I have a popular account on Chinese social media where users often comment on various international issues. This has become a window for me to understand Chinese public opinion on foreign affairs.
Recently, the United States and Europe speculated China would provide weapons to Russia, which aroused the dissatisfaction of many ordinary Chinese. (I still think it is impossible for China to provide weapons to Russia, for the same reasons I highlighted in article last year arguing that China would not support Russia invasion of Ukraine.)
Interestingly, and unexpectedly, some netizens discussing the issue brought up the example of India to refute the U.S. accusations.
Several netizens pointed out that India and Russia have a higher-level relationship, called a “special and privileged strategic partnership,” and that there have been more arms deals between India and Russia than between China and Russia. So, they complained, why doesn’t the United States suspect India will provide weapons to Russia in the Ukrainian war?
In the eyes of these Chinese, this is further proof that the United States applies “double standards” to China and India in the Ukrainian war, though both countries have refused to condemn Russia for the war. The purpose is supposedly to draw India to the United States’ side and isolate China.
This is just one example of a widespread perception in China: India is the favorite of the West, while China has become the target of the West. How did India manage this? Why is India’s circle of international friends so big?
In fact, Chinese netizens answered the question in the same discussion. They argued that one reason for India’s popularity is that the country is not strong enough to pose a threat to Western dominance. In the eyes of these netizens, if India one day becomes the world’s second largest economy and its military strength continues to develop, then the United States will be sure to suppress India – as it is now doing to China.
That is one facet of Chinese view about India: India is seen as underdeveloped, and therefore it does not pose challenges and threats to many countries. The West does not take India seriously, so New Delhi can enjoy peaceful ties with Washington and its allies. In this view, China is strong enough for the West to be afraid, so it is natural that Western governments will seek to prevent China from surpassing them.
Many examples of Indian underdevelopment appear in Chinese media. Many Chinese people are aware of the outrageous rape statistics in India, and also that some Indians used cow urine to treat COVID-19. Such articles deepened the impression of India’s “backwardness” among Chinese people, and fueling the existing belief that India is not as good as China in all aspects, besides its larger population.
In other words, most Chinese people feel a sense of superiority and self-confidence vis-a-vis India.
Of course, most Chinese people don’t like to see India get too close to the United States, but they also think China and India can still cooperate. The subtext is that India can’t surpass China, so the challenge to China is controllable. Just as many Chinese people reason that India can be friendly with the United States because it isn’t strong enough to be a threat, they believe China and India can cooperate using the same logic.
Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov participated in the G-20 ministerial meeting in India, where he praised both China-Russia and India-Russia relations. I wrote an article on Chinese social media to talk about this, and a netizen left a message saying: “The strengthening of cooperation between China, India and Russia can cope with the pressure of the West. After all, India does not fully trust the West.”
I also think that China and India can strengthen cooperation. In fact, I wrote an article for The Diplomat all the way back in 2014 asking the question: Should China be closer to India or Pakistan? My answer at that time was India. The facts over the past nine years have proved that China and India have more room for cooperation. For example, China’s trade with India is worth $115 billion a year – far more than China’s trade with Pakistan, which sits at around $30 billion.
Of course, China has not forgotten Pakistan. But many Chinese netizens have a realist view of the two South Asian neighbors. The argument is very sober: The idea of using Pakistan to restrain India is becoming more unrealistic, because the gap between Pakistan and India is getting wider.
Overall, my impression is that most Chinese people are unfamiliar with Indian society – but they are curious. For example, ordinary Chinese are curious about the Indian caste system and its healthcare system. There is a lot of discussion of both on Chinese social media.
In addition, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has an unusual nickname on the Chinese internet: Modi Laoxian (莫迪老仙).
Laoxian refers to an elderly immortal with some weird abilities. The nickname implies that Chinese netizens think Modi is different – even more amazing – than other leaders. They point to both his dress and physical appearance, seen as laoxian-like, and some of his policies, which are different from India’s previous ones.
In particular, as discussed above, India led by Modi can maintain a balance among major countries in the world. Whether it is Russia, the United States, or Global South countries, India can enjoy friendly ties with all of them, which is very admirable to some Chinese netizens. So the word “laoxian” reflects the complex sentiment of Chinese people toward Modi, combining curiosity, astonishment, and perhaps a dash of cynicism.
I have been doing international media reports for nearly 20 years and it is rare for Chinese netizens to give a nickname to a foreign leader. Modi’s nickname stands out above all others. Clearly he has made an impression on Chinese public opinion.
One of my conclusions is, on the whole, the Chinese have no malice toward India, with one glaring exception: the border dispute.
Once the border dispute is mentioned, most Chinese netizens become very angry. The perception is that India has besieged and contained China with the support of the West, joining the Quad for the same purpose.
I hope to see in the future that China and India will not harm bilateral interests due to border disputes, but develop friendly cooperation in other aspects in the context of maintaining border stability and peace. At the same time, if Chinese and Indian media can show a more open and modern image of India, it will give ordinary Chinese a better impression of India. That will definitely be meaningful for China-India relations.