'It doesn't look as if any sensible, worldly wise, person is in charge in China.'
'If at all anybody is in charge, it can only be a bunch of bumpkins of whom Xi has become a puppet,' observes B S Raghavan, the veteran civil servant.
The textbook answer is Xi Jinping.
He has shored up all powers and positions of authority so that he is the supreme overlord of the country.
He has made himself the president of China virtually for life.
He is the general secretary of the Communist Party of China and chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Without calling it as such, he has, in the name of undertaking crusades against corruption, non-performance and the like, carried out a purge of his rivals and opponents.
He has muted all dissent.
Thus, Xi Jinping is seemingly China's most powerful leader after Mao Zedong.
Upon entering office in 2013, Xi has embarked on various projects like the Belt and Road Initiative to realise the great Chinese dream of taking the country economically, technologically and militarily to the forefront so that it leaves its stamp on the 21st century.
With such shoring of powers, the expectation would naturally be that Xi is in charge in China.
But looking at some of the inexplicable goings on right under his nose, it doesn't look as if any sensible, worldly wise, person is in charge in China.
If at all anybody is in charge, it can only be a bunch of bumpkins of whom Xi has become a puppet.
It cannot be Xi Jinping, unless he is a bumpkin himself.
One cannot otherwise explain the monumental miscalculations, misjudgments and missteps that are making China's reputation, if not mud, at least something close to it.
Let us take a fast count of them.
China is on the dock, viewed by the global community as the exporter of COVID-19, whether thoughtlessly or deliberately, with WHO itself attesting that it dd not timely notify the outbreak of the still virulently ravaging pandemic.
It is in a state of running feud with the US and most industrial democracies.
Already raising negative vibes as a totalitarian one-party State, with no concern for human rights and civil liberties, it is aggravating matters further by wantonly provoking protests and agitations in Hong Kong by thrusting the national security law down its throat.
It is widely suspected of stealing intellectual property and indulging in cyber warfare.
The latest to join is India which has imposed a ban on 59 of its applications.
Its much-vaunted Belt and Road Initiative has been so mismanaged that it is boomeranging on itself.
Projects are getting cancelled, modified or stalled.
There are recurring reports of growing number of countries demanding a review of agreements or reneging on them.
February 2020 saw Egypt postponing the construction of a power plant.
In March, Bangladesh cancelled plans for a coal plant.
Tanzania has cancelled a $10 billion port project.
Nigerian lawmakers have voted for a renewed critical look at all Chinese loans because of fears that they constitute a debt trap.
In fact, Africa, to which it has given a total of $145 billion as loans under the BRI is proving to be a big headache for Beijing.
Most African countries want Beijing to forgo the debt and rework the agreements.
Even its close and bosom ally and all-weather friend Pakistan is now demurring about the harsh repayment terms of $30 billion worth of loans meant for power projects and wants them redrawn.
Taking the cake for China's bizarre blunders is its infatuation with Pakistan. No person who is effectively in charge of China would have countenanced this.
As between India and Pakistan, the one having compelling credentials as a fast-emerging power on all counts, enjoying high standing in the comity of nations, is India.
In marked contrast, Pakistan has all the makings of a failed State, and it should have been clear to the meanest intelligence that China will come a cropper allying with it, pampering it and pandering to it.
As between India and Pakistan, any percipient leader of China with reasonable knowledge of statecraft would have joined hands with India for the mutual progress of both countries and of the world.
Instead, China is scratching the back of what might well pass for a rogue State whose international reputation and credibility aren't worth speaking about.
Try as one might, one is unable to think of any other country with such insatiable appetite for territories within the domains of other countries.
Indeed, it may well be that China holds the record for the number of countries -- at the latest count, it was 21 -- against which it has piled up preposterous territorial claims, enunciating fatuous formulae like Nine Dashes Line and Five Fingers.
In the Philippines, it claims parts of the Spratly Islands.
It doesn't matter that the International Court of Justice has rejected it.
In Indonesia, it not only claims fishing rights in waters near Indonesian islands but has already encroached the country's fisheries.
It has deployed exploration vessels near Indonesia.
It has given Chinese names to disputed islands twisting facts and history.
It is also engaged in a dispute with Malaysia.
In Laos and Cambodia, it claims large areas citing, as is its wont, some long obsolete historical precedents.
In Thailand, China has been dredging on the Mekong River since 2001.
Vietnam is similarly facing China's territorial claims on several islands; China has sunk several Vietnamese fishing vessels by ramming them.
In the East China Sea, Beijing is engaged in a land dispute with Japan over Senkaku and Ryu Kya islands.
It has also targeted Japanese naval ships.
In North Korea, China has a continuing dispute over Mount Paektu and the Tumen River.
In South Korea, it claims islands in the country's exclusive economic zone.
China also has an ongoing altercation with Tajikistan over territory which dates back to 1884.
China also lays claim to over 34,000 sq km of land in Kazakhstan.
In Kyrgyzstan, China says the entire territory should be part of the Chinese mainland, forcing the poor country to hand over 1,250 square kms of land for starters.
Nepal, Bhutan, Taiwan, Brunei, Mongolia, and Singapore are all in one way or another in jitters over what China will claim next, behaving as if whatever it sets its eyes on belongs to it.
And now, on top of all this, China is after Russia by bringing in Vladivostok into the litany of acts of cartographic aggression.
Apparently, the border agreement of 2003 with Russia hasn't written finis to China's covetousness.
It couldn't have had a more understanding friend than Russia which has stood up for Beijing when all others were slamming it.
Russia is among the countries worst hit by the Wuhan cirus, but it has not blamed China.
It has not censured China on Hong Kong, nor has it spoken a word against Huawei.
One would have thought that any sane leadership which is really in charge of a country like China would do everything possible to keep its friends unruffled.
China's border clashes with India, leading to its attack in 1962, and continuing thereafter till the present day, are too well known and long standing to mention.
What raises grave doubts about any sensible person being in charge in China is the utter outlandishness in the timing and manner of their occurrence, prompting one to conclude that either Xi Jinping has gone bonkers or he simply has no control over what is happening.
Let us take a few prime examples of the absolute lack of method in China's madness.
In 2014, after Narendra Modi assumes power as prime minister of India comes Xi's first-ever meeting at Ahmedabad with someone fresh from the laurels of a spectacular electoral triumph and heading a great country which is also a civilisational neighbour.
Isn't it reasonable to expect that Xi would make sure that he would put his best foot forward to make the visit a memorable event? Especially after all his tall talk of India-China relations being at 'a new starting point'?
In fact, such foul-ups are almost becoming a routine.
Did Xi ordain such foul-ups to occur?
Or were they happening unbeknownst to him or without reference to him?
Will any country boasting such a long and hoary civilisation, enriched by the teachings of the likes of Confucius, allow the kind of barbaric behaviour on the part of its troops at Ladakh?
Or, ponder this: Xi and Modi have met at least 18 times since the latter came to power in 2014.
These have been either one-on-one meetings in each other's countries or on the sidelines of other multilateral summits.
Modi has visited China five times as PM, the most number by any Indian PM in 70 years.
Last year, when they met in Mamallapuram for their second informal summit in October, it was their third meeting since Modi's re-election in May 2019.
One surely would be entitled to presume in this situation that enough rapport would have been built up between them so that each is on guard against saying or doing anything that would sour relations with the other.
But no: While India has been observing decency and decorum and mindful -- some would say too mindful -- of the susceptibilities of China, the latter, through its official and party minions and its State-controlled media had been uninhibitedly damning India at every conceivable opportunity, particularly at the very mention of Arunachal Pradesh, Dalai Lama or Taiwan.
It thinks nothing of poking its nose in an unbridled manner into the affairs of India, whether it has to do with Jammu and Kashmir or strengthening the infrastructure and improvement of connectivity at its borders or its relations with other countries.
What is one to make of all this, except to ask: Is there anyone at all in charge in China? If so, who is in charge?
B S Raghavan is a retired member of the Indian Administrative Service. He was formerly a US Congressional Fellow, Policy Adviser to UN (FAO) and chancellor, Jharkhand ICFAI University.
Feature Production: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com