Fighting Words

How the Indian media short-changes China

Border conflicts from the 1960s, and especially the Sino- Indian War, still cast a heavy shadow over India’s view of its giant northern neighbour. EXPRESS/ HULTON ARCHIVE / GETTY IMAGES
Elections 2024
01 January, 2016

Last September, during a three-day visit to India by Xi Jinping, a newsreader at the official Indian broadcaster Doordarshan read the Chinese president’s name from a teleprompter as “Eleven” Jinping during a live telecast, mistaking “Xi” for the Roman numeral XI. It was an embarrassing gaffe—Indian officials moved with uncommon speed to fire her—and also a reminder of the unfamiliarity between the world’s two most populous states.

For decades, India’s approach to China has been defined by hostility and fear—emotions stemming, among much else, from competing border claims, the memory of India’s humiliating defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, and the two countries’ locations in rival geopolitical camps down the years. Indian newspapers channel the othering of China through reporting marked by ingrained jingoism and suspicion, which often results in stories with outlandish spin. In the winter of 2012, for instance, newspapers reported that Indian forces along the Chinese border were alarmed over sightings of mysterious flying spheres. According to a Press Trust of India report, these appeared to “lift off from the horizon on the Chinese side and slowly traverse the sky for three to five hours before disappearing.” Unnamed Indian “officials” said that these “UFOs” were not Chinese surveillance drones, but it was reported that India would nevertheless take the matter up with China at the diplomatic level. Mail Today then wrote that “India’s protests at the local border personnel meeting with the Chinese have met with a cursory denial,” and added that it had learnt that the issue was “discussed at a high-level meeting on China in the Prime Minister’s Office.” Meanwhile, scientists assembled in Leh to study the phenomenon were reported to have concluded that the spheres could be “Chinese lanterns.” Finally, in July 2013, The Telegraph solved the mystery, reporting that the “flying objects” at the heart of so much consternation were actually just Jupiter and Venus.

Yet, despite a surfeit of similar stories on supposed Chinese threats and incursions, China and India have managed their contested border remarkably well, with not a single bullet fired across it in nearly four decades. Contrast that with the five-decade border dispute between Assam and Nagaland, which in 2014 alone displaced more than 10,000 people, and claimed 18 lives in a matter of weeks. Today, China is India’s biggest trading partner, and the two countries are engaging with each other in ways that would have been unthinkable even at the turn of the century. Hence the Indian media’s shrillness is going against the grain of the thaw in the two countries’ relationship, if not hindering it.

For a recent paper in the journal China Report, I set out to determine the extent of hostile coverage of China in the Indian print media—particularly in the country’s two most popular English-language dailies, the Times of India and the Hindustan Times. To do this, I categorised and then tallied all China-related stories in these papers over a six-month period using what communication scholars call “frames.” These are distinct narrative structures that ascribe set meanings to events, which help readers grasp the news but often strip it of nuance and ambiguity. I divided the prevailing frames into two groups, adversarial and non-adversarial, and found the dominant share of stories to be unambiguously adversarial in nature, portraying China as a rival power that needs to be countered.

I was careful to pick a time period—the first half of 2012—that was both fairly recent and reflective of usual China coverage, with no major border face-offs or other events that could skew the data. I counted Tibet-related stories as neither adversarial nor non-adversarial, since these come with their own dominant preoccupations. As these made up roughly 20 percent of my sample, though, I retained them under a separate category in my numerical analysis—removing them from the sample would have increased the proportion of adversarial stories. I looked at the Times of India and the Hindustan Times because of their prominence among India’s English-language press, from which regional and vernacular newspapers regularly take cues on foreign affairs and defence coverage, since they have far fewer staff dedicated to these beats. Besides The Hindu and the Press Trust of India, the Times of India and the Hindustan Times are the only Indian print media establishments with correspondents in China.

The logic and rhetoric applied to activate adversarial frames on China can be strikingly similar across Indian papers, but it bears noting that India’s vast mediascape, even just in English, does not speak in a single voice. The Hindu and The Telegraph, for instance, and business papers such as Business Standard and the Economic Times, take a noticeably more balanced view of China. Also, a single paper may accord different treatments to China in different sections. The opinion pages of the Times of India and the Hindustan Times can carry incisive, peaceable articles on China—along with some hilariously ill-informed ones—even as their news pages bristle with belligerence.

In the Times of India, 60 percent of China-related stories over the period of the study were adversarial. The corresponding number for the Hindustan Times was 47.5 percent. The largest share of adversarial stories—roughly 36 percent of all the pieces in the Times of India, and about 32 percent of all those in the Hindustan Times—fell under three related frames, which I titled “border tension/aggression,” “war preparation” and “geopolitical rivalry.” Beyond just the numbers, unpacking these frames and understanding their component parts is revealing of the tropes Indian journalists regularly apply to China.

The “border tension/aggression” frame, which deals most directly with the border dispute fuelling a great deal of Sino-Indian tension, appeared as the mother frame, with elements that fed into the majority of adversarial reports. It involves stories of, or related to, purported violations of Indian territory by Chinese forces. Examples include a May 2012 piece in the Times of India, titled ‘China Violated Line of Actual Control 500 Times in Last Two Years,’ and ‘Brazen China Enters India, Spends 3 Days,’ from the Hindustan Times in August 2013. (My numerical analysis was confined to the chosen publications and time frame, but my qualitative critique and examples ranged more freely.)

Three things are worth pointing out here. First, the allegations of Chinese incursion are all premised on the existence of a defined and agreed boundary separating the two states. However, neither the McMahon Line in the east nor the Line of Actual Control in the west are mutually recognised, or demarcated on the ground. Stories in this frame ignore the resulting ambiguities by reporting “transgressions” across what is in effect an indeterminate border.

Second, these stories are, in almost all cases, based on information from unnamed Indian military or intelligence sources. This raises obvious questions of reliability and bias, compounded by the fact that Chinese sources and independent analysts are rarely approached for corroboration. Any conflicting or complicating statements from Indian officials—as when they point out the lack of a well-defined border—are spun as a sign of the government’s weakness.


Third, “border tension/aggression” stories all come with the ingredients of a strong frame. For readers to be interested in a story, they must usually be able to take sides. Hence, a strong frame faithfully identifies a clear problem or villain—in this case, China. To further eliminate ambiguity, it also comes with a prescribed solution—in this case, the need for greater assertion by a supposedly spineless Indian government.

As a template, consider the opening paragraphs from ‘China Violated Line of Actual Control 500 Times in Last Two Years’:

Needling India all along the unresolved 4,057-km Line of Actual Control (LAC), Chinese troops have crossed over into Indian territory over 500 times since January, 2010.

But much more than the sheer number of these ‘transgressions’—the government refuses to call them ‘intrusions’—it’s the increasingly aggressive behavior of the 2.5-million-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) along the LAC that remains a major worry.

Many experts feel China … is now resorting to ‘a slow but steady cartographic aggression’ to keep India under pressure.

The government, as always, played down the issue by holding the transgressions took place due to ‘differing perceptions’ about where the LAC actually lies.

The other major adversarial frames follow naturally from such representations of the India-China relationship. For instance, if we take China’s territorial aggression for granted, it is only natural to obsessively compare Indian and Chinese military strength. Hence the “war preparation” frame, which encompasses reports on Indian or Chinese strategic capabilities that, without exception, include commentary on the need for greater Indian military preparation. As examples, see ‘China Multiplies its War Toys, India Plays Catch-up,’ from September 2012 in the Hindustan Times, or ‘With China in Mind, India Tests New-Generation Agni Missile with High “Kill Efficiency,”’ from November 2011 in the Times of India. In what must be music to defence manufacturers’ ears, such reports brook no resistance to expanding military expenditure, and rejoice whenever the government allows it—consider ‘50 Years on, Attack Choppers Sought for China Border,’ from October 2012 in the Hindustan Times.

Stories under the “geopolitical rivalry” frame range from those keeping a hawkish eye on India’s neighbours—for instance, ‘China-Sri Lanka Space Cooperation Worries India,’ from March 2013 in The Hindu—to ones on distant alliances whose main purpose is reportedly to keep China in check—take ‘India, Australia to Strengthen Defence Ties to Contain China,’ from June 2013 in the Times of India. A good deal of such stories cast suspicion on any Chinese activity regarding Pakistan, even though China has excellent reasons to engage closely with its immediate neighbour. These find ready audiences as they agree with the premise of China seeking partners to gang up against India. One spin-off of this supposed race against China for world domination is a profusion of pieces calling for stronger alliances with powers ranged against China—mostly the United States and Japan.

The “geopolitical rivalry” frame is also applied to spice up dull diplomatic stories from farther afield and without an immediate China connection. A recent summit of African leaders in Delhi, for example, was spun so heavily as a move in Sino-Indian competition on that continent, both by Indian and Western media, that it prompted the Chinese foreign ministry to issue a denial.

Outside these three frames, other adversarial stories deal with economic rivalry—these include jubilant recent reports of India’s growth rate overtaking China’s, even though bigger economies, as a rule, grow slower than smaller ones—and reported threats to Indian interests from Chinese hackers. I also identified a “link to internal problems” frame, under which China is portrayed as fanning the flames of Indian domestic crises—primarily Maoist and north-eastern insurgencies. Other adversarial stories exaggerate one-off bilateral incidents to make them seem like national confrontations. Some telling examples came in 2010, after 21 Indian diamond traders were detained in China on allegations of smuggling.

Non-adversarial stories accounted for only about a quarter of China-related coverage in the Times of India, and about a third of it in the Hindustan Times. Of these, the majority covered genuine collaboration—for example, ‘India, China in Pact for Exploring Oil, Gas Assets Overseas,’ from June 2012 in the Hindustan Times—and many others were offbeat features or straightforward reports on platitudes by officials and diplomats. Another recurring non-adversarial frame was “reference/benchmark,” which involves comparisons of various aspects and measures of Indian social and economic life, from patent applications to exam statistics, to their Chinese equivalents. In essence, this frame takes in pieces focussed on India that touch upon China very briefly. Had these been excluded from the sample, the percentage of adversarial stories would have been even higher.

This overall negative slant of Indian coverage comes with great costs. Chinese diplomats and journalists, like many of their international counterparts, closely track India’s major English-language media outlets. They take these media organisations’ representations to approximate the national policy and mood, and transmit them as such, setting in motion a cycle of mutually hostile news content. For instance, after recent chest-thumping about China’s economic slowdown as being an opportunity for India to gain ground on its neighbour, the Global Times, a Chinese state publication, ran a stinging op-ed, headlined ‘China’s Economic Pain Can’t be India’s Gain,’ reminding India that its economy is still a long way from taking the place of China’s. And that’s just state media, where the language is consciously tempered. Things get a lot uglier on social media, where China’s army of ultra-nationalistic micro-bloggers, who can now access Indian media in real time, express their bemusement at antagonistic coverage in decidedly more unpleasant terms.

This has contributed to a poisoning of public opinion on both sides. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, an annual opinion poll by a US think tank, in 2014 only 30 percent of Chinese respondents said they had a favourable view of India; where, in 2010, 53 percent had said they viewed their county’s relationship with the neighbour as one of cooperation. In the 2014 survey in India, only 31 percent of respondents said they had a favourable view of China, and 72 percent said they were concerned about a possible military conflict with it. In 2013, India Poll, another public-opinion survey by an international think tank, found that 83 percent of respondents believed China posed a threat.

Just how strongly negative media coverage impacts public opinion and the Sino-Indian relationship was beyond the scope of my study. So was figuring out to what degree the Indian media acts independently in choosing adversarial frames, and to what degree they do so under the influence of policymakers. But having spent close to a decade in Indian newsrooms and another in newsrooms elsewhere, I can see what Indian audiences are missing—intelligent, actionable information on China. The one-dimensional, India-centric narrative of rivalry muddles Indians’ views, and obfuscates the extent and significance of the rise of the superpower next door. The trouble is that frames, once set, are extremely difficult to replace, since any attempt to do so grates against entrenched public wisdom. Yet if we are ever to get along with China, we have to start by changing the frames through which we see the country for more objective and less fearful ones.

Adapted from a paper that first appeared in the August 2015 edition of China Report, produced by the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi, and published by SAGE Publications.