India’s PM Modi clashes with social media followers in China

May 12, 2015, 7:50 PM UTC
India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures during his arrival at the Prime Minister's Office at South Block in New Delhi on May 27, 2014.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has engaged in high velocity diplomacy since getting elected a year ago, by making 16 official state visits around the world. It’s a withering schedule that hardly leaves him time to govern.

Still, the Modi Peace and Goodwill World Tour has, for the most part, been a success. When he landed in Vancouver, Canada last month he was treated like a rock star by thousands of South Asians clamoring for just a peek at the man leading India’s first majority government in 30 years.

However, Modi seriously misfired in advance of his first state visit to China later this week by reaching out directly to the Chinese public on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform similar to Twitter.

The move may have worked for Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber, but it didn’t work for Modi who was entangled in a political firestorm almost as soon as he opened the social media account.

“PM Modi engaged in social media heavily in the run-up to last year’s election,” says Richard Rossow, chair in U.S. India policy studies at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “So his comfort level in this medium paired with the lack of possible damages at home, may provide a false sense of comfort.”

On Weibo, Modi wanted to talk about Buddha’s birthday and a new era of Asian harmony. The Chinese public had something else in mind, and went straight for the jugular with thousands of ordinary citizens taking Modi to task over territorial claims.

“The southern part of Tibet belongs to China,” wrote one blogger referring to a disputed region in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. A border war with China was fought over the territory in 1962 and skirmishes continue today. Another blogger took aim at the politician writing, “Kashmir belongs to Pakistan” referring to disputed territorial claims by Pakistan—a long-time ally of China and sometime enemy of India—over the Kashmir region.

Aside from the possibly embarrassing public heckling, does this kind of dialogue have the ability to harm important trade relations between the world’s No. 2 and No. 3 economies and should India be worried? “India already approaches trade relations with China with some concerns due to its three-to-one trade deficit,” says Rossow with CSIS.

“Also, given the fact that such criticism comes from social media in a country where media is tightly controlled, PM Modi will be hard-pressed not to draw conclusions that this welcome was condoned, or at least tolerated, by the state.”