TikTok, China and Swadeshi

India is facing an uphill task battling the Covid-19. New Delhi, its national capital, is flooded with cases and subsequent stories of misery and deaths due to the pandemic. Its financial capital Mumbai is buried neck deep in the crisis. The infectious disease has reached its southern state with a vengeance – there have been 338000 Corona virus cases in state capital Chennai so far. But on the WhatsApp groups I am in, the conversation has already shifted in recent months, in rhythm with the shift in narratives on television news. On June 15, India went to bed with 332424 Covid-19 cases and an overwhelming sense of fear and chaos at the burgeoning health crisis. Next morning, newspapers were awash with reports of a “violent face off” with China’s People’s Liberation Army in eastern Ladakh, in which more than 20 Indian soldiers were killed. In what was the first Indian casualties in a clash with the PLA since 1975, the barbaric killing of Indian soldiers enraged the nation. Today, Covid cases in India have touched 2.7 million but this isn’t the biggest news of the day. Overnight, the virus is not the biggest enemy in India; China is.

My neighbour, who has rented the flat and lived in Delhi for five years, is vacating the flat this week. His real estate business has dried up in Delhi and he is moving lock stock and barrel to his hometown where his family has stayed for most part of the lockdown. Next door, another neighbour who owns a garment factory and drives a Maserati, has just returned in weeks to reopen the factory after the lockdown was lifted in early June. In two months since mid-June, I am listening to the clamour of people on my floor – one of them is moving out and another has just returned. Their conversations are the stuff you mostly find in WhatsApp groups these days. The one shifting out of Delhi is leaving all behind all the electronic goods made in China that he ever purchased. That TCL television set was his favourite but he doesn’t care anymore. The cleaners could take them home but he has asked the floor cleanliness manager to make sure they are discarded. The neighbour who has returned to his flat in two months nods in agreement. He says he would discard the One Plus mobile handsets owned by his family. I gasp, aren’t they expensive?

“This is the least we could do after what China has done to our soldiers,” he says. The widely reported details of the deaths of Indian soldiers in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley have angered Indians. Those who can afford a Maserati can discard a One Plus phone. Those who own Hero Honda Splendor are dismantling the Xiaomi sets. The battle against China, however ill-conceived, is out on the streets and everyone seems to be doing their bit with vehement vows to boycott Chinese products. Social distancing is no more the worry. Street congregations have been organised to burn Chinese products by political parties, trade bodies, government officers and individuals alike.

The protests on street have come to mirror the policy decisions taken in the week of the aftermath of the Ladakh attack — amidst clamour for boycott, three projects worth Rs 5000 crore signed with Chinese companies have been put on hold in the western state of Maharashtra, and many more stalling of projects could follow.

The Indian government took it to another level: it banned 59 Chinese apps including the very popular Tik Tok on the grounds that they pose a threat to the country’s “sovereignty and security” and more may be under the axe. TikTok has about 200 million registered users in the country with app downloads in excess of 660 million since its launch in India. Globally, the sentiment against China has reached a crescendo with the US banning TikTok and contemplating extending the ban to Alibaba.

In my upscale apartment, the anti-China slogans have pervaded Whatsapp groups. But the decades old reliance on Chinese products is mixing up loyalties. Like the hostilities along the border, the discarding of Chinese products is difficult to take to absolute
completion.

My cook has a Xiaomi handset and he lives away from his family in Bihar. His cheap smartphone enables video calls with his kids every day. Whenever there has been an
emergency or any urgent calls needed between them and him, or him and me, the
phone has proved to be immensely useful. We have all the urgency and urge to discard
everything that has anything to do with China even remotely, but the courage to
discard all of it at once hasn’t been in ample supply. For the first time, this
feeling or rather the weakness of action has no class divide – from opulent
classes to middle income to poor households, reliance on Chinese products has
grown too deep for us to discard overnight.

Yet, the rhetoric is loud and toxic, and it escalates, two of the biggest challenges confronting us fade into the background – the Covid-19 crisis and the worsening unemployment crisis in India. Every passing day, newspapers and television channels and digital media has other priorities, and every day, our collective conscience is tricked
into outrage we don’t need.

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