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How realistic is India's 'Made in China' boycott campaign?

Charu Kartikeya
June 11, 2020

Chinese and Indian troops have been locked in aggressive posturing at multiple locations in the Himalayan region. Now, many Indians are calling for a boycott of Chinese products, including social media apps like TikTok.

Chinese app TikTok
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

In recent weeks, tensions escalated between India and China along their long-disputed border as India unilaterally builds a strategic road at Ladakh's Galwan Valley, connecting the region to an airstrip close to Beijing.

Indian and Chinese military commanders recently met to try to resolve a bitter standoff along their Himalayan frontier, where thousands of troops on both sides faced off.

India and China have provided little official information on the standoff, but New Delhi claims that the clash began in early May, when groups of Chinese soldiers advanced deep inside Indian-controlled territory at three places in Ladakh, erecting tents and posts. India also deployed thousands of soldiers to the area. According to Indian officials, Chinese soldiers ignored verbal warnings to leave, triggering fist fights and stone-throwing.

The Chinese "ingress into the Galwan River valley opens up a new and worrying chapter," wrote Ajai Shukla, a former Indian military officer, on his website.

With reports of Chinese and Indian troops clashing once more in Ladakh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared on national television and called on fellow citizens to reduce India's dependence on imports and become aatmnirbhar, the Hindi term for self-reliant.

The bitter standoff along with Modi's message seemed to have renewed a series of China boycott campaigns across the country, while Indian media platforms took to berating the "dragon" once more.

Decades-long dispute

The China-India border row covers nearly 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) of frontier that the two countries refer to as the Line of Actual Control. India and China fought a war in 1962 that spilled into the region of Ladakh. Both sides have been trying since the early 1990s to settle their dispute without success.

An area of particular contention is over Beijing's claims that India's northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh is part of Tibet and therefore China, which India rejects.

In August 2019, India unilaterally declared Ladakh a federal territory while separating it from Kashmir. China, among a number of other countries, strongly condemned the move.

Read more: Why are India and Nepal clashing over disputed Himalayan territory?

Prominent figures in anti-China campaigns

Sonam Wangchuk, an engineer and innovator from Ladakh, is the director of the Students' Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL). Wangchuk grabbed the spotlight in 2009 when his story inspired the character of Phunsukh Wangdu in the Bollywood blockbuster, 3 Idiots. The film, directed by Rajkumar Hirani, was also a massive hit in China.

In the latest face of India's anti-China campaign, Wangchuk starred in a "boycott China" video that was widely circulated on social media platforms. In the video, the otherwise-reclusive Wangchuk can be seen sitting in Ladakh against the backdrop of the site of the clashes between Chinese and Indian troops.

"Remove all Chinese apps from your mobile phones," he says, and goes on to explain that the deinstallation of Chinese apps by millions will ensure damage to the Chinese economy and send a clear message to Beijing. Wangchuk also urged Indians to dispose of their Chinese-made cellphones as well as all other products that have "Made in China" written on them.

Following criticism and backlash, Wangchuk then released a new video, in which he says that there is no power in the world that can force a consumer to prefer one product over another.

Meanwhile, Indian yoga guru Swami Ramdev uploaded his own video on Twitter, illustrating how to uninstall Chinese apps such as TikTok and Shareit and instead install what he believes to be Indian apps, i.e. Flipkart and Sharechat. Flipkart has 77% of its controlling stake owned by the American retail giant Walmart while Sharechat has received significant funding from a number of Chinese investment firms including Shunwei Capital, Xiaomi and Morningside Ventures.

Jaipur-based firm OneTouch App Labs then released its Remove China Apps on Google's Play Store. The app claimed to be able to detect Chinese apps and delete them. Remove China Apps was downloaded on some 5 million cellphones before Google removed the app for violating the company's policy.

Infografik Umstrittener Grenzverlauf zwischen China und Indien EN

Lack of 'alternatives'

Technology journalist Sahil Bhalla told DW that many Chinese companies such as Xiaomi and TikTok consider India to be their largest and most important overseas market. "It's hard for Indians to get rid of them [Chinese apps] overnight," Bhalla said, adding that any campaign calling for the rejection of Chinese apps can only be affective if Indians have "good enough alternatives."

According to Bhalla, "the ascent for Indian apps on the Google Play Store and Apple's App Store has been very slow." He also said many Indians are unaware about the details of ownership behind tech firms and the level of Chinese stake. Bhalla is therefore somewhat skeptical whether India can rebuff all things Chinese considering Chinese firms have injected billions into India's tech scene and hired many local employees.

According to a report by SensorTower, the San Francisco-based market intelligence company, TikTok was ranked the world's most downloaded non-gaming app in May. It was installed over 111.9 million times — double from a year ago —  with India making up 20% of its total downloads in May.

Meanwhile, TikTok's parent company ByteDance — which also recently recruited a significant number of employees in India — plans to invest $1 billion in the country.

Read more: 'Make in India' looking to take on China's tech industry

Instigating a trade war

Economists have repeatedly warned against boycott campaigns because they do not accurately depict India's and China's position in the world economic order.

Biswajit Dhar, a professor at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, says "India is a resource-constrained country and it is searching for foreign investment. If you are leaning on foreign investment, you are going to be attracting foreign firms. So if you ban or boycott foreign products, what will you do about these foreign companies?"

Dhar also emphasized that China's main influence in India lies in trade, not investment. India's trade deficit with China stood around $65 billion (€57 billion) between 2018 and 2019. Dhar said that anyone advocating for a "no China" campaign should not forget the impact of the recent US-China trade war. "In this day and age, these sorts of measures may not pay off in the long run," Dhar said.

TikTok – streaming success