What the overreaction in India to an anonymous post on an obscure Chinese website calling for “splitting India” reveals about the challenges of understanding China’s changing information landscape.

Whoever the anonymous Internet user “Zhong Guo Zhuan Le Gang” (literally, “Chinese strategist”) is, he must be quite pleased with himself. Little more than a week ago, a post by him appeared on an obscure Chinese website calling for China to “break up” the “Hindu Religious State” of India for its own strategic gains. The post was translated and analysed, with some significant errors, by a Chennai-based think-tank, following which reports appeared in the Indian media expressing outrage that “Beijing” had a secret plan to divide India by supporting separatist movements in Kashmir and the Northeast.

Leave aside for a moment the contents of the post, which to most readers with even a little understanding of foreign policy reveals an inexperienced writer with poor understanding of India, far removed from a supposedly influential Chinese strategist. Also leave aside the question of whether having broken-up states on its borders with the troubled Xinjiang region and in north-east India even really suits Chinese interests. The real question to be asked here is why and how does an anonymous post by an insignificant Chinese blogger generate such attention and consternation in India? Part of the answer lies in the media reports that appeared last week, which made the following assumptions: an influential Chinese strategist must have been behind the suggestions; he must have had the tacit backing of Beijing since all opinion in China is controlled by the government; and that the website where this post appeared sounded influential enough for India to take notice and worry.

But in these assumptions are fundamental misperceptions. For one, there is a tendency to assume every view expressed by a Chinese strategist or newspaper – let alone an anonymous blogger — is inextricably linked to Beijing and the Chinese government’s views.

This tendency is located in the prevalence of the idea of a monolith China and “Chinese” view which dominates Indian perceptions. This was especially evident last week, when news reports in national newspapers, without exception, linked the claims made by the anonymous blogger to “what Beijing thinks”.

This perception dates back to the 1970s and 1980s, when the only opinions coming out of China were voiced through one or two State-run organs, and often closely mirrored the Chinese government’s views. The last decade has seen the emergence of a completely different information landscape in China. Yet the manner in which this information is processed and interpreted in India remains rooted in the past. The nineties saw the emergence of dozens of new newspapers in China, a few dozen think-tanks in Beijing and a proliferation of voices expressed through the Internet. Currently, there are four main avenues through which information emerges out of China. Their status and roles need spelling out, as understanding and evaluating the nature of this information is crucial for India to create a level of discourse that allows for a more layered analysis of China’s opportunities and threats.

Most significant is the official channel through China’s Foreign Ministry, which voices China’s official position on issues. The second, more complicated channel is print media. There are dozens of newspapers in Beijing, and most are State-owned. But each enjoys a unique relationship with both the government and the Communist Party (CPC), and consequently, their opinions need to be interpreted contextually. For instance, the People’s Daily, the CPC’s mouthpiece, often articulates the Party’s stand, which does not necessarily reflect the Chinese government’s official position. Recently, the paper ran a strong editorial aimed at India, crudely belittling India’s political status and calling for a stronger Chinese stand on the border dispute and other issues. This was interpreted in India as the Chinese government changing its position.

While the Chinese government on occasion does use the newspaper to articulate its views, the newspaper is more often used by different factions within the CPC in internal debates and has less impact on actual policy. For instance, some groups within the CPC favour a more hawkish attitude to India, and others in the government a more conciliatory position. The distinction between Party and Government is not often clear even in China. This poses a challenge for Indian observers to tease out what opinions really matter to the countries’ relationship, and what opinions are no more than postures adopted for the sake of internal party politics and are less relevant to the countries’ ties. The third category, also diverse, is think-tanks. In the last decade, dozens of think-tanks — many with similar sounding names, to add to the confusion — have emerged in China. The fourth and newest avenue of information is the Internet, through Chinese blogs and websites.

Confusion between the last two categories was at the heart of last week’s uproar. The post in question appeared on an important-sounding website calling itself the International Institute of Strategic Studies (which has no relation to the London-based think-tank of the same name). The Chennai Centre for China Studies, which first translated and analysed the post before it was circulated among the Indian media, assumed that this was a government-sponsored think-tank, and also wrongly claimed that this was linked to the China Institute for International Strategic Studies (CIISS), a Beijing think-tank. But a quick check revealed that the IISS website where the post appeared actually has no government ties, and is by no means an established Beijing think-tank — it’s just a website. Scholars at the CIISS and other institutes said they hadn’t even heard of it, and expressed amusement at the media circus that the obscure website had caused in India.

The website’s founder Kang Lingyi issued a clarification saying his website was independent and had no link to the government. What news reports did not mention was Mr. Kang, who is only in his twenties, represents a fringe firebrand nationalistic viewpoint that has in the past tried to stir public opinion against another neighbour of China’s — Japan. Mr. Kang’s views often reflect those of a section known in China as the “Fenqing” — it literally translates to “Angry Youth”, but when pronounced slightly differently describes such youth in a far less kind way, one that’s not fit to print. This reflects the position these views hold in the mainstream in China — and the error in assuming these fringe views mirror Beijing’s position. But even the nationalistic Mr. Kang distanced himself from the post and stressed that in no way did his website approve of its message.

News reports also claimed the write-up could not have been published without the permission of the Chinese authorities — another dubious claim tied to the simplistic notion that the Chinese government vets every opinion expressed on all of China’s hundreds of political websites. The Chinese government blocks and censors numerous websites that are politically sensitive, discussing subjects like the Tiananmen Square protests or the Falun Gong. But suggesting that the government controls and moderates debates and political opinions in blogs and newspapers is a stretch.

It also belies a lack of understanding of the changing nature of China’s information landscape. China has 338 million Internet users and more than 100 million blogs and websites, such as the one where this post first appeared. It only takes a quick glance through half a dozen such sites – even “influential” ones - to look at the divergence of opinions and vibrancy of debates, with many voices even strongly criticising the Communist Party and its government. Yet the simplistic perception still endures in India that in authoritarian China, every analyst or writer must surely speak in the same voice.

Interpreting information from these four avenues is further complicated by the fact that they are sometimes inter-linked. For instance, the Chinese government sometimes uses influential think-tanks to hint at changes in policy. Views and opinions from mainstream Chinese newspapers and think-tanks must indeed be taken seriously in India. But at the same time, a more nuanced understanding of China’s information landscape is needed to avoid shrill hyper-reactions to anonymous bloggers and irrelevant fringe groups.

This is crucial to creating a level of discourse in India that allows for a deeper, more meaningful engagement with China’s opportunities and threats.