Even in China, where the propaganda has become increasingly pugnacious, the display was shocking: a photograph of a Chinese rocket about to explode in space juxtaposed with a cremation pyre in India, which is overwhelmed by the coronavirus. “Chinese ignition versus Indian ignition” reads the title.

The image was quickly dismantled by the Communist Party press service which published it. But it has remained a provocative example of a larger theme running through Chinese state media. Official chains and online outlets often celebrate the country’s success in fighting coronavirus infections, while highlighting the failures of others. Other comparisons in recent months include portraying crowds of jubilant shoppers or revelers in China versus desolate streets and anti-lockdown protests abroad.

The China-India example was posted on Weibo, a popular social media service, on Saturday by a press service from the ruling party’s powerful Law Enforcement Commission. The post sparked backlash from netizens who called it harsh, and it was deleted the same day.

But it sparked a debate in China over attitudes towards India and the tensions between Beijing’s nationalist rhetoric at home and its efforts to promote a more humble and humane image abroad.

The controversy has created an unusual rift between two of China’s most voluptuous nationalist media pundits. Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of Global Times, an influential party newspaper, condemned the post for damaging China’s reputation in India, while Shen Yi, an academic from Shanghai, mocked the critics with a coarse term meaning something like “pearl clutches”.

“Can the so-called expressions of sympathy for India achieve the desired result?” Mr. Shen said in one of his answers online to Mr. Hu. China, he suggested, should be more relaxed about flexing its political power. “Where can an 800-pound gorilla sleep?” he wrote. “Anywhere he wants.”

Chinese leaders have expressed sympathy and offered medical help to India, and the controversy may soon pass. But he revealed how bragging Chinese propaganda can collide with Beijing’s efforts to make friends abroad.

“You had this growing tension between internal and external messages,” said Mareike ohlberg, principal investigator of the Asia program of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, which studies Chinese propaganda. “They have a growing number of interests internationally, but at the end of the day, it comes down to saying that your primary target audience still lives at home.”

The Chinese media outlet that released the image is part of a plethora of party-backed media operations that have stepped up efforts to promote government policies, enhance the image of top leader Xi Jinping and respond to foreign criticism of the Party. Communist.

In principle, online operations respond to the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department and its legions of censors. In practice, outlets can withstand stress as they compete to demonstrate their dedication and influence, Ms. Ohlberg said. The demand for images and stories that draw a large following “prompts people to deliver attention-grabbing messages rather than smoothing things over diplomatically,” she said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry officials have also increasingly published tweets, social media posts and speeches that vigorously defend Beijing, especially against Western criticism of the government’s draconian policies in far west Xinjiang and the repression in Hong Kong. This combative style, widely described as “wolf warrior” diplomacy, was praised domestically but aroused anger abroad.

In France, the The Foreign Ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador to Paris in April last year after his embassy’s website wrote that French nurses had abandoned residents in nursing homes, a claim denied by the government.

In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison held a press conference late last year to demand an apology from China after Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, posted on Twitter a doctored image showing an Australian soldier holding a knife to his throat. an Afghan child.

India and China also shared sharp criticisms last year after their troops battled over a disputed border, leading to death soldiers on both sides. But Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi quickly eased those tensions, and Xi last week expressed his condolences on the latest outbreak in India. China has recently offered to send medical support, including acceleration of orders for oxygen equipment.

Despite the friendly diplomatic gestures, India is widely regarded in China as an example of the cracks in democratic systems, said Zhiqun Zhu, a professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania who has studied China. “Wolf warrior” diplomats.

The image of India as a poorer and unruly country has at times been used in China to “defend a more centralized and authoritarian regime,” he wrote via email. He added, “Many Chinese believe that India has joined the West in countering the rise of China in recent years.”

Under normal circumstances, the Chinese social media post would have angered the public in India. But many Indians are concerned about the crisis, said Madhurima Nundy, deputy director of the Institute of Chinese Studies in Delhi, an expert in public health.

“Too much is happening in India right now, which is scary, so the main anger is directed at the government” in Delhi, Dr Nundy said. “The anger and mistrust that emerged last year against China, over Covid and exacerbated by border tensions, has dissipated in light of the current crisis.”

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