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Dragon’s Digital Eyes beyond the Himalayas: Online Chinese Nationalism towards Pakistan And India

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  • June 05, 2009
    Fellows' Seminar
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: S K Bhutani
    Discussants: Arun Sahgal and M. V. Rappai

    Since China underwent a series of reforms back in the 1970s, the world has been witnessing sporadic symptoms of its widening presence in South Asia, particularly in the contexts of India and Pakistan. It is more so in the post-Cold War period after the ‘People’s Daily Online’ connected to the Internet on January 1, 1997, utilizing cyberspace as a means to involve national sentiments and general responses on international issues in a big way. Since then, the primary focus of Chinese cyber nationalists has been to retain China’s historical status as a respected power. Today, Chinese cyberspace is often considered by many as a responsible factor in influencing Chinese policy making in relation to these two South Asian states. In this paper, the author makes an attempt to review issues like evolution of online Chinese nationalism towards Pakistan and India; the central views in online Chinese nationalism towards the two states; the influence, if any, of the nationalist expression toward India and Pakistan on the actual foreign policy-making in China.

    The structural change in the international system at the end of the Cold War compelled the Chinese leadership to review and reshape its foreign as well as domestic policies. Since then, while on the one hand, China has been trying to improve its relations with neighboring states to deal with the US’ rising power in the region and quell the growing fear of encirclement by a coalition led by Washington, there have also been consistent efforts by the Chinese people to revitalize China’s splendid civilization on the other. In recent years, with China having the largest netizens in the world, a certain section of Chinese nationalists have been able to intensify the offline nationalistic rhetoric within the state through online Chinese nationalism. In fact, according to Stephan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, “the internet has emerged as possibly the most important influence on public opinion, not only accelerating the communications of news and information within China but also relaying news of unfolding events from the worldwide Chinese diaspora.” The Chinese, particularly the young generation who have much greater access to the cyber world than the elderly, have come to realize that they no longer need to secure direct or indirect interpretations from leaders, journalists and Chinese officials (all members of the CCP), when they can analyze the truth by accessing the internet.

    However, Chinese youths’ access to the internet has created a sort of cyber-nationalism within the state which may prove quite a challenge in the long run for India’s security and strategic interests. It is evident from the anti-India sentiments overwhelmingly pouring out of a number of Chinese cyber sites. According to surveys conducted so far, most Chinese netizens attach their preference to Pakistan as a more friendly state while considering India as less friendly. In the debates within Chinese cyberspace, strong statements like how China can use Pakistan’s ‘fatal grudge’ with India for its own national interest clearly indicate how such ‘India bashing’ can create anti-India sentiments among Chinese public.

    It is believed that cyberspace in China has been able to bring about critical changes in its one-party dominated society. In fact, “the unique characteristics of the internet such as instantaneousness, anonymity, and lacking borders have made it a convenient and powerful vehicle for citizens to assert themselves and have their voice heard in an institutionally less liberal and democratic environment”, as rightly put by Bo Li and Yang Zhong in the book titled “The Internet and Political Participation in China.”

    Although it is argued that popular online nationalism has been able to set a standard of what may be called ‘true patriotism’ in contrast to ‘state nationalism’, it remains undeniably true that no alternative leaders or movements are emerging from the internet and the CCP continues to be sole political power. As regards to the size of cyberspace, although China’s internet seems to be quite open to the world, in reality, it still offers a tactfully closed cyberspace. What is all the more interesting to note here is that most of the leading commercial websites are based on China, where they continue to face a lot of pressure from the CCP. Above all, despite growing popularity of cyberspace within China, the credibility of the news on the website still remains in question. That is why, the impact of cyber nationalism in China on the decision-making process is very limited, even with the state’s foreign policy formulations in relation to India and Pakistan.

    Points raised during the discussion:

    • Why and how Beijing has been able to use the media, particularly cyberspace, to meet its national interest by promoting Chinese nationalism?
    • How has the Chinese leadership creatively managed the freedom of internet users
    • Has there been state support to galvanize internet usage in China?
    • What is the penetration rate of anti-India sentiments through Chinese cyberspace?
    • Is the US-India strategic partnership responsible for growing anti-India sentiments in Chinese websites?
    • The author mentions that Sino-Pak relation is a by-product of the Indo-US strategic partnership. However, while Indo-US strategic relationship is quite a recent phenomenon, Sino-Pak relations began decades ago.
    • The paper needs to analyze the impact of cyber nationalism on the larger population, since as a proportion of the overall population, netizens in India, China and Pakistan still remain quite small.
    • At present, Chinese hacking seems to pose a much greater threat to India than cyber nationalism.
    • What has been the methodology adopted in selecting comments from the websites?
    • Digital nationalism in China is a kind of proxy war against India.
    • A brief overview of the evolution of Chinese digital nationalism is necessary.
    • Chinese Diaspora has a great impact on Chinese nationalism, whether online or offline. Thus, there is a need to analyze the extent of online communication between the Chinese in mainland China and those residing in other democratic countries.
    • An analysis should also be made on the influence of the internet on the process of Chinese policy making.
    • In the paper, the author elaborates on how over the years, Sino-Indian relations have undergone three specific changes: ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai’ of 1950s to ‘Hindi-Chini Bye-Bye’ of post 1962 war, and then, to ‘Hindi-Chini Buy Buy’ of post 1988. These three stages seem irrelevant as far as this paper is concerned.
    • The author mentions the forty-five minute long handshake between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Chinese President Deng Xiaoping in Beijing in 1988. This is not quite correct.
    • Despite its booming IT sector, India has not been able to master the intricate details of cyberspace system. To counter the growing anti-India sentiments pouring out of Chinese websites, India needs to develop mastery over the functioning of internet network system at a rapid pace. We also need a systematic policy in computer technology to deal with the growing threats from Chinese cyberspace.

    Prepared by Pranamita Baruah, Research Assistant at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.