Features | Diplomacy | South Asia

The China vs. India News War

A look at how Beijing and New Delhi are spinning events across their border.

By Reshma Patil for

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.

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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.

Imagine, if you will, Chinese diplomats urging American correspondents to report mainly “positive” news to improve Sino-U.S. relations. It is an unlikely scenario. Yet Beijing feels more emboldened to use the approach with India, which it sees as a weak but important adversary because of New Delhi’s closeness to the U.S. and East Asian nations such as Japan. The Chinese foreign ministry often urges Indian media to recall ancient Sino-Indian civilizational links (although the two cultures share little in common today) and position itself as distinct from Western media. This approach to spinning border reportage first became evident in 2009, when Beijing was taken aback by nationwide outrage and political pressure for a strong reaction from New Delhi after a series of reported PLA incursions were inevitably hyped on nationalist television channels, while less pugnacious editorials advised engaging with greater caution and assertiveness.

In that year, this writer was invited to two meetings in Beijing where foreign ministry officials for the first time directly suggested that Indian media should avoid following the path of Western media coverage on China and produce more “positive” stories on Sino-Indian relations to promote bilateral “stability.” This year, the anti-West argument is being brandished more openly, even as the world sections of Indian newspapers are carrying fewer reports originating from the West. “India has been unavoidably affected by the Western media, which often takes a partial perspective when reporting on China,” the Global Times cited prominent South Asia strategist Hu Shisheng as saying. “That partly explains why negative reporting on China is so common in Indian media.” But it is the global media that follows up on Indian scoops on Sino-Indian relations – not the other way around.

Beijing argues that Indian media is indulging anti-China hype, in contrast to the “political wisdom” that directed engagement over the issue at the government level. In New Delhi, China’s strategic shifts, such as discriminatory stapled visas for Indian residents of Kashmir in 2008-10, growing nuclear technology support for Pakistan and bolder PLA forays across the Line of Actual Control invoke news images of a fire-breathing dragon.  

On its own turf, Beijing has been successful in diverting focus from its role in stirring up bilateral tensions. Everywhere I went as a China correspondent from 2008-11, Chinese students and professionals would unfailingly ask why Indian media is so “negative” on China. They were often ignorant of the causes of bilateral tensions, for the details are glossed over or outright censored in Chinese media. Official slants have reinforced Chinese distrust toward India because Beijing points to India as the source of provocations. Chinese media is muzzled on fully reporting Sino-Indian breaking stories and reacts with recycled commentaries against Indian “media hype” and insecurity as an nation inferior to China.

In recent months, a number of articles in State-run media have complained directly about Indian media. In May, for instance, a Global Times editorial tried to turn the tables on the Ladakh incursion by accusing the Indian government of indulging media habits. In July, Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan unusually chose a foreign media event, just before Defence minister A K Antony’s scheduled talks with Beijing, to warn India not to “provoke new problems and not increase military deployment” on the border. This month, analyst Liu Zongyi at the Shanghai Institutes for International Relations referred to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s planned November visit to China and wrote that “the India side tries to create some trouble’’ before every major bilateral event. Liu was objecting to Indian plans for new border posts.

The Global Times Global Poll Center news survey confirm the efforts to control Sino-Indian news. Reports on India decreased every year in seven Chinese media outlets, compared to an increase in reports on China in six out of 10 surveyed Indian media outlets. Chinese journalists often react incredulously to the freedom the Indian press has to criticize government policy. They describe a limited market for news on India, except during disputes that can stir up nationalist sentiment. Censorship of China’s tactical moves toward India can result in findings that 16.2 per cent of Chinese media reports on India had a “positive perspective” compared to 4.2 per cent in India. Border incidents continue to be reported since April-May, from northern Ladakh to northeastern Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims in its entirety. The inaccessibility of Chinese spokespersons and official think-tanks to Indian journalists only stokes speculation and inaccuracies. Sustained bilateral tension and recent reports of China’s efforts to conclude a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement restricting India’s defensive build-up ensure that television channels often jump the gun with sensational headlines such as “the dragon’s real ploy,’’ which sparked an uproar in Parliament in early September.

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China’s overtures to India to report more positive news have not been successful. On September 6, Indian Defence minister A K Antony refuted reports of a 640-km Chinese land grab, but he let slip the source of cross-border distrust – something New Delhi usually tends to downplay.  “China also fears that India is trying to catch up,’’ Antony told Parliament, explaining that Indian infrastructure upgrades now frequently bring Sino-Indian troops face-to-face. “I can’t share everything.” Two days later, Global Times reacted with a reminder of 1962 in an op-ed objecting to India’s plans for 35 new border posts. The headline: “Provocative Border Post Adds to Tension.”

On September 16, New Delhi hosted the first official India-China media forum to improve bilateral communication and expand cooperation in media, films and people-to-people contacts. Enabling direct communication across sectors in the two societies is long overdue. There is no guarantee, however, that media access for reporters visiting China from India will progress beyond scripted tours. The Sino-Indian relationship deserves greater transparency on issues that widen the trust deficit, and media reports at least compel the two governments to openly confront and resolve sensitive disputes such as the Kashmir visa row in 2010 and the Ladakh face-off three years later.

PLA officials told Indian journalists invited on a damage-control junket in July that the Ladakh “incident” was “accidental and not deliberately staged.” The statement, coming more than two months after the fact, was read with skepticism in India. China needs to speak in real-time. Shooting warnings against India’s border build-up while beefing up its own military with a budget that is more than three times higher than India’s is hardly, well, “positive.” While Beijing may have scripted the Bo Xilai trial, without a change in approach, the CCP will continue to struggle to control news on China in India.

Reshma Patil, China correspondent of Hindustan Times from 2008-11, is an independent Mumbai-based writer and author of a forthcoming book on Sino-Indian relations.