedly revealed that Bolsonaro's support is declining among the rich and the middle class, the first to be hit by a virus that arrived through Brazilians who hold passports.

BRICS and Covid-19: Rising powers in a time of pandemic

The president responded by radicalising denial and collected enemies in the process. At each of his speeches, the beating of pots rings out of windows. Was the president lost in his parallel world? In the survival calculations of this perverse political animal, any death drive is a political opportunity. It is necessary to seek reason behind the madness.

Bolsonaro assumes that the crisis has two dimensions, sanitary and economic. The discourse against horizontal isolation dialogues with those who die of hunger, not of Covid-19. Bolsonaro correctly assumes that workers want to work. Evangelical leaders, whose churches have been emptied, are also opposed to the social isolation measures implemented by governors and mayors, as are traders and businessmen.

The other side of this is the certainty that the Brazilian state, concocted under slavery, will never assist workers as in Europe: on the contrary, legal measures have facilitated wage cuts and layoffs. The neoliberal fundamentalism of Economy Minister Paulo Guedes supports Bolsonaro's political calculation.

Obviously, this is a risky bet, which is leading the country to a catastrophe. As noted by University of Paris emeritus professor and Latin America poverty studies expert Pierre Salama: if fighting Covid-19 is depicted as a war, then Bolsonaro is a war criminal. In this scenario, the fact that a suicidal and genocidal president is tolerated by the population and by Congress, indicates the despair of those from below, and the cynicism of those from above.

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro doubled his bet, in a government that has more military in top posts than the military dictatorship of 1964 to 1985 ever did. Criticised in the press, intimidated by the judiciary, harassed by the ruling class and with his popularity threatened, Bolsonaro contemplated a fuite en Avant (headlong rush). He announced emergency aid of R$600 (about R2,000) for each of more than 50 million people, that is, four times more money to four times more people than the Bolsa Família, the social star of Lulism.

Covid-19 in Russia: Mishandling has led to popular protests, but Putin remains strong

Then, surrounded by the military and without the economy minister, he announced a public investment plan opposed to neoliberal orthodoxy. The move was clear: to strengthen direct links with those from below, supported by the military, to the detriment of class solidarity with those from above. A kind of Lulism in reverse, as philosopher Paulo Arantes said.

However, the president walks on thin ice. Political turbulence troubles capital and has forced Bolsonaro to retreat, reaffirming full powers to the minister of economy. Against the pot-striking of his opponents, his constituency drives its cars and honks in front of hospitals, opposing confinement and everything in the way of their leader.

At the moment, none of these camps has the strength to tip the balance, and the future of the country is held hostage by parliament – the one the president intends to close. Without the strength to do so, Bolsonaro buys his stability through horse-trading politics, with the "large centre" being a heterogeneous cluster of small venal parties full of love to give, in exchange for posts and funds. In short, he does politics as usual.

Beyond Brasília, Brazil became the global epicentre of the epidemic in June, surpassing the United States in daily coronavirus deaths despite notorious underreporting of cases. Studies showed a correlation between the president's popularity, disrespect for isolation and the collapse of the public health system in several regions. In urban peripheries, isolation is impracticable, while workers crowd together to receive their R$600 at the banks. In the countryside, chances of getting medical assistance are slim and the virus has reached indigenous territories, with potentially devastating consequences. In short, it's social apartheid as usual.

Many hit pots, but didn't let their maids go. Others lived in confinement with their servants, who did not return to their homes. Companies increased the commissions charged to bike couriers who supplied "home offices" with necessary supplies, while the couriers themselves at first protested in vain, on empty avenues. The senzala (slave quarters) are revamped as always.

However, on 1 July, a national courier strike mobilised tens of thousands of informal workers in at least six state capitals. The spectre of senzala rebellion looms as always, too.

Against the indifference of the rich and the cynicism of Brasília, networks of solidarity blossomed in poor communities. An iconic image shows 425 "street presidents" in a favela in São Paulo who gathered in a soccer field, six feet away from each other, to discuss their solidarity campaign. The landless movement (MST) had donated over 2,300 tons of food they produced before June. Thousands of initiatives have been mapped at a grassroots level, completely disconnected from the state but also from the established left, whose focus is Brasília. On that front, more than 20 impeachment demands were filed against Bolsonaro in the first month of the pandemic – none started by the Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT) which just recently changed its game. The established left seems condemned to irrelevance, as never before.

Crime has fallen, the sky has cleared up and birds sing in the windows of the middle class. Underneath the calm, suffering is creeping. The economic crisis hits everyone unequally, spreading tension in a society hoping for a future better than the present, but without hope that it will be better than the past.

In Brazil, there will be no Keynesian reflux or a revival of a welfare state that never existed. Instead, the trend towards dispossession will be resumed with redoubled fury, amid a population anxious to return to some kind of normalcy, even if more and more debased – with or without Bolsonaro. DM/MC

Fabio Luis Barbosa dos Santos is Professor at the Federal University of São Paulo and author, most recently, of Power and Impotence: A History of South America Under Progressivism, 1998-2016. Ruy Braga is Professor at the University of São Paulo. His most recent book published in English is The Politics of the Precariat: From Populism to Lulista Hegemony.

This article is the third in a collection that comes out of a collaborative project comparing neoliberal politics and social movement responses in the BRICS countries, generously supported by the National Institute for the Humanities and the Social Sciences (NIHSS) in South Africa. It is republished with permission from The Wire, an independent online publication in India, and the original can be found here.
China manages the virus with surveillance, organisation and repression (Китай управляет вирусом с помощью надзора, организации и репрессий) / South Africa, August, 2020
Keywords: covid-19, expert_opinion
South Africa

This is the fourth article in a six-part series that looks at how the Covid-19 pandemic is playing out in the BRICS countries.

Part one: Introduction. Part two: Russia. Part three: Brazil. Tomorrow: India.

China's response to what is now known as the Covid-19 pandemic was entirely consistent with both its global and domestic political strategies. Globally, the Chinese regime needs to project its reputation as an emerging superpower with a highly capable technocratic state. Domestically, its legitimacy rests on its ability to ensure high growth rates and the safety of its people, while at the same time ruthlessly controlling dissent.

Its initial response to the unknown virus in the city of Wuhan was to attempt to conceal its presence – but once its contagiousness and virulence became clear, it moved rapidly to impose a tightly regulated lockdown on the city, facilitated by its formidable apparatus of surveillance and social control, including a multitude of state officials, local party organisations and the system of resident's committees for each apartment block. At the same time, it mobilised the health system, building new hospitals and drafting in health workers from other parts of China to treat the rapidly growing number of seriously ill citizens.

Demonstrators march on Des Voeux Road Central during a protest in Hong Kong. (Photo: Roy Liu / Bloomberg via Getty Images) Nonetheless, it was soon overstretched, its hospitals overwhelmed and health workers falling sick because of limited protective clothing and equipment. While the state under President Xi Jinping has systematically cracked down on activists, trade unions and other organisations, in Wuhan volunteer networks quickly emerged to raise funds, source protective clothing, and distribute this to hospitals and health centres in need, as documentary filmmaker Ai Xiaoming records in her diary.

This lack of preparedness of state institutions was shocking. "I can barely believe that our public healthcare system could be so vulnerable and fragile; that our medical resources are so scarce is beyond my imagination. In such circumstances, how can public life and safety be guaranteed?" she writes. Selfishness and meanness among the general population prompted thoughts on her part about the "frailty of our social psychology, the flaws in our social management and in political institutions governed without freedom of speech and freedom of press".

People wear protective masks as they watch a movie in 3D at a theatre on the first day they were permitted to open on 24 July 2020 in Beijing, China. Cinemas in China's capital city re-opened after being closed for six months due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo: Kevin Frayer / Getty Images) In contrast, the volunteers' commitment to the public good despite personal danger signified the emergence of shared values and the "opportunity for new social forces to grow".

What has been the overall effect on the legitimacy of the Chinese regime? The official control of information makes it difficult to assess this, but we do know that there was a strong wave of public anger on social media at the victimisation of those doctors who first blew the whistle about the new virus, and subsequently died of it. Whether the success of the effort to contain the virus and the rapid response of the state to the new outbreak in Beijing will be enough to restore popular faith in the competence of the authorities is unknown.

Covid-19 patients (at the rear) wait to be transferred from Wuhan No 5 Hospital to Leishenshan Hospital, the newly-built hospital for Covid-19 patients, in Wuhan in Hubei province on 3 March 2020. (Photo: Str / AFP via Getty Images) In contrast, the free flow of information in Hong Kong makes the situation there much easier to analyse, and it can be seen as an arena in which the authoritarian Chinese state confronts popular challenges. Hong Kong was a British colony from 1842 until 1997, when it was handed back to China. A global financial centre and an important location for interaction between the world capitalist economy and China's post-Communist economy, Hong Kong is governed under the "one country two systems" arrangement, which preserves Hong Kong's capitalist system, civil rights and limited democracy.

During 2019, Hong Kong was rocked by a massive and growing protest movement against a law allowing extradition to China. The city was regularly paralysed by protests, occupations and street battles – the biggest protests bringing together two million residents out of a population of 7.5 million – producing an economic recession. The protests have opened up new frontiers of struggle.

Pro-democracy supporters hold banners and shout slogans as they march in a shopping mall during a lunch protest on 12 June in Hong Kong. (Photo: Anthony Kwan / Getty Images) First, a movement to patronise pro-democracy independent businesses has flourished. From restaurants and online retail stores to professional and personal services, a "yellow economic circle" (the colour of the movement) is embedding the movement in citizens' everyday life, providing capital, employment and supply chains independent of China. The yellow economy has been so successful that the pro-China elite and media have repeatedly launched campaigns to ridicule it as irrational and nonviable.

Second, during the protests, a new wave of unions emerged to organise employees across a wide spectrum of sectors. Seeing unions as both political and labour organisations, labour rights as civil rights, political struggles as economic struggles, young unionists are poised to redefine the meaning of unionism for Hong Kong. Some 1,600 new unions have filed for registration in recent months, which Hong Kong's obstructionist government claims would take it 50 years to process.

Andrew Wan, a pro-democracy lawmaker, is arrested by riot police during a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong on 1 July 2020. (Photo: Roy Liu / Bloomberg via Getty Images) Then, building on the big victory by pro-movement candidates in the district board elections late in 2019, a bold election campaign is under way to capture the majority in the Legislative Council election in September 2020. Meanwhile, young and veteran politicians are working with the Hong Kong diaspora in diplomacy efforts to lobby governments to enact human rights protection for Hong Kong.

The politically battered Hong Kong government, left without any public legitimacy, was inept and slow in its response to the pandemic. According to academic Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina, the activists of the protest movement took the lead, using all the tactics and structures developed during the protests.

A couple enjoys a moment at a typhoon shelter at sunset in front of the Hong Kong skyline on 30 July 2020. (Photo: Anthony Kwan / Getty Images) Immediately the first known case of coronavirus infection was announced, they established a new website to track cases, monitor hotspots, report hospital waiting times and provide other relevant information. The practice of masking in public was adopted by all Hong Kongers while the government dilly-dallied, and mask brigades tackled the shortage by acquiring and distributing masks, especially to the poor and elderly. Teams moved through the crowded poor districts, installing sanitiser dispensers and refilling them when necessary. Activists also mobilised a campaign to wear white ribbons in support of medical workers.

According to Tufekci, networks not only mobilised to protect their citizens, but also to resist government and make demands. One of the new unions organising health workers pulled off a five-day strike by 8,000 medical workers demanding that the government close the borders with China in the early days of the outbreak. In another action, when the Hong Kong government set up quarantine centres in dense neighbourhoods without consulting the people who lived nearby, local activists firebombed the as-yet empty building, and the quarantine was relocated to sparsely populated holiday villages.

An impersonator of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves while holding an inflatable rocket with picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping during a protest in Hong Kong on 1 July 2020. Hong Kong woke up to a new reality after China began enforcing a sweeping security law that could reshape the financial hub's character 23 years after it took control of the former British colony. (Photo: Lam Yik / Bloomberg via Getty Images) These efforts from below were highly successful in containing the pandemic. The result was that Hong Kong was able to reopen very rapidly, although a lack of government will has led to a surge in new infections.

The depth of popular activism, though, was unacceptable to the Chinese regime. At the end of June 2020, the National People's Congress imposed a National Security Law on Hong Kong, in clear violation of the city's mini-constitution requiring that laws be enacted by the local legislature. The law prohibits "acts of secession, subversion, terrorism or conspiring with foreign influences", all expansive categories and arbitrary words in the Chinese Communist lexicon. Mainland Chinese security agents may implement the law in Hong Kong, banning organisations and imprisoning individuals deemed threats to national security.

With this latest move, Beijing is sending at least two messages. To its own people, the Communist Party shows its iron will to quell dissent at all cost, especially when the Chinese economy faces the most serious headwind in decades. Hong Kong has an outsized effect on mainland Chinese when it comes to citizens' protests. In the last decade, public marches have been a popular item on the unofficial itinerary of millions of Chinese tourists flocking to the city.

Between their shopping sprees and culinary expeditions, many join or marvel at the spectacle of peaceful large-scale rallies. From Beijing's perspective, if Hong Kong gives mainlanders their first forbidden taste of civil liberty, it should also be the example for the consequences of demanding more freedom.

One inadvertent consequence of Beijing's latest action is that it further liberates people's political imaginations from the confines of the "one country, two systems" structure. The new law is tantamount to ripping up this road map, and freeing people to find their own paths out of the woods, perhaps ending up in a new destination. To Beijing's utter dismay, the resounding new slogan in recent street and mall protests has become "Hong Kong independence, the only way out", chanted side-by-side with the movement's signature motto, Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.

The new law has certainly deepened people's anguish and anger, as the city braces for emigration, capital outflow, political persecutions and more. But beyond the headlines, many Hong Kongers are quietly digging in for a long fight informed by visions of a better society. Activists have been deleting their social media profiles and closing down some of the pro-democracy organisations they believe will be vulnerable to prosecution under the new law.

Protests, though small, have continued, often with blank posters rather than slogans that might attract prosecution. A few days after the new law was imposed, 600,000 Hong Kongers participated in a public ballot organised by activists to select favourites from among the democratic ranks to stand as candidates in the September 2020 elections.

China's high-profile move to shut down the democratic movement deepens its aggressive international strategy to assert its domination of the region and to aggressively challenge declining Western hegemony, and in particular the power of the US. It is also symptomatic of its strengthening economic power and integration into the world economy, in the sense that it signals that China no longer needs a global financial metropolis on its doorstep, given the deepening and the resilience of its own financial markets.

Its move has triggered increasing antagonism from the West and unease from some of its neighbours, and others in the global south. Time will tell whether its Hong Kong move will be successful, or counterproductive. Time will also tell whether the Hong Kongers will be able to sustain and deepen their resistance in the face of China's ruthless surveillance state. DM/MC

Karl von Holdt is at the Society, Work and Politics Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

This article is the third in a collection that comes out of a collaborative project comparing neoliberal politics and social movement responses in the BRICS countries, generously supported by the National Institute for the Humanities and the Social Sciences (NIHSS) in South Africa. It is republished with permission from The Wire, an independent online publication in India, and the original can be found here.
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