Report by: Angeli Datt and Anonymous
- Influence efforts ongoing, as bilateral relationship deteriorates: The deadly military clash between India and China in June 2020, in the disputed Galwan Valley border region, prompted a marked deterioration in bilateral relations and in Indian public opinion toward China during the coverage period of 2019–21. There was a corresponding uptick, after the incident, of Chinese state media articles that contained negative narratives about Indian governance, Indian foreign policy, and the Indian government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. These narratives and other content penetrated the Indian media landscape through a variety of means. During the coverage period, press freedom in India declined significantly, as the Indian government pursued criminal charges against journalists and applied financial and editorial pressure on critical outlets.
- Widespread negative public opinion of China: The Galwan Valley clash has had a significant impact on public opinion in India. A survey of young Indians in 2021 found that 77 percent of respondents distrusted China, for example. The Indian government’s nationalistic response to the clash also has trickled into the Indian media, where most outlets are critical of the Chinese government. Media organizations that published interviews with Chinese ambassador Sun Weidong have faced public criticism.
- Local-language engagement draws large social media following: Chinese state media outlets operate accounts on social media in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, and Urdu, and have a vast number of followers. The state broadcasting conglomerate China Media Group Hindi’s Facebook page has 7.2 million followers, just below the 10 million followers of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Hindi Facebook page. China Media Group’s Tamil Facebook page, China Radio International’s Bengali page, and Xinhua’s Urdu page have 8.8 million, 8.8 million, and 1.2 million followers, respectively. While these languages are also spoken widely in neighboring countries of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan (which are also the targets of Chinese Communist Party influence efforts), there are millions of speakers of these languages in India. China Radio International broadcasts also target Indian radio listeners with programming in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, and Urdu. China Media Group hosts YouTube pages in Hindi and Bengali under the names “Hindi Masala” and “Bangla Sis” that are not labelled as Chinese state media. One Tamil-language China Radio International employee who uses the name Ilakkiya is a popular influencer, with over 600,000 followers of her account @IlakkiyaInChina; her account is also not labeled as being affiliated with Chinese state media.
- Placement of articles via paid inserts, news wires, and ambassador outreach: Two major mainstream newspapers, the Hindu and Business Line, have published full-page advertorials paid for by the Chinese embassy, including a 2021 spread on the National Day of the People’s Republic of China, which marks the establishment of the country on October 1, 1949. Chinese state media articles are still placed in Indian outlets through existing content-sharing agreements with Indian news wire services. China’s ambassador to India has over 90,000 followers on Twitter, and his account receives significant engagement from Indian netizens. The ambassador also had at least 13 op-eds published in English during the coverage period in outlets including in the Hindu, the Times of India, the Free Press Journal, and the Economic Times, and has been interviewed by numerous local media outlets. Before the Galwan clash and the pandemic, Chinese state actors were actively engaged in efforts to cultivate ties with Indian journalists by offering subsidized trips to China, though these have since ebbed due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions.
- Chinese government blocking of websites and cyberattacks: Indian mainstream media outlets are generally outspoken, and have broadly been critical of the Chinese government since the military clash in 2020. Many Indian news sites such as the Hindu, the Times of India, the Wire, the Quint, and their apps have been blocked in China in response to coverage of the Galwan Valley clash. In September 2021, researchers linked a hack of the media conglomerate the Times Group, the parent company of the Times of India, the Economic Times, and other outlets, to the Chinese state.
- Pressure on Tibetans in exile: Tibetan media and civil society groups in exile are important independent sources of information on Chinese government repression in Tibet, with many maintaining contacts with those inside the region. Tibetan journalists and activists based in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh—which borders Tibet and is the seat of the Tibetan government in exile—have faced pressure from both Chinese and Indian authorities. Tibetans in exile and members of the Tibetan diaspora have faced relentless phishing and hacking attacks, as well as intimidation and threats online, from the Chinese government. When ties between the Chinese and Indian governments were warmer, Indian authorities launched their own crackdowns, such as when 15 Tibetans from a youth exile group were arrested in 2019 ahead of Xi Jinping’s visit to India.
- Limited targeting of small diaspora: The Chinese diaspora in India is small and mostly based near Kolkata; the number of Chinese expatriates and diaspora is unknown, with even the Chinese government declining to provide an estimate. There is only one local Chinese-language newspaper Seong Pow (印度商报) based in the country, though the fate of the paper is unclear after its founder died in 2020. WeChat, typically a major source of news and information for Chinese speakers around the world, was banned in India in June 2020 after the military clash. It can be reached by Virtual Private Networks though does not appear to have any significant social media penetration.
- Media pushback against Chinese government influence complicated by India’s declining press freedom: India’s Ministry of External Affairs has expressed public support for reporting on Chinese government influence attempts: for instance, it declared that “there is a free media in India” after journalists revealed efforts by the Chinese embassy to instruct Indian outlets on how to cover Taiwan. However, journalists’ ability to expose Chinese efforts to influence or coerce Indian media workers is complicated by an increase in the number of attacks on Indian media by the Indian government and by politically connected individuals. The risk of arrest, legal prosecutions, targeted censorship, online harassment, and other intimidation from the Indian government officials, state-aligned actors, and supporters of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has exacerbated overall self-censorship in India. The deteriorating press freedom situation has created further opportunities for the Chinese Communist Party to attempt to co-opt elites, scholars, and politicians without scrutiny from the press.
- Independent expertise on China and robust press freedom community: Indian media outlets have a growing number of foreign correspondents based in China and Hong Kong. Independent scholars, journalists, and researchers working on China in India are often consulted by local media. Indian civil society, though embattled due to increasing legal harassment and other threats, has continued working to protect press freedom, track disinformation networks, and foster a reliable, diverse, and resilient information ecosystem more broadly. Media literacy programs in India are supported by the government, international technology companies, and international broadcasters.
- Regulatory vulnerabilities and deteriorating environment for civil society: India’s regulatory environment allows the government to exercise control over the registration, accreditation, and travel of local and foreign journalists and media outlets, threatening their independence. Information Technology Rules introduced in 2021 impose an onerous regulatory structure on digital news outlets that civil society groups say may be abused to enact censorship (though the provisions are not yet in force as of August 2022 due to litigation). The state-owned All India Radio exercises a monopoly over radio news content. While there are legal limitations on foreign ownership in the media sector, recent legislation on foreign funding of civil society groups has been wielded by the government against perceived critics. Activists also risk severe harassment and arrest for engaging in rights work, contributing to self-censorship and potentially complicating any investigative work on Chinese influence.
- Problematic pushback: The Indian government has banned over 200 apps made by companies based in China on national security grounds, including WeChat and TikTok, which are owned by companies with a history of censorship inside China. The ban on such apps, however, limits freedom-of-expression and access-to-information rights of Indians. The blocking of WeChat has particularly affected Tibetans in exile—who are cut off from their families in China, since WeChat is the most commonly employed means of communication with relatives. Jingoistic political rhetoric toward China has also created an atmosphere of fear for the small community of Chinese Indians.
The full India country report will be posted as soon as it becomes available.
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Global Freedom Score66 100 partly free
Internet Freedom Score50 100 partly free