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Newspapers in the northeast reveal that the states like China a lot less than we think

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Perception about China from the bordering areas is distinctly more negative compared to the perception projected by newspapers published from the national capital.

How did two newspapers from two of India’s northeastern states located in the India-China border region — The Arunachal Times and The Assam Tribune — portray China between 2012 to 2014? And how did these compare with those of the national newspapers?

Here are some of our findings from a study that examines regional reporting of issues relevant to India-China ties:

A total of 89 China-related editorial pieces were studied (The Arunachal Times– 31; The Assam Tribune- 58). The Arunachal Times had the highest number of China-related editorials in 2014 while The Assam Tribune published the most number of such editorials in 2013.

To understand the newspapers’ concern with China-related matters, the authors constructed an “attention score” of regional and national media. According to this scale, a newspaper scoring 100 would have published at least one editorial piece on China every day of each year and a score of zero would mean it did not carry any editorial at all in the same period.

Table 2: Attention Score

Six distinct themes came out, namely: China as arising power; India-China border; Ecology/Rivers; Economy; Connectivity; and China’s domestic issues.

Table 3: Editorials by Themes by Newspaper

It shows that The Assam Tribune’s overwhelming concern about China during 2012-14 has been its status as a rising power, distantly followed by its concern for the border and ecology/river.

Nearly, 57 percent of all the editorials concerning China published by this newspaper have been on the country’s muscle-flexing in India’s neighbourhood. That the next highest number of editorials by The Assam Tribune (15.5 percent) is on India-China border issues reiterates that the newspaper is attuned to issues about the border that was breached by Chinese forces in 1962.

The Arunachal Times has written less number of editorials on China during the same period, being published as it is out of a state with disputed borders with China; still, the newspaper showed adequate concern about the border issue during the period of study, with nearly 71 percent of its editorials being on the theme of border. This is followed by its editorials on ecology, economy, and China as a rising power—on which there were few editorials over the three years. The Assam Tribune shows some degree of sensitivity on the ecology/river theme compared to both The Arunachal Times and its own attention to the other themes of economy, connectivity, and China’s domestic issues.

Figure: Editorials by Theme by Newspaper

The Arunachal Times wrote seven out of 11, and 15 out of 18 editorials on the border in 2013 and 2014, respectively; The Assam Tribune contributed 5 out 27 and 4 out of 22 editorials on the same theme during these latter years. These authors’ earlier study of national newspapers found that 2013 and 2014 witnessed many alleged incursions by China particularly on the Eastern and Western sector of the border, making those newspapers more sensitive to the border issue in those years.

What is quite surprising is that despite controversies over the Brahmaputra (media reports of China attempting to build dams over the 1,625-km stretch of Brahmaputra in trying to divert water to the dry mountain lands of Tibet), the newspapers do not show much concern about the ecology/river theme. The Arunachal Times has written only three out of 31 editorials over this three-year period on the subject, while The Assam Tribune showed a little more sensitiveness with seven out of 58 editorials (the proportions remain nearly the same).

A newspaper writing an editorial on an issue or a country tries to make a point through which it wants to influence readers’ opinion as much as to have an impact on public policy. The point it makes about the issue or the country may project it negatively or positively.

Table 5: Editorial Perception by Intensity by Newspaper (2012-2014)

Table 6: Editorial Perception by Year (2012-2014)

Table 7: Editorial Themes by Perception (2012-2014)

The authors conclude that regional perception, as projected by these two newspapers of the two states from the bordering region in India’s Northeast, differs sharply from the national-level perception. Perception from the bordering areas is distinctly more negative and has become increasingly so over the years compared to the perception projected by newspapers published from the national capital region.

Interestingly, even this regional perception is internally fragmented: the two northeastern states differ in terms of importance given to the different themes as well as in terms of the intensity with which they project China negatively or positively.

The editorials in the regional newspapers reflect that they are not overwhelmed by the presence of a globally muscle-flexing China. The degree of attention paid to China by The Assam Tribune and The Arunachal Times is in the neighbourhood of what the national newspapers have done: the

former exceeds the degree of attention paid by The Indian Express (4.84 being the highest mean score among the national ones) by a small margin while the latter equals the score of The Hindu.

But broadly, the regional media’s views overlap with the national media — both think it is appropriate to pay more attention to themes of China as a rising power and the border issue, among all the other themes or issues.

Rakhahari Chatterji, formerly, Professor in Political Science at Calcutta University, is the Advisor at ORF, Kolkata, and Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, is a Fellow with ORF’s Neighbourhood Regional Studies Initiative.

This is an edited extract from the report titled “Indian regional media’s perception of China: Analysis of select editorials from The Assam Tribune and The Arunachal Times.” The report is part of the “Understanding China” series. You can read the full report here.

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