Sympathy or schadenfreude? China’s social media debates India’s COVID-19 crisis

On the go: People using their phones at a park in Beijing.   | Photo Credit: AFP

A heated debate has dominated the Chinese social media attention this past week in the wake of a post linked to an official Communist Party account that mocked India’s COVID-19 crisis, and subsequently polarised opinion among those calling for sympathy and others justifying a comparison of the two countries’ responses to the pandemic.

The social media post, from an account affiliated to the Communist Party of China’s top law enforcement body, the Political and Legal Affairs Committee, posted a message to its 15 million followers, sharing two images side-by-side of a rocket launch in China and a cremation ground in India, adding a message: “China lighting a fire, India lighting a fire”.

The message initially went viral and prompted an instant backlash for its lack of sensitivity. Chinese journalists, including those who work for State media outlets, criticised the post, which was subsequently deleted.

That backlash to an official account then prompted a backlash of its own, particularly among more nationalistic voices, who argued China was justified to contrast the COVID-19 situation in both countries and to speak unabashedly of its successes.

Even Hu Xijin, firebrand editor of Global Times, a nationalist tabloid published by the People’s Daily, came under attack for criticising the post, though he was also critical of India for not acknowledging the medical supplies it is receiving from China.

“The official mindset of Chinese society toward India’s epidemic situation must be sympathetic and supportive of their battle against it, and this is indeed the case. I don’t think it’s proper for social media accounts of certain Chinese official institutions or other influential forces to mock India at present,” he wrote. “Even today when India is in trouble and China is lending it a helping hand, India still holds a grudge and remains narrow-minded. But currently, our prevailing attitude toward India should be still to show our sympathy and support, without being distracted by other sentiments.”

Shen Yi, a scholar at the Fudan University in Shanghai, criticised Mr. Hu and praised the original post. “Can so-called expressions of sympathy for India achieve the anticipated outcome?” Mr. Shen was quoted as saying by the New York Times “Where can an 800-pound gorilla sleep? Wherever it wants to,” he added, arguing the Communist Party-linked account was justified to say what it wished. The argument, reported the China Digital Times which tracks media in China, “led to a division of public opinion between a ‘support Hu faction’ and a ‘support Shen faction’.”

A Global Times reporter, Qingqing Chen, also came under fire for criticising the post, saying it was “completely ridiculous to make such a comparison” in a message on Twitter, a website blocked in China. Screenshots of her tweet, however, went viral on Weibo, leading to wide criticism. Ms. Chen subsequently deleted her tweet, which Mr. Hu, her editor, described as ‘inappropriate’ and ‘“immature’.

The debate hinted at broader tensions between internal messaging in China, including from official outlets which often tend to highlight China’s successes and failures elsewhere, and how such views are received abroad at a time when the barriers are crumbling between what’s intended for domestic use and what ends up being seen overseas.

“Domestic opinions on this issue of China vs. India are quite divided, and are roughly divided into two factions,” observed the popular commentator Ren Yi. “One faction thinks that the official Weibo of the Central Political and Legal Committee is very good. That’s how it should be said, just say it. There is nothing that can’t be said. The other faction thinks the level was not high and an official account should not post such things,” he said, adding he supported the latter view.

He said “as long as an account is considered to reflect the official position of the Chinese government, it needs to be very cautious” and even “any information released by a young editor” who is sometimes manning such social media handles, charged with getting clicks, will be regarded abroad “as China’s national opinion”.

“China’s current international environment is very complicated and quite unfriendly”, Mr. Ren wrote. “The G7 Foreign Ministers’ meeting came to discuss China’s challenges, as well as the Taiwan issue…Biden intends to regain character for the United States. What should we do at this time? One has to be extra cautious about relations with neighbouring countries. We cannot guarantee to make friends, but we must make sure not to make enemies.”

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 9:13:54 AM |

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