Political Economy Journal: India-China border skirmish: A conflict that led to ‘Boycott China’ campaign in India

BY : Chaitra Arjunpuri *

PEJOURNAL – When acclaimed innovator and Ramon Magsaysay and Rolex Awards winner Sonam Wangchuk released a video calling for “Boycott Made in China” on 28 May 2020, as a response to Chinese aggression along the Line of Control (LAC) in Ladakh region, not many realized how popular it would become.

Set in Leh with the Himalayas and river Sindhu in the backdrop, Wangchuk sitting on a stone, appealed to people to boycott products made in China, “software in a week and hardware in a year”. “Within one week I am getting rid of my phone, which is made in China, and in one year I will throw out of my life anything that is made in China,” he said.

At first, India’s response to China was merely confined to patriotic programs on television channels and appeals on social media platforms, with little to no actual impact on businesses and sales of Chinese goods in the country. But things started changing after Wangchuk’s appeal was covered by major media houses. Various celebrities, including Milind Soman, supported the idea by uninstalling TikTok fromtheir phones to show the “wallet” power instead of “bullet” power to China. 

Things turned worse when Galwan Valley clash claimed the lives of 20 Indian soldiers on 15 June 2020. The calls to boycott Chinese products spread across the country. It was not easy to boycott their products and declare an immediate economic trade war against them, as around $4 billion has been invested by China in various Indian businesses. 

59 Chinese apps banned

China dominates by 60 percent of India’s smartphone market, with Xiaomi, Vivo, Realme, and Oppo being the bestselling smartphones. Not just that, about 60 percent of India’s electrical and electronic equipment were provided by China between 2017 and 2018. In addition, Chinese business giant Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group has invested millions of dollars in Zomato, SnapDeal, Paytm, Big Basket, Paytm Mall, and others. On 12 June 2020, Chinese multinational company Shanghai Tunnel Engineering Co., bagged a contract of millions under India’s Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS) project. 

Then came a major blow on China when India banned 59 Chinese apps on 29 June 2020. eCommerce apps such as Club Factory and Shein; news apps like NewsDog and Helo; video content apps such as TikTok, Likee, Bigo Live, Vigo Video, Kwai, Vmate; popular utility apps like Cache Cleaner; and utility app suites offered by Baidu such as DU Recorder, DU Privacy, Baidu Maps; by Xiaomi such as Mi Video Call, Mi Community; by Cheetah Mobile such as CM Cleaner, Clean Master; and Tencent such as QQ Mail, WeChat, QQ Player, QQ Music, and other popular games, were put in a list of banned apps in India.    

The ban was enforced under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (“Power to issue directions for blocking for public access of any information through any computer resource”): “Where the Central Government or any of its officers specially authorized by it… is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do, in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above, it may… by order, direct any agency of the Government or intermediary to block for access by the public or cause to be blocked for access by the public any information generated, transmitted, received, stored or hosted in any computer resource.”

The Ministry of Information and Technology said that it “has received many complaints from various sources including several reports about the misuse of some mobile apps… for stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India”. Since this “ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India, is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures”, it said. 

The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said on June 6 that the US is “looking at” banning Chinese social media apps, including TikTok, during an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, adding that “we’re taking this very seriously”. He added that people should only download the app “if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party”.

Even the former US National Security Adviser, John Bolton, in his memoir The Room Where It Happened, notes how the US alerted its “allies to Huawei’s threat and that of other state-controlled Chinese firms”. He dubs it as “an arm of China’s intelligence services”, adding Huawei posed “the far larger threat to the security of fifth-generation (or 5G) telecom systems worldwide”.

Some of the banned apps were very popular in India. TikTok alone had over 100 million active users in the country, while new social media platforms such as Helo, Likee, and video chat app Bigo Live were quite popular among those who were not comfortable in English.

According to data available from Sensor Tower, a mobile app analysis firm, TikTok was downloaded 112 million times in May, with 20 percent of it in India, almost double than the US market. From India’s move to ban the apps, Chinese internet firm ByteDance, the parent of TikTok, Vigo Video, and Helo apps, alone could lose up to $6 billion. 

This is not the first time that Chinese apps like TikTok are coming under the radar of the ban in India. TikTok was banned on the order of the Madras High Court last year but was lifted after three weeks. Though WeChat is not a popular messaging app in India, it is widely used by Indian traders to keep in touch with their Chinese supplier counterparts. 

The full list of 59 Chinese apps banned in India and their alternatives 

1.         TikTok: Instagram IGTV, YouTube, Snapchat

2.         SHAREit: Google Files Go

3.         Kwai: Instagram IGTV, YouTube, Snapchat

 4.        UC Browser: Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox

5.         Baidu map: Google Maps, HERE Maps 

6.         Shein: Myntra, Flipkart, Snapdeal 

7.         Clash of Kings: Ludo King

8.         DU battery saver: NA*

9.         Helo: Instagram IGTV, YouTube, Snapchat

10.       Likee: Instagram IGTV, YouTube, Snapchat

11.       YouCam makeup: Snapchat, G Cam, Open Camera

12.       Mi Community: Reddit

13.       CM Browsers: Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox

14.       Virus Cleaner: NA*

15.       APUS Browser: Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox

16.       ROMWE: Myntra, Flipkart, Snapdeal

17.       Club Factory: Myntra, Flipkart, Snapdeal

18.       NewsDog: InShorts

19.       Beauty Plus: Snapchat, G Cam, Open Camera

20.       WeChat: WhatsApp, Telegram, Hike

21.       UC News: InShorts

22.       QQ Mail: Outlook

23.       Weibo: Reddit, Twitter

24.       Xender: Google Files Go

25.       QQ Music: VLC, MX Player

26.       QQ Newsfeed: Flipboard, InShorts, Google News

27.       Bigo Live: Instagram IGTV, YouTube, Snapchat

28.       SelfieCity: Snapchat, G Cam, Open Camera

29.       Mail Master: Outlook

30.       Parallel Space: Dual Apps, Multiple App Cloner

31.       Mi Video – Xiaomi: Google Duo

32.       WeSync: Google Files Go

33.       ES File Explorer: Google Files Go

34.       Viva Video – QU Video Inc: Instagram IGTV, YouTube, Snapchat

35.       Meitu: Snapchat, G Cam, Open Camera

36.       Vigo Video: Snapchat, G Cam, Open Camera

37.       New Video Status: Snapchat, G Cam, Open Camera

38.       DU Recorder: AZ Screen Recorder

39.       Vault-Hide: Google Files Go

40.       Cache Cleaner DU App studio: NA*

41.       DU Cleaner: NA*

42.       DU Browser: Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox

43.       Hago Play With New Friends: Ludo King

44.       Cam Scanner: Microsoft Office Lens, Adobe Scan

45.       Clean Master – Cheetah Mobile: NA*

46.       Wonder Camera: Snapchat, G Cam, Open Camera

47.       Photo Wonder: Snapchat, G Cam, Open Camera

48.       QQ Player: VLC, MX Player

49.       We Meet: Tinder

50.       Sweet Selfie: Snapchat, G Cam, Open Camera

51.       Baidu Translate: Google Translate, Microsoft Translate

52.       VMate: Instagram IGTV, YouTube, Snapchat

53.       QQ International: WhatsApp, Telegram, Hike

54.       QQ Security Center: NA*

55.       QQ Launcher: Microsoft Launcher

56.       U Video: Instagram IGTV, YouTube, Snapchat

57.       V fly Status Video: Instagram IGTV, YouTube, Snapchat

58.       Mobile Legends: Ludo King

59.       DU Privacy: NA*

NA*: These are bloatware and it’s better to keep them off to keep your phone operate in optimal condition.

Chinese contracts canceled

Then came the move from the Indian Railways which canceled a contract given to a Chinese company while the Department of Telecommunication notified BSNL not to use any China-made product in upgradations. Similarly, there are talks to terminate the contract of the Chinese signaling giant China Railway Signal and Communication (CRSC) Corp., in the Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridor. The contract was given to CRSC in 2016 to install signaling systems in over 400 km of railway lines in India. 

The Transport Minister, Nitin Gadkari, said that Chinese firms would be banned from road projects also in India. “Even if we have to go for a foreign joint venture in the areas of technology, consultancy, or design, we will not allow Chinese,” he said.

Other states followed the suit, and Mumbai canceled a monorail contract where the only bidders were Chinese firms. Haryana canceled a tender related to Haryana Power Generation Corporation Limited (HPGCL) to install the Flue Gas Desulphurization system in its plants at Hisar and Yamuna Nagar in which Chinese companies had bid. The states have canceled the tenders and floating a fresh one allowing bidders registered in India.

The Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade came up with a list of over 1,000 products made in China on which India has sought comments to impose import restrictions. Earlier, the Department had also sought private firms to submit a list of their Chinese imports.  

What happened in Galwan Valley? 

The conflicts between India and China over the border are not a new one. It has been an ongoing clash at locations in Eastern Ladakh along the LAC since the 1962 Sino-Indian war. On 5 May 2020, Indian and Chinese troops reportedly engaged in skirmishes at locations along the Sino-Indian border, and near the border between Sikkim and the Tibet Autonomous Region.

In late May Chinese troops objected to Indian road construction in the Galwan valley. A melee fighting on 15 and 16 June 2020, resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers and 43 Chinese soldiers. Amidst this India sent 12,000 additional workers to assist Border Roads Organization to complete the infrastructure work along the Sino-Indian border.  

On 15 June 2020, troops from both sides clashed for six hours in the mountain valley of Galwan that resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers. Both sides released contradictory statements in the aftermath of citing the cause. China said that Indian troops attacked Chinese troops first, while Indian media quoted a “senior government official” in the Ministry of External Affairs who said that Indian troops were ambushed when patrolling a disputed area and boulders were thrown at them by Chinese troops.

Even though soldiers carry firearms, agreements do not permit them from using them as part of decades of tradition designed to reduce the possibility of an escalation. So, hand-to-hand combat broke out, and the troops engaged in a fight using stones, batons, iron rods, and other makeshift weapons in near-total darkness that lasted for up to six hours. According to senior Indian military officers, Chinese troops used batons wrapped in barbed wire and clubs embedded with nails, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The New York Times called the Galwan Valley skirmish as the “worst clash in decades” and held both their “nationalist leaders” responsible for “adding tinder to a long-smoldering conflict”. On the other hand, political scientist Ian Hall wrote in The Conversation that the clash could be China’s way of “humiliating India for perceived transgressions”, like cosying up to the US, or to “send a message to others — in Taiwan, Japan, Southeast Asia, or elsewhere”. 

However, on 29 June 2020, France, a major partner as well as a weapons supplier to India with cutting-edge platforms such as Rafale fighter jets and Scorpene submarines, expressed its solidarity with India, becoming the first country to extend its military support to India. The French Defence Minister, Florence Parly, wrote to her Indian counterpart, “I wish to express my steadfast and friendly support, along with that of the French Armed Forces.”

China’s salami-slicing

Over the years, observers have noted various reasons behind such clashes. One reason often noted is how China involves in land grabbing by encroaching upon small parts of neighboring enemy territory over a substantial period, a tactic also known as salami slicing.

On 18 June 2020, US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a major foreign policy speech on the floor of the House: “On land, for the sake of grabbing territory, the PLA appears to have instigated the most violent clash between China and India since those nations went to war in 196.” In mid-June BJP councilor Urgain Chodon from Nyoma, Ladakh, said that successive Indian governments have neglected the border areas for decades and turned a “blind-eye” to Chinese land grabbing in the region.

The skirmishes were a response from China to the development of Indian infrastructure, particularly Darbuk-Shyok-DBO Road in Ladakh, according to Taylor Fravel, Professor of International Relations at MIT and author of two major books on China’s territorial disputes and its military strategy. While Fravel told The Indian Express that, China wants “to show its strength” amidst the COVID-19 “pandemic that originated in Wuhan” which has not only damaged its own economy but also its international reputation. 

India’s former ambassador to China China from 2014 to 2016, Ashok Kantha, argued that these skirmishes were part of an ever-growing Chinese assertiveness in both the Indo-China border and the South China sea. Bolton also notes “the Chinese threat to bring nearly the entire South China Sea under its sovereignty” in his memoir. “We also spread awareness of how treacherous China’s Belt and Road Initiative was, based on ‘debt diplomacy’, luring countries with seemingly advantageous credit terms, then getting them hooked financially, from which Third World nations especially couldn’t extract themselves,” Bolton states.  

According to Yun Sun, a China expert and co-director of East Asia Program at the Stimson Centre in the US, building infrastructure in Ladakh seemed like “stabbing China on the back” in their view. China sees it as a threat to its “territorial integrity”, she told in an interview with India Today TV. 

Other analysts linked the conflicts as China’s response to India’s growing alliance with the US. Liu Zongyi, a South Asia specialist at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, told the Financial Times that India has been active in many of US plans that target China”. Tanvi Madan, author of Fateful Triangle – a book about the international relations between the US, India, and China – noted that India thought that this was a“signal from Beijing” to “limit” its relations with the US. 

Phunchok Stobdan, a former Indian diplomat and author of The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas: India and China’s Quest for Strategic Dominance, stated: “The Chinese have a saying: kill the chicken to scare the monkey.” He told the Economic Times that “smaller powers like India and Australia, who have aligned with the U.S., are witnessing a more aggressive China”. 

Make in India campaign

As the ‘Boycott China’ campaign is gaining steam in India, people are seeking out economic tools to punish the Red Dragon. Make in India campaign launched in 2014 to cement India as a manufacturing power is gaining momentum. Wangchuk said in his video that India buys millions worth of goods from China every year, and “it is this money that is used to buy weapons by China, which is used against our soldiers. If Indians in India and abroad start a boycott made in China movement, maybe the World will join it given anger against China over the Covid-19”.

Experts say that while the boycott Made in China campaign is a good initiative by India, alternative products should be made available in the immediate future. Some analysts have agreed that the border tensions and the boycott move would give the Make in India campaign a boost and help to increase the pace of achieving self-reliance in some major sectors. 

Though the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has turned India even more inward with a call for more self-reliance, will it be able to do away with Chinese goods completely? Will the current retaliation against Chinese goods alongside growing nationalism really stop Indians from buying Chinese goods which are cheaper in the long run? Will India manage without depending on China for automobile and pharmaceutical supplies? Only time will say how India will face this challenge in the future. 

*Chaitra Arjunpuri is an Indian writer and journalist based in Qatar. She’s the author of three books.