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China bemused and bewildered by India’s app ban

(ATF) India’s move to ban 59 Chinese mobile apps provoked heated discussion in the Chinese media on Tuesday and led some commentators to conclude “They don’t understand India”. 

Chinese news outlets were frantically sourcing Indian comments that supported the Chinese side, but they seemed thin on the ground, as both countries appear to be in the grip of jingoistic nationalism at present.

But commentators seemed more bemused than fired up, probably due to the fact that China has not released any figures on its casualties from the recent border clash in which 20 Indian soldiers died. New Delhi has said 43 Chinese soldiers died, but the Chinese government has remained silent, although some military manoeuvres and troop movements have taken place near their remote frontier high in the Himalayas.

Asked about reports that India was banning Chinese mobile apps such as Tiktok and WeChat, Zhao Lijian, the deputy director of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, emphasised that the Chinese government has always required Chinese businesses to carry out external cooperation on the basis of abiding by international rules and local laws and regulations.

But he said the Indian government was responsible for safeguarding the legitimate rights and interests of international investors, including Chinese companies, in accordance with market principles. “The cooperation between China and India is mutually beneficial and win-win,” he said.

But he said this pattern of cooperation had been artificially damaged and was actually not in India’s own interest.

Some of the applications developed by Chinese companies, such as TikTok and WeChat, which are both on the banned list, are widely used. Tiktok claims it has 200 million Indian users, including Bollywood stars, while WeChat is popular among businessmen who have contact with Chinese entrepreneurs.

It has been well known for many years that Chinese apps harvest user data, in a similar way to Facebook or Google, and that this information is fed to servers in China. Beijing has an estimated 9 million officials dealing with internal and external data, as well as artificial intelligence applications. And an unknown amount of people in private enterprises are also processing and packaging this data.

China’s Southern Science and Technology reported that 2020 was the 70th year of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and India. It should have been a celebration of friendly diplomatic relations, but the recent conflict dashed any such hopes. According to the paper, Tencent CEO Ma Huateng did not expect that the WeChat and QQ software would be subject to reprisal in India. (WeChat is a similar app to WhatsApp, but with far more applications and importance in China, where it is a flagship and essentially a commercial and official government tool. QQ is an older clone of the original MSN messenger and is more of a youth brand.)

Chinese mobile firms such as Xiaomi have made deep inroads into the Indian market but some Xiaomi apps are on the banned list. Earlier in the month, Xiaomi covered its trademark with the slogan “Made in India”, but this bid to boost sales did not prove successful.

‘Short-sighted move’

Chinese media was quick to react to the news. China.com said: “Shortsightedness in India is amazing! Block 59 Chinese apps on the grounds of “security”! You are not mistaken, this is not fake news, but India’s latest move against China.”

The ban may become part of a more formal boycott of Chinese products, as the Indian move is obviously not an act in isolation.

Sina.com, which earlier reported that Chinese visitors had been banned from staying at some Indian hotels in and around the capital New Delhi, said: “Some domestic (Indian) politicians have reacted radically in India. They did not hesitate to reverse black into white, provoke incidents, and even talk about boycotting things made in China. Compared with the restraint from official to private in China, India is like a man with a stunned head, but it is just a bit too much.”

Chinese companies have long been ubiquitous in India. According to a February article in the Indian Economic Times, China may be the most important trading partner for Indian companies today in terms of business-to-business supply.

‘India will be hurt too’

So, the changing business environment in India could also damage the domestic enterprises that cooperate with China. It will also affect its national credit in the long run, Sina reported. Sina’s Weibo, the Chinese copy of Twitter and Facebook, is on the banned list.

Meanwhile, the tech paper Southern Science and Technology revealed that an application has been developed in India that removes all Chinese software – and it has suddenly become popular. This app can scan and remove all Chinese applications on a phone with one click, and gives users congratulations once they have removed all “threats” after scanning and removing Chinese applications. According to the report, the developer of this app is an Indian engineer who was working for a Chinese company but was laid off during the coronavirus epidemic.

The report said that the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry organised a campaign to boycott Chinese products nationwide. Videos circulated on social media of Indians angry about their citizens being killed on the frontier smashing Chinese products and calling for a boycott of Chinese goods.

Linked to Covid-19 epidemic

The tech paper speculated that the root of the conflict was not the border skirmish but resentment from the coronavirus which emerged from China and is hitting India hard. The number of diagnoses in recent days has increased by more than 10,000 per day.

India has a large area of densely-populated slums where people endure poor living conditions and inadequate healthcare. Many Indian citizens believe that China should be responsible for the epidemic, which has hit the Indian economy severely. And nearly 90% of firms in India settle their wages on a weekly basis, but due to the epidemic, many are out of work and desperate. So, the Chinese paper suggested that “vested interests headed by Modi will lead to negative emotions towards China, so that the people’s emotions have a vent to relieve the severity of the domestic situation.”

‘Targeted move to ensure safety’

India’s Ministry of Information announced the app ban late on Monday, saying the apps “are engaged in activities… prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.”

“The government of India has decided to disallow the usage of certain apps… This decision is a targeted move to ensure safety and sovereignty of Indian cyberspace.”

The statement said the move was taken after the ministry received several complaints alleging theft of users’ data and violations of user privacy.

It was unclear when the ban would come into force.

Most of the applications are highly popular in India, such as video-sharing apps TikTok and Helo, file-sharing app SHAREit and Alibaba’s UC browser and UC News. These have a combined user base of more than half a billion.

Other apps on the banned list include microblogging app Weibo and strategy game Clash of Kings.

The clash on the disputed border in northern Ladakh on June 15 was the deadliest face-off between the two nuclear-powered neighbours for almost half a century. It was the first time troops have been killed on their frontier since 1975.

India and China fought a war over the border in 1962.

New Delhi has accused China of intruding into its territory in the region, a charge Beijing has denied. The June 15 violence took place around 4,500 metres (15,000 feet) above sea level in the Galwan river valley abutting Aksai Chin, a strategic corridor linking Tibet to western China.

Thousands of soldiers remain on alert, although both sides said they were trying to resolve the standoff through dialogue.

The deaths triggered massive outrage and street protests in India. There were calls for the banning of Chinese businesses, which export goods worth nearly $60 billion to India.

A senior minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government demanded a ban on Chinese food, while a prominent trading union said it would boycott a range of commodities imported from China.

Millions of Indians downloaded the “Remove China Apps” mobile application before it was removed by Google from its Play Store.

There have also been media reports that Chinese consignments were being held up by customs at major Indian ports.

From toys, cosmetics, makeup and handbags to home appliances, pharma, auto components, and steel, China exports more than 3,000 products to India. Chinese mobiles have an almost 65% share in the local smartphone market.

Beijing’s direct investments have soared from $1.6 billion in 2014 to at least $8 billion in 2017, while planned and current investments are forecast at $26 billion, according to US think-tank Brookings.

Chinese investors have also ploughed millions of dollars into major Indian start-ups including delivery app Zomato and payments app Paytm.

With reporting by AFP

Chris Gill

With over 30 years reporting on China, Gill offers a daily digest of what is happening in the PRC.


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