PM Modi's robust foreign policy moves has unsettled the autocratic state to a great extent

by Indrani Ghosh

Experts in the filed of India- China studies and strategic affairs say the Chinese octopus’ tentacles must be severed mercilessly to end its grip on different strata of Indian society, including the media. These, however, will not be short term goals and India needs to shed its tactical, defensive and reactionary approach in dealing with Beijing. India must dig deep into its past and bring the best of “grassroots Sanatani legacy” along with global understanding to deal with its northern neighbour while flourishing as a democracy. This is all the more important at a time, when there have been revelations internationally about an Indian news portal Newsclick being allegedly funded by a frontman of the Chinese Communist Party, Neville Roy Singham to spread pro-China and anti-India propaganda. Serious charges are also being made about CCP using this news portal to fund a lot of individuals who are acting against the current government.

With the Chinese threat looming large on the 2024 general elections, chairman of the New Delhi-based think-tanks, Law and Society Alliance, and Indian Strategic Interests Foundation, N.C. Bipindra told The Sunday Guardian: “Essentially the Chinese would want to get rid of the Narendra Modi government. They wish for someone pliable. Beijing is playing a role but putting a finger on it clearly is impossible as it is an operation grey zone.”

The Grey Zone

This is one warfare, where you cannot categorize between legal and illegal, said Bipindra. “Any state which wants to acquire global power, knows well they cannot thrive alone on military power, there is an absolute need for a robust soft power presence—that overarching cultural and ideological influence—a necessary multi-pronged tool. China realises India is an adversary challenging it in its own backyard, denting its credibility as a world power. Hence all these efforts to bring India on its knees,” said Pandya.

“A lot of media houses in India run advertisements and advertorials issued by the Chinese embassy, often at twice the rate. This goes into crores and crores of rupees. Narratives are set by the Chinese and the articles are done,” Bipindra added.

And there is no way to stop such funding (if within legal limits) or ask people to stop writing articles and opinion pieces for any publication, even pro China ones, said Abhinav Pandya, CEO of Usanas Foundation and a strategic affairs expert. Even Government of India (GOI) will find it difficult to crack down on this.

Deep State

Action was taken in the tech zone in particular, when GoI banned a number of apps and curbed foreign investments. However, Research Fellow with the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, Namrata Hasija recounted how deep the hold of the Chinese deep-state is.

“If one would recall during Covid and especially after Galwan, when New Delhi had stopped imports from China, there was a section here in the ministry which questioned the move. They said, ‘Everything is dependent on China. If you don’t let us import how will we sell, we want to do business with China’. This nationalism that we talk about, it is very limited; for businessmen, it is all about making profit,” she said.

“China has very sophisticated understanding of these intelligence wars. Unfortunately, ours is very tactical, still debating money trails,” said Pandya. Batting for a complete overhaul of the current understanding of national security and foreign policy as well as the intelligence apparatus, Pandya said the modus operandi needed to change completely.

CCP Footprints

Beijing’s soft influence has been moulding the Indian narrative for decades to weaken New Delhi’s hold in the region, says Hasija. “There is not a single area where the Chinese have not penetrated and where they don’t exert an influence—be it media, Bollywood, academia, think-tank, to an extent even in the government, because political parties too have relations with the CCP. And then the biggest lobby that the Chinese have is in the business community.” Prominent academicians at one point of time were writing how New Delhi was making the biggest mistake by not joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), she said.

A proxy war using all mechanisms available in a democracy is being used by China in an attempt to weaken India from within, these experts say.

Sun Tzu Doctrine

China believes in the doctrine of winning wars without fighting them, explained Pandya. “Armies should march only at victory parades—an oriental understanding of statecraft and diplomacy.”

China being a one-party state, believes it has overcome India’s democratic weaknesses. It views India suspiciously and has never trusted it since 1949, said Bipindra.

“Right from Nehru’s time up to now, India has conceded a whole lot of things, including upholding the One China policy. However, Beijing has never reciprocated with One India policy. If they reciprocate then PoK, Gilgit Baltistan, the highway passing through it all would be illegal asset,” underlined Bipindra.

No Outside Influence In China

Being a one-party state, the Chinese Communist Party has an octopus-like grip over its system and people, which India, being a democracy does not. If that were so, India would not have allowed the farmers’ agitation of 2019-20 on the borders of Delhi, Bipindra added. “Can you imagine such a thing happening in China? The Tiananmen Square is a glaring example of it.”

You cannot do any kind of influential operation in China, said Bipindra. The person who interacts with the Indian embassy in Beijing is continuously tracked—any suspicion and he vanishes. Such a thing cannot happen in India.

Pandya believes that this is because our civil servants and diplo mats are basically fed and brought up on Western doctrines. While China has over the years bettered its centu ty? Where are our espionage and state craft based on Shukraniti, Nitisar, Kamandak Nitisar, Kautilya, Acharya Hem Chandra’s theories on state craft, Thirukkural, based on the Sanatan (Dharma) legacy, so these are areas where we are lacking,” he added.

So how does it work? Meetings are convened, where influencers, established senior journalists are asked to retweet things that the Chinese would tweet for several thousand USDs, said Hasija. They offer benefits like cash, free trips, hospitality to all those succumbing to this method. Then there are those who want their books published, the Chinese get it done and get 5,000 copies sold. The writer gets a royalty and then Bollywood steps in to script it.

For Indian filmmakers, China is a big market. They invite big stars to the Beijing International Film Festival. “At these meetings these stars are sitting with the United Front Work Department, but they are unaware because no one in India knows these UFWD fellows and how they penetrate into society or the International Liaison Department, whose job is to create a favourable environment for the Chinese abroad. They have 610 officers worldwide and they have connections with all political parties, and in all countries, not just in India. So that is how they influence—they create lobbies within your countries, who are unaware of it,” said Hasija.

UFWD was founded by Mao Zedong to eliminate China’s enemies from within and abroad.

Targeting Friends & Masses

Hasija, who is working on a paper on Chinese influential operation in Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, said, “In India, we don’t talk about it. We did two conferences on Chinese influence operation in Delhi and Pune and people were shocked to know what kind of influence the Chinese have.”

In fact somebody questioned her focus on the three Indian neighbours. “It’s very important. We don’t realise what China is doing with its influence ops in these countries. They are working in all these countries to create a negative narrative against India. The way they have penetrated Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh…they are very close to the Bangladesh Army, whose officers get training in China, they go there for courses. They are influencing these people and they are creating a very negative image of India,” said Hasija.

We have to be aware of China’s influential ops in India, but also in South Asia; it impacts us, she added.

Two-three months before Galwan, the Chinese created a lot of fake IDs on Twitter, and circulated videos of men and women with caps or something hiding their faces. There would be a video which showed PM Modi and Xi boxing; when Indian PM looks up, he finds Pakistan has joined China, then slowly all our neighbours one by one. Only Bangladesh is with India, but when Bangladesh finds all are on the other side, it too moves away. They then gang up to make Modi run away. That is the kind of brainwashing that is being done. Hasija termed this animation as “wishful thinking” on the part of China, but cautioned that “you realise what they want to do.”

In Bangladesh, the maximum number of scholarships are sponsored by Chinese private firms like Huawei. Then there is a large chunk of students from all these countries including India, who go to China to study. Beijing has formed their alumni organisations. They are invited back for fancy parties. They are then used in the influence operations. So one such was a website, which was very active during Galwan. Most of their writers are Indians and it was in Hindi, so not just the English speaking but the Hindi heartland was being targeted. The website was managed by an Indian, Hasija said.

China’s aim is to distract India so that it loses focus from its economic story. During Galwan, there were a few Indian news outlets that were running articles like how the PLA was a greater force than the Indian military. The attempt was to break the morale of the Indian forces and people through these Indian outlets.

The larger threat is of the influence the Chinese can have on the voters via news apps, social media influencers, think-tanks, through the academia, doctorates—a possible example is the article by a university professor alleging manipulation of the 2019 general elections.

They pump in crores and crores of money into Bollywood too, which is another sure shot at the masses.