China’s new ambassador to India, Sun Weidong has been busy in the op-ed pages of major Indian newspapers since his arrival. The first of these articles came even before he had formally presented his credentials at Rashtrapati Bhavan. This piece in The Hindu talked about the long historical connections between the two countries represented by the ancient Buddhist site of Dunhuang in China’s Gansu province, the ‘pearl on the Silk Road’. While ostensibly about promoting people-to-people ties, the essay also regularly repeated such concepts and phrases as the ‘Silk Road spirit’, ‘harmony’ and ‘win-win cooperation’ seen as Chinese contributions to the lexicon of international relations, never mind that they remain poorly or vaguely defined. There is also, of course, the not so small matter of the rhetoric seldom matching the reality as both India’s own experiences and those of any number of China’s other neighbours show.
Spouting vague generalities of civilizational ties are however only a warm-up to the practical needs of ensuring the rest of the world accepts and backs Beijing’s positions on both the ongoing Hong Kong protests and the US-China trade war. Thus, at the beginning of September, Amb. Sun wrote in The Indian Express, on China’s version of the ‘truth’ about goings-on in Hong Kong. He highlighted specific instances of violence by the protestors who defied ‘laws human and divine’ without offering any explanation about why the protests broke out in the first place and why it had the support of millions of Hong Kong citizens. Nor did he acknowledge that the protests had been largely peaceful before police violence increased.
Amb. Sun’s repeated references to China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong is particularly noteworthy coming as it did in the wake of China’s reactions to India’s dilution of Article 370 and the reorganization of Jammu & Kashmir, reactions which also challenge India’s own sovereignty over the region.
Even more important than explaining China’s actions in Hong Kong – there is, after all, no danger of it losing control over the tiny territory – is the effort to blame the protests on ‘the interference and instigation by some countries’. Without doubt the United States is seen as the central villain and this goes very well also with the narrative being built up about the trade war as being the result of US envy of China’s progress and development.
And so we come to the real thrust of the Chinese envoy’s efforts in the Indian media which is to build a coalition against the US based on the narrative that the latter is against economic globalization, is unilateralist and a threat also to Indian interests. It is however, ironic, that even as the Chinese ambassador says in another op-ed, this time for The Times of India, that ‘China and India share interests in upholding normal world trade order’ and calls for ‘win-win cooperation’, there is no acknowledgement that the ‘normal’ international order is also unfair to India nor any offers of support for say, Indian permanent membership of the UN Security Council or of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Also interesting is the fact that while in the Indian Express piece Sun was blaming foreign powers for interference in China’s internal affairs, in The Times of India piece, he freely talks about the adverse effects of the trade war on the US economy and how the US administration’s actions against China are being ‘strongly questioned and opposed by all stakeholders including US companies’.
In the latest piece out in the Business Standard, which is an extract of a speech by Amb. Sun, many of the above themes are repeated but the focus is greater Sino-Indian cooperation in tackling American unilateralism and protectionism. While he refers to the more than 1,000 Chinese companies engaged in business in India and their total investment of US$8 billion, creating 200,000 jobs, as well as the ‘handsome profits’ of ‘more than two-thirds of Indian companies investing in China’, it is a fact, however, that Indian companies and services are discriminated against in China by a variety of non-tariff barriers. The ambassador referred to Bollywood movies making twice as much money in China as they did in India but did not refer to the hit 2018 Chinese movie Dying to Survive about a small-time businessman’s attempt to smuggle cheaper Indian cancer drugs into China. Any Chinese opening up to Indian pharmaceutical products is less the outcome of any discovery of Indian industry’s prowess as it is of a desire to make medicines cheaper for China’s public healthcare system – Chinese Premier Li Keqiang actually referred to the film to make his case.
In the Business Standard piece, Amb. Sun attempts again to associate India and its cooperation with China with such tropes of Chinese philosophy or diplomacy as ‘Great Harmony’ and the ‘community of shared destiny’ – the latter, part of the standard phraseology of the Belt and Road Initiative, which India is opposed to.
Indian news media while free to publish what they wish to also have a responsibility to their audiences and to themselves to not offer column space to the Chinese (or anyone else) for grandstanding or the misrepresentation or selective presentation of facts. Rather, the objective should be on reportage based on the facts – it would have been better to get the Chinese Ambassador to answer well-thought out and specific questions and not let him set the agenda. Indian media, in general, need greater savvy dealing with the Chinese and issues related to China. The way to achieving this is by increasing their own presence in China with full-time correspondents not just in Beijing but across the country.
A version of this article was published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Reading between Chinese lines’, Moneycontrol, 13 September 2019.