Anti-India sentiment surges on China's social media, and the road ahead on the border

Welcome to today's The India China Newsletter.

In this issue, I’m looking at:

- The outpouring of sentiment on Chinese social media this weekend after the announcement of Galwan deaths

- The nationalism tap is truly on - but why now? And is it effective?

- Where the disengagement stands after the 10th round of talks

- Celebrating lunar new year in Kolkata

The announcement on Friday of honours for five PLA soldiers, which this newsletter discussed last week, was a source of much debate in China over the weekend. The announcement, coupled with the Galwan footage, has led to an outpouring of sentiment online - on a scale I've never seen when it comes to India possibly ever, and something usually only reserved for Japan.

I reported for The Hindu on Sunday:

Over the past 24 hours, the Indian Embassy in Beijing has received thousands of messages in its mentions on Weibo, the Twitter-equivalent used in China, more than it has ever received in one day.

Most of them were angry and abusive, from Chinese Internet users expressing their anger following the announcement, made on Friday morning, of the deaths of four soldiers in the Galwan Valley clash that took place eight months ago.

The flood of messages, which began on Friday evening, was not much of a surprise. Through the day, state media outlets had highlighted the announcement of honours for five soldiers, four awarded posthumously. The names and images of the five were being shared widely on Chinese social media, along with their personal stories, all leading to an outpouring of sentiment.

You can read the full piece here.

COMMENT: The nationalism tap has been unleashed. Why now? As I mention in the piece above, it comes nine days after India and China announced disengagement. The government in China possibly felt doing so in the midst of the crisis would have cramped its wiggle-room to find a face-saving exit. The outpouring of sentiment and pride about the soldiers has also been the focus, more than what may have been awkward questions on where the PLA withdrew from.

I should also say here that it's not just pride - sadly there's tons of hate and abuse on weibo targeting India at the moment. Scrolling through any India topic now means looking at a flood of racist abuse. It's disheartening, most of all because there is no pushback. The most liked response at the moment to the Indian Embassy’s post on the joint statement put out on the Corps Commander talks this weekend says: “You are not worthy to talk to us…. barbarians only worthy of being killed”.

I always believe social media everywhere is of course a terrible barometer of public opinion and fortunately no one I know in China at the moment has experienced anything untoward — as I have mentioned previously in this blog, Indians are usually surprised by the day-to-day warmth they experience — but it is worth noting that weibo with its famously trigger happy censors is at this moment happy to let this all slide — and not just slide, but is actively promoting border-related hashtags at the moment. Weibo, incidentally, was censoring comments on the Indian Embassy’s account in 2018 and 2019 during the two Modi-Xi ‘informal summits’ when the account was putting out photos of the two leaders to ensure the optics weren’t disturbed and there was no unpleasantness. How times have changed.

Weibo isn't, however, letting slide any questions or criticisms of the PLA that goes against the official account. So far, at least 7 people in China have been arrested/detained for ‘smearing’ the military:

In three days, seven Chinese netizens have been detained by police for defaming martyrs who sacrificed their lives to defend China's territory in the Galwan Valley conflict with India in June 2020, which underlines the country's commitment to prevent internet from becoming a lawless place.

The netizens came from Beijing, Chongqing, South China's Guangdong, North China's Hebei, Southwest China's Guizhou, Sichuan and East China's Jiangsu provinces, with ages ranging from 19 to 40. The youngest one, from Chongqing, has been living abroad since July 2019, local police said.

Police said they have confessed their crimes and one of them, in Sichuan, surrendered himself due to pressure. The move stresses China's efforts to protect heroes and martyrs' reputation and crackdown on any humiliation or insult on the internet as the internet is not a lawless place.

Details of the Chinese casualties involved in the border clash with the Indian military in the Galwan Valley Line of Actual Control were unveiled for the first time on Friday, prompting many to flood social media platforms to mourn the late heroes and their sacrifice made in fighting for the country.

Among those was the investigative journalist Qiu Ziming, who, as I report for The Hindu, suggested the fatalities would have been higher than four and questioned why China took so long to come out with this information while India put it out immediately.

All this, of course, has been a welcome distraction to questions about the disengagement itself. Antara Ghoshal Singh captures some of those questions that surfaced briefly in this piece:

Before the focus shifted to ‘national mourning’ and the emotional outpour over the fallen soldiers, an interesting debate was seen on the Chinese internet and social media circles on the efficacy of the disengagement agreement between China and India, particularly which side has compromised and by how much.

While there was some satisfaction that a major crisis could be averted for the time being, there was much more disappointment in China over perceptions like “China has given away too much - a piece for peace”, that “the concession was inexplicable” and “the agreement unfair and unfavourable to China”.

Many commentators in the Chinese internet argued that the retreat was far from “equidistant” - China retreated far more than India, demolished more structures than India and surrendered its key advantages at the Northern Bank of Pangong Lake. That China can no longer station troops/patrol between the 4th and 8th finger as per the agreement, is seen by many as the real disadvantage for the Chinese side.

“On the northern bank of the Pangong Lake, China was able to patrol till F2 in the 1990s. India built a stronghold at F3 as late as 2014 and according to its own admission, it can patrol till F4/F5 once every two months due to poor condition of infrastructure in the Indian side. India did occupy some heights in the F4 in September last year but was still not able to cross F4. In contrast, the China had a “water base” in F8, a base in F5, and a decent road connecting F4-F8. It had actual control of the region, was in a much stronger position and had much greater mobility as compared to India. But according to the new agreement China must dismantle all the fortifications, buildings, cannon, positions, tents etc., built between F8-F4 and stop patrolling of the area as well. This is undoubtedly, India's victory on the Northern Bank”, argues an anonymous account in a long thread on LAC disengagement at the online military forum,

Others at the forum, however, tried to counter the gloom by arguing that this was not really a total concession from China, at most a ‘tie’ between China and India. They argue that in the middle of last year, during the Sino-Indian military negotiations, China had already proposed that the two sides disengage from the F4 standoff site equidistantly.

That is, China retreats from F4 to F8, and India retreats from F4 to F2-F3. But at that time, it was rejected by the Indian military on grounds that F4-F8 was previously an area where both sides patrolled, that it was newly occupied by China in April 2020, while F2-F3 was a territory occupied by India for a long time.

“Equidistant”, according to the Indian side, meant that China retreats to F8 and India does not move, so that ‘status quo ante’ or the state of the border before April 2020 can be restored. But in the ninth round of talk, India actually gave up its earlier demands and agreed to the same “equidistant” disengagement proposal, which is equivalent to accepting China’s proposal last year.

In a way, agreeing to China’s proposal also means India’s recognition of China’s actual control status of F4-F8, just like India’s actual control over F2-F3, which can also be interpreted as India’s disguised recognition of China’s sovereignty over F4-F8.

This is the fundamental reason, the Chinese commentators said, the Indian opposition has been criticising the government while the Indian Ministry of Defense has repeatedly stated that India has not given up its sovereignty over F4-F8. From this context, India too, they argued, has made huge concessions.

Moreover, not carrying out a military operation against India, they contended, does not necessarily mean that China is losing. A showdown with India, they warned, can easily evolve into a tug-of-war and protracted battle. “The war will never end. When the time comes, the Western powers will chip in to drag China into a quagmire of war. India doesn't need to win the battle, as long as it keeps fighting with China, it will win,” mentions another post on the online forum.

Despite such counterviews, a strong sense of resentment was palpable among Chinese observers, particularly over the perception that the area of actual control under China (that is F4-F8) has now been reduced to a Gray Zone.

COMMENT: It must be said that most people aren't asking those questions, and in my view, the propaganda push since Friday has been quite effective within China in whipping up support for the PLA. So has the selectively put out Galwan footage, that shows India as the aggressor and Chinese soldiers showing restraint. For the viewers in China, this would present an altogether different picture of what was unfolding -- which was Indian soldiers trying to evict Chinese soldiers who had moved in. That context is wholly absent in China, where most people believe India was the aggressor -- an unusual "aggressor" that ended up losing access to territory and military patrolling points. The point is, however clunky this propaganda may look abroad, propaganda works at home. And it seems to be this time.

Lin Minwang in the Global Times on the politics behind this public opinion outpouring:

Chinese analysts said the high-profile commemoration of four PLA soldiers shows that there is an unshakable consensus shared by the mass public - unconditional support for the military to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the Chinese government also hopes the public will understand that stability and prosperity of the country, even in an era of peace, comes at a cost, sometimes even the lives of the soldiers to protect the nation.  

India should learn that this kind of public opinion could turn into a huge force to be reckoned with against any foreign aggression, and if India doesn't appreciate China's sincerity in easing border tensions and engages in aggression further, India will again be the side who pays a heavy price, said experts.

Lin Minwang, a professor with the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, said that it is human nature for Chinese people to have negative sentiments toward India after the details of Galwan Valley skirmish were released, but unlike New Delhi who continually hyped its nationalism and populism against China, Beijing didn't play up public sentiment against India.

In the firsthand official information released by the PLA Daily on Friday, China used the words "foreign forces" instead of "Indian troops". This is to minimize the unnecessary impact that could in turn embarrass India and disturb the ongoing disengagement process, Lin said, adding that "But unfortunately, India could mistakenly interpret this as 'China is afraid of India,' so strength is actually much more useful to deter further provocation from the Indian side," Lin said.

Snehesh Philip has another informative report on where the disengagement process is:

Sources in the defence and security establishment told ThePrint that the talks, which were held at the Chinese side and began 10 am Saturday and ended at 2 am Sunday, were “constructive” and both sides are “hopeful” of a fruitful outcome.

The Indian delegation led by 14 Corps Commander Lt Gen P.G.K. Menon told the Chinese that to maintain peace and tranquility at the Line of Actual Control, it was important to disengage in Gogra, Hot Springs, Demchok and stop blocking of Indian patrols in the Depsang Plains.

Both sides also reviewed the disengagement process that has been completed at Pangong Tso with them withdrawing infantry soldiers, mechanised columns and armoured elements from the northern and southern banks including the Kailash Range.

It is understood that both sides have worked out an understanding on disengagement process to be rolled out in the Gogra and Hot Spring area where India and China continue to be in a stand-off.

While both had agreed for disengagement in these areas in July last year, the Chinese did not implement the agreement completely.

The issue of Depsang Plains and Demchok was also discussed during the meeting and was part of the “constructive” outcome, sources said.

They, however, did not get into the understanding that has been reached for these two areas.

It is understood that both sides will now get back to their higher authorities and local commanders will speak to each other in the coming days to fine-tune the agreement reached at the Corps Commander talks.

Recommend reading this perspective from former Northern Army Commander Lt. Gen. DS Hooda (retd) on the disengagement deal:

Regarding the buffer zone, India’s claim is at Finger 8, and so the buffer zone could be seen as being entirely on the Indian side. However, based on China's claim, a buffer zone extending eastward from Finger 4 could be considered entirely in Chinese territory. The advantages or disadvantages are similar for both sides. A temporary moratorium on patrolling is essential if we do not want to see a repeat of the Galwan incident which resulted from a patrol clash after disengagement in the area had been decided.

At the South Bank, the Indian Army has indeed given up tactical advantage. However, as Lt. Gen. Joshi has clarified, “This disengagement is happening because we had taken the dominating position on the Kailash range. So, now the purpose has been achieved, we are going back to status quo ante April 2020.”

The principle of restoring status quo ante cannot be selectively applied only to the North Bank and not to positions occupied by Indian soldiers on the South Bank after April 2020. For any negotiation to succeed, there must be some alignment of interests, and both sides must feel that they are better off coming to an agreement as opposed to continuing with a tense stalemate.

Viewed in an overall context, the disengagement process at Pangong Tso can be seen as fair and equitable and in line with the Indian demand for restoration of status quo ante…

The current disengagement process is a positive development in easing the ten-month-long standoff at the LAC, and criticism that India has ceded territory does not appear to be justified, at least at this stage.  The Indian leadership deserves high marks for standing firm in resisting China's coercive actions. However, even if the current crisis is resolved peacefully, the level of mistrust will remain high, and restoring normalcy in bilateral ties will take a long time. The Chinese military threat is a clear and present danger, now and in the future, and overcoming it will require a holistic national strategy.

And finally….

A lovely read from Luo Ruiyao on lion dancing in Kolkata in the South China Morning Post:

It was the evening of the second day of Lunar New Year, and at the only Chinese school in Kolkata, the sound of drumming filled the air. Soon, the heady beat was joined by crashing cymbals and a gong, as costumed performers leapt from pole to pole in a traditional Chinese lion dance.

Onlookers whooped and cheered as they watched the colourful spectacle, but after the 20-minute show at the Pei Mei Chinese high school was over, the man behind it all did not look entirely satisfied.

“We made some mistakes. We would have lost points if this was a competition,” said James Liao, the show’s director.

Liao, who was born and raised in Kolkata, runs a club that teaches lion dance and martial arts in the Indian city. As one of the fewer than 4,000 or so Chinese-Indians thought to still live in India, the 50-year-old has worked to preserve his community’s traditions over the past 20 years – and now aims to pass them on to the next generation.

That’s it for today. Thanks for reading - this turned out to be longer than I’d planned, but it’s been an unusual past four days. I’ll endeavour to keep future issues shorter!