Even today, when India faces Chinese aggression in full blow, the compromised scholarship finds it painful to target China without reservations.
When one compares the media coverage given to human rights violations in Gaza, Balochistan, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, Myanmar and the other partly imagined and partly real issues of intolerance and minority rights in India with the horrors of Tibet and Xinjiang, one finds that some of the top-level global mainstream media houses enjoying immense credibility and holding a significant market-share refrain from reporting objectively and sufficiently on Tibet and Xinjiang. What could be the possible reasons? Is it ideological affinity, a genuine love for Beijing’s so-called People’s Republic or some “extraneous” factors? This essay takes a dive into the motivations, compulsions, and intentions of the China-sympathetic voices in some parts of the media.
In 2013, with the onset of China’s belt and road project, the phase of sitting by a fence and biding time was over, and Beijing unravelled its revisionist designs to challenge and upturn the liberal world order. Having realised that the dominant norms and values of liberal world order would raise questions on its credibility, especially in human rights and freedom of speech, the CCP leadership began a massive propaganda effort to control the narrative. Hence, with Xi’s 2016 call to tell China’s better story to the world began China’s unique and less known experiment to influence the global media and shape the discourse in its favour. Over the last five years, China has offered hundreds of fellowships to foreign journalists from India, Bangladesh, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Such fellowships include ten months of fully paid stay in Beijing’s posh diplomatic areas, free and guided tours to China’s provinces, a degree in international relations from a Chinese university, and most importantly, a handsome stipend (5,000 yuan). Also, they get invitations to the events of the National People’s Congress and access to senior Chinese officials for “choreographed” interviews.
Interestingly, these fellowship programs are managed by China’s foreign ministry and public diplomacy division. The most conspicuous aspect of the fellowship program is that they are as opaque as the CCP. There is no formal selection process; usually, the “suitable” candidates are approached by the Chinese embassy.
Does all this come with a cost, paid by China’s positive coverage in global affairs, avoiding Tibet, Uyghurs, South China Sea, and other problem areas? Reportedly, the fellows from across the world are subtly indicated that if they wished to complete the fellowship, they must refrain from discussing sensitive issues like the South China Sea, Tibet, and Uyghurs. Such subtle or gross intimidation has always been a Chinese tactic while dealing with international students, journalists and scholars. A senior journalist informed this author that the Chinese embassy agreed to give an interview only on the condition of not discussing the so-called “sensitive issues”. A group of Indian students studying in a prominent Wuhan-based university informed the author that they could not ask “uncomfortable” questions to their professors or post anything on Wechat that is critical of Chinese systems, if they wished to complete their studies program successfully. The repercussions of non-compliance can result in poor grades, allotment of poor housing and reduction in the fellowship funding. Also, they said that the classes are like propaganda sessions where the instructor’s sole aim is to justify China and question the US-led world order, be it WTO, intellectual property rights, democracy, and human rights. Further, students are also lured to work with CGTN and CRI (China Radio International) with lucrative monetary incentives, for their quality English communication skills. However, once the addiction of a regular salary and comfortable life sets in, they are subtly forced to publish half-truths and one-sided stories about China and about the countries that are the targets of such state-owned outlets.
In a case of intimidation, several Indian social media handles, critical of China over its cover-up job in the coronavirus investigation and Ladakh stand-off, were approached by Chinese companies with lucrative monetary and job offers. Most of them refused to be identified for this piece.
Over the last five years, several journalists from reputed and credible mainstream media houses availed Chinese fellowship programs. Interestingly, now is the time to reap rich dividends. Not just scientists but journalists in different countries, after their extended stays in China, are in effect now doing a PR job for China. Having realised that it is not entirely possible to exonerate China in the Covid-19 lab leak theory, they are doing a fine job of projecting a narrative that gives “benefit of doubt” to the PRC. Nicholas Wade’s ground-breaking essay comes as a Cold War concoction to them. It seems Beijing has successfully inculcated them with Confucian loyalties.
Further, even today, when India faces Chinese aggression in full blow, the compromised scholarship finds it painful to target China without reservations. Though they criticise the government for mishandling and not showing enough muscle against China, they are disappointed with India banning Chinese apps, oppose warming up ties with the US and strengthening Quad, and are upset at GoI rejecting Chinese proposals for installing 5G technology in India. Further, amidst deep-rooted distrust and suspicion for China-dependent supply lines, technology, and business entities, they mince no words in trashing the idea of economic decoupling by emphasizing India’s economic dependence on China.
Interestingly, compromised scholarship and media reporting on China-related issues have a long history in India’s case. A section of scholars, including prominent voices like A.G. Noorani always blamed India for “aggression” in 1962. A high-profile journalist well-known for close ties with the Chinese establishment, declared Dalai Lama’s movement a “separatist, revanchist and backward-driven agenda to bring moth-eaten theocracy”.
In those days, the pro-China leanings came from the ideological affinity towards China’s communist state. However, India’s present generation of China-sympathetic intellectuals, media professionals, and think tanks are primarily the products of China’s complex and refined influence operations, following from its fundamental strategic doctrine of winning wars without firing a single bullet.
Such proxy assets give China an easy pass in the narrow geopolitical straits. Their devout commitment is evident when they turn a blind eye to brutalities in Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang, CCP’s involvement in organ harvesting, secretly supplying nuclear and advanced surveillance technology to rogue regimes, defending terrorists in multilateral platforms, and silencing the dissident voices. More recently, such proxy forces are whitewashing lab-leak theories of Covid-19 by hiding the flaws of the WHO investigation report and presenting it as an epitome of honest investigation.
Further, many in global media are exonerating China by cleverly shifting the dominant discourse towards China’s global supply of vaccines and PPE kits. Behind these soft-power gimmicks lies a devious government in the same league as South Africa’s apartheid regime and the Nazi regime. Bent on altering global norms and cartography, it continues to escape from needed global scrutiny of its heinous actions.
As a country with strong democratic values and openness, India has always supported the interaction and exchanges of its intellectuals and journalistic voices with foreign bodies. However, the question arises: will CCP, with its iron-curtain dictatorship, ever allow India-sympathetic voices to flourish in China? If not, then it’s reasonable to argue that Beijing’s regime is abusing India’s democratic freedoms to sabotage its national security. Ethical considerations and self-imposed moral restraints are needed in dealing with China and questions must be asked about its practices instead of giving space to CCP’s lies and propaganda.
Abhinav Pandya is the author of “Radicalization in India: An Exploration” (Pentagon Press, 2019). He did his BA from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi and post graduation in Public Affairs from Cornell University, US. He has more than seven years of experience in public policy, counter-terrorism, electoral politics and the development sector in India and the US.