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Coronavirus: anti-Chinese conspiracy theories go viral in India, amid frayed ties

By Kunal Purohit

Published: 9:00pm, 16 March, 2020


  • Social media users in India, including an opposition leader, are spreading fake news and racist rhetoric about China, as cases rise in the South Asian country

  • India’s frayed ties with China, as well as their history of military conflicts and mutual suspicion is in part fuelling the rise in xenophobic posts, experts say


A worker checks the temperature of travellers at the India-Nepal border at Panitanki checkpoint on March 14, 2020. Photo: AFP

Last week, a senior Indian opposition leader shared a link on Twitter and called the novel coronavirus a “bioweapon that went [rogue]” and “an act of terror”.

The post by Manish Tewari came weeks after he had tweeted an excerpt from a fictional thriller, insinuating that the virus had been developed in a Chinese lab, with state support.

Tewari’s tweet is among scores of messages on India’s social media networks – from messaging groups to YouTube channels and Facebook feeds – that have been perpetuating disinformation and conspiracy theories about China and Chinese people, since the virus broke out last year.

The posts, which have xenophobic and racist undertones, include remarks mocking the diets of Chinese people, fake videos alleging that the Chinese authorities are killing citizens to prevent the spread of Covid-19, false “advisories” in the name of Unicef, and dubious home remedies for curing Covid-19.


Indian army personnel keep watch at Bumla pass at the India-China border in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo: AFP

In WhatsApp groups, there have also been viral videos purportedly showing the excesses of Chinese officials in dealing with the pandemic.

In one, Chinese police officers are seen halting a car, asking the driver to get out, and when he refuses to cooperate, they throw a net across his face and take him away. After fact-checking done by Indian media, it emerged that the video was about a mock drill that Chinese officials were conducting in China’s Henan province.

In another popular wave of fake videos, images of homeless people on the streets of Shenzhen were passed off as being dead bodies on the streets of Wuhan. The clips came with messages that sought to cast aspersions on the Chinese government, alleging it was trying to cover up the scale of the outbreak.

"When they cannot explain a tragedy, humans tend to want to look for enemies who they can blame and pin

responsibility for the tragedy on."


Other viral messages on WhatsApp share a conspiracy theory claiming that the Covid-19 disease is actually a biological weapon that was released by mistake.

According to a media report from ANI, one advocate in the eastern Indian state of Bihar on Monday approached a local court in the city of Muzaffarpur to lodge a complaint against Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Chinese ambassador to India on charges of “hatching a conspiracy to spread coronavirus”.

Racist comments mocking the eating habits of Chinese people as “abnormal” and “weird” have also spread on social media. These often have a religious slant, calling on Chinese to “eat only crops which are grown in a healthy way … not abusing animals” and end by extolling the virtues of Hinduism.


Train passengers seen in face masks in Kolkata on March 14, 2020. Photo: AFP

That India has a disinformation problem is clear. Dozens of deaths, many by public lynching, have been linked to rumours spread on social media.

The country is the largest market for WhatsApp globally, with more than 400 million users. Courts and governments in the country have constantly criticised social media networks for their inability to rein in disinformation.

Amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic, media reports have suggested that people in India’s northeastern region, bordering China, as well as in the capital, New Delhi, have been subjected to racist attacks.


A tourist walks through a street in Mumbai on March 12, 2020. Photo: AP

According to Maya Mirchandani, a journalist and senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think tank, much of the disinformation on social media is fed on by fear, anger, insecurity and grievance.

“The world over, there have been questions about China’s initial response to the outbreak, from trying to cover it up initially to underestimating the damage,” Mirchandani said.

“Much of this suspicion could be fuelling this disinformation,” she added, pointing to how US President Donald Trump has constantly called the coronavirus a “foreign virus” as a way of fuelling suspicion.

The issue is made worse by India’s frayed ties with China, as well as their history of military conflicts and mutual suspicion, Mirchandani said.

“These political differences also fuel mistrust. Adding to it, because China is not an open democracy, there is suspicion that accurate information is not coming out of the country,” she said.

A Pew Research Centre survey in December 2019 on global attitudes towards China showed that only 23 per cent of those surveyed in India had a favourable opinion of China, compared with the global average of 35 per cent.

The frayed ties between the two countries makes it easy for many in India to see China as the enemy, and in their fear and uncertainty, blame it for the outbreak, said Joseph MT, a sociologist at Mumbai University.

“When they cannot explain a tragedy, humans tend to want to look for enemies who they can blame and pin responsibility for the tragedy on. The Covid-19 outbreak is such a tragedy which has left people grasping for answers,” he said.

Joseph said the underlying point of messages such as those mocking Chinese diets as unusual and abnormal was to create an “other”.

“One way that you create an enemy is by dehumanising them and by painting them as being very different from you,” he said. “These messages do that and people, in their panic and anger over encountering an unknown disease, are spurred to share them.”

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