By Shai Venkatraman and Dev Lewis
India has viewed China through the lens of suspicion since the 1962 war. Despite the two countries moving forward on the economic front, negative public perception persists. The Indian news media has a role in this, playing up stereotypes instead of building bridges.
For the last six decades, India has viewed China with suspicion and through the prism of a war. Two chronological points underscore this – 1959, when China annexed Tibet and India offered shelter to the Dalai Lama, and 1962, when India lost a short war with China over a disputed northern border, and China aligned with Pakistan, India’s principal security threat.
However, in the past decade or so, as both countries have grown economically, they have chosen to separate the issues of contention from areas of cooperation. Today China is India’s largest trading partner, with over $65 billion in trade in 2013, up from $2 billion in 2000. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made India his first overseas visit in March 2013, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Beijing in October that year, and signed a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement. It was during this visit that the two countries agreed to observe 2014 as the “Year of Friendly Exchanges.”
However, few such positive developments are highlighted by the mainstream media in India or China. According to Simon Shen, who wrote a paper on the online Chinese perception of India in September 2011, the unfriendly bilateral images in the popular media could have far-reaching implications for future China-India relations. There has been no similar study on the portrayal of China in the Indian media. Gateway House, Mumbai, has made the first such examination of the Indian media’s role in shaping Indian perceptions of China. We selected a recent time-frame – 1 January 2012 to 1 January 2014 – and identified particular aspects of the India-China bilateral relationship as our focus.
We selected a sample of reports on China from the mainstream Indian newspapers and TV channels both Hindi and English, business and non-business, wire agencies and online chat forums. Our sample included conventional English news sources like the Times of India, The Hindu, the Hindustan Times, Livemint, Economic Times, Hindu Businessline, Firstpost and Rediff. From Hindi newspapers we chose Dainik Jagran and Navbharat Times; and from the wire agency Press Trust of India. TV channels included Times Now, NDTV, CNN-IBN, Aaj Tak, ABPTV, and Rajya Sabha TV which is part of the national broadcaster Doordarshan.
We analysed reports relating to specific incidents and events during this period, like the arrest of Indian traders in Yiwu in China, the Depsang and Chumar border incidents and the annual India-China Strategic Economic Dialogues which have given a fillip to the relationship after Chinese President Xi Jinpeng took charge in 2013. The reports were divided into three categories – positive, negative and neutral. Positive reports showed China in a positive light, through its achievements, or if it acted in a manner friendly to India. Negative reports mention China acting as an aggressor towards India or against Indian interests. Neutral reports stated facts or reported an event.
Of the 148 newspaper reports studied, there were two negative reports for every positive one, with 39% of the articles focusing on border or security issues. A full 45% of the reports were negative, 31% were neutral and 24% were positive. There was scant mention of the significant gains made during the annual India-China Strategic Economic Dialogues or India and China’s growing cooperation on issues like climate change, trade and the oil industry in South Sudan. While all major print publications covered Li Keqiang’s visit, the coverage itself was limited, without analysis of the economic benefits from the eight agreements signed across industries. However no analyses of the economic import of this could be found in Indian media. The opinion pieces in some papers were highly critical of the visit, focusing only on the border issue.
Similarly, China’s offer to invest $300 billion in India’s infrastructure over the next five years was barely covered by the mainstream media, though the business papers did publish details of the working groups set up to address the growing trade deficit between the two countries. In contrast, the response on the online discussion forums was largely positive with many acknowledging the economic benefits. A minority expressed mistrust, citing Chinese spying, and the poor quality of Chinese technology.
It is the business papers in India which seem to have made a much fairer case for China. There is an understanding of the commercial advantages of dealing with China despite the strategic differences, and mostly positive reportage on the Chinese offer to fund infrastructure development in India, as well as the willingness on the part of Chinese telecom firms to comply with security checks for foreign spyware – unlike the European telecom firms like Blackberry and Ericsson which declined to do so.
The economic aspects of the bilateral relationship find little reflection in TV channels. The tone across all channels was strident and reached fever pitch when it came to Depsang and Chumar even though both governments issued statements downplaying the incidents. Primetime shows with provocative titles like Should India trust China and Will India react to China’s defiance highlighted the historical ‘betrayal’. There was no nuance visible nor any attempt to reflect the differing perceptions over the borders. India’s strategic advantage in Chumar, subsequently brought out in a Gateway House security briefing, found no mention.
Part of this one-dimensional coverage is due to limited access: just four Indian media houses – three newspapers and a wire agency – have reporters based in Beijing. The rest rely on international wire agencies – and their residual biases – while Indian TV has no presence at all in China. Barring The Hindu reporter, the others rarely travel out of Beijing, as travel and accommodation costs are not reimbursed to correspondents.
Just how damaging the impact of such slanted coverage can be became evident when a diplomatic crisis erupted following the arrest of the Indian traders in Yiwu in early 2012. The Indian media claimed the traders were humiliated and jailed and an Indian diplomat attacked by local traders. The escalating tensions led to both India and China issuing travel advisories to their citizens. The discussion on online forums turned especially ugly and abusive.
It later emerged that though the traders were jailed, neither they nor the diplomat were mistreated. To a substantial extent, the misrepresentation can be attributed to an information vacuum as very little information is shared by the government. So the media has at the most joint statements, communiqués or official briefings to work from.
The two governments are working hard to contain the bias through their foreign ministries, youth and sports departments and commercial envoys. Regular youth exchanges have begun, as have joint production of films, Mandarin language classes in Indian government schools and the organisation of business forums where think tanks and policy groups from both countries can regularly interact.
Perhaps by 2015, bilateral perceptions will be more in line with bilateral realities.
Shai Venkatraman is the Website Editor at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
Dev Lewis is Outreach Assistant at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
This feature was written as part of the China-India Brief, for the Centre on Asia and Globalisation, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.