Not a shot has been fired across the India-China border since 1962, but the Indian media’s China “war” never quite ended. Border “skirmishes” and Chinese “intrusions” into Indian territory still dominate the coverage of China by Indian newspapers and television channels more than half a century on.
But a change seems to be slowly taking place. The Indian media seem to be finally accepting that China does things other than stealthily intrude into Indian land or plot strikes across the border.
The border issue remains a major concern, but war cries in the media are heard less and less. So finds a survey by a team of researchers at the Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think-tank that comprises retired diplomats, bureaucrats, other policymakers, academics and journalists.
In their survey published this month, the authors analysed China-related editorials carried by five leading Indian newspapers – The Times of India, The Hindu, The Indian Express, The Economic Times and The Financial Express – between 2012 and 2014. The years chosen are significant because they mark the rise to power of the two current leaders of China and India – Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) and Narendra Modi.
Not surprisingly, the survey finds the border issue dominating the editorials. But what is new is an increasing plea for mutual trust and closer economic cooperation between the two long-estranged neighbours. Thus, an editorial in The Economic Times said on September 20, 2014, “…minus the passion that television anchors bring to bear on barren wasteland, the border is the least of our problems”.
“While the border still remains a very sensitive issue for India in particular, the newspapers do not allow it to hijack all other issues…The print media’s interest in China is expanding to cover its domestic issues as well,” says the report, titled “Understanding China”.
Even on border issues, voices are sometimes getting more realistic than jingoistic. At the height of patriotic outbursts, the Indian media generally ignore the historical fact that the two countries do not have a mutually agreed border or that they differ even on the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
An editorial in The Indian Express is thus an attempt to keep the record straight: “India and China don’t agree on where exactly the LAC is. Their security forces undertake patrols to their respective claim lines, which don’t match and generate incursions by one side or the other. These incursions end when patrolling units withdraw after moving up to the claim lines.”
The highlight of the 2014 editorials, the survey found, was the desire for a pragmatic resolution of the India-China border dispute by the then new Modi government. That may not have been achieved, but there was clearly a lull in the high-pitched media attention on border “incursions”.
The other issue that was found to have dominated the Indian media’s perception in these years was the rise of China. The overall view is still cautious but there seems to be a growing acceptance in the Indian media of China’s increasing economic clout and its role in global affairs. That sentiment was reflected in an editorial in The Hindu of November 29, 2014, which said China was “too important to be ignored, and it is unwise to believe it can be kept at bay”.
But the more complex issues, such as Chinese suspicions of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile and Indian fears about China’s military alliance with Pakistan, continue to plague relations. And the Indian media’s perception of China continues to be coloured by these issues. For all the slow changes, the survey concluded the perception of China in Indian newspapers was still largely “negative”.
But this perception does not seem to reflect the reality of a growing presence of China in the popular Indian mind. More and more Indians have been visiting China in recent years. Chinese goods have entered the Indian consumer market on a scale that was unthinkable even a decade ago. Several major Chinese companies, especially in infrastructure, consumer goods and telecommunications, have been doing business in India. Some Indian corporate giants have forged financial and other ties with Chinese firms.
Both China and Pakistan, though, are not just issues in foreign and economic relations for India’s domestic politics. Sections of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party recently called for a “boycott” of Chinese goods after Beijing refused to support India’s demand that the UN designate Masood Azhar, Pakistan-based leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, as a terrorist. Nothing much happened over the boycott call.
Even the politicians who once considered China-baiting an easy way to score points seem to have realised it is no longer a vote-winner. But the media are yet to overcome the temptation even though shrill coverage seems to make increasingly little difference to attitudes towards China, as the poor response to the boycott call showed. If India-China ties are expanding, it is despite the Indian media. If Indian papers are offering a different perception, it shows how the Indian media, rather than India-China ties, are out of sync with a changing reality. ■