India and China Are Locked in a Cycle of Mutual Spite

Foreign Policy, 16.06.2023
Bibek Bhandari, periodista residente en Kathmandu (Nepal)
  • The expulsion of journalists shows how far the relationship has deteriorated.

The world’s two most populous countries don’t have space for each other’s journalists—at least for now.

Over the past few months, India and China revoked the credentials of each other’s journalists in a tit-for-tat measure, leaving almost no reporters on the ground from both sides. A relationship already fractured by border clashes, India’s ban on Chinese tech, and most recently China renaming places in India that the former claims as its own, have become even more volatile. On Monday, Bloomberg reported that China has asked the last Indian journalist, from the Press Trust of India, to leave the country this month, though the Foreign Ministry said the remaining correspondent was “still working and living normally in China.” The Chinese authorities had already revoked the credentials of three Indian correspondents this year after India rejected visa renewals for two of China’s state media journalists.

“China is responding to what India is doing, and framing this as an issue of reciprocity, while the Indian side hasn’t said much,” Manoj Kewalramani, the chairperson of the Indo-Pacific research program at the Takshashila Institution in India, told Foreign Policy. “Unless India is to clarify why they did this, it’s just a case of using another label to send a message to Beijing that the relationship isn’t normal.”

China has labeled India’s actions against its journalists as “unfair and discriminatory,” with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning saying on May 31that her country took “appropriate countermeasures” to safeguard the rights and interests of Chinese media organizations. Two days later, her Indian counterpart, Arindam Bagchi, said all foreign journalists in India, including Chinese reporters, were working “without any limitations or difficulties” and urged China to “facilitate the continued presence of Indian journalists.”

But China’s latest move now entirely erases India’s press corps from Beijing. Four Indian journalists—Ananth Krishnan from the Hindu, Sutirtho Patranobis of the Hindustan Times, KJM Varma of the Press Trust of India, and Anshuman Mishra of the state broadcaster Prasar Bharati—were stationed in Beijing before the visa row. Meanwhile, Zhao Xu from state-run Xinhua News Agency is now the only Chinese journalist in India—he remains in the country even after his four-year placement ended in November 2021, which the outlet’s bureau chief claimed was due to India not facilitating his successor’s visa. During normal times, China had 14 accredited correspondents in India, according to the Foreign Ministry.

For years, both Indian and Chinese correspondents have provided insights from the ground to hundreds of millions of readers. Kewalramani says that while China’s state media “hasn’t necessarily been objective” considering the country’s media ecosystem, Indian journalists from privately owned outlets have provided nuanced reporting and analysis—including on social media—helping many Indians develop an informed understanding of the world’s second-largest economy. With astute knowledge about Chinese politics and society, the Indian correspondents have acted as a counterweight against the country’s media outlets that tend to respond to both governments’ nationalist rhetoric. Even before the border crisis, in 2015, Hu Xijin, then the editor-in-chief of China’s Global Times, had said that the “Indian media is more nationalistic than us.”

The animosity between India and China dates back decades, following a 1962 war over disputed Himalayan territories. The blurred lines of past empires have overlayed the Himalayas with multiple competing territorial claims. China has also been a reliable ally of Pakistan, India’s traditional rival.

But the deadly confrontation in June 2020 that killed 20 Indian and at least four Chinese soldiers in the Galwan Valley, near the de facto border in the high mountains known as the Line of Actual Control, widened the rift. The relationship between the two neighbors further fractured in April after China renamed 11 places in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which the Chinese claim in its entirety.

Public perception of China in India is at a serious low. A Morning Consult survey conducted in October showed that 43 percent of the 1,000 Indian respondents perceived China as their “greatest military threat,” followed by the United States and Pakistan at 22 percent and 13 percent, respectively. And that message is often amplified by jingoistic, privately owned television channels, where anchors and talk show guests take jabs at China.

“In today’s Indian media discourse, China is the national security threat number one—it’s no longer Pakistan,” said Kewalramani, adding that the absence of reporters on the ground will only make it easier for nationalist media outlets to “pick up the worst narrative.” “And Beijing is facilitating that.”

Meanwhile, in China, views on India are mostly shaped by official narratives pushed by state media in a tightly controlled cyberspace. Newspapers like the Global Times, known for its flavorful nationalist commentaries, often counter attacks from Indian media by amplifying China’s superiority and portraying India as less of a national threat, with any conflict bound to harm the Indian economy.

Beijing-based journalist Mu Chunshan says that many Chinese on social media—which has become a tool to gauge public opinion—also view India as “underdeveloped” and don’t see it as a threat to many countries. He wrote in the Diplomat earlier this year that many Chinese feel superior and self-confident, and “have no malice toward India, with one glaring exception: the border dispute.”

Sometimes Bollywood movies, especially those released before the pandemic and imbued with social messages—particularly Dangal and Secret Superstar, both starring Amir Khan—have helped crack certain preconceptions, making young Chinese more curious about the country and its culture. But racist portrayals of the country and its people still exist in China. Last month a Bollywood-inspired road safety video featuring brown-faced men, posted on a government account and later deleted, was accused of mocking India and Indians. Xinhua released a similar video during the military standoff in Doklam in 2017, when Indian soldiers stopped Chinese troops from constructing a road through the disputed territory claimed by China and Bhutan.

Rajiv Ranjan, who teaches Chinese politics at Delhi University’s Department of East Asian Studies, , said the border issue has unmasked deep mistrust between the two countries. Since 2020, India has banned more than 200 Chinese apps, including TikTok and WeChat, citing security concerns. The South Asian country also barred Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE from its 5G trials in 2021.

“Public opinion is extremely negative about the ‘other,’” Ranjan told Foreign Policy. “By limiting the information flow, public discourse will be further shaped by distorted facts, thereby exacerbating misperception and the tension. If depleting trust is not contained early, it would be difficult for both countries to revive the engagement in any meaningful way.”

Jingdong Yuan, an associate professor specializing in Asia-Pacific security at the University of Sydney, agrees. He said the latest developments will not only affect bilateral relations, but also that the distrust could amplify any actions taken by both countries and elevate them to serious threats.

“There are a lot of stereotypes, and at times unhelpful reporting, that only serves to reinforce negative views of each other,” he told Foreign Policy. “Sometimes effective diplomacy and pragmatism, rather than rhetoric for domestic consumption, may better serve one’s national interests.”

China-based Indian journalists whose credentials were revoked haven’t explicitly commented on their experience. But Xinhua published a first-person account by its New Delhi bureau chief, Hu Xiaoming, who said he was forced to leave after his visa wasn’t renewed. He borrowed some of the same words from the Foreign Ministry statements, echoing the idea that Chinese journalists faced difficulties due to India’s “persistent visa hassle.”

“The Indian government’s brutal treatment has put enormous psychological pressure on Chinese journalists in India,” Hu wrote. “I sincerely hope that these unfair and discriminatory treatments toward Chinese journalists can come to an end.”

And while Hu’s claims and concerns are legitimate, his account, however, avoids mentioning the fate of Western correspondents in China, where delays or outright refusals to renew visas are common. In 2020, Chinese authorities kicked out journalists from major U.S. outlets—the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post—after the United States limited the number of Chinese state media journalists permitted to work in the country. Soon after, China also expelled three Wall Street Journal journalists over an opinion piece calling China the “real sick man of Asia.”

A 2022 report by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China stated that geopolitical tensions were to blame for some visa delays, and few respondents in its survey said their annual resident permit—this is in addition to the press card—wouldn’t be renewed due to their critical reporting on China. The report said that though visa conditions had improved slightly, expulsions and delays in getting visas for new journalists were challenging last year.

“The Chinese government is controlling the narrative of what is being said about China,” Olivia Cheung, a research fellow at SOAS China Institute, London, told Foreign Policy. “It has been more difficult for foreigners to get information about China. … The expulsion of Indian journalists adds to this picture of difficulty for foreigners to access China.”

Meanwhile, press freedom in the world’s largest democracy hasn’t been promising, either. India slid to 161 out of 180 countries in the 2023 press freedom index from Reporters Without Borders. Local journalists have continued to face restrictions and harassment in recent years, and Indian tax authorities raided the BBC’s offices in February after the broadcaster aired a documentary critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

And while reporting from each country has become more challenging than before, analysts say the absence of journalists on the ground will create a void in India-China journalism. This would hurt the nuanced reporting that each country’s foreign correspondents can bring to the table and potentially create more space for misinformation. In September, for instance, rumors of a coup in China, just before the 20th Party Congress granted President Xi Jinping an unprecedented third term, spread like wildfire in some Indian media outlets and on Twitter.

Takshashila Institution’s Kewalramani, also a former journalist, said that the lack of understanding of China and Chinese politics, both by certain sections of the media and the public, usually contributes to amplifying such misinformation. Krishnan, the Hindu correspondent whose visa was frozen this year, then wrote that journalists on the ground would have “a better chance at getting the context right to separate rumour from news,” adding that having more Indian reporters would have given such rumors a “much shorter shelf life.”

“You’ve allowed antagonistic voices to have more space,” Kewalramani said, referring to Beijing. “There’s a loss to the Indian public, but the biggest loss is to Beijing. If it wants Indians to have independent views on China, not guided by [Western] outlets, it must allow access to Indian journalists and ensure those journalists function properly. You’re forcing us into views that are elsewhere. It’s foolhardy.”

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