In China, fire without smoke

The recent rumour fest showed lack of context and the unwillingness of most Indian media houses to take foreign news coverage seriously

Updated - October 07, 2022 01:11 am IST

Published - October 07, 2022 12:15 am IST

In this photo taken on January 15, 2021, people walk past an image of China’s President Xi Jinping during an exhibition about China’s fight against COVID-19 at a convention centre in Wuhan.

In this photo taken on January 15, 2021, people walk past an image of China’s President Xi Jinping during an exhibition about China’s fight against COVID-19 at a convention centre in Wuhan. | Photo Credit: AFP

For Indian correspondents in China, the past fortnight has been surreal. In the last week of September, many Indian television news channels began reporting on rumours of a “coup” in Beijing and military convoys entering, even blockading, the Chinese capital. The posts spread like wildfire, so much so that it seemed that every Indian in China was getting flooded with worried calls from people back home asking about “the situation”. One diplomat was asked if there were tanks on the streets. For the record, Beijing seemed as normal as ever.

Despite absolutely no evidence for the claims, the consensus, even of seasoned foreign affairs experts, on these news shows was that “there is no smoke without fire”. But was that the case?

The “smoke”, in this instance, was flight data showing mass cancellations of flights and the fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping hadn’t appeared in public for a week since his return to China on September 17 from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand. Yet both “warning signs” appeared far less suspicious to those on the ground in China, who are familiar with the context of the country’s current pandemic policies.

Indeed, mass flight cancellations had been a bane of my travel plans since I arrived in the mainland in June. As I finished the mandatory quarantine, I found that because of only a couple of cases in Shenzhen, most outgoing flights from the city were cancelled overnight. This was because of China’s ‘zero COVID’ policy, under which cities that are medium or high risk are promptly isolated from the rest of the country, making mass cancellations hardly unusual.

As for Mr. Xi’s “disappearance”, those following his now-rare travels outside the mainland knew he had similarly not appeared in public for 10 days after a July trip to Hong Kong. Under ‘zero COVID’, all foreign arrivals are required to isolate for 10 days, and the Chinese leadership was likely aware of the bad optics should the same leader who has forced the stringent ‘zero COVID’ regime on the country flout those rules.

Moreover, for people following Chinese politics, the original source of the rumours, which appeared in Falun Gong-linked overseas websites, was all-too-familiar. As Zeyi Yang noted in the MIT Technology Review, “it’s not rare to see such salacious political rumours if you follow a lot of Chinese-language Twitter accounts”, which are part of “a whole world of commentators and anonymous accounts openly speculating about every faint signal coming out of China’s state media, magnifying every word and gesture, and interpreting it as something groundbreaking.” This is truer in the political season in China and on the eve of a twice-a-decade Communist Party Congress.

To me, the latest rumour fest signalled, above all, the importance of context in journalism. For those unfamiliar with both the ‘zero COVID’ regime and the ecosystem of overseas political speculation, it is understandably difficult to separate fact from fiction. This is especially true in an authoritarian country like China where politics remains the blackest of black boxes. In the Xi era, the opacity has only increased, so much so that it has become near impossible to confirm or deny a political development that hasn’t been confirmed on State media. And opacity is fertile ground for rumour-mongering. However, that shouldn’t become an excuse for media outlets to abandon basic standards of fact-checking. It is worth reflecting why the rumours that made it to Indian media outlets weren’t covered by most organisations in the West or in Asia.

A larger problem is the unwillingness of most Indian media outlets to take foreign news coverage seriously enough to post their own correspondents on the ground. Journalists on the ground aren’t infallible, but have a better chance at getting the context right to separate rumour from news. There are only four Indian correspondents reporting from China (from The Hindu, Press Trust of India, Hindustan Times, and Prasar Bharati), all of them in Beijing. If there were, say, 40, the rumours that captivated attention over the last two weeks might have had a much shorter shelf life.

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