The China vs. India News War
Image Credit: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

The China vs. India News War

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Once again Beijing finds itself vexed by the raucous Indian press.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is campaigning against Indian newspapers – which form the world’s largest newspaper market outside China, and combine with hundreds of hypercompetitive news channels. The campaign is driven by the belief in Beijing that it is the media that has emerged as the segment of Indian civil society most hostile towards China.

In August, Global Times released the findings of a unique news survey conducted in 2010-12 on both sides of the disputed frontline that separates Asia’s two largest territorial rivals. Only 1 per cent of Chinese news on India is “negative,’’ the tabloid claimed, compared to 9.5 per cent of Indian news on China. For New Delhi, the Chinese government-run Global Times has itself been seen as Beijing’s most belligerent mouthpiece since 2009, given its reminders of the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and its warnings of the perils of provoking China.

Sino-Indian relations have been strained since a 21-day face-off in April-May, after a unit of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) camped 10 km across the Line of Actual Control in a disputed stretch of Ladakh. Now Chinese officials and diplomats tasked with spinning Indian media are sweating. Unable to come to grips with the role of a free, market-driven press, they have turned to some of the tactics used to gag their own Party-run media with suggestions that Indian media outlets report positive news and reject the example of Western media. As Indian news channels now regularly feature border reports with headlines such as “China’s soft invasion,” the CCP reaction is noteworthy for what it says about Chinese diplomacy toward India.

Chinese demands that India regulate media coverage of the bilateral relationship are not new. Srikanth Kondapalli, a New Delhi-based professor of Chinese studies traces them as far back as 1976 during talks to normalize Sino-Indian relations, and again after India’s nuclear test in 1998. However, Beijing’s media strategy, which combines soft power outreach and aggressive editorials against the Indian news industry, has become more evident since a worsening of bilateral ties from 2008.

It’s effectiveness is questionable. As many as 83 percent of Indians in a 2013 Lowy Institute poll named China as a security threat second only to Pakistan. The Pew Research Center last year found “only a third of urban Indians have a favorable view of China,” compared to about a quarter of Chinese with favorable views of India. Anti-China distrust is on the rise in India for reasons that include a growing 40 per cent bilateral trade deficit, widespread and mutual unawareness and the unpredictability of Chinese actions. New Delhi and Beijing have sparred in the last five years over new disputes from Tibet to Pakistan to Kashmir, from remote mountain paths to busy sea lanes, but perhaps the single largest source of Indian public distrust comes from a surge in reports of Chinese border incursions and aggressive patrols.

While Beijing is prevailing on New Delhi to rein in its press, Chinese diplomats can hardly be unaware that official Indian sources leak news to mainstream media to give negotiations a nudge when bilateral channels hit a wall, notably over Pakistan and closed-door border talks.

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