BEIJING â€" Over the past month President Xi Jinping made a state visit to the United States and to the United Kingdom. In the U.S. he was welcomed with a 21-gun salute on the south lawn of the White House followed by a state banquet. In Britain he was greeted by the Queen, and rode with her in a golden carriage to Buckingham Palace.
Though both receptions were equally courteous on the surface, a deeper look reveals real differences in the nature of the Sino-U.S. and the Sino-UK relations.
China and Britain are busy boasting of a â€œGolden Eraâ€ of bilateral ties, and yet ties between Washington and Beijing appear as complicated as ever these days. It is true that, broadly speaking, China and the U.S. have become indispensable partners on various international issues such as climate change, nuclear security, and global public health. But at the same time, the two countries repeatedly struggle to resolve differences and reach consensus.
Consider the results of the two visits. China and Britain published a joint declaration while China and the U.S. issued separate fact sheets. Still, in looking back at the past three years, the path to the Sino-UK â€œGolden Eraâ€ hasnâ€™t been without twists and turns. When Prime Minister David Cameron met with the Dalai Lama in May 2012, the two countriesâ€™ relations hit a new wall. It took a full year, only after Cameron reiterated that Britain recognizes Tibet as part of China and that it does not support "Tibetan independence," for the frozen bilateral relationship to begin to thaw again. In March this year, pushed by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the UK was the first Western country to join the Asia Infrastructure Development Bank set up by China. From that moment on, Sino-UK ties have quickly drawn closer.
In a joint article published by The Guardian on Sept. 19, George Osborne and Jim Oâ€™Neill, the UK commercial secretary to the Treasury, stated that â€œThere are those who say we should fear Chinaâ€™s rise â€" that we should somehow guard ourselves against it. But we reject such thinking, which would simply leave the UK slipping behind. Instead, we should embrace it. We want a golden relationship with China that will help foster a golden decade for this country. It is an opportunity that the UK canâ€™t afford to miss. Simply put, we want to make the UK Chinaâ€™s best partner in the West.â€
With the so-called "special relationship" between the U.S. and UK, Washington did not publicly comment, but American officials have privately criticized Britain as caring only for its own business interests. And yet in the eyes of other European countries, the British approach was not only understandable, but something of a model. On Oct. 26, the German and French ambassadors to China published a joint letter in the Chinese press calling the two countries Chinaâ€™s core partners ahead of visits to China by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande.
Another special relationship
Ultimately the reason why Sino-UK relations are different from Sino-U.S. ones is because the two statesâ€™ position in the international order differs. After the Suez crisis in 1956, the second Middle East war, Britain finally realized that it was no longer a world power, and thus switched its diplomatic policy to focus on markets. The first is the special UK-U.S. relation, followed by relations with the other EU countries, the Commonwealth, and finally with other regions.
Britain has become the modern master of diplomatic pragmatism. In other words, it doesnâ€™t hold on much to principle, except where it concerns the balance of power with the European continent.
Still, the Chinese should be aware that all could change just as quickly: Once Chinaâ€™s economy loses momentum, Europeâ€™s economic recovery speeds up, and the American economy continues to move forward â€" and as an election nears â€" the Sino-UK relationship could cool, since it is not built on a shared sense of identification and values. In any case, seizing the golden five years ahead serves the Conservative governmentâ€™s purpose. The headache that will follow can be left to the next government anyway.
The complexity of Sino-U.S. is well-known, and lies mainly at the strategic level. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) is the backbone of Americaâ€™s "pivot" to Asia, embodying Americaâ€™s commitment to its allies in the region, which raises the stakes in any dispute between China and its neighbors. Because of the alliance, the U.S., which doesnâ€™t have any land claims of its own in the South China Sea and East China Sea, is obliged to guarantee its promise to stand by its allies, so as not to lose credibility or show weakness.
The clout of America in one region will always be under scrutiny by its allies in other regions. Were the U.S. to demonstrate weakness in the Asia-Pacific region, its allies in Europe would worry about the credibility of NATO's Article 5, and vice-versa.
Even if the Anglo-American relationship doesnâ€™t appear to be as â€œspecialâ€ as in the past, it wonâ€™t implode just because of their different attitudes towards China at this time. Though some have criticized Britain for being too tightly aligned with Americaâ€™s war machine in Iraq, the whole of Britainâ€™s security interests abroad, such as the fight against terrorism and the Ukrainian issue, are consistent with those of the United States.
Britainâ€™s pragmatism is rooted in a recognition of the relativity of its strength, and the fact that, unlike America, it wonâ€™t be able to publicly challenge or even push back against its Chinese interests. Britain and America differ in certain affairs not because of any disagreement of the two countries over basic values or even interests but, mainly, because of differing priorities.
China must remember that United States is a world power, which means that Sino-U.S. relations largely depends on bilateral and multilateral cooperation in both regional and global affairs. It may seem like a paradox, but the more chaotic and complex the world becomes, the more room the two countries will have to work together in order to avoid friction in their bilateral relations.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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