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China’s video games on Doklam show why Beijing finds it hard to exert soft power

The two recent videos — one of Indian and Chinese soldiers attacking each other with fists and rocks, and the other a bizarre one released by Xinhua — show that the problem lies with the Chinese government, and its default posture of condescension toward its neighbours

columns Updated: Aug 23, 2017 07:28 IST
Bobby Ghosh
Bobby Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Doklam,China,Pangong lake
The Chinese government struggles to exert any kind of soft power in the world, and especially in Asia. This is not because of its authoritarian nature...Nor is it because the Delhi demonises Beijing (File Photo)(Reuters)

By now, you’ll have seen the disturbing film clip of Indian and Chinese soldiers attacking each other with fists and rocks near Pangong Lake, in Ladakh. Such scuffles are, we’re told, not unusual along the India-China border, but since civilians never get to see them, it doesn’t crease our brows. My own first reaction on seeing it was relief that neither side used any of the lethal arms at its disposal, which ensured that the encounter didn’t escalate from a street brawl. But on subsequent viewings, it was hard not to feel a frisson of primal fear at the sight of two nuclear-armed militaries coming to blows.

But in the hubbub created by that video, you may have missed another, in which Beijing attempted to use words where kicks and stones have failed. Last week, the Chinese official news agency Xinhua released a bizarre video in which a woman staffer, aided by a couple of colleagues, claims India has committed “seven sins” in its two-month standoff with China over Doklam. The video is unabashedly racist in its depiction of Indians, and patronising toward Bhutanese.

If the video was intended to shock and offend, all it did was mildly amuse. On social media, Indians chuckled at Xinhua’s attempt to dress up a Chinese man as an “Indian” by giving him a Sikh turban and the kind of fake beard you’d use in a skit for a 5-year-old’s birthday party. You have to wonder why the agency wasn’t able to hire a South Asian actor (A friendly Pakistani, perhaps?) to play the part. Also unintentionally funny was the woman staffer’s inexplicable use of an ersatz American accent, complete with California slang. At one point, she says: “Don’t you wanna play house, bro?”

That the attempt fell flat is unsurprising: Political humour is rare in China, where laughing at the ruling elite can be injurious to a professional comedian’s career, not to mention said comedian’s health and freedom. It’s hard to make fun of other governments when you’re not allowed to make jokes about your own. And it would too much to expect rapier sarcasm, or subtle ANYTHING, from so blunt an instrument of official propaganda as Xinhua.

(To show our fellow journalists — yes, Xinhua does employ some — how it’s done, Hindustan Times asked comedienne Vasu Primlani to respond to the video. Rather than spoil it with a mundane description, I invite you to watch the video on our Facebook page. No fake beards were used.)

But what, apart from its clumsiness, is one to make of the Xinhua video? It suggests Beijing wants to speak directly to Indians, over the heads of their political leaders, on the issue of Doklam. This is an interesting approach, even it was spoiled by the sheer ham-fistedness of the first effort.

The second was a slight improvement. On Monday, Xinhua released another video on the topic of Doklam, this time minus the overt racism, and with a tone that, by Beijing’s standards of bluster, is almost conciliatory. A male staffer (conspicuously unshorn by faux facial hair) suggests that India and China are both ancient civilizations, and “not born rivals”. Curiously, he surmises that THIS is why India should immediately withdraw from all “Chinese territory”. But he cannot resist the customary finger-wagging about the need for India to be “sober” and for Delhi to guard against “strategic myopia”.

At this rate of progress, it will be a long time, if such a time ever comes, before Delhi need worry about the effectiveness of Beijing’s propaganda directed at ordinary Indians. As any number of Sinologists have pointed out, the Chinese government struggles to exert any kind of soft power in the world, and especially in Asia. This is not because of its authoritarian nature: After all, even the Soviet Union was able to win friends, especially in the developing world, despite being a totalitarian state. Nor is it because the Delhi demonises Beijing: For one thing, the Indian government has been quite restrained, and for another, the United States was able to project soft power in India even when Indira Gandhi portrayed it as a foe.

The videos show that the problem lies with the Chinese government, and its default posture of condescension toward its neighbours. Even when seeking to speak directly to Indians, Beijing succumbs to its propensity to hector and harangue — and winds up making a laughing-stock of itself with its target audience.

Meanwhile, even as we giggle about fake beards, there’s real reason for the world to worry about what’s going on the India-China border. If frontier fisticuffs are indeed a quotidian part of the lives of the soldiers there, then their restraint is the more remarkable for it. But to indefinitely count on their continence would be foolish and irresponsible of their political masters.

Bobby Ghosh is editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times

Twitter: @ghoshworld

First Published: Aug 22, 2017 13:37 IST