Chinese Nationalism Takes a Nasty Turn as Official Accounts Mock India’s COVID Deaths

Previously, combative remarks by diplomats and state media have been seen as demonstration of national strength.
May 4, 2021, 12:48pm
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The bodies of the patients who died of COVID-19 are carried onto a cremation ground in New Delhi on April 27. Photo: Prakash SINGH / AFP

Social media accounts run by the Chinese government have deleted posts mocking the devastating toll of India’s COVID-19 crisis, after the messages prompted a backlash against Beijing’s increasingly aggressive, sometimes bellicose, rhetoric.

In a Saturday post on the microblogging site Weibo, the official account of the Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, a top law enforcement body, compared a photo of the launch of China’s first space station module and another one showing the flames of funeral pyres burning through the night in India.

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A Chinese government account compared a photo of a rocket launch in China and another one showing mass cremation in India. Photo: Weibo

“China lighting a fire versus India lighting a fire,” the caption read, along with a hashtag about India’s reporting more than 400,000 new coronavirus cases in a single day.

In another post last week, an account run by Chinese police compared the cremation scene in India with the construction of a makeshift hospital in the early days of China’s COVID-19 epidemic, which was largely contained in the first half of 2020.

These posts were removed after they came under much criticism at home and abroad, but they have continued to attract support from an increasingly vocal group of nationalists.

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National pride has been running high on the tightly-controlled Chinese internet this year, partly thanks to China’s success in containing COVID-19 outbreaks and state-backed campaigns against Western consumer brands. The China-India border disputes, which led to a bloody clash on the Himalayas last year, also fueled nationalistic sentiment against India. 

With the Chinese Communist leadership taking an assertive stance, combative remarks made by its diplomats have found a receptive audience at home who sees them as a show of national strength.

The circumstances behind the mean-spirited posts were unclear. Around the same time they were posted, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a message of condolences to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and promised to provide support to help India tackle the COVID-19 crisis. A second wave of infection has added more than 10 million cases in four months and led to an acute shortage of medical care

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday, a public holiday in China. Weibo has blocked related hashtags such as “China lighting fire versus India lighting fire.”

Even people within China’s propaganda apparatus have come out against the posts. Hu Xijin, chief editor of Communist Party-run Global Times, a tabloid known for publishing nationalistic editorials, said state social media accounts should stay restrained and “on the moral high ground.”

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While many internet users also criticized the insensitivity of the posts, some others have firmly defended them, arguing the aggression is necessary in countering a hostile global environment dominated by Western powers.

Fang Kecheng, a communications professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the posts from official accounts and the voices backing them have indicated that right-wing populism has its support from the Chinese government, although it’s unclear how many people in China agree with the ideology. 

“Their belief is to some extent fascist,” he said, adding that such populist ideas also go viral easily on international social media. “They believe China should just flex its fists and muscles when dealing with other nations. There is no need for dialogue. This could lead to terrifying consequences.”

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Some internet users have defended the nasty posts from official accounts. Photo: Weibo

Some social media users have continued to share the picture juxtaposing the cremation scene with China’s rocket launch. “I’m not an official outlet, I’m just an ordinary citizen,” a Weibo user said. “I’m sharing it for the young soldiers who died defending the border not long ago.”

The nationalists even attacked Hu and a fellow Global Times journalist, Chen Qingqing, who called the post “ridiculous” on Twitter, for undermining their Chinese colleagues in front of international audiences. Comments against Chen have attracted thousands of upvotes on her Weibo page. 

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.