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Modi government's TikTok with anti-China feeling in India

Banning Chinese mobile phone apps will strengthen the populist PM's strongman image

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Updated: July 02, 2020 10:21 AM GMT
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Modi government's TikTok with anti-China feeling in India

Members of Gujarat Rashtriya Rajput Karni Sena stamp on a Chinese TV screen during a protest against vendors selling Chinese products at a market in Ahmedabad in Guajarat state on July 1. (Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP)

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The continuing India-China border face-off took a strange and unprecedented turn this week when India banned 59 Chinese social media and web applications, some having millions of Indian users.

India, engaged in a bitter border row with its neighbor in the Himalayan ranges, said the applications were "prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, the security of the state and public order."

The June 29 knee-jerk reaction from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration came after India lost 20 soldiers in a border clash on June 15. The government was under pressure to act swiftly and show its grit in the face of China's aggression.

Banning popular applications among the people can quickly and fluently tell millions that the government acted firmly. It adds to Modi's "strong leader" image and can garner popular support for him.

Most banned applications are those used by ordinary people. One of them, for example, is TikTok, an app with some two billion users worldwide. Some 30 percent of its users — 600 million — are in India. Other platforms such as Bigo Live and Helo are also popular.

The ban on TikTok alone has helped reach more than half of adult Indians, who, in their sacrifice, could feel part of a national action against China's military assault. That was a novel way for India's government to brandish its well-known muscular and populist characteristics.

Social activist Bishnu Bhattacharya says PM Modi knows only too well the art of staying populist and understanding the general sentiment of the common people on the streets.

"The calls to boycott Chinese products have been trending on social media platforms since June 16, once the news broke that 20 Indian soldiers were killed on the border," he told UCA News.

"The new ban order is not only sweeping. It is an indirect push against China, giving it a broad warning, and sends ominous signals for Chinese business houses doing business in India ... It's a good pressure tactic on China." 

His views were echoed by a spokesman for an influential small business traders' body. Avinash Gupta, a member of the Confederation of All India Traders, a lobby of 70 million traders, said it has decided to step up its nationwide movement against the boycott of Chinese goods.

The government has announced that the decision was taken after receiving "many complaints from various sources" about apps that were "stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users' data in an unauthorized manner."

The allegation that Chinese apps were stealing data was also made by opposition leaders like Shashi Tharoor of the Congress party in the past. In fact, TikTok was banned by Madras High Court last year but allowed to function again after the order was lifted.

Meanwhile, TikTok India has denied that it violated any national law. "Tik Tok continues to comply with all data privacy and security requirements under Indian law and has not shared any information of our users," TikTok India head Nikhil Gandhi said in a statement on June 30.

Gandhi said the application "democratised the internet by making it available in 14 Indian languages" with hundreds of millions of users, artists, storytellers and educators "depending on TikTok for their livelihood."

The Indian market used to be flooded with Chinese products and doing business with these items made economic sense. They also provided jobs to thousands of Indians across various ranges. In fact, the government order naming as many as 59 apps shows the popularity of China-supported origin web platforms in India.

"Hundreds of Indians were dependent on these applications as their only source of income. These have Indian creators, while many of these platforms have offices and employees in India. What happens to them and how they respond remains to be seen?" said an opposition socialist leader who did not want to be named.

Other opposition leaders, including from the principal opposition Congress party, have welcomed the government move.

"We welcome the decision to ban Chinese apps. In light of the grave intrusion on our territory and the unprovoked attack on our armed forces by the Chinese army, we expect our government to take more substantial and effective measures," senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel tweeted.

However, the Indian government says it is giving a befitting reply to the Chinese at the border.

The government's decision to ban as many as 59 apps with opposition parties' support is significant in Indian politics.

In recent weeks, several contracts given to Chinese companies have been canceled even at state level. The Bihar government took one such decision in eastern India. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a coalition partner in Bihar.

Indian Railways announced the termination of a contract given to Chinese firms worth some US$67 million.

But India has been silent about major and not so apparent Chinese investments in Indian industry that are subject to international trade rules and part of agreements involving multinational trade.

For example, as per the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Chinese have already invested in about 40 percent of India’s automobile industry and in other sectors like metallurgy and power.

In the mobile phone industry, media reports suggest Chinese brand Xiaomi captured about 30 percent of the Indian smartphone market in 2020. The Chinese have reportedly also invested in at least one third of India’s unicorn companies.

In other words, Chinese investments continue to have a good presence in India, although the companies have Indian ownership and addresses.

But when the flavor of the season in India is nationalism, and jingoism to an extent, the federal government wants to present itself as standing firm against China and denying it business opportunities in India.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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