Updated: Aug 26, 2022
Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Article Courtesy: Vivekananda International Foundation
A standoff between India and China that started in May 2020, eventually leading up to the deadly clashes on June 15, saw 20 and 4 (though some reports put PLA’s toll at 38-40 killed) soldiers reported dead by India and China respectively. Although disputes and standoffs have occurred between the two countries in recent years such as the Daulat Beg Oldi incident in 2013, Chumar standoff in 2014 and the Doklam standoff in 2017, none have had as much of a sustained impact on the Sino-Indian relationship as the Galwan incident. Much of it can be attributed to the fact that it is the first incident leading to death of soldiers since the Tulung La incident in 1975.
Keeping in view the winter deployment of increased troops on both the sides, it would not be an overstatement to say that around 2 years after the incident, border issues that led to the Galwan incident still remain the focal point as well as a dictating factor in the Sino-Indian relationship. Notwithstanding growing trade1, the political and cultural relations between the two countries have come to a standstill and remain cold till date. Amid the ongoing crisis where three areas namely Depsang, PP15 and Demchok still remain unresolved, China seems to be trying to revive high level bilateral engagements as signalled by recent visit by FM Wang Yi2 whereas India has delineated that the Sino-Indian relationship cannot be insulated from the border issues, and restoration of peace and tranquillity is a prerequisite for normalisation in bilateral ties3.
The Galwan incident and its impact is not only guiding the manoeuvring of China’s foreign policy towards India as Beijing attempts to compartmentalize border issues away from other aspects of the relationship, but the internal propaganda to shape public consciousness has also had a considerable bearing by the incident. An incident that has had such a huge impact on the relationship requires an all-round assessment including how the incident is portrayed by the Communist Party of China, what goals do the party-state want to achieve through this messaging and how it is viewed inside China by the common people inside China.
While a lot has been written and assessed on what Beijing’s outward actions and statements imply, there are almost no eyes of the Indian strategic community on how the Galwan incident has played out inside China and what imprint has it left on the Chinese discourse, Chinese people and the nation’s collective memory.
Building of a Strong Narrative for the Party
To begin with, the incident itself was played down initially by the Chinese state media and authorities with only minuscule coverage4 of the incident in the days following the incident. There was an admission to a clash having been taken place with the onus put on the Indian side completely by the Central Military Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the state media, but the Chinese side did not reveal the numbers of how many died on their side until February 20215, just months before the CPC’s centenary, when the Central Military Commission stated that four of its soldiers were posthumously awarded for their actions in Galwan Valley. This was perhaps the first sign that the Chinese authorities were playing it strategically and a lot of thought has been heeded on how to manage the incident and its memory. Perhaps China bided its time for 8 months to decide upon a strategy as to how the whole Galwan episode has to be portrayed in the larger public discourse. What followed was a streak of articles and videos by the State-media that were delivered to the Chinese masses in intermittent gaps and on occasions of national importance.
On the 1st anniversary of the Galwan incident, the state media was flooded with articles disparaging India and its troops with nationalistic and passion evoking fervour6 that emphasized how the Chinese army suppressed the Indian soldiers and forced them to back down in a highly charged incident with stones, maces and steel rods flinging in the air. These mainstream articles set the tone of how the memory of the clash should be etched in the Chinese psyche.
On the much-celebrated occasion of the centenary of the CPC in July 2021, the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution situated in Beijing organized an exhibition named “Forging ahead under the banner of CPC- People’s Army celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CPC”7 in which items of the soldiers who died in Galwan were part of the main attraction which included an unfinished letter by Chen Xiangrong to his mother, Chen Hongjun’s work diary, Wang Zhuoran’s written request for battle assignment and Xiao Siyuan’s military jacket. All these four names are of the soldiers who died in the Galwan incident.
From time to time, emotionally stirring news and videos have been published related to these soldiers, and their families including videos of new recruits going to the Kangxiwa martyr’s cemetery8 to express their heartfelt emotions in front of their tombs. State-produced documentaries on Sino-Indian border regions have witnessed an uptick. A documentary series titled “Carvings of the mountains and the rivers(山河铭刻)” was premiered on State Television on the much-awaited & celebrated occasion of the Chinese New Year9 showcasing various aspects of the lives of soldiers stationed in border areas including the Aksai Chin region, Pangong lake etc as well as the stories of Chinese soldiers who died in Galwan.
Following the centenary celebrations of the CPC, in a series of articles published by Chinese state media in July 202110, it was highlighted how Chen Hongjun, an awardee of the July 1 Medal (the highest honour given by CPC) being a party member charged at the forefront in the face of adversaries, calling upon other party members among the soldiers to come forward and conscripts to take positions at the back. These articles highlight how the PLA fought bravely and fulfilled their duties. Since Chen Hongjun is an awardee of the July 1 Medal, it seems his role is highlighted as an example being set for what type of conduct on the military front makes up for a July 1 medal awardee. It appears that the messaging of these articles and videos mainly tries to convey two broader points, the first one being: that the Communist Party of China and its members are the vanguard of the Chinese people and take the foremost responsibility for the defence of the country; and the second is that the PLA soldiers have fared well in the service of the nation and by extension, the Central Military Commission chaired by President Xi has done a good job.
Apart from these articles, interviews of border troops who are also CPC members put a strong emphasis on how being a soldier who is also a party member makes them more responsible and that they have learned leading from the front from Qi Fabao, also a CPC member and a regimental commander who was involved in the Galwan clash and suffered injuries on his head. In what was seen as a bid to politicize an international event like Olympics, he was one of the picks as a torchbearer for the Beijing Winter Olympics11. It can be discerned that this not only highlighted that China was attempting to instil nationalistic feelings through the involvement of Qi Fabao, but also brought forth the importance of the Galwan narrative in broader Chinese nationalistic discourse. All of this happened when the Winter Olympics became a focal point of international politics amid the calls for its boycott by some western countries including the US. Involving Qi Fabao not only stirs up nationalism but also fulfils the goal of projecting a “heroic” party member to the Chinese public, who stood up to the challenge when China was perceivably facing danger. Perhaps what also makes him a suitable candidate for the torchbearer stint is that he has inspired many among the PLA soldiers to join the party, as reported by the state media. It was not the only time that the Olympics was plugged with military propaganda. On the occasion of the opening ceremony of the Olympics, CCTV military’s Weibo uploaded videos that show PLA soldiers playing “Mini Olympic games” on their side of the frozen Pangong lake to welcome the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics12.
After recovering from head injuries in Galwan Clash, Regimental Commander Qi Fabao was invited to a CCTV special show13 in which he attributed his motivation to the guidance of “Xi Jinping Thought on Strengthening the Military”, and the Karakoram spirit. It was pointed out that 2021 marks Qi Fabao’s 25 years of service to the party, again highlighting the party’s role in his military service.
Interestingly, the also host pointed out that because of soldiers like Qi Fabao, we have a “great wall of steel forged with blood and flesh” referring to the words of Xi’s July 1st Centenary speech, which drew much attention from China observers all around the world.
The (in)famous Ravine
In all the post-Galwan propaganda and messaging through official channels, articles and videos show a ravine which resembles the spot where the clash occurred but is actually a different spot which is inside the Chinese controlled territory. It appears to be an ingeniously designed propaganda to lead Chinese audiences to surmise that China is in control. The sheer amount of such propaganda through pictures and videos makes one feel like there is a message being given through the visuals that “the place where clash happened is still under our control and we will hold it with our lives”. This ravine along with the slogan “Give up no inch of the picturesque landscape of China” （大好河山，寸土不让）14 etched on a small mountain there has become the central element of all the post-Galwan propaganda, with various activities being carried out there by the PLA time to time and then widely reported in State media and Chinese social media.
The propaganda incident that became a flashpoint in India15 was also shot at the same place in which a video16 shows the flag being spread out by the soldiers followed by the PLA soldiers singing China’s national anthem and then taking a pledge to follow the leadership of the CPC and to serve the people. This was done on the occasion of Gregorian New Year which is of much less importance than the Chinese New Year inside China. Perhaps this was a signal meant not so much for the domestic audiences but India.
Soon after, the Western Theatre Command(WTC) announced a contest17 in which it asked Chinese netizens to follow their Weibo account and repost their content, in return of which 10 Weibo users will be selected and sent a stone from Galwan Valley. This not only tries to portray Galwan as some sort of a victory stint inside China, but is also aimed to increase the social media following of the WTC, in order to better disseminate content regarding soldiers posted in the Sino-Indian border areas.
Timely embedment of Galwan across occasions of National importance
On the occasion of Chinese New Year which holds a high cultural and symbolic value to the Chinese people, Social media accounts of major state media (Xinhua, CCTV Military etc) uploaded a propaganda video from the same location of that ravine showing soldiers repeating slogans in unison18. Videos were widely shared in Weibo showing the relatives of all the Galwan martyrs(Chen Hongjun’s wife and mother, Chen Xiangrong’s mother, Xiao Siyuan’s mother, Wang Zhuoran’s parents) receiving gifts on the occasion of Chinese new year, implying that the relatives of the martyrs are well taken care of.
During the tomb-sweeping festival of China, the entire state media and propaganda machinery on Chinese social media including official accounts of local procuratorates, local public security bureaus, courts and various local and national state media outlets made sure to pay homage to the Chinese soldiers who died in Galwan. This further shows a strong resolve of the Propaganda Department of the CPC in keeping the memories of the Galwan soldiers alive.
On the occasion of Youth Day, which is an important holiday celebrated to commemorate the historic May 4th movement, the official propaganda video19 shared across various state media platforms included a clip from the Galwan incident along with videos of other historic events such as China’s war against Japanese aggression. On the Youth Day special of CCTV Military,a soldier involved in the Galwan clash Du Pengfei, as well as the Galwan valley itself, was given considerable space in the show20. Famous Composer Meng Wenhao, singer Cao Fujia along with Jia Yong composed a song based on a slogan of Galwan Martyr Chen Xiangrong that he etched on his helmet “Pure love, only for China”. The song is called “18 years old you” and was produced and promoted by state media.
Soldiers have also been given homage by renaming units and locations after their names. WTC renamed a squad21 in the Xinjiang Military Region after Xiao Siyuan whereas a bridge in the Galwan area has been renamed as Hongjun Bridge after Chen Hongjun. Apart from this, a people’s militia company was named after Xiao Siyuan in his home province Henan. Whereas a company in the people’s militia in Luohe city, Henan province was named “Wang Zhuoran people’s militia company”22, in which, Wang Zhuoran’s mother, Yang Suxiang was given an honorary leadership role. While Chen Xiangrong’s sister, Chen Qiaochai has formally been given a non-military role in PLA’s Fujian Province military region. Moreover, Kangxiwa Martyrs cemetery in Xinjiang, another important element of post-Galwan propaganda, where the Galwan Martyrs are buried has received funds of 25 million yuan for renovation and reconstruction last year23.
In what was projected as a “leaked video”, a video showing China’s troops escorting wounded Indian soldiers24 was widely shared on Weibo as well as through Twitter accounts of Chinese state-affiliated media in October 2021. The video was actually first uploaded by the official Weibo account of a magazine called ‘Light Firearms/(轻兵器Qing Bingqi)’ which is managed by China Ordnance Equipment Group Corporation, also known as China South Industries Group Corporation (CSGC), a Chinese central state-owned enterprise and then reposted by other Weibo accounts. In effect, it showed that the Chinese propaganda machinery engaged in the battle for public perception, and that too immediately after the 13th round of corps commander talks which was just concluded at that time.
In the two years following the incident, the dead PLA soldiers, the clash and the Galwan valley itself have been used tacitly to take considerable space in the Chinese mass’ psyche. The continued propaganda by the CPC around the Galwan incident attempts to craft a narrative that makes sure to remind the people of China that an adversary exists behind the Himalayas and on the other side of the Karakoram Plateau. But at the same time, the narrative also makes sure to let the masses know that the party is doing all it can to safeguard the borders. This has been done by carefully embedding the incident and the actors of Galwan into various occasions of national and international importance ranging from the Olympics, Chinese New Year, Gregorian New Year, Youth Day, Tomb Sweeping day and many more. The major driving force behind all of it has to be the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the CPC, which perhaps took its time in curating and then delivering the propaganda, most of which started pouring in after the CMC announced the names of the soldiers who died in the clash. On a closer look, it can be seen that the propaganda has been consistent, the invoking of Galwan memory on different occasions has not faded with time, as one would expect. Rather, the frequency and intensity have increased.
Although we see voices from China professing to put the incident in the past behind us, the domestic propaganda paints a completely different picture that shows Galwan is now a symbol of military strength, grit and indomitable “Karakoram spirit” to them. Galwan issue and the developments in WTC have been the focus of internal propaganda in a sustained manner which has perhaps affected how Chinese view India making India the second most negatively viewed country inside China, after the U.S.25 It can’t be denied that the incident and the propaganda around it have already formed a new set of threat perceptions in China as well as moulded a national temperament that is belligerent towards India. India must be careful in dealing with China and should note that because of sustained propaganda inside China, new developments are likely to spiral into conflicts.
Driving nationalistic fervour is not monocausal to running regular propaganda, it also serves the purpose of emboldening the image of the CPC and its member soldiers as the vanguard. Sporadic release of information regarding the incident such as the number of casualties; details of the incident through pictures and videos; accounts of survivors such as Qi Fabao and Du Pengfei regarding their comrades being given considerable space on national state television, all point toward a method of injecting memories of Galwan at certain intervals to keep its memory alive and depicts that Galwan is now a centrepiece of CPC’s military propaganda.
(Raj Gupta is a PhD. Scholar, from the Centre for Chinese and South-East Asian Studies, JNU, New Delhi. He was nominated by the Ministry of Human Resource Development to pursue Advanced Chinese at Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU) in 2019-2020 and was awarded JRF in Chinese by the UGC in 2019. The views expressed are personal and do not reflect the views of C3S.)
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