“Chinese central government doesn’t need to even lead public opinion: it just selectively stops censorship. In other words, just as censorship is a political tool, so is the absence of censorship,” Chinese journalist and blogger Michael Anti has said. Anti’s now popular quote is emblematic of the process of censorship of news media and social media in China.
This has salience in the ongoing border tensions between China and India. Experts commenting on the events at the Line of Actual Control have previously noted that the Chinese language state-media hasn’t given much attention to the story. But there has been growing interest in the story in China.
There was an intriguing silence in the Chinese language media narrative following the clash between the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Indian Army. Chinese language state-run news media agencies such as Xinhua and People’s Daily largely ignored the June 15 clash between the two sides. Besides some debate around who instigated the aggression and the number of causalities in the Galwan Valley on Sina Weibo, Chinese language media remained silent.
India’s ban on Chinese-owned apps was a turning point in the tone of the Chinese language media narrative. On June 29, “India bans 59 Chinese apps” was the second most searched hashtag on Twitter-like Chinese social media platform, Sina Weibo. It was also the second most searched phrase on Baidu search engine, the Chinese equivalent of Google. India’s second wave ban on China-owned apps generated widespread interest — a hashtag based on the story was viewed 300 million times on Weibo. The news about the app bans was prominently reported by major Chinese language state-media outlets such as Beijing News, People’s Daily, and Xinhua.
The rhetoric trumpeted by Chinese state-media after India imposed the ban indirectly brought attention to escalation of military tensions along the border. India’s move to impose punitive measures through the app ban was seen as an attack on China’s economic interests. One of the results of the ban has been growing interest in China to track the developments at the border with India.
The recent developments at the Line of Actual Control have featured in Chinese language state media publications such as Xinhua. On August 31, the phrase “Western Theater Command’s statement on China-India border situation” trended as the number one searched term on Baidu. The hashtag #Western Theatre Command responded to India’s illegal crossing of line and firing threats# was viewed 260 million times on Weibo. The search phrase “Chinese and Indian Defense Ministers meet in Moscow” topped Baidu search results on September 4.
More than that, a story about the meeting between Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe and Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh in Moscow was on the home page of the Chinese language web edition of Xinhua. On June 25, the Chinese edition of People’s Daily also reported the Chinese Ministry of National Defense spokesperson’s statement on the border conflict.
On September 10, a hashtag based on the news about the meeting between Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was the top search term on Baidu. The #China and India reach a five-point consensus# hashtag was the second top searched term on Weibo on September 10. The hashtag remained among the top three trends on Weibo for 12 hours after it began trending. The censors in China tend to focus on highlighting “positive” news stories. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that news about the “agreement” reached between the foreign ministers in Moscow of the two countries trended across various platforms. A news article titled “The Chinese and Indian foreign ministers issued a joint press release, and the two sides reached a five-point consensus” was on the homepage of Xinhua’s Chinese language web edition.
Less directly, Chinese President Xi Jinping underscored the importance of “border security” and “border defenses” in his remarks made at the recent Tibet Works Conference in Beijing. Experts believe that Xi’s remarks were targeted at India.
Outside of official channels, prominent media commentators on military affairs with large social media followings in China such as Hu Xijin and Zhang Zhaozhong have steered the debate by posting long commentaries in mandarin on Weibo and calling India the “aggressor.”
The censorship on Sina Weibo is well documented. Direct censorship of public social media posts, public shaming of Weibo users on CCTV, and detention by police for making “false claims” are strategies China has used to shape public opinion on the border issue. One WeChat user was detained for spreading a “rumor” that the poor quality of steel used for Dongfeng Mengshi military vehicles resulted in causalities among PLA soldiers at the border with India. There is an ongoing investigation into “violation of the law” by senior management at the Dongfeng Motor Corporation. Meanwhile, Sina Weibo is now censoring the hashtag #China-India border conflict# as observed on September 3.
The Chinese public’s attention on the events at the border with India will add pressure on the party leadership to find a narrative that can be presented as a victory for China. The military escalation may have been an easy decision by Central Military Commission, but the de-escalation process will be a complicated process amid public interest in the developments at the Line of Actual Control.
Aadil Brar is a freelance journalist. His work has appeared in the BBC, The Quint, The Wire India, Devex and other publications.