Inside the debate in China about India's Covid-19 crisis

Welcome to today’s issue. In this lengthier-than-usual post (you may click on the headline to read in your browser, if your email has cut short this post), I thought I'd look at an interesting — and intense — debate underway on Chinese social media, involving some big-hitting commentators, on how people in China are reacting to India's continuing Covid-19 crisis, which has been a trending topic over the past few days.

In my last issue, I did mention there was some schadenfreude — captured in the now infamous mocking social media post that went viral and caused a backlash, more on that below — but also a lot of sympathy and concern, and I believe the latter to outweigh the former, even if it doesn’t make the news. Just in the past 24 hours, I have had three friends, all of whom work for prominent Chinese companies, reach out about wanting to send oxygen concentrators and other relief material to India. There is, sadly, always going to be heartless schadenfreude in the age of social media. While it's not lost on Chinese commentators they were similarly the target last year when Wuhan was reeling and let’s face it, lots of folks, including in India, were not exactly reacting with empathy, it seems that has only spurred many to dish it out now that China has recovered and others are still dealing with the virus — and many in China are pushing back against that.

The South China Morning Post notes how this debate began after this post by an official Chinese Communist Party social media account on weibo linked to the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission:

A social media post by a Chinese Communist Party organ that mocked India’s Covid-19 death toll was deleted after it triggered an intense backlash at home and abroad.

As India continues to grapple with massive surges of Covid-19 cases, Beijing has sought to project the image of a benevolent power abroad, but such efforts have been undermined by agencies that have tried to take advantage of the situation to pump up nationalist sentiment at home. In a post on Weibo on Saturday, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the party body that controls the courts and police, juxtaposed the image of China’s most recent space launch with the caption “China lighting a fire” and a picture of Indian funeral pyres with the caption “India lighting a fire”. The image was deleted later that day after it was criticised both at home and abroad for its insensitivity.

This was the now deleted post:

Lots of Chinese journalists, including on Twitter, condemned the post, including Qingqing Chen, senior reporter at the Global Times, who tweeted:

That should be that, you might think. Storm in a tea cup over.

But things then took an unexpected turn. The backlash prompted its own backlash to the backlash and those criticising the post began to come under fire (via NYT):

The post drew a backlash from internet users who called it callous, and it was taken down on the same day. But it has kindled debate in China about attitudes toward India, and the tensions between Beijing’s nationalist rhetoric at home and its efforts to promote a humbler, more humane image abroad.

The controversy created an unusual rift between two of China’s most voluble nationalist media pundits. Hu Xijin, the chief editor of The Global Times, an influential party newspaper, condemned the post for damaging China’s standing in India, while Shen Yi, an academic in Shanghai, derided critics with a coarse term that means something like “pearl clutchers.”

“Can so-called expressions of sympathy for India achieve the anticipated outcome?” Mr. Shen said in one of his online responsesto Mr. Hu. China, he suggested, should be more relaxed about flexing its political muscle. “Where can an 800-pound gorilla sleep?” he wrote. “Wherever it wants to.”

Hu Xijin, the Global Times editor-in-chief, faced with this, seems to have softened his initial disapproval to the post. Qingqing Chen began attracting lots of criticism on weibo. She has now deleted her tweet — a tweet, lest we forget, that was utterly harmless and obviously made the right point about a post that was in such bad taste.

Hu then posted a message from his weibo account. Portions from that translated below (usual disclaimer: aided by Google Translate, cleaned up here and there, please don’t use as a literal translation but this conveys the meaning of the post faithfully):

When the Hong Kong chaos was the most ferocious the year before, she bravely rushed to the forefront of Hong Kong, risking being discovered and beaten... She was one of the most active mainland reporters in Hong Kong at the time. Fu Guohao was beaten at the airport that day. She and two other reporters from Global Times were also in the airport at the time, but luckily they were not seen by the mob. When Catalonia, Spain was turbulent, she went first. She is one of the bravest reporters. She is the reporter Chen Qingqing, who many people are attacking today. Yes, Qingqing is immature. The tweet she sent is too simple… It was also inappropriate…But a reporter in her early 30s, can we ask her to be mature?

Not exactly a robust defence, which it began as, before he hedged and criticised her inexplicably for that entirely reasonable tweet. Hu also had this to say in the Global Times about India-China relations at this moment:

In terms of public opinion, Chinese and Indian societies have not got along well. Border tensions last year escalated sentiments on both sides, leading to a confrontation of public opinion. India has leaned closer to the US, further solidifying the social divide between China and India. This has become the background in which India is dealing with China in the face of a crisis.

China has made the greatest contribution to India’s current fight against the epidemic. Instead of being purely symbolic, China’s support and help has been very substantial. There is no atmosphere of public appreciation of China’s help in India. There is still a lot of resentment over border frictions and strategic hostility toward China. Out of a sense of pride, India has taken a lot of goods from Chinese companies, but has remained silent toward the fact. Hindustan Times has listed ten countries and regions that have started sending relief materials to India, and what kinds of materials they have supplied. But China is not on the list. [COMMENT: Hindustan Times, I’m guessing, probably didn’t mention that not because of spite but because the graphic was showing aid, and the material from China is being imported on a commercial basis while the others it listed were, as Hu said, “relief materials”.]

In the face of such a response from India, what should we do? Should we publicly accuse India of “repaying good with evil?” or turn our long-standing grievances toward India into mockery, even gloat about the Indian epidemic? I don’t think it is appropriate for us to be overly sensitive toward India’s reaction, especially going further to mock India's failure to fight the virus.

The official mindset of Chinese society toward India’s epidemic situation must be sympathetic and supportive of their battle against it, and this is indeed the case. I don’t think it’s proper for social media accounts of certain Chinese official institutions or other influential forces to mock India at present.

India has indeed done something wrong toward China. Even today when India is in trouble and China is lending it a helping hand, India still holds a grudge and remains narrow-minded. But currently, our prevailing attitude toward India should be still to show our sympathy and support, without being distracted by other sentiments. There is plenty of time and occasions for us to express our views regarding India. And we do not have to speak up upon them when India is struggling against the virus. We should not respond to radical voices in India, instead we should avoid escalating the spat between China and India among public opinion.

Although India has talked little about it, we have to say that China has done a magnificent job in supplying and supporting India. It is necessary for us to make the world more clearly aware of China’s actual role. Meanwhile, not like the US, the Indian government has not attacked China’s fight against the virus, nor has passed the buck to China. Currently, India is not only falling into a humanitarian disaster, but has become weak in the eyes of the rest of the world. The Chinese government proposed to offer India necessary support and assistance much earlier than Western countries. And our supplies have been provided to them with amazing speed, faster than any other country.

I understand that there are many voices and the public has their right to express various sentiments toward India. So do some figures who have many followers on social media platforms. But our public opinion, especially mainstream opinion, needs to follow the Chinese government’s narratives and moves as a whole, forming the tone of sympathy and support for India's fight against the virus. This is an indispensable part of China's national image.

Of all the pieces and views out there on Chinese social media — and there are many — one that is worth your attention is this lengthy intervention in this debate by Chairman Rabbit aka Ren Yi, who is, as The Economist put it, “a well-connected, Harvard-educated blogger with 1.5m followers" and "the 40-year-old grandson of Ren Zhongyi, a reformer who served as party secretary of Guangdong province in the 1980s”.

Selected portions from his lengthy essay posted on WeChat (usual disclaimer again: aided by Google Translate, cleaned up here and there, please don’t use as a literal translation but I’ve done my best to convey the meaning of the post faithfully)

In China now, tourism attractions and transportation infrastructure have "collapsed" [COMMENT: He means tourism is booming] and in India, medical infrastructure has collapsed. This is the result of the difference in response to the epidemic. China has responded well to the epidemic…Coupled with the severe epidemic abroad, the concentrated release of consumer demand has caused tourism infrastructure to fail to keep up. India’s medical/public health infrastructure is on the verge of collapse due to poor response to the epidemic. The same situation has appeared in many countries, including Brazil some time ago. In a private and informal chat with my friends, I believe most people will make such comparisons: "Look at how their country is going, how our country is going." This is human nature, but I would not be making it formally…

This brings us to the issue of the “lighting a fire in China vs. lighting a fire in India" post that has received more attention a few days ago.

Domestic opinions on the issue of "China vs. India" are quite divided, and are roughly divided into two factions. One faction thinks that the official Weibo of the Central Political and Legal Committee is very good. That's how it should be said. Just say it. There is nothing that can't be said. The other faction thinks this Weibo was not well posted, and the level is not high, and especially an official account should not post such things…

First, I do not agree with the attitude expressed in this Weibo posted by the official Weibo of the Central Political and Legal Committee. My judgment on this matter is purely from the perspective of morality and moral values, and there is no need to introduce other considerations….

Some things must not be used as a joke—for example, if it involves disasters, illnesses, life and death and other major issues related to human life and death. When the other party encounters disasters, life, death, or illness, express sympathy, empathy, and care. comfort. This kind of reaction and attitude spans historical and societal time and space. All human groups should be able to find resonance and consensus spontaneously… It is common and universal. Humans can even have such empathy for other species. The author believes that from a Chinese perspective, to mock the horror of burning corpses in India, or to use it as a material (for example, to compare with China's success), touches this basic bottom line.

Today, the Party and Government in China attach great importance to the construction and maintenance of positive values and moral consensus. In fact, we now not only maintain this value domestically, but also hope to spread this value internationally ("a community with a shared future for mankind").

Therefore, the fate (deleted or blocked) of this Weibo is enough in itself. Later, Hu Xijin and other official media people came out to express their views. I think that the moral main line in the new era is very clear. Weibos such as "China lighting a fire vs. India lighting a fire" do not conform to the current top-down moral main line. From the person who decided to delete the post to the editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, together, it also reflects a reflection of the current moral line and consensus.

Finally, it should be pointed out that the same content has different effects because of different publishers and different contexts. For example, if the same thing is posted by Indians themselves, the effect will be different. If Indians post this, it may be to criticize the Indian government, politicians, and social system. To put it bluntly, it means that others can't scold yourself, but you can scold yourself…

The main problem is this: comparing China and India, I can understand the perspective -- this kind of comparison between countries is actually a comprehensive comparison, comparing systems, people, cultures… But this perspective is very different from that of the West. I often write that the West and most countries influenced by Western civilization separate political parties, politicians, and governments from civil society/the masses, and they often oppose each other. Relatively speaking, the average Chinese person has a greater sense of the country, and they regard the country, society, and individuals as one (of course this is relative to the West)…

"Inside and outside" are no longer different… In the current Internet age, information is connected. A public opinion event on a mainland platform can quickly be transferred to the external network and become international news; an overseas/external network event will also be quickly transferred to the country. Audiences are also indifferent. Originally intended for overseas, the audience may be mainly local; instead, the speech that was originally intended to be only for the people of the country may receive greater attention overseas…Be fully prepared: once a speech is sent out, it may circulate everywhere, out of the original audience and context.

The author has repeatedly mentioned the problem of "internal propaganda" versus foreign propaganda/diplomatic. This has something to do with internal and external aspects…In today's world, it is impossible to artificially construct a distinction between inside and outside…

I believe that the editors who operate official accounts/accounts are ordinary young people. They just want to make the account popular and have a bigger impact. Clicks and comments are all KPIs… From central to local, so many government/public institutions and functional departments constitute a very large group. Going back to the young editors who run official accounts, everyone's knowledge background, experience, opinions, and styles are also different. If there is high, there will be low, and from time to time, someone will post inappropriate things. It is difficult to avoid…

Foreign/western public opinion field will regard the official account of the Chinese government as a whole…The West believes that China is a one-party authoritarian government, and all departments are integrated… Due to the characteristics of China's system, it is easy for foreign media to interpret the statements of China's official accounts in this way. For one, they might really understand that. Second, they may also wish to understand in this way. This analysis method is "reductionist", simple and easy to use, and especially suitable for cynical people: they are willing to understand China in this way, and use the trend to slander and demonize China.

Therefore, as long as an account is considered to reflect the official position of the Chinese government, it needs to be very cautious. Any information released by a young editor will also be regarded as China's national will. In other words, our leaders have talked a lot and done a lot, but a lot of work can be undone by any official or editor. This is very scary…

China's current international environment is very complicated. All day long, the United States hopes to win over our neighbours to oppose us, establish an anti-China encirclement network, and use anti-China as an important bargaining chip in the diplomacy of its allies. China is far from the state where every country likes and appreciates us, nor is it fully self-sufficient no longer needs other countries. The United States is the number one power, and the United States has to win over allies everywhere.

Therefore, China has made tremendous efforts for international exchanges, including the Belt and Road Initiative in Asia, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, cooperation with various regional economies/countries, participation in RCEP, etc., all for the purpose of establishing a good relationship with them…

We have spent so much effort to build a relationship, but the hard-won relationship is hurt by the online speech of official institutions (they are considered to be the voice of the country). This must be avoided. If it is not handled properly, it will only push our neighboring countries to the United States. Imagine that if these countries adopt an attitude that is not conducive to us on key issues such as the Taiwan issue, wouldn't we be in a very passive position? Do we really have the ability and need to block everyone? Indecent treatment by foreign unfriendly government politicians must be responded to. This is necessary. A big country does not need to bear humiliation. For a big country to look like a big country, it must have a higher posture and demeanor. Only having a higher vision and standing can arouse respect.

The current international situation in China is very complicated and quite unfriendly. The G7 foreign ministers’ meeting came to discuss China’s challenges, as well as the Taiwan issue…Biden now intends to regain character for the United States. So what should we do at this time? I think one has to be extra cautious about relations with neighbouring countries. We cannot guarantee to make friends, but we must make sure not to make enemies again. We must have a big strategic vision and long-term thinking.

Safe to say, this is certainly not the last time we will see this debate and the tension between internal messaging and its external implications. And given current trends of Chinese media messaging at home in the Xi era, that tension is only increasing.

That’s it for this issue. Thank you for reading. Have an enjoyable and safe weekend, and see you soon.