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August 1, 2010

A lot more than a border

Pallavi Aiyar, currently Business Standard’s correspondent in Brussels, spent six years in China as an English teacher and as a correspondent of The Hindu. Her book , Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China, reviewed in the November 2008 issue of Pragati, offers one of the best contemporary Indian accounts of the changes in China during the early part of this decade. Here is a conversation that started during a recent workshop on the role of the media in India-China relations.

Nitin Pai: There used to be—and there is to some extent—a perception in India that what comes out in the Chinese media is the view of the Chinese government. Certainly Mao Zedong was known to have vetted the editorials in the People’s Daily during the India-China tensions in the late 1950s and 60s. To what extent is such a perception still valid?

Pallavi Aiyar: The Chinese media landscape is an increasingly complex one and a far cry from Maoist times. A multiplicity of media operate today ranging from fully controlled party papers like the People’s Daily, to more independent and critical regional media like Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend) in Guangzhou, and racy, tabloid papers that operate as purely commercial enterprises. There are also a variety of specialist publications focused on finance, business or the environment that increasingly attempt an independent line and push the envelope against government censorship.

That said, foreign affairs and China’s international relations remains a subject that is strongly controlled by the government and independent writings on the topic are forbidden. Even today central and regional propaganda departments send weekly (and sometimes daily) instructions to all media outlets about subjects deemed taboo. Editors who transgress orders are, depending on the assessed severity of the violation, warned, demoted or fired.

Writings on India in the Chinese media therefore almost always have official sanction even if they do not always reflect the government’s official position. This is equally true of Party media and so called independent media like the Global Times (which is in fact controlled by the People’s Daily group).

Since the Party is not a monolith, differing opinions on India in the Chinese media reflect the differing shades of opinion within the Chinese government. However, although it is often claimed otherwise by the Chinese, they do not simply reflect the opinion of the author.

The internet and blogs are an altogether different kettle of fish. These are not routinely subject to propaganda department orders. If a blog is discovered to be overly transgressive the government is able to either shut it down or have the “offending” material deleted. However, there can be considerable gaps in time before the publication of an unauthorised article and its discovery. Moreover, the writings on a blog are more likely to reflect the personal opinion of the writer rather than that of the government or a faction of the government.

Credit: Okinawa Soba

How about the other way around: how much do views expressed in the Indian media (by mediapersons and analysts) affect Chinese perceptions of Indian government policy?

The Chinese monitor Indian media carefully and the coverage of Sino-Indian developments is seen as a key indicator of the strategic “pulse” in India. There is an awareness that media in India can often take a standpoint that is different or even contrary to the government line. On the other hand there is also the belief that media do not invent stories out of thin air and that they are usually based on leaks from within the government or military establishments. There is less understanding of the extent to which media in India, particularly television, is driven by the competition for ratings and the tendency towards sensationalism this generates. The idea that the media can create out of what might originally have been a “genuine” story, a run-away monster over which the authorities have little control, is not something the Chinese have an automatic grasp of. The danger of a misreading of Indian media is therefore a significant one and can create a backlash at the policy level.

The Chinese are also aware of the difference between news coverage per se and the comments and analysis that are usually written by strategic pundits. The latter are taken particularly seriously since it is known that the writers are often also strategic advisors to the government.

We’ve seen “internet nationalism”—wherein seemingly ordinary Chinese netizens express hardline positions—in recent years. Would you say there is official support for this, or is the Chinese government riding the tiger?

The Chinese government is in the constant act of riding a tiger, or to use another metaphor given the Chinese excellence in acrobatics, walking a tightrope. The fine line they tread is between allowing new freedoms while remaining firmly in control. The internet has emerged as possibly the most illustrative example of this.

The internet has been used by a range of dissidents, rights activists, environmentalists and so on to organise and publicise view points that are contrary to official Chinese policies or practice.

But for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) overly heavyhanded censorship of the internet would alienate the very constituency (urban, educated, middle class) that it has cultivated as its main support base in its post-reform, Deng-inspired avatar.

Thus for example, last summer the central government issued a directive that required all personal computers in China to be fitted with software (called Green Dam) that would facilitate the censoring of certain websites and internet content. But ultimately this directive was put on indefinite hold a few weeks after it was issued, following a massive outcry amongst China’s netizens. The internet has thus emerged as a contested space which presents the CCP with both a threat and an opportunity. On the one hand it enables networks that can circumvent and thus break the party’s monopoly on information. On the other, public opinion as expressed in internet chat rooms is also an important feedback mechanism for the CCP, a means to test the pulse and mood of the nation.

It is against this background that China’s nationalist youth (fenqing) and their blog postings must be understood. The Chinese government encourages them to use this space as an outlet for venting their frustrations. Nationalism is useful for the Party since it directs the energy and anger of the youth away from anti-Party sentiment and towards a goal, “nationalism,” that both the Party and the youth claim to share. However, there is always the danger that this nationalism can spin out of control and obstruct Chinese government policy. The authorities thus walk the tightrope between permitting individual expressions of nationalism and reining it in when it is deemed as overly virulent or counter productive to national policy.

On a different point, what explains the relatively little interest in the Indian media with regard to stationing correspondents overseas in general, and in China in particular?

India is a continent-sized country and generates copious quantities of domestic news. Also for decades we were a semi-autarky with scant economic linkages to the outside world. Finally, Indian media was for long, a particularly under-resourced industry. The combined impact was that foreign news found little space in the Indian media landscape. The cost and effort required to post a correspondent overseas is huge, needing a financial commitment several times that of a regular reporter. However the financial benefit generated by the news reports of that correspondent were and to an extent are even today unlikely to be commensurate to the cost. Thus from a purely economic perspective it is not particularly attractive for Indian media at the moment to station foreign correspondents.

However, the situation is gradually changing. An influx of advertising related money, an audience with an increasingly global mindset and a government that is becoming more involved in global political and economic issues means that the space for foreign coverage is increasing.

In China, less than a decade ago, only one Indian correspondent from PTI serviced the entire country. Today we have correspondents from PTI, the Hindu, the Times of India and the Hindustan Times based in Beijing and the number is set to grow.

The real challenge today is to find reporters with domain expertise. Those who speak the language and understand the history and culture of the countries they may be posted in. This is a lacuna that can only be remedied with an overhaul of the educational system in India. It is a long term process. But the logic of economics is likely to see it come about. Once media organisations have a better trained pool of talent to choose from, it’s likely they will be more amenable to posting them abroad, and in China in particular, given the latter’s strategic importance to India and the Indian audience’s general fascination with its more successful neighbour.

China is making a push to promote its viewpoint across the world by expanding the international footprints of Xinhua and CCTV-4, although it is hard to stifle a yawn when you consume their reports. Where do you think this is heading?

Chinese strategists have spent much time devising ways in which to expand their soft power. There is a perception that China is misunderstood and misrepresented by the current global media players which have a “biased” western view of the country’s rise and development.

Spreading an understanding and appreciation of Chinese culture is thus seen as a vital part of China’s foreign policy. It is to this end that Beijing has set up hundreds of Confucius Institutes around the world to teach Mandarin and other courses related to Chinese history and civilisation.

Extending English language Chinese media’s reach globally is a part of this policy. CCTV-9 has already been available in many countries via satellite, including the United States for several years.

Xinhua’s new TV channel will be broadcast in Europe, the United States and Africa by the end of the year. It has a huge budget and will be technologically slick, following the Al Jazeera model of hiring internationally.

The Chinese government has earmarked 45 billion yuan (6.5 billion dollars) to fund the expansion of groups including Xinhua, CCTV and China Radio International.

They are unlikely to have a significant impact in the short term. But as China’s global clout increases and thus the interest of the world in the country is piqued, the new channels could prove influential by offering an alternative and easily accessible source of information—one that is “managed” by the Chinese authorities and thus likely to cast Chinese policies in a more positive light.

Thus, for example, instead of framing China’s Africa policy in the neo-colonialist mould that western analysts tend to, Chinese media would probably showcase the infrastructure investments that China is making in the continent, in contrast to the one-way extractive nature of western involvement in Africa.

With the help of internationally trained media professionals it is possible that China’s new global media may become at least as watched and influential as Al Jazeera English is today, if not more, particularly in the non-western world.

On the balance, what has been the impact of the Indian media on India-China relations? What about the Chinese media?

Given that the Chinese media is not independent but government controlled, assessing its impact on India-China relations as an autonomous actors is difficult. I will therefore focus on the impact of the Indian media on the relationship.

Regarding the latter it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the overall impact on India-China relations has been negative. However, it’s not as if the Indian media has created the tensions that plague bilateral ties. Rather the media acts as a force multiplier, playing up and exacerbating already existent problems. A misreading of Indian media as an extension of Indian policy or governmental intentions has also helped strengthen the hand of more hard-line factions within the Chinese establishment. The result is the recent upping of the ante on the border issue that has caused somewhat of a deterioration in the relationship. But it must be kept in mind that this deterioration is also occurring independently of the media, largely because the current border negotiations have hit a cul-de-sac.

After years of talks, it has become increasingly difficult to skirt the real issues and so the time for both sides to reveal their cards is nigh. However, in the current scenario there is little that China gains from solving the border dispute with India, while the Indian government lacks the political legitimacy and strength required to make any significant concession on the matter. The result is a stalemate that is not a media creation but merely reflective of the fact that at present India and China confront serious issues they lack the will and resources to solve.

That said, the constant focus on the border and scare mongering by ill-informed reporters on the Indian side is scarcely helpful. What is missing are journalists with domain expertise writing informative and entertaining first-hand accounts of the dynamic social and economic forces at play in contemporary China. There is a lot more to India and China than the border. The India-China relationship could only benefit from a media that is cognisant of this.


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