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India through the Chinese Lens

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  • August 04, 2015

    Public opinion in India has, at present, no way of figuring out how the country is viewed by its important neighbour to the North, the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The coverage of India in the PRC media, which is overwhelmingly State-controlled – still, in spite of the sea change in the media scene over the three decades of reform and opening up, which has witnessed the emergence of a vibrant commercial press and digital media, largely outside the official circuit – could provide a reasonably reliable, even if rather rudimentary and rehearsed, picture of official China’s perceptions. The media is, after all, the channel through which the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party-state communicates with its citizenry. So the considerations and calculations underlying their projection of India to their people in their (official) media domestically (as indeed of any country or subject) cannot but come out in the process – these lie embedded in the mainstream (official) media projections, in fact, and have only to be discerned.

    However, that ready (and openly available) source of insight into Chinese predilections and perceptions is not tapped at present. This is a very basic gap in the study of China in India. And, possibly, an important reason for the widespread lack of knowledge and understanding in the country about China. During his recent visit to China, Prime Minister Modi himself observed that “Indians and Chinese don’t know each other well, much less understand each other” (though the context in which he made these remarks might possibly have been a somewhat different one – of a “familiarity gap” between the two peoples on the civilizational and cultural affinities firmament).

    An ambitious project recently launched at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru, attempts to address that situation, by aiming to provide complete translations of news reports and commentaries on India (and other SAARC countries too eventually) in the Chinese media on an on-going basis in near real time.

    The initial, trial, phase of the project concentrated on coverage of Modi’s visit by the official Chinese press. Translations of all items, reports and commentaries on India in the important official newspapers (People’s Daily, PLA Daily, Guangming Daily, and Liberation Daily), and their alter ego, the ‘semi-official’ Global Times (both Chinese and English versions), during the visit and a fortnight before and after in the month of May, were commissioned and collated. In addition to its main focus on the official press, the compilation also includes a sizeable sample of translations of comment in the non-official media. The translations are available here. The main features that emerged from this compilation are:

    The coverage of the Modi visit was prolific, reflecting interest in the personality of the Indian Prime Minister as a strong and transformative leader and also a deliberated decision to signal (to India) that the Chinese side attached great importance to the visit.

    A clear pattern of careful orchestration of official perceptions, both before and after the high level interaction, emerges from a perusal of the translations. This is unsurprising, of course, being an archetypical trait of Communist set-ups at both the State and sub-state levels. (This applies only to the political aspects of the India-China relationship though; not business and economic or cultural aspects, where the tone was more matter of fact and business-like.) Descriptions of the outcome of the visit, ex post-facto, were virtually the same as projected in early commentaries (of February 2015, for instance, written after the visit of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to China) – except for the prominence given to the Buddhist heritage factor and for the specifics of the economic deals, etc. signed. (Neither of the latter aspects could have been anticipated naturally, the way political aspects could have and were.)

    This shows that, if a demonstration were indeed needed, the value of monitoring the Chinese media on an on-going basis – the tip-offs that can be mined in advance of such choreographed events from that open and freely accessible source.

    Civilisational aspects of the relationship received considerable salience in the coverage. This is unlikely to have been planned, or a given Chinese preference. Rather it was something that, it could be surmised, was perhaps done in deference to the visiting leader’s wishes, reflecting the realism and dexterity of Chinese diplomacy. Considerable (intellectual) energy was clearly expended in evolving precise formulations on the specific content of commonalities and distinctiveness of the Chinese and Indian civilisations, Yoga and Taichi in particular. “Pursuit of harmony”, striving for “balance between the body, mind and spirit” and integration of “Heaven”, “human” and “heart” were identified as their common weal, along with the wish that they (Taichi and Yoga) “add radiance and beauty to each other” rather than “rise in solitary splendour respectively”.

    However, even in playing along with the guest’s predilection, that accommodation of the cultural affinity factor was sought to be set firmly within the confines of the overall Chinese political and strategic approach – of seeking to project the India-China relationship as a partnership with wider significance than only at the bilateral level, and one that was working for a more equitable and peaceful world order; rather than as something worth pursuing for its own sake as an end in itself, by the two countries themselves in relation to each other for promoting bonhomie and better understanding between their peoples (as was the thrust of Modi’s appeal).

    A striking feature of the coverage, overall, is that it avoided painting India black (much less criticizing it directly) for its uninhibited shedding of defensiveness about seeking improved relations with the USA and China’s neighbours, Japan above all. (Or even touching upon Modi’s Mongolia visit, immediately after China, where India’s “comprehensive partnership” was upgraded to a “strategic” one in a spirit of “true friendship”.) Unsigned reports were totally silent on that aspect and the maximum extent to which even signed articles went was to bring the all too obvious geopolitical ‘power balancing’ aspect in within the ambit of their writings but taking care to attribute it to “Western” mischief. An unmistakable blunting of any possible public perception of an anti-Chinese edge in India’s dalliance with the USA, Japan etc., in other words, choosing to project those relations as ‘normal’ and unexceptionable and not directed against China. (The English language dailies were not as restrained; they cater to foreigners and audiences outside China, not Chinese citizens per se.)

    This reserve was also evident in the coverage of Modi’s public remarks – a studied silence was maintained, most notably, on his mention, in the presence of Premier Li Keqiang at their Joint Press Statement, of the “need for China to reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realizing the full potential of our partnership” (after describing it, a moment earlier, as “one of our most important partnerships”). So also on his observation at Tsinghua University that “if we have to realise the extraordinary potential of our partnership, we must also address the issues that lead to hesitation and doubts, even distrust, in our relationship. …. The solution we choose (to the boundary question) should do more than settle the boundary question. It should do so in a manner that transforms our relationship and not cause new disruptions.”

    The blanking out of those pointed remarks in the official press, suggestive of a state of denial almost, is telling. It cannot be attributed to the taciturn Chinese diplomatic style alone. Indian diplomacy would seem to have its task cut out, by way of follow up action on the PM’s demarches.

    The political dimension of the coverage was most revealing, paradoxically, of preferences and preconceptions, precisely because of the predictability and formulaic consistency of the (official) formulations. Chinese expectations from India (on the political side, in the future) were spelt out in as many words, virtually identical to pre-visit projections, time and again in several authoritative articles. An example:

    “……….the two countries should seize this historic opportunity and carry out the important consensus reached between leaders to promote continuous development of China-India relations. Both sides should maintain a positive momentum of talks between leaders, expand bilateral communications, enhance cooperation on global platforms such as United Nations, the BRIC countries, the G-20 etc., and push the international order in a more fair and rational direction. Until the border problems can be resolved, both countries must properly control disputes and jointly ensure peace and stability along the border to create favourable conditions for border negotiations….” (Emphasis added).

    Implicit in that formulation (repeated ad nauseam left, right and centre), it could safely be surmised, is what the Chinese side would not like to see India doing – anything that would go contrary to these injunctions. Hence the unceasing exhortations to it to go (or at least be seen to be going) strong on the rhetoric of India-China relations, so that the relationship is seen by others as being on an upward trajectory, and any possible perceptions of India joining, or lending a helping hand to, those powers who may wish to form an anti-China axis of any kind are pushed back and prevented from gaining ground.

    It is a moot point, of course, whether that would be a serious expectation, or simply a smart bid to keep India on ‘good boy’ behaviour. The function of the propaganda media (in the Chinese set-up) is less to inform and more to serve as an instrument of the Party-state – a tool to buttress official designs. The former is only a constraint; it is the latter that is the objective. As such, a prime task for the media is (perceived, and taken, to be) to promote acceptability of official policies and create a psychological climate in which contravening them becomes difficult. That the Chinese media is doing quite well, it would appear – trying to make India fall in line with China’s scripted ‘line’, as much as it can.

    There was, notably, no specific mention of anything on the boundary question/negotiations – need for early/pro-active resolution, etc. (not even the three stage process reconfirmed by both countries in the Joint Statement or the operationalization of new confidence building measures agreed upon during the visit) or on the Indian request for clarification of the LAC – beyond the general exhortation quoted above “to create favourable conditions for border negotiations” or even on the question of terrorism, on which the two sides agreed (for the first time) to “disrupt terror networks…….and stop cross-border movement of terrorists..…” Nor as much as a whiff of Modi’s gentle but pointed observation that “China’s support for India’s permanent membership of a reformed UN Security Council (and Nuclear Suppliers Group) will do more than just strengthen our international cooperation”. The topic might not have figured in the high level exchange at all, as far as the average Chinese reader’s information went (but for the terse reference to it in the Joint Statement for those who would have cared to read through the onerous document).

    In general, the Chinese political approach cited above, and as elaborated in President Xi’s four point proposal, was featured in detail while the Indian side’s responses, as presented, came out as non-substantive, with no clear political thrust or objective of their own, and also as not being opposed to the Chinese point of view, including on the Indian side’s circumspection on China’s “One Belt, One Road” obsession.

    Though tentative, these readings about official China’s mind and perceptions can be seen to contain useful pointers for follow-up diplomatic action. A more granular analysis might well indicate contrary nuances and possibly quite a different overall picture too. Regardless, the potential of such a media monitoring exercise for fine-tuning the overall assessment of the impact of the PM’s visit from other (official) channels (and, more generally, for spawning further research on different aspects of India-China relations and for putting China studies in the country on a firmer footing) should be evident.

    So also the need for investment of commensurate resources at the national level accordingly. NIAS plans to expand the scope of the project to cover more journals of the semi-official and non-official variety in the next phase, subject to budgetary support, with the output shared with all Universities, think-tanks and research centres in the country, with a view to facilitating independent assessments and analysis severally. The initiative deserves all round support, as a long overdue step toward intensification of the Indian gaze at China.

    Saurabh Kumar, IFS (Retd.) had served as Ambassador of India to the UN and other International Organisations in Vienna as well as Austria, Ireland and Vietnam. He is now Adjunct Faculty at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bengaluru. He can be contacted at saurabhkumar1610@gmail.com.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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