News Analysis: With media blitz, China crafts new narrative on border crisis

The carefully crafted account, which was buttressed by the state media releasing new footage from the Galwan clash of June 15, was timed for full effect.

February 20, 2021 05:37 pm | Updated February 21, 2021 08:56 am IST

File photo shows army convoy carry reinforcements and supplies, drive towards Leh.

File photo shows army convoy carry reinforcements and supplies, drive towards Leh.

Over the past 24 hours, the Indian Embassy in Beijing has received thousands of messages in its mentions on Weibo, the Twitter-equivalent used in China, more than it has ever received in one day.

Most of them were angry and abusive, from Chinese Internet users expressing their anger following the announcement, made on Friday morning, of the deaths of four soldiers in the Galwan Valley clash that took place eight months ago.

Also read: LAC standoff | India, China had candid discussions: MEA

The flood of messages, which began on Friday evening, was not much of a surprise. Through the day, state media outlets had highlighted the announcement of honours for five soldiers, four awarded posthumously. The names and images of the five were being shared widely on Chinese social media, along with their personal stories, all leading to an outpouring of sentiment.

Carefully crafted narrative

The carefully crafted narrative, which was buttressed by the state media releasing new footage from the Galwan clash of June 15, was timed for full effect. The announcement was made a day after China returned to work after a seven-day national holiday for the lunar new year, and nine days after India and China announced the beginning of a disengagement process.

Also read: India, China begin 10th round of talks on next phase of disengagement

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) said the announcement, made eight months after the clash in which 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives, was aimed at honouring the soldiers and “setting the record straight”, after it accused India of “distorting the truth” and “slandering the Chinese border troops”.

By waiting for the disengagement to begin, the Chinese government avoided a situation where it would inflame national sentiment in the middle of an ongoing border crisis. The media blitz, which touched a national nerve in China, also occupied the focus of the attention, rather than any questions about the PLA agreeing to withdraw from the north bank of Pangong lake and other areas it occupied.

Also read: Ladakh standoff | India, China finalising phased disengagement plan

The broader aim of the narrative appeared aimed at underlining the message that the Communist Party had defended China and to portray India as the aggressor — a message that was repeated in the official media.

This is a narrative that turns on its head the genesis of last year’s border crisis, which began with a mass mobilisation of PLA troops along the border following a military exercise that caught India by surprise, and multiple transgressions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that led India to lose access to territory and multiple patrolling points, an unusual outcome for any supposed aggressor.

Popular social media hashtag

The details of the PLA’s withdrawal did not get in the way of the most popular social media hashtag of the day, which said, “Not an inch of our country’s mountains and rivers can be lost.”

That was shared by some of the most popular Chinese celebrities including singer Hua Chenyu, who shared the message with his 39 million followers. The popular pop group TFBoys did the same to its 21 million followers, adding a message of thanks to the PLA soldiers. By the end of Friday, the hashtag had 1.6 billion views and generated more than 1.7 million posts.

Accounts run by official media shared stories of valour of the four soldiers who had died: battalion commander Chen Hongjun and soldiers Chen Xiangrong, Xiao Siyuan and Wang Zhuoran. Videos were also shared of the regiment commander Qi Fabao, who sustained a head injury and was honoured as “hero regimental commander for defending the border”, in an earlier confrontation with Indian soldiers.

The state media also shared posts from their battlefield diaries, including a note from Wang Zhuoran to his parents, written “before he left for the battlefield”, apologising if he could not return to be “a filial son” and promising “to repay their love and care in the afterlife”.

The other messages were both patriotic and political. “We are the boundary stone of the motherland and every inch of land under our feet is the territory of the motherland,” Xiao Siyuan was quoted as saying. “One should mark accomplishments wherever he is needed by the Communist Party,” was the message from Chen Hongjun, battalion commander.

PLA Senior Colonel Ren Guoqiang, spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence, described the five as “iron soldiers nurtured by the Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and the Xi Jinping’s thinking on strengthening the military”, and as “outstanding representatives of the Chinese military in the new era”.

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