Indians Aren’t Buying China’s Narrative

For a majority of Indians, Beijing isn’t part of the solution to the pandemic, but the problem.

An illustration of a sun with three arrows pointing at three yellow stars.
The Atlantic

For much of the world, the coming weeks and months (if not years) will be dedicated to curbing the spread of the coronavirus. In China, where the outbreak has purportedly been contained, another challenge is pressing: damage control.

Beijing has been mounting a diplomatic push to help the world contain the pandemic and, in the process, reposition itself not as the authoritarian power that was slow to sound the alarm on the impending health crisis, but as the global leader that stepped up when others didn’t. In some places, it appears to be working.

Not everywhere, though. In India, which this month marked 70 years of diplomatic relations with Beijing, anti-China sentiment has soared. Many Indians fault the country for allowing the virus’s spread, and references to the “Wuhan virus” and “China virus” have become commonplace.

India’s perception of China at this moment matters, if for no other reason than to signal how others might be viewing Beijing’s efforts. Like many countries, India doesn’t count China as a key ally, nor does it necessarily have much incentive to praise Beijing for its response to the pandemic so far. India is, however, also among the many countries that have become reliant on China—not just for trade and investment, which was the case before the pandemic, but, perhaps most crucially now, for the vital equipment required to curb the spread of the virus, including testing kits, face masks, and other personal protective gear. That dependence has proved enough to prevent India from openly criticizing China—at least in any official capacity. It hasn’t stopped the Indian public from turning on Beijing, though, nor is it likely to prevent other countries’ populations from doing the same.

If India proves impervious to its charitable efforts, China might wonder, who else will?

India has always had a complicated relationship with its larger neighbor. Though India was the first country in Asia outside the Communist bloc to establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China, in April 1950, their shared history has been riddled with tensions—not least a war (which China won) and an unresolved border dispute in Arunachal Pradesh, India’s northeasternmost state. Compounding these divisions are India’s tensions with its bitter rival Pakistan (an ally of China’s) and other long-standing issues such as the status of Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan to which China also lays some territorial claim. But India and China also share a number of common interests, including a robust, if lopsided, trading relationship.

“The India-China relationship has had its ups and downs,” Gautam Bambawale, India’s ambassador to China from 2017 to 2018, told me. He noted that officials on both sides tend to describe the relationship as one “where there are elements of both cooperation as well as competition.” Others have described the two countries as “frenemies.”

The growing resentment toward China among Indians isn’t for any of those reasons, though—at least, not exclusively. According to a recent survey by the Bangalore-based Takshashila Institution, a majority of Indians fault Beijing for the global pandemic, citing China’s early mishandling of the outbreak and its failure to alert the world to the severity of the crisis fast enough. Such perceptions aren’t without merit: China stands accused of having suppressed information about the extent of the coronavirus outbreak after its detection in Wuhan late last year, reportedly costing the world precious days to contain it.

But China’s early errors aren’t the only thing that has swayed Indian public opinion against it. According to the same study, 65 percent of respondents distrust Beijing’s word on the scale of the crisis, including its claims that the outbreak within China has been contained. It’s a narrative that has been met with skepticism elsewhere, too, suggesting that the Chinese government’s efforts to present its own handling of the crisis as one to emulate will be challenging. In India, they appear to have backfired altogether.

“Many of the things that China does in terms of public diplomacy are actually counterproductive,” Tanvi Madan, the director of the Brookings Institution’s India Project, told me. She noted that Beijing’s attempts to highlight its own assistance—and, in some cases, deflect blame—have come across in India as condescending. “Maybe they think that is helpful, but in India, where people are going to resent this Chinese sense of superiority,” Madan said, “that actually builds resentment.”

This anti-China sentiment has manifested in a number of ways. The term “Wuhan virus”—popularized by President Donald Trump, and which critics say perpetuates already rampant racism and xenophobia surrounding the crisis—is regularly used in India, as are hashtags such as #ChinaLiedAndPeopleDied and #MakeChinaPay. A cartoon depicting the World Health Organization chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, blindfolded with a Chinese-flag face mask has been widely circulated online by Indians (including Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, who tweeted the image to his 41 million followers before eventually deleting it). “Whether it’s memes on Twitter or WhatsApp, or comedy sketches or prime-time news shows dedicated to highlighting how China’s influenced the WHO or how it’s keeping Taiwan out of the WHO,” Madan said, “criticism of China has gone mainstream.”

Casting about for someone to blame for the pandemic is not unique to India (where Indian Muslims, who bore the brunt of recent communal violence in the country, have faced an uptick in bigotry and attacks). In the United States, President Trump has found a multitude of targets, including the media, state governors, and the WHO. Still, for U.S. lawmakers, China has proved to be a rare source of consensus, scapegoated by both Republicans and Democrats alike. The same can’t be said for their Indian counterparts. Although many Indians, even some close to the government, have criticized Beijing’s handling of the pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been reluctant to do so.

“The government doesn’t want to go down the road of getting into a blame game,” Ashok Kantha, the Indian ambassador to China from 2014 to 2016 and now the director of the Institute of Chinese Studies in Delhi, told me. Part of the reason for this, Kantha said, is priorities: Delhi is more concerned with containing the virus than ascribing blame for it. Political pragmatism is also at play. India needs China, particularly when it comes to procuring medical equipment. Irrespective of Indian public opinion on China, “you will not see the Indian government outdo Trump on this,” Madan said.

While this widespread dependence on China could limit the degree of criticism Beijing gets in the short term, that does not mean it is impervious. Reports of faulty test kits and defective masks have already proved a blow to China’s diplomacy, as a number of countries are opting to reject Chinese-made equipment.

When I asked Madan whether the Chinese government cares about its perception among the Indian public, she said it’s unlikely. “They still think that their primary audience is the Indian government [because] that’s who they can get stuff done with,” she said.

This may be the case for now, but it could prove problematic for Beijing in the long term. After all, how India—and, indeed, the rest of the world—perceives China in this moment will likely impact its global perception long after the pandemic has passed. “Being oblivious to the sentiments of 1.3 billion people of a country whose median age is 27 is not a sign of wisdom,” Nitin Pai, a co-founder and the director of the Takshashila Institution, told me in an email, “for they will see you as an adversary for the rest of their long lives.”