India launched a ‘digital strike’ against China on 29 June 2020. It firewalled and banned 59 Chinese apps including TikTok, which has over 200 million Indian users, and WeChat, the most accessible and integrated communication channel between Indians and the Chinese. ‘If somebody casts an evil eye on India, we will give a befitting reply,’ said Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad announcing the move. While the state offered claims of ‘national security’, the app ban may be read as a retaliatory attempt to restrain commercial and social ties with China after the 15 June border clash along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Ladakh region, which resulted in the first casualties along this tentative border with China since 1975. 


India has since announced two more rounds of app bans, including an order on 2 September to block 118 China-linked apps including the extremely popular battle-royale game PUBG, and a widely used Mandarin learning app. This announcement came quickly in response to another skirmish on the border in Ladakh, on 31 August. The official Chinese statement – issued by Ji Rong, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in India – is damning: ‘India’s move has grossly violated China’s territorial sovereignty, seriously violated relevant agreements, protocols [. . .] and severely damaged peace and tranquillity along the China-India border areas.’ While China is yet to respond with any economic sanctions, tensions are escalating, and it is fair to assume that these are impending.


When the first app ban was announced in June, it made the headlines of several popular digital media platforms in China, which took special notice of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ (which translates to self-reliant India) – a newly articulated movement that singularly promotes the production and consumption of locally produced goods – and its surrounding nationalist rhetoric. After all, self-reliance and app bans are very familiar talismans in Chinese discourse. 


Interestingly enough, India’s decision to issue a blanket app ban shows a convergence in the two country’s approaches to Internet governance. In installing a ban under the aegis of ‘sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order’ the Indian government is crudely asserting national borders on the Internet, and carving out what could essentially become a version of the Great Firewall of India. This is similar to China’s own tactics of exercising control – through what is called ‘Internet Sovereignty’, which it has practised since 2010. Indeed, nation states all over the world are struggling to deal with governing technology companies and apps, especially those that operate across borders. The US – a long-standing rhetorical proclaimer of a free and open internet –  proceeded to contradict itself by announcing a future ban on TikTok and WeChat, just weeks after India did.


This desire to assert national boundaries over the internet is clear in how the government of India explained the bans. The Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) invoked ‘sovereignty and security’ under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act (2000). Later, the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre expanded this to include concerns of ‘privacy’. The MEITY statement states, ‘The compilation of [the data collected by the China-linked apps], its mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defence of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India, is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures.’


India has yet to set up a data protection law to address how Indian citizen data should be handled and where it should be stored. What has not been made clear is exactly what policy these banned apps are not in compliance with.


Civil society in India has long called for privacy legislation that can set standards for the data protection of Indian citizens, especially in the face of the growing use of largely unregulated biometric ID cards like Aadhaar, and intrusive data collection by private companies. Yet, the government has dragged its feet. Even the Personal Data Protection Bill (2019) – which is currently being reviewed by a joint Parliamentary Committee – allows the ‘center to exempt government agencies from some or all provisions’ according to Justice BN Krishna, who chaired the committee that drafted the bill. 


As the app ban seems to indicate: privacy is fought for when it is framed at the state level, but less so at the individual. Privacy has also become the new ‘national security’ boogeyman in international relations. 


Tech partnerships between Indian and Chinese companies were expected to bring over $6 billion in investment into Indian startups. This new climate of confrontation will effectively put an end to the most promising area of China-India exchange in centuries. For the first time since relations were put on ice after the Sino-Indian war of 1962, we had finally begun to see a circular flow of people, capital and ideas moving beyond the rigid bilateral state-led engagement. Tech has been at the front and centre of this relationship. 


Chinese companies were designing platforms especially for India – specifically the hundreds of millions of young Indians in smaller cities. Their Silicon Valley counterparts did not have the same attention or priority. As digital anthropologist Payal Arora writes in her book, The Next Billion Users (2019), ‘Chinese apps are co-designing the internet for newly online, mobile-first users, who are mostly from a distinctly lower socio-economic background.’


Chinese companies and Venture Capitalists brought in somewhere between $6–8 billion from 2015 to 2018 into the hands of dozens of Indian entrepreneurs and tech companies including Paytm, MakeMyTrip, Ola, Zomato, Gaana, Sharechat, and others. Now, smaller Indian startups have access to fewer avenues for funding. Large Indian players, especially Reliance’s Jio, threaten to dominate the entire market. Jio has attracted over $20 billion in investment just this year – from thirteen investors including Silicon Valley companies like Facebook and Google – and it plans to use this money to enter all layers of the tech ecosystem: beginning with telecoms (which it currently occupies), moving to hardware devices, Operating Systems and apps.


Simultaneously, it is important to note that the app ban ultimately censors Indians. Banning TikTok de-facto censors over 200 million Indian users from participating in the global media information space and interacting with content on TikTok from across the world. It also effectively nationalises the accrued capital – followers and content – that many content creators worked hard to build and earn a living from. TikTok, like many social media platforms today, has become an important space for users to express their critique and dissent, and we would be remiss in considering it as a frivolous app. Users have consistently subverted and opened up its potential as a discursive platform. 


Additionally, tech engagement brings tens of thousands of Chinese and Indians in contact with each other. Indian business folk and traders across several sectors heavily rely on WeChat to communicate with their Chinese counterparts. Academics and researchers lose access to important media and research published by colleagues in China and elsewhere. This directly affects thousands of Indian students with cross-border ties. 


Rather than blunt bans, we need tailored regulations and laws that balance both security and economic interests, while building partnerships with other countries to raise the cost for border infractions. 


Observing discourse following the 15 June border incident from Shanghai was surreal. It barely registered in the headlines here, and the difference between Indian and Chinese media rhetoric could not be more stark. On the morning of 16 June, the Chinese media was occupied with the second wave of COVID-19 cases in Beijing. The official state narrative did not reveal its border casualty figures to the press, and overall downplayed the situation. On WeChat, a couple of poorly researched, jingoistic commentaries went viral, which applauded the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) efforts, and encouraged further military action in defense of China. 


The coverage of China’s relationship with India, and the border situation, has gradually increased in the weeks since the first incident. However, public discourse remains more preoccupied with the deteriorating US-China relationship. Regardless, both India and China are using their respective media coverage to accuse each other of acting as the primary aggressor in violating a number of existing border agreements.  In India, the anti-China movement only grows louder, unabated by a tirade of targeted fake news, which circulates daily and widely. 


India and China’s first border agreement dates back to 1993, which qualified what is now known as the LAC. The LAC is the disputed territory at the Sino-Indian border stretching across three sectors: the eastern sector which spans Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, the middle sector in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, and the western sector in Ladakh. Yet this “line” has never been agreed upon or delineated on a map. The LAC is not a linear boundary, but rather a zone of about 140,000 square kilometres of territory, which comprises portions of land in an inhospitable mountainous region. It can be thought of as the areas where both nation states have “agreed to disagree” on where the border for their individual territory lies. As the following map from Ajai Shukla’s presentation for the Manthan Foundation on June 28 2020 illustrates, these regions vastly differ in size and shape in their different sectors. 


Ananth Krishnan explains the LAC lucidly, ‘It can best be thought of as an idea, reflecting the territories that are, at present, under the control of each side, pending a resolution of the boundary dispute.’ The border agreements are designed to strengthen this very “idea” and create protocols for peaceful resolutions, especially patrolling troops of the two militaries inevitably run into each other. In parallel, the two governments have been running a diplomatic process, which loosely functioned for the last twenty-five years in keeping the peace. Until now. There is some speculation as to what triggered the first breach of the LAC zone: usually, in April, when the winter ice melts, troops from both militaries resume their patrols and exercises to check that no one has breached the zones during the winter. However, according to reputed military analyst Ajai Shukla, this year the Indian military skipped certain routine patrols due to COVID-19 related restrictions. Shukla believes this is what presented an opportunity for the PLA to encroach upon the disputed zone. 


Two and a half months since the initial border clashes, the China-India relationship continues to deteriorate. Indian intelligence contends that the PLA now controls about 1000 square kilometres of land across the LAC in Ladakh, which it did not prior to April 2020. Border consultations are ongoing, but we have been given no signs of a resolution. Especially not one that would see a return to the pre-April 2020 status quo. As a result, the dispute is spilling into other areas of the relationship, beyond even the economy, and on to education. 


In India, university-level engagement between the two countries is being scaled down and Memorandums of Understanding between Indian and Chinese universities are under review. Mandarin was removed as a foreign language option in the National Education Policy 2020 and the continued existence of Confucius Institutes in India – Chinese language and culture centres run in partnership with Indian universities – is under threat. Indian visas for Chinese citizens will now require special clearance from the Home Ministry. 


It is important to pay attention to the significance of a forcibly reduced interaction between Indian and Chinese students and academics. For decades now, India has been underinvesting in China studies. As a consequence of this, we have a dearth of experts with language competency or nuanced research on contemporary China. Indian discourse has not developed a sophisticated grasp of Chinese socio-economic politics, resulting in rather a serious blind spot. Furthermore, the Indian media disproportionately relies on Western press agencies and publications to source its news from the region, rather than pursuing original, on-the-ground reporting. There are only a handful of China correspondents, who lack fundamental resources to cover stories with depth and nuance. 


This is a largely global conundrum: we operate from biases or misunderstandings in our relation with the Chinese. As Arunabh Ghosh, Harvard historian of modern China, puts so succinctly, ‘India’s public discourse on China is driven by a dangerous mix of superficial perspectives dominated by racism, stereotypes, ignorance, and, more recently, envy.’ This is one of the main reasons why India finds itself in its current predicament. It failed (fairly or not) to pre-empt Chinese troop movement along the LAC, and irresponsible media reporting from the border has caused public opinion against China to get out of control – to the extent that this aggravated sentiment actually harms India’s diplomatic interests. As Shiv Shankar Menon writes in Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy (2016), on the conditions critical to the breakthrough of the 1993 border agreement, ‘The key to arriving at a successful outcome was keeping public rhetoric calm and steady, displaying strength, and giving the adversary a way out, which was our preferred solution. It was not tweeting or whining in public, brandishing our nuclear weapons, or threatening war, as some Indian television channels and commentators did during those three weeks in May 2013 [during a standoff in Depsang region in Ladakh].’ Sound familiar? If anything, this hyperbole has only got worse in the seven years since.

However, it is in India’s economic and social interests to maintain a productive relationship with China, especially given that we are moving towards a catastrophic global recession. The Indian economy contracted by 24% in just the last quarter, and only if India meets 5% growth over the next two years will we get back to the pre-pandemic GDP level by 2023. It is thus imperative for India to place development at the forefront of its foreign policy. China remains the world’s second largest economy, and an important trading partner to meet a wide range of domestic development priorities – from infrastructure to pharmaceuticals. The foreign policy challenge at hand is thus to carefully negotiate a balance between economic and security interests. 


India has so far retaliated against what it sees as violations to border agreements between the two countries, but, as it stands, the steps taken are unlikely to change Chinese behaviour. As former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran pointed out in a recent interview, it is improbable that the Chinese government is currently taking into account the losses incurred by Chinese companies with investments in India, especially given that it is negotiating what is a military dispute over territory. The cost of these measures on Indians and Indian businesses have also been totally ignored from the equation too, from both sides of the altercation. Economists Aravind Panagariya and Pravin Krishna, in a recent episode of the podcast Transforming India, argue against trade tariffs and sanctions aimed at China, highlighting their economic costs to Indians. 


Shenzhen Ningnanshan 深圳宁南山 (SN), a popular blogger on the Chinese Internet – believed to be a mid-career Shenzhen based professional working in tech – contends that boycotts are ineffective: they impose short term costs with no long term effect. According to SN, ‘India’s boycott of Chinese manufacturing and Chinese apps is detrimental to its own development [...] it is definitely not beneficial for competition to allow foreign enterprises to withdraw from the domestic market.’ 


This thinking is representative of popular Chinese opinion on US economic sanctions – those that prevent the sale of American technology to Chinese companies like Huawei and Sensetime – where the true intent is to slow down the economic rise of Chinese companies, only reinforced by the rhetoric coming out of the White House. Many professionals in the tech space believe that China needs to become more open. Voices like SN’s influence and shape public opinion among working professionals in the major cities, and in past posts he has claimed his writing is often read by people “up there”. SN’s argument is straight from the free-market playbook: competition improves companies, and competing with the best at home is the best way to develop and win globally. In aid of this, open is better than closed.


Succeeding globally, not just locally, is a mindset that the newer generation of Chinese tech founders share. Using data to build his argument, SN demonstrates how competition with global firms within the Chinese market has been critical to the success of Chinese companies. Where the government has restricted foreign competition, local firms have actually struggled to develop and innovate. He also shows how China’s own history with boycotts have largely failed at helping local companies grow. 


Discussing the app bans in India, Matt Sheehan, a researcher and journalist, explains how the Great FireWall of China may have effectively ended the heated competition between foreign and Chinese tech firms in 2010, but it was still kept porous enough for Chinese firms and people to maintain productive ties with the US. SN argues that firewalling has largely proved to be detrimental to the global competitiveness of Chinese tech firms. SN’s argument may even be read as a subtle case for opening-up China’s own technology space and a push back against domestic vested interests calling for China to close up further in order to promote the domestic industry.


It is notable that SN refrains from using the phrase 自力更生 zili gengsheng (self-reliance) at any point in his piece. This is a loaded phrase harking back to the era of Chairman Mao, which is making a comeback under Xi Jinping under a new policy of ‘internal circulation’, which shifts focus to domestic consumption and self-sufficiency in areas like technology. It can be thought of as an equivalent to India’s Swadeshi movement of the early Twentieth Century, now in a new avatar with Atmanirbhar Bharat. Chinese media, too, uses this phrase when referring to the movement. 


A healthy domestic ecosystem requires deliberate, long term policy-making and investment, which takes decades. Ultimately, successful and strategic foreign policy creates the best conditions for domestic growth. 


Have Indian leaders really thought through the end game of open economic confrontation with China? The app ban and economic sanctions are yet another example of a paternalistic nation-state removing agency from individuals to define what is good for them. Successive Indian governments should receive credit for their different roles in creating the conditions for maintaining peace on the border and expanding economic, political, and cultural ties over the past three decades. But now that those diplomatic arrangements seem to no longer work as intended, rather than unplug engagement, we need to find a new way of working together without making Indians foot the bill; be censored from important global networks; or incite more antagonism into how the next generations of Indians view China.

DEV LEWIS is a Fellow and Program Lead at Digital Asia Hub. This essay is an expanded text based on China India Networked, a newsletter by Dev Lewis, highlighting the relationship between the two regions at the intersection of technology, society and politics. You can sign up for the newsletter here.