The India-China standoff at Doklam, Bhutan for 75 days witnessed a brazenly aggressive media campaign by Beijing. In the controlled environment the Chinese media functions within, three publications are of greater import — People’s Daily is the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party.
The Xinhua News Agency is also government-controlled. The Global Times does not have an umbilical connect with the government but functions under the People’s Daily and reflects the opinions of the more orthodox party members who have an influence on policy formulation.
On July 24, 2017, Xinhua quoted Wu Qian, spokesperson for the ministry of national defence as saying: "The Chinese border troops have taken initial counter measures at the site and will step up targeted deployment and training."
Xinhua called it an Indian incursion in Chinese territory — there was no reference to the fact that the disputed area is under Bhutanese possession.
As July led to August, the pitch was shriller with the Chinese recalling the humiliating military defeat it had inflicted on India in 1962. People’s Daily invoked its editorial of September 22, 1962 to remind India of that defeat. The Global Times made it more repugnant for Indians when it published the article "Time for a second lesson for forgetful India".
The tirade thereafter was persistently venomous. The aim all along was to deride Indians with hawkish threats of war. Indian and the China haven’t fired a bullet at each other since 1967 at Nathu La, a mountain pass along the Indo-Chinese border.
The Indian press has responded on both aggressive and sane lines. However, in India's case, with its free press, articles published are not indicators of the government stance except where they quote a government official or minister.
The Chinese objectives of such a psychological warfare by the media were apparently based on the premise that such statements would serve to cower India and also influence Indian public opinion. Possibly, the Chinese expected to generate apprehensions in the minds of Indians regarding the risks of challenging the incursion.
Beijing's other objective was to lower India’s prestige in the region as well as globally. As far as any influence it has had on the perceptions of the Indian leadership, the facts on ground prove to be otherwise.
In terms of influencing public opinion, it made no measurable dent. As far as India’s standing in the region and the rest of the world goes, the fact is Indians having stood their ground has led to a positive image.
On August 7, 2017, the Global Times almost declared war when it ran the article “China will probably take action in two weeks, India tense”. China Daily further upped the ante with its article, “India should come to its senses while it has time”.
The Xinhua News Agency also released a comical video, Seven Sins of India. It literally mocks India in a depiction that was childish and downright dumb, with a sparsely bearded turbaned man, representing Indians at the centre of the narrative.
It led to a deluge of responses because of the utter lack of sensitivity. Most major media outlets carry negative comments. The Guardian and CNBC found it to be racist. The Washington Post found it bizarre.
The New York Times wrote, “Hoping to move away from the dull propaganda of an earlier era, the ruling Communist Party has in recent years turned to rap songs, animations and comedy skits to convey talking points. But many of those forays have been criticized as strained and over the top.”
The video was posted on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube — all three are blocked and beyond the reach of Chinese citizens. No doubt, the BBC felt, “The video appears to be solely targeted at a foreign audience. It is delivered entirely in English and...”
If it was targeted at foreign audiences, it failed to do anything more than depicting China as playing adolescent pranks.
James R Holmes, professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, summed it up comprehensively when he stated that India is "behaving like a mature power". Holmes remarked that China was being "an adolescent throwing a temper tantrum."
The Chinese do not seem to understand that psychological operations need to be far better planned and continuously refined post the media campaign is launched.
They don’t seem to perceive the fact that unlike the media of free democracies, their press is considered as good as Beijing’s pronouncements. In information operations, of which psychological operations is a core function, the objectives have to be clearly laid out and the messaging needs to drive the narrative towards that goalpost.
Today, messages that would ruffle the sensitivities of the audience are shunned. The effect of the rather coarse Chinese overdrive has led to other nations leaning more firmly to support India without Indians having to exert themselves.
The Chinese do not seem to understand that psychological operations need to be far better planned and continuously refined post the media campaign is launched. Photo: Reuters
Media is not a weapon per se. As a wide spectrum delivery, media includes television, print, internet et al. It’s the information package that we deliver through the media that is the weapon.
It’s not a hard weapon that blows up in your face when you spread the newspaper beneath your nose or switch on the TV.
It’s a soft weapon that has the power to influence. Ideally, the target audience should start aligning with the originator’s views. A message with that kind of power to influence needs to be carefully structured to firstly reach the target audience, be understood by them, not assail their sensitivities, convincingly convey its contents and be based on truth.
Being truthful is all the more important in a transparent media-driven world.
The other reason for such an amateurish approach on part of the Chinese media could also be a disconnect between Xi Jinping and his media managers. Had they known that China will not respond to Indians digging in at Doklam by undertaking offensives either in Sikkim or in other sectors, they might have kept the decibel levels low.
China’s internal power struggles may have resulted in the media not being in sync with Beijing's strategy. The 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is scheduled in October, 2017 and the occasion for confirmation/changes in the current leadership.
Though Xi is expected to sail through, the unsuccessful foray at Doklam after all the rhetoric in the media does create unsavoury ripples for him in the Congress.
Notwithstanding the possible effects of China’s internal squabbles, the Chinese messaging has been more aligned to warmongering — vituperative, and insensitive to the point of being insulting.
Foreign audiences have found the flaring Dragon is certainly not the reflection of a nation striving to become a global power they would be comfortable with.
It does not enhance Chinese's acceptance among the comity of nations. The Chinese rant does not build trust — it tends to convey that given the chance to be on the top deck, Beijing would treat other nations shabbily. It may also create apprehensions among countries that have opted to join China's One Belt, One Road initiative.