Despite vast differences in the way the media operates in the two countries, an India-China media forum will go a long way in improving understanding between the two countries, says Srikanth Kondapalli.
A new beginning is made on Monday with the inauguration of the India-China media forum at New Delhi. Representing several media outlets of both countries participated in the event with suggestions for improving coverage, perceptions, institutional contacts and carry forward bilateral relations.
This is in line with several decisions taken recently. In May 2013, during the visit of Premier Li Keqiang, a decision was taken to establish a ‘high-level media forum’ to enhance media exchanges and reduce misperceptions among them. Additionally, in June 2013, the Indian and Chinese ministers in charge of information and broadcasting met and decided “to establish a joint working group to look at promotion of films and media content, and the exchange of personnel and students, besides looking at opportunities for co-production of movies to promote greater contact between the two countries.”
These indicate to an outsider that media coverage and interactions between the two had been cordial and expanding. However, a survey of recent history of bilateral relations indicates to a more complicated picture with sometimes acrimony or mutual accusations coming to the fore.
For instance, an article carried by China Institute of International Strategic Studies on August 10, 2009, reminding Indians of the 1962 debacle, suggested that India should be broken up into 20-30 parts. Others in People’s Daily, Liberation Army Daily, Global Times are equally critical of India.
Media coverage and Structure
Mutual disagreements on the coverage of each other and their impact on the bilateral relations have brought forth issues related to the leadership’s role vis-à-vis each other and more importantly to the structure of the media in either of these countries.
Firstly, the media has been subjected to the pressures from the respective leaderships. During the 1976 diplomatic normalisation of relations it was reported that China had insisted on three conditions:
- That the Indian official accounts should desist from depicting China as a threat
- That India should not evolve diplomatic relations with Taiwan and
- The Indian media’s coverage of China should be regulated.
On the first two, it appeared that India had expressed positive response, while on the third -- on the regulation of the Indian media coverage -- it had expressed its inability to control the media due to the constitutional constraints of freedom of speech. Later, a similar response came from China after the Indian nuclear tests in 1998. For one long year, China refused talks with India and it relented after the foreign minister Jaswant Singh visit in 1999. Here again, China re-iterated the above three points. What reciprocal points were made by India are unknown.
Secondly, the ownership of the media is a major difference between the two and is reflective of different political systems. While China owns all means of media coverage -- telecasting, broadcasting, print and electronic media -- in the case of India, most of the print and electronic media is privately owned. Thus about 277 TV stations, 8,000 magazines and more than 2,000 newspapers, 200,000 journalists in China are controlled by the Communist Party’s propaganda department, although reform and opening up had initiated a trend of market-oriented advertisements and news coverage.
The clamp down on the Guangdong media personnel of Southern Weekly this January indicates to the reach of the party-state in China. On the other hand, an Indian media person would be loath to be identified with any government agency -- leave alone any control/supervision.
Thirdly, the ethos of the media -- partly influenced by the political beliefs and ownership -- is different in these countries. Despite market reforms, most of the media personnel in China are Communist Party members or government officials and they need to stick to the periodic regulations. Their main effort is to disseminate party perspectives to the public.
On the other hand, any governmental control of the Indian media is an anathema. The Indian media prides itself as a critique of the government’s policies, like an ombudsman’s role in seeing to it that there are no excesses committed in executing policies, in verifying the tall claims of the powers that be. The Indian media sees itself as a champion of democracy.
Fourth, there has been an overall inadequate coverage of each other’s situation. Reporting from China or India has always been a fascinating experience. Nevertheless, western-and-ethno-centrism and value-judgements seep the analyses of several analyses by foreign journalists on China and India. The travails of language barriers and cultural differences of a foreigner to a homogeneous society like China or a heterogeneous society like India (with more than 200 languages), makes it all the more challenging for anyone to interview, interact and analyse the reality.
Apart from inadequate personnel -- with only a handful stationed in Beijing and New Delhi, the media coverage had been inadequate or the topics chosen indicated to a pre-disposed agenda. For instance, most of the Chinese coverage of India included rape cases, poverty, hunger, corruption, lack of infrastructure facilities and the like. Chinese analysts accuse Indian media coverage influenced by nationalist pedigree, although some in India have argued that India should “learn from China” [in the development works] and transform Mumbai into a Shanghai.
Fifthly, the ideological element in the media coverage has a seeping ideological theme of democracy vs authoritarianism. For instance, Deng Xiaoping’s interpreter Zhang Weiwei’s in his The China Wave suggested that democracy without modernisation would be a problematic. His argument basically is that while western societies first introduced modernisation (before giving voting rights to their citizens) and thereby distributed resources, India’s experiment -- as with other several post-colonial societies -- was to introduce democracy (one-person one vote electoral system) from the 1950s and across the country.
This experiment, according to Zhang, had not resulted in poverty or other under-developed aspects being resolved despite the popular participation in the decision-making processes of the country. On the other hand, China had introduced four modernisations and elevated several millions out of poverty and made major strides in economic development.
Zhang’s argument reveals to a tension of a long-term ideological conflict between India and China in terms of their political choices. It is pitched at the models of development adopted by both these heavily populated countries which are in the process of rising.
Srikanth Kondapalli is professor in Chinese studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.