I would rather sacrifice my life than lose an inch of my land,” People’s Liberation Army commander Qi Fabao said at a gathering of the Chinese Communist Party’s celebration of its 100th anniversary. Fabao, according to Chinese claims, was one of the PLA soldiers who had survived the Galwan clash with the Indian Army in Ladakh in June 2020.
Although the event was political, the tenor was overpowered by the focus on defending borders. The Political Work Department of the Central Military Commission held a special meeting on the “deeds of the heroes defending the country and guarding the border in the new era”.
At the event, the documentary film Behind Us Is the Motherland was shown. The documentary was released in February 2021 when China finally acknowledged casualties in the Galwan clash, saying four PLA soldiers had been killed. The Indian Army had acknowledged the death of 20 soldiers. Experts have questioned China’s death toll, indicating it could be much higher.
The event’s highlight was Qi Fabao, who was hailed as a “hero”. The hashtag “Chief Qi Fabao talks about frontier guards’ dedication to the country” trended on Twitter-like Chinese social media platform, Weibo. The hashtag was viewed 4.14 million times. The fact that the four soldiers who died in the clash were ‘young’ was repeatedly highlighted on Chinese social media.
The four soldiers and Fabao have been dubbed as the “hero group”. The group was awarded the “Chinese Youth May Fourth Medal” by the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League and the All-China Youth Federation on Youth Day, held every year to commemorate the May Fourth Movement of 1919.
Keeping a close watch
The Galwan clash has been intensely followed and discussed on Chinese social media platforms. This has drawn the attention of the Chinese military, which has sought to manage the public interest, particularly the critical voices that questioned the timeline of events narrated through State media platforms.
A closed Weibo group run by military bloggers in China, and seen by me, is dedicated to sharing all the latest developments along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The group also focuses on interpreting reports in Indian media. The military bloggers – some likely associated with the PLA – coordinate their posts between WeChat, Weibo, and Twitter. A similar social media campaign was waged by the government of India and the Indian Army as well. Public perception management became paramount for both India and China at the height of the military stand-off in Ladakh.
On 11 June 2021, the CCP’s National People’s Congress passed a new law titled ‘Law on the Protection of the Status, Rights, and Interests of Military Personnel’.
“No organization or individual may in any way slander or belittle the honour of a serviceman, insult or slander the reputation of a serviceman, or intentionally damage or defile the mark of honour of a serviceman,” says Article 32 of the new NPC law.
Article 65 of the law says if anyone “Insults or slanders the reputation of a serviceman… through the mass media or other means shall be ordered to make corrections by the public security, culture and tourism, press and publication, film, radio and television” or any other relevant department.
The new law also talks about publicising the heroic deeds of military personnel.
An ongoing effort
In 2018, China had adopted a law to protect the reputation and honour of heroes and martyrs. The legislation came to be known as “hero law”. Chinese law enforcement officials have used the “hero law” to target bloggers and social media users for questioning the events of the June 2020 clash.
A 38-year-old blogger named Qiu Ziming was found guilty and imprisoned for “slandering heroes and martyrs” under the 2018 law. Qiu, who has over 2.5 million followers on Weibo, wrote that “all the four solider[s] who died were in the process of rescuing [the colonel]. Now that the rescue team have all died, it’s clear evidence that the rescue effort failed, and there must be more people dead.” China has punished or investigated seven individuals for questioning the government’s narrative, including one national outside of China who is a permanent resident of the US.
But questions about what motivated China to escalate a border stand-off remain. The answer perhaps lies in China’s actions in the run-up to the border stand-off.
A 2019 article published by state-affiliated Tibet Daily gives us some insight into China’s work in the Ngari Prefecture (Ali region) of Tibet, which is adjacent to Eastern Ladakh. The article is titled ‘Party building with characteristics in Ali Region to consolidate the “root” and cast the “soul” for border development’. The report was also reproduced on the Chinese Communist Party’s website dedicated to “party building”.
“We will integrate the human and property resources of both the military and the civilian sides, establish 25 border inspection stations, conflict and dispute mediation stations, and convenient service stations along the main traffic lines, mountain passes, and key areas, and build a team of information officers, border guards, and joint security officers with the military as the main force, the civilian as the auxiliary, and the military, civilian combination,” says the article.
The same theme was repeated in another article published by Tibet Daily (or China Tibet News Network) on 21 May 2021. This article was reproduced on the Tibet regional government’s website. Titled ‘The border is full of party’s banners, and the history of the Communist Party is glorious,’ the article said, “Strengthening the border is an important political task entrusted to Ali region (Ngari Prefecture) by the general secretary. We will promote the experience of “five in all, five in one” and lead the masses in production, grazing and patrolling along the border.” Xi Jinping is the general secretary of the CCP.
Focus on internal stability
We have learned from open-source imagery and analysis that the PLA has enhanced its military equipment and border posts since 2020 in the Xinjiang Military District – especially along the LAC. Beijing has invested in improving infrastructure for the local population, such as in the Jiagang village in the Ngari Prefecture.
As a staunch nationalist, Xi Jinping has turned his attention to China’s borders. In Chinese military and foreign policy thought, internal stability in the western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang is central for China’s growing confidence in the South China Sea and other parts of East Asia. Therefore, Chinese military leaders believe that strengthening borders with neighbouring countries is essential to China’s global ambitions for advancing their place in the world order.
By escalating the military stand-off in Ladakh, the PLA hoped to keep the crisis restricted to the western sector, but India’s response surprised Beijing, which escalated the tensions further.
The questions about China’s ultimate intentions remain. But a close reading of the CCP’s actions in the western regions of China suggests that the border is playing a critical role in Xi Jinping’s “new era” – and will continue to do so.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)