India-China relations and the media: Blame the messenger

May 24th, 2012

Published on The Economist, by Banyan, May 21, 2012.

… In a commendable effort to help bridge this divide, the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore this month convened a workshop on the role of the press in India-China relations. It brought together practitioners and experts from China and India and one foreign journalist (Banyan).  

To say there was a meeting of minds would not be honest. The Chinese journalists were frank that their role in bilateral relations was to promote them. The Indians thought their job was to report and analyse them. The foreigner agreed with the Indians. Some consensus was reached, however, in identifying the problems. Far too few Indian reporters are based in China—just four—and vice versa. Indian commentary on China tends to be monopolised by a few loquacious hawks, including retired members of the security and intelligence establishment, whose paranoia about China seems to carry especial weight. (See, for example, this warning of a “limited border war”, or this one on the need to narrow the gap in “tactical capabilities with China”.)

And, with the burgeoning of the Chinese media, nobody knows any more who speaks for the government. In particular, the Global Times, a newspaper produced out of the People’s Daily stable, which takes a strongly nationalist and hence sometimes anti-Indian line, could give the Indian press lessons in hawkishness. And the blogosphere remains heavily policed. So the dividing line between “outrageous-but-tolerated” and “officially sanctioned” is very blurred.

One point of consensus was that much is the fault of the foreign press, accused of playing up tensions and frictions between China and India, and thereby influencing perceptions in both countries, which are then reflected in the local press. An example cited was the reporting of India’s successful launch in April of an Agni-5 missile. India, as is usual for governments in this position, said the missile’s development was not aimed at anyone. China’s reaction was muted. Yet almost all foreign coverage noted that this put many Chinese cities within range.

For most of the Indian reporters, and the foreigner, this was just useful context. For the Chinese it was subjective and alarmist. Fortunately, no one seemed to have read The Economist’s coverage, where a comment by India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, praising his scientists for adding to “the credibility of our security and preparedness”, was translated as meaning, roughly, that “India might for the first time soon threaten nuclear retaliation on Beijing or Shanghai.” Subjective, yes; alarmist, perhaps; but, the foreigner would argue: true.

The same goes, some howlers aside, for much of the Indian press’s coverage of China. At a public event in Singapore linked to the workshop, Sunanda Datta-Ray, a distinguished Indian journalist, reminded the audience of an earlier incident over the Aksai Chin, where in the late 1950s China built a road linking Tibet and Xinjiang. Both governments denied the road’s existence. It was an Indian newspaper, The Statesman, that proved them wrong. More than half a century later, the Indian press remains paranoid about China, but partly because China gives it a lot to be paranoid about. (full text).

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