Chinese media: Reading the tea leaves

| | in Oped

A short comment carried by the influential Chinese daily, the Global Times (Chinese edition: Huan Qiu Shi Bao) the day before merits attention for the clues it can provide to China’s current stance towards India. Full translation:

Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar recently visited Beijing for what was billed as a new round of the India-China Strategic dialogue. Expectations that the talks would lead to a reset of the troubled India-China relations have come to a nought.

Only a hardened optimist could have expected forward movement on the issues bedeviling these relations, especially India’s demand that China support its Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership and effort to designate Masood Azhar a terrorist under UN rules.

And now, the Chinese have signalled that if India goes ahead with the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang, things could get much worse.

The reason why Sino-Indian relations are not good has not to do with their much hyped geopolitical rivalry but, to a great extent, with the way India conducts its diplomacy.

The Chinese perspective is apparent from the comment of a Chinese diplomat that in loudly clamouring for membership of the NSG, India was “behaving like a kid in a candy store”. He had a point.

Is this securing of some stuff worth the price we are paying in derailing our relations with China? Assume the Government has good reasons for India to be a member of the NSG, the question then is:

What price are we willing to pay for it?

The US has not backed India for free. Not only did India agree not to conduct any more nuclear tests, it also gave verbal assurances that it would make significant purchases of US nuclear equipment.

The French and the Russians, too, were promised nuclear sales.

Unfortunately for the Chinese, they are being asked to support New Delhi for free.

India seems to be demanding that Beijing support India’s entry into the NSG and lift its hold on the designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist under the UN’s 1267 committee, as a matter of principle. The only thing on offer is Indian goodwill, a “currency” that the hard-headed Chinese have little value for. Like most other nations, they believe that international relations are about mutual concessions and give and take.

Now with a President in the White House with a “What’s in it for me and America?” ethos, India has cause to worry.

India is in the habit of saying it is an impoverished, non-aligned Third World country. But that is of no avail, because Beijing feels it has better credentials than New Delhi as an erstwhile revolutionary stalwart and presently a country under rejuvenation, sweeping clear away the baggage of “a century of humiliation”. 


As might be guessed, the article is not Chinese in origin but excerpted from a piece in Hindustan Times on March 15 titled “Letting NSG and Masood Azhar get in the way of India-China ties, is it worth it? (Except for the last paragraph, which does not figure in the original HT piece and appears, therefore, to be the translator’s own addition. But that fact is not made clear anywhere in the piece and there is no explanation why that concluding comment should have been slipped in, undisclosed, in what is otherwise a verbatim reproduction of another article.) These facts, as well as the name of its author, etc, have been duly acknowledged while reproducing it.

The Indian provenance of the piece does not, however, detract from its utility as a source of pointers to the Chinese mind and way of thinking as compared to any written in Chinese originally. Endorsement of the contents of the article is, after all, implicit in the very act of reproduction — in the choice of this piece for re-publication in the Chinese press. The Global Times is a highly influential daily run by ex-staffers and others close to the Party establishment. Inclusion of this piece in the Chinese language edition of the newspaper, i.e. in the version meant for domestic audiences (and not just in the English edition targeted at foreign audiences) is, clearly, significant. There are many news items, reports and commentaries that are carried in the latter (English) version but not all of them figure in the former (Chinese) one, which is far more restrictive (for the Chinese people are not told everything that is blasted out at foreigners with an eye on frightening or chastening them). It indicates a degree of association, or acceptance/ownership (of the contents, by the Chinese leadership), especially when the item in question consists of pure views, as in this case (as against items with news value).

It might not be off the mark, therefore, to posit that a determination had been made by the Chinese leadership that the downturn in India-China relations in recent times had reached a definite stage wherein that bad news (assessment) could no longer be held back from the intelligentsia — who constitute the main readership of the Global Times. Things had not yet perhaps reached the stage warranting frontal disclosure — officially, i.e. directly in the Party organ (the People’s Daily) — but a step in that direction had been taken through this “semi-official” channel, known to all to be the alter ego of the Party leadership in China.

In this connection, it is useful to remember that there is normally a clear trend of caution in coverage of India-China relations. Bad news — clashes/posturing of either side on the border, protest demonstrations by Tibetan refugees in India or criticism in India (in its media, academia or Parliament) of China’s opportunistic relationship with Pakistan, etc — are not publicised at all, except when absolutely unavoidable. Coverage of India-China relations is bland, being restricted to professions of goodwill by the leadership of both sides, and exhortations to all to live up to that lead. This is both a conscious decision (of the Chinese Party-State), as well as a constraint that it has to observe. The former as a precaution against public opinion being inflamed and matters getting out of hand. And the latter (constraint) in the sense that India enjoys a very high image among the Chinese people — traditionally because of Buddhism but also contemporary in foreign affairs because of the high prestige Indian foreign policy has enjoyed internationally, 1962 notwithstanding — resulting in the Government having to be careful because any deterioration in relations with India would have to be justified before its public opinion. (Unlike the case with Japan, where open displays of “nationalistic fervour” against the Japanese have often been encouraged officially and where volatile public opinion is very much a factor that the Chinese Government has to reckon with and bring into the bilateral equation.)

It is interesting also to note that the excerpting from the original HT article has been done selectively. A substantial part of the original, pertaining to Afghanistan (on the chances of congruence between the two countries) on which the Indian author was equally skeptical (as he was in general on all aspects), was omitted from the Global Times while reproducing it. The reason(s) for this chopping — obviously not non-deliberate or due to space limitations alone — can again only be surmised. Evidently, that was an aspect on which the perception on the Chinese side is not as bleak. Hence the decision to distance themselves from it by culling out those portions (pertaining to Afghanistan) and not let the theme of possible cooperation with India (on Afghanistan) be affected by the negative tenor of this article, even while making use of that music to their ears in other ways.

What the Chinese leadership tells its citizenry about India (and the world) everyday can be revealing. Or at least corroborative (or corrective) of signals received from other channels. It is a pity that no attention is paid in the country to this open and easily tapped gold mine of information even by premier think tanks. It is amazing that in all the seven decades since Independence, no institution in the country has found it possible to monitor the coverage of India in the Chinese press. This is an omission that needs to be made good with dispatch.


(Ambassador Saurabh Kumar began his diplomatic career in China. Post-retirement, he anchors the “India in the Chinese Media” project of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.)

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