Chinese social media has been abuzz with speculation about the number of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers that died during the skirmish along the border in eastern Ladakh. On Weibo, people have been asking questions about the number of casualties on the Chinese side and dismissed some of the reports by Indian media about a large number of casualties among PLA soldiers.
During the night of June 15 to 16, Indian Army soldiers encountered Chinese PLA troops close to Patrolling Point 14 in the Galvan Valley of eastern Ladakh. Indian Army sources initially said that three soldiers died in the clash, which was later updated to a death toll of 20. According to an Indian Army statement, soldiers “exposed to sub-zero temperatures in the high-altitude terrain have succumbed to their injuries, taking the total that were killed in action to 20.”
The clash between Indian Army soldiers and the PLA is being reported differently in China and India. The Chinese state media has sought to control the narrative around the clash on Weibo and other social media by releasing limited information from official sources.
The clash between Chinese PLA and Indian soldiers continues to trend on Weibo. On June 17, the hashtag “China-India conflict” was the fifth top trend on Weibo, used over 1.34 billion times.
The news of the clash started speculation on Chinese social media about the number of casualties among PLA soldiers. On June 16, Wang Wenwen, a reporter at the Global Times, initially posted on Twitter that five PLA soldiers had died in the clash. But that tweet was retracted, as the claim was based on another Indian media source. Global Times’ Twitter account later posted that “The official Global Times accounts have NEVER reported the exact casualties on the Chinese side. The Global Times CANNOT confirm the number at the moment.” Hu Xijin, the Global Times’ editor, also tweeted: “Based on what I know, Chinese side also suffered casualties in the Galwan Valley physical clash.” He did not provide any more details.
On June 17, Hu posted a message along with a video on Weibo, urging netizens not to put stock in foreign media reports: “Finally, I want to say to netizens again, please trust our government and the PLA’s ability to deal with border issues. Don’t listen to any rumors about the number of casualties from abroad.” Hu had posted a similar message on June 16 as well. A large number of Weibo accounts retweeted this message by Hu and questioned the official number of casualties released by the Indian media.
In another message on June 17, Hu said, “We must trust our government, the People’s Liberation Army, and they will resolutely defend every inch of China’s territory, and at the same time they will defend it well. They know exactly what to do every time.”
Also on June 17, Global Times’ official Weibo account shared a clip of a propaganda documentary about the 1962 war with India. This documentary about the 1962 war has been widely shared about Weibo users since the conflict with India in the Ladakh region started.
A very few Weibo accounts posted about the latest death toll of 35 PLA soldiers cited by the Indian media based on intelligence from the United States. The report of 35 dead on the Chinese side was widely shared across Indian media, but the same news was only shared nine times on Weibo. Overall, Weibo users acknowledge that some PLA soldiers did die during the clash, but they maintain that the casualties on the Chinese side were low. The same narrative has been promoted by state media sources on Weibo.
One prominent Weibo user with over 49,520 followers posted the following narrative of the fight:
There were zero deaths of Chinese soldiers, but there were injuries. The ones with serious injuries were already flown to safety. Indian soldiers crossed to hit our construction team. At the time, Chinese soldiers encountered the Indians and they were badly beaten. Other workers ran to call for support. Our 200 soldiers with rods and steel pipes went to encounter the 60 Indian soldiers who also had iron rods with them. We started throwing stones and we were high above. Indian soldiers tried to flee and fell into the river.
Weibo users also widely shared the pictures of Indian Colonel Santosh Babu, along with some other Indian soldiers who died during the clash in Ladakh. Many Chinese netizens also shared a video of a man in India throwing a made-in-China TV from a balcony in India. Some Weibo users theorized that the recent escalation of tensions will push India close to the United States, but that regardless, China will do everything to defend its sovereignty.
Chinese state and other local media were largely silent about the escalation of tensions in Ladakh until the clashes took place on June 15. Since then, news reports by CCTV and others have highlighted the official narrative of the Chinese government; no official tally of PLA deaths or injuries is mentioned in these reports.
In a tweet in English on June 16, Global Times’ Hu said that the reason China didn’t release the casualty figures was because “the Chinese side doesn’t want people of the two countries to compare the casualties number so to avoid stoking public mood.” He called this decision “goodwill from Beijing.”
M. Taylor Fravel, an expert on China’s foreign and security policies, also commented on the missing official casualty count in a tweet: “I can think of no armed conflict involving China where it has released casualty figures publicly at the time of the conflict. Usually, they are published years or decades later. Casualties from 1962 war [with India] only published in 1994 internal history.”
As the tensions between China and India continue to remain high, despite the call to de-escalate the situation by both sides after the clashes, the public opinion on Chinese social media has largely accepted the state media’s narrative about aggression initiated by India.
Aadil Brar is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the BBC, The Wire India, Devex and other publications.