Perhaps the Arnab Goswami of China, the boyish but combative editor of the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece the Global Times, Hu Xijin, doesn’t understand the strength of the #BlackLivesMatter democracy protests sweeping across America or why the Chinese have occupied Indian territory in Ladakh, and not vice-versa. He would rather blindly obey the commands of his party bosses in putting out stories and videos in aggressive defence of his motherland.
With the Global Times — and not the People’s Daily, China’s largest newspaper whose editorials in 1989 during the Tiananmen Square uprising were a window to the party leadership’s thoughts — becoming the CCP’s chosen vehicle to convey strong messages to the outside world, Hu is playing well both a pamphleteer and keeper of the flame.
Hu has not shied away from publishing material the Chinese have tried hard over the decades to erase. For example, his Twitter feed shows a short video of the lone Chinaman, popularly known as the Tank Man, standing before a procession of tanks going to take over Tiananmen in the heart of Beijing on 4 June 1989. But this video is juxtaposed with another clip showing two police cars in Brooklyn, New York City running over civilian protesters.
Unsurprisingly, the Ladakh standoff has stoked nationalist sentiments in China with the Chinese media playing a key role in it. While a video shows hundreds of tanks moving across the high-altitude desert as “several thousand PLA soldiers” are airlifted from Hubei by the Chinese air force, an article published in the Global Times notes India cannot resist buying Chinese goods. Another article asks why Delhi wants to “play with fire” by accepting the US’ invitation to join the G7+ grouping.
In these pandemic-weary times, the Chinese media seems to be putting out two messages.
The first, subscribed by news outlets like the Global Times, is the belief that China, a rising superpower, has nothing to be afraid of and that any criticism, including that in the coronavirus outbreak must be countered strongly. This is the take-no-prisoners ‘Wolf Warrior’ school of thought, a reference to the 2017 Chinese thriller in which badass Chinese commandos rescue their citizens when violence breaks out in an African country.
The second message is far softer and much more subtle, exemplified in the masthead of the People’s Daily website, which declares that its mission is “ending poverty in China.” Videos on this website show you how China has fought the coronavirus (with will, determination and expertise) and how a 34-year-old song, ‘Let the world be filled with love’, by renowned Chinese musician Guo Feng, now with tinted long hair, has been re-mastered in collaboration with one American, one Egyptian, one Frenchman, one African woman and a couple of other people of different nationalities.
This school may well pass off as ‘tao guang yang hui’, a phrase interpreted by Deng Xiaoping in the good old days as “keeping a low profile and biding your time” or “hiding brightness, nourishing obscurity.”
So, develop your strength, but don’t show off. Share, cooperate, reach out, lend the world a helping hand. Share the coronavirus vaccine, when you develop it. Your achievement is not yours only, so sing a song to jointly celebrate it.
While the Global Times is practicing the ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy, the People’s Daily is manifesting ‘tao guang yang hui.’ It’s the classic good cop-bad cop routine playing out in the Chinese media.
No prizes for guessing how the Global Times is reporting the Ladakh standoff – by blaming India for claiming Chinese territory. The reality is completely different, of course. Another example of Arnab Goswami and Hu Xijin being mirror opposites is that neither acknowledges the truth on the ground because it doesn’t suit their journalism.
The ground reality
On the ground, facts are that the Chinese have refused to let Indian soldiers patrol certain pockets across the Pangong Tso and the Galwan valley, asserting territorial control over swathes of the Line of Actual Control that had always been considered settled.
The Chinese like obfuscation. They want to keep the India-China boundary disputed and the LAC undemarcated. That’s why they have refused to exchange maps for several decades or discuss pockets of differences. Vagueness is good. It allows the Chinese to mount an “intrusion” every few years – Depsang in 2013, Chumar-Demchok in 2014, Doklam in Bhutan in 2017 and Ladakh in 2020 – to keep India off balance.
Does India have the nerves?
Question is, why is India playing into China’s hands? Indian explanations of the Ladakh intrusion, that there are “differences of the perceptions of the LAC” and that random Chinese soldiers are simply taking a stroll across it in in some parts are both disrespectful of the Indian public which wants transparency and a way of throwing the questioner off scent.
Tao guang yang hui? Maybe not. Let’s give the Narendra Modi government the benefit of doubt; after all, negotiations cannot be conducted in media glare. Delhi is certainly demanding the restoration of status quo ante, which means the Chinese must go back to where they were in mid-April before they came into Indian territory.
The Global Times is predicting that India doesn’t have the nerve to follow through. Worse, from all accounts, the Chinese believe that democracy is a weakness and India doesn’t have the ability to act independently. That it needs the help of other nations, including those in the so-called Quad – Australia, Japan and the US – to defend itself.
That India is not China’s equal.
An eye for an eye or Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam? If PM Modi believes the world is one family, which is what he has said often, he will invoke the Wuhan-Mamallapuram messages of peace and brotherhood and hope Beijing will see the light. If he prefers Chanakyaniti, he may order the Army to cross into Chinese territories in another part of the LAC, so that India too has leverage.
This is Modi’s toughest foreign policy challenge yet. What is worse, it has come in the middle of a pandemic.
Views are personal.