The deaths of 20 Indian Army personnel by China’s People’s Liberation Army in a clash in the Galwan Valley along the Line of Actual Control last week marks the lowest point in India-China relations since the two countries went to war in 1962. This single event has undone 30 years of progress in the bilateral ties.
The clashes and face off have been widely discussed, debated and mocked on social media in both countries. On Chinese social media, one trend became apparent: Chinese social media warriors have looked to Pakistani Facebook and Twitter accounts to collect memes and cartoons about India that they have translated into Chinese.
The memes circulating on Chinese social media included one of the People’s Liberation Army and Pakistani army having a festive lunch together in Ladakh. The capability of the Indian Air Force to launch an attack on China was mocked. One video showed a brawl between two Pakistanis in the street, but labelled the participants as India and China.
When the clash occurred along the bank of Pangong Lake on May 5-6, Weibo – the Chinese version of Twitter – featured images of Indian soldiers tied up and lying on the ground, as comparisons were made to Bollywood’s muscular portrayal of the Indian Army. Images also circulated of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman in the custody of Pakistan after his plane was shot down in the wake of India’s airstrikes on a target in Pakistan’s Balakot in 2019.
Since there is limited official information available on the clashes initially in China, Weibo users largely depended on Indian news to discuss clashes. Even the satellite images and other inputs were cherry-picked from Indian Twitter users and news articles. Pictures and a list of names of the fallen Indian soldiers quickly did the rounds on Chinese social media, prompting many asking questions when the Chinese side would release the numbers and praying for the safe return of their loved ones.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the all party meeting on Friday was edited, translated into Chinese with lightning speed to appear on Chinese social media. But the subsequent clarifications by the Indian authorities were not widely shared and forwarded.
Indian Twitter also witnessed a flurry of fake news. There was a list purporting to name the Chinese soldiers killed in the attack. This novice attempt seemed to have used Google’s translation feature to compile a list with traditional Chinese characters – though these are not in fashion in mainland China. Some of the names on the list were of Chinese people who are long dead.
It is increasingly evident that India-China border clashes and tensions are no longer limited to audiences of the two countries but that their enemy’s friends also have an emotional stake in the confrontation. While Chinese and Pakistanis found common material with which to attack India, Indian social media users passed around an image of Ram slaying a dragon that had its origins in Taiwan – which has a long history of antagonism with China.
It also became clear that Indian social media users have no ability to understand what was happening on Chinese social media or media, unless this news translated into English.
For instance, article by Wang Shida of the influential Institute of South Asia Studies at China Institute of Contemporary International Relations think tank, made headlines in India after a week only when it was published in English at Chinese Economic Net . It has since been removed.
This makes one wonder whether India has invested adequately in Chinese-language training and experts who can comprehend Chinese strategic thinking.
Some Indians used Google’s translation service to try to understand some Chinese statements. But without knowing Chinese, it is not much of much help and can actually cause misunderstandings.
In addition, some Indian debates were fuelled by the significant presence of foreign scholars on Indian Twitter. Some floated odd theories, claiming, for instance, that India would allow Huawei 5G in India as payback to China for maintaining the status-quo in the Pangong Tso area.
Rajiv Ranjan teaches International Relations at College of Liberal Arts, Shanghai University.