What a viral blogpost tells us about China and India

share this article

There is little respect to be lost between people who scarcely know each other. Unless the Chinese and Indian media begin to show interest in each other’s realities, blind bias will continue to prevail.

With great ignorance comes great prejudice.

Every second person I know in China, where I lived for nine years, has been sharing an article on WeChat this past week that looks at how India is dealing with COVID-19. I don’t usually pay much heed to WeChat commentaries. Consider them a Chinese equivalent to WhatsApp forwards — often full of misinformation and published only with the aim of getting as many eye-balls as possible. This article, however, made me sit up and pay attention. For one, because of how widely shared it was. Within two days, it had received the maximum number of 100,000 views (WeChat doesn’t record higher numbers) and by now, more than a million people in China would have read it. And secondly, because of the range of people who were sharing it, including academics and journalists who had international exposure.

 

 

What did it say? The piece, written by a writer who claims to be working for a Chinese company in India, begins by saying why many Chinese businessmen wanted to leave their projects and return home but didn’t. In his own words, it was because “Indians screw everything up. There’s nothing Indians can’t mess up.” Which left me wondering why he was in India in the first place.

He goes on to recount a visit to a hospital which he finds is full of people with fever and coughing. A doctor tells him there are thousands of COVID-19 cases already but no one is worried enough to test because India’s full of so many other diseases. He also claims India issued a new law in March requiring all information on the epidemic published by media to receive official authorisation. Chinese journalist friends have asked me after reading this article if this is true. This isn’t China, I said.

I suggested they look at some of the Indian media’s critical reporting on our health infrastructure over the past few days and weeks (which wouldn’t happen in China).

The piece goes on to complain about many things about life in India. Some of his priceless observations include a claim that India is so lawless that all the rich employ security guards who are armed with guns, which are apparently so ubiquitous that India trails only the U.S. when it comes to how widely prevalent gun ownership is. It left me wondering where in India he currently lives.

Why, you may wonder, should we pay attention to an ill-argued piece? Because this reflects what some Chinese people believe — or perhaps like to believe — about India, confirming their worst stereotypes. It’s important to note that not everyone in China believes this, as much as we often see sweeping claims in opinion pieces about what “the Chinese” think. That’s as ridiculous as saying the Indian public has a common view on a particular issue. That the tight censorship regime in China means people can’t voice their opinions freely is another matter. In fact, several Chinese who live in India have written strongly-worded rebuttals to this article, tearing apart the claims point by point.

 

There is very little space to cover the voices of ordinary people and ordinary lives. That needs to change. Until that happens, every time we find ourselves in such a moment, rather than seeking the best in ourselves and each other, we will only end up imagining the worst.

 

All the same, the episode for me raised a broader question about the misperceptions — and indeed, racism — that exists on both sides of the border. Let us leave aside the governments for a moment and all the many very real problems in the bilateral relationship. This is a point about the people. And it’s important we make that distinction, particularly in the case of China where it’s common to conflate the ruling Communist Party and the people (a blurring that ironically is favoured by both the Party and its critics).

Lest we feel any sense of superiority about the Chinese blogger’s ignorance, we should ask, are we any better? One only need take a look at some of the racist comments directed at Chinese (people) that have been circulating on social media in recent days. This has nothing to do with legitimate criticisms of the Chinese government and its missteps. Here’s where the distinction blurs. Indian television channels and news websites using the #ChineseVirus hashtag is another case in point. Everyone knows COVID-19 originated in China and started its spread from Wuhan, so the defence that they are doing a public service holds no water. As is the equally popular defence citing the use of Spanish Flu. One would like to think many of the things that were acceptable in 1918 aren’t seen the same way today. Yet, encouraging its use has already had proven negative consequences, from a spurt in racist attacks targeting ethnic Chinese in the West and closer to home, our own citizens from the northeast being subjected to vile attacks. It is true that diseases have been named after places. In which case, by all means insist on calling it the Wuhan virus, if it makes you feel better. As someone pointed out on Twitter, imagine how we would react if a pandemic that originated in India was called Indian.

It seems the current moment, at least on social media, is bringing out the worst in people in both countries. What’s glaring is a lack of empathy on both sides. That is fuelled by ignorance and distance. There is limited travel between both countries, and limited media coverage on both sides of the border (and this limited coverage tends to be ill-informed). There are only four permanent Indian correspondents based in China. There is not a single correspondent for any of the Indian television channels, most of which find it easier to cover a country they know little about from the comfort of their studios. The problem with Chinese media is perhaps worse considering the only Chinese media organisations in India are State media outlets, which have their own agenda (an often anti-India agenda, sad to say).

So, there is very little space to cover the voices of ordinary people and ordinary lives. That needs to change. Step by step. Until that happens, every time we find ourselves in such a moment, rather than seeking the best in ourselves and each other, we will only end up imagining the worst.

share this article
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor