With Mud-Slinging, Chest-Thumping, Media From India, China Mirror Border Impasse

How have the Indian and Chinese media been covering the Doklam standoff?

In June, a fresh row erupted between India and China over the Doklam plateau. India perceived China’s decision to build a road leading up to the Doklam plateau as a geopolitical threat as the region is very close to the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction. Tensions escalated and since June 16, India and China have been embroiled in a bitter stand-off.

Mirroring the political impasse are the rancorous media reports coming from both sides. Frequent instances of mud-slinging and chest-thumping in the respective media confirm that the media suffers from the post imperial ideology (PII) syndrome. Coining the phrase, Manjari Chatterjee Miller, assistant professor of international relations at Boston University, explains that PII stems from the traumatic memories of colonialism and has three main components: victimhood and hence, the desire for international sympathy and a sense of entitlement; territorial sovereignty and quest for restitution; and finally, maximisation of status.

The Indian media has traditionally been hostile to China – more often than not, their China-related headlines reek of paranoia and sensationalism. A quote from the Press Institute of India Journal (October-December 2015) aptly summarises this mindset: “Media reports in India invariably tend to give the impression that China is up to some trick every day; that someone, somewhere in China is forever busy doing something to needle, belittle, encircle, overawe, dismember, intimidate, or deceive India; that aggressive designs are at work to step up military pressures”. Even in times of relative peace with no notable skirmishes, headlines such as ‘China violated line of actual control 500 times in last two years’ (Times of India, May 2012) and ‘Brazen China enters India, spends 3 days’ (Hindustan Times, August 2013) have appeared.

By constantly portraying China as a bully and an aggressor responsible for regular border incursions, the Indian media has been flaunting the victimhood card – an essential element of the PII framework. The frequent border intrusion reports also point at the heightened importance of territorial sovereignty. The recent border clash has sparked a shift in the status quo in the media reportage from both countries.

While the Indian reports formerly focused mainly on portraying victimhood and their Chinese counterparts concentrated on status maximisation, Indian media have now changed gears and are increasingly exploiting the status maximisation aspect of PII. The 1962 Sino-India war and India’s humiliating defeat still linger in the Indian collective conscience, which explains the media’s tendency to cry foul over every little China related incident. The present discord, however, saw a shift in the reporting pattern with more limelight on China’s coverage of the issue and less of exaggeration and dramaticism. The fact that Global Times unleashed a spurt of acrimonious jargon, poking India’s sore spot (the 1962 war) and asked it to learn from historical lessons or be prepared to suffer worse losses, received generous airtime in India. At the same time, strong rebuttals signaling a self confident and assertive India mushroomed, hinting at India’s status maximisation aspiration. Headlines such as “A Sino-Indian armed conflict: Why China can bark but can’t bite” (Economic Times) and “Sikkim standoff: China’s desperate sabre-rattling shows firm reticence is working for India”(FirstPost) underline the changing dynamics and even, to some extent, a swapping of roles.

The most significant volte-face, however, came from the Chinese media, notably Global Times. The paper had always maintained that the Indian media was much more nationalistic than the Chinese media and that the former made a mountain out of a mole hill regarding disputed borders whereas the Chinese media abstained from making a lot of noise and reading unnecessarily into one-off incidents. In addition, it even urged the Indian media to practice responsible journalism and stressed that Indian tabloids “should guide its people’s attention from the drab disputes in remote mountains to the common ground the two countries are exploring”. It is therefore startling that the same Global Times launched a string of diatribes against India over the Doklam plateau face-off such as India is “acting shamelessly”, “India is humiliating the civilisation of the 21st century” and “the need to teach New Delhi a bitter lesson”. Two particularly harsh rebukes appeared in its Chinese edition on June 29 and June 30, which said that Indians were arrogant people who could easily be taken care of by China and pushed back, and belittled the Indian army’s military prowess and intellectual acumen.

During the past couple of weeks, Global Times published India related articles almost daily. This development is uncharacteristic of the Chinese media for two reasons. First, it was only in the early 2000s that India garnered the attention of the Chinese media. This was mainly because of BRIC nomenclature, which grouped India and China into a fast transitioning economic superpower category. This shifting view was bolstered by western reports that constantly posited India and China as competing for global economic dominance and presented the chase as a zero-sum game. Even then, the Chinese media was not overtly obsessed or concerned about India. Although it viewed India as a major South Asian power, China prioritised north-eastern Asia. While the Indian media hype is about China and Pakistan, Japan hogs the centre stage of the Chinese media coverage, particularly the island disputes and Japan’s alliance with the US. The subject of adversarial media reports in China is Japan, which is hurled with accusations of being an intruder and an aggressor. Hence, the victimhood and territorial sovereignty symptoms in the Chinese media have normally been associated with Japan and the Senkaku islands dispute, with the trauma of the Sino-Japanese wars still vivid. Therefore, terms like betrayal by India used in Chinese reporting appear unusual as they paint a victimhood scenario vis-à-vis India.

Second, China generally covered India topics that enabled it to boast of economic or moral superiority and adopt a condescending outlook. For instance, “Chinese technology helps build Digital India”, “China’s economic pain cannot be India’s gain”, “Indian hotels refuse single women” are some of the headlines related to India. The 2012 Delhi gang rape as well as any natural calamities or accidents such as the 2015 Chennai floods are covered extensively. Given this trend, this sudden burst of jingoism and media glare on India is unusual. In fact, China has even violated its traditional policy of non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs by implying that it would support secessionist voices in Sikkim, should India refuse to toe the line.

The media reports of the Doklam plateau rift reveal two important facts: the power hierarchy between India and China is getting fuzzier due to the boost in India’s self image. Plagued by internal tensions, both sides are desperate to put up a strong front where national security is concerned to divert attention from other domestic vulnerabilities. There is also no dearth of suspicion from both sides – while India views the tiff as a ploy to pull it into China’s Belt and Road project, China feels India is stirring up trouble to gauge US and Russia’s loyalties or to score brownie points domestically by flexing its muscles. As both countries remain headstrong, the prolongation of this spat threatens to freeze the carefully cultivated bilateral relationship and undermine regional stability.

Swaroopa Lahiri completed her masters of international affairs from Columbia University’s school of international and public affairs in economic and political development and regional specialisation was South Asia. Her recent works have been published in the Daily Star and the Journal of South Asian Studies.