Amidst the standoff between India and China along the Line of Actual Control that resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers in Galwan Valley on June 15, a controversy broke out about an interview by the Press Trust of India with Sun Weidong, China’s Ambassador to India ten days later.

The Chinese embassy in Delhi put out a truncated version of the interview on their website, accusing India of instigating the violence. Soon after, PTI faced a barrage of criticism: some accused the news agency of bad timing, while others said it had been soft on the Chinese ingressions.

India’s public service broadcaster, Prasar Bharati – that purportedly autonomous institution owned by the Union government that comprises All India Radio and Doordarshan – shot off a strongly worded letter to PTI, claiming that the interview was “detrimental to national interests’’. It threatened to cancel its subscription to the agency, eliciting angry reactions from journalists’ bodies.

Prolific writer

Lost in the noise is the fact that many Indian publications over the past year have provided space for the Chinese ambassador to present his country’s versions of truth in their Op-Ed columns and Commentary pages. This is an opportune moment to look back at some of those articles to understand the path to the present controversy.

Even before formally assuming the position by presenting his credentials to the President of India on August 28, 2019, the Chinese envoy wrote a warm up piece for The Hindu comparing Dunhuang and Ajanta-Ellora, and pepping up the “Silk Road spirit”. He sought closer cooperation and friendship in the present moment based on these “civilisational” exchanges in the past.

The spree of opinion pieces that have followed over the last year across English-language newspapers are noteworthy. Within a month, at the height of the protests in Hong Kong, Sun wrote an article in The Indian Express putting the blame for the violence entirely on the protestors.

He did not offer any explanation for why Hong Kongers were out on the streets in large numbers on a regular basis. Instead, Sun identified “external interference” for instigating them and declared that a heavy hand was needed to maintain order and control.

In September, the Chinese envoy had another piece The Times of India, which for the large part accused the US of bullying and holding its unilateralism, to be solely responsible for the trade war. He concluded by holding out a hand to India to join China to create a situation for “win-win cooperation”.

‘Global harmony’

The Business Standard in September published a speech Sun had given at a welcome reception in his honour by the Chinese embassy, about the need for greater Sino-Indian cooperation to combat American one-upmanship. Citing the increasing number of Chinese companies operating in India –- a cumulative investment of $8 billion, which has created 200,000 local jobs – and the popularity of Hindi films in China, Sun emphasised the theme of “global harmony” and “shared destiny”.

These terms are associated with the Belt and Road Initiative, once again indirectly extending an invitation for India to join the project to partake in the ‘fruits’ of infrastructural development and connectivity.

Before 2019 had ended, the prolific Chinese ambassador had another piece in The Times of India, which came just after the informal summit at Mahabalipuram between Chinese President Xi Jingping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In this article, Sun held forth on the efforts by both China and India to preserve their rivers.

On January 29, Sun wrote a completely tone-deaf article in The Indian Express. As the coronavirus outbreak in China was hitting the peak and raising apprehensions of global spread including to India, he devoted just two long sentences to the pandemic. The rest of the piece went on about China’s peaceful development. When the world wanted to know the nuts and bolts of the Chinese state’s response, this was a clear evasion of responsibility.

From then on, even as China gradually limped back to “normalcy” to restart its economy post the outbreak, even as the rest of the world was coming under the virus’ grip, both The Times of India and The Hindustan Times featured articles by the ambassador on their pages.

The blowback against the PTI for “crossing the red line” during the time of crisis has to be considered in light of this demonstrated ability of Chinese officials to use the Indian media to burnish their country’s image and standing. It seems curious that Sun’s propaganda blitzkrieg has not raised any eyebrows – until now.

PK Anand is a Research Associate at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. His Twitter handle is @anandpkrishnan.