Comparing India and China is commonplace. But comparisons can often be odious. Especially if you saw the social media post of the Chinese Communist Party comparing Indian funeral pyres with the images of its Long March 5B rocket’s launch. The extremely distasteful caption of the post on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform,
This could have caused a diplomatic incident. A week in India-China relations can be quite unpredictable these days, after all.
Fortunately, the biggest blowback came from the Chinese public, who derided the post by the CCP’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, or Zhongyang Zhengfawei, as “inappropriate”, and called for a nationwide expression of sympathy for India, in line with President Xi Jinping’s own remarks a day earlier. The original post was subsequently deleted, surviving only in screenshots circulated across Weibo and global social media platforms.
But karma can be quite a leveller. Because the story doesn’t end here. The international media’s focus has shifted from the Zhongyang Zhengfawei’s social media faux pas to that Long March 5B rocket featured in the post.
Back to earth, for a possible disaster
Launched on 28 April, China’s Long March 5B rocket was intended to put into orbit a core module of the country’s new Tianhe space station. While its primary mission was successful, the task of ensuring that the rocket’s debris falls back to Earth in a pre-identified, unpopulated area is cause for panic now.
The rocket’s core stage is expected to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere on 8 May and parts of the debris will apparently crash-land in locations that are difficult to predict. But India isn’t saying, ‘So, this is how the Chinese light their fire’ and is not openly relishing in its neighbours’ failure. As American writer-philosopher Will Durant once said, “To say nothing, especially when speaking, is half the art of diplomacy.”
As per international law, specifically the 1972 Liability Convention, China will be “liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the earth or to aircraft in flight” if, worst-case scenario, the Long March 5B’s space debris causes widespread damage.
This is not the first time a Long March 5B launch from China has resulted in potential damage to other countries or led to international scrutiny. Last year, then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine criticised China after a Long March 5B rocket’s empty core stage “fell uncontrollably” to Earth and some of the debris crash landed in Cote d’Ivoire.
No matter what becomes of China’s space debris, this turn of event makes the timing and nature of that Sina Weibo post doubly unfortunate, and represents egg on the face of Guo Shengkun, a prominent CCP official and head of Zhongyang Zhengfawei.
Diplomatic schadenfreude isn’t the way
The vigilant sections of Chinese social media users deserve a great deal of credit for their efforts to nip this potential diplomatic incident in the bud. This pushback showed that such insensitivity is not as widely shared across the country’s populace, even the government, unlike what many commentators would have you believe.
It also speaks to how attempts at social media diplomatic schadenfreude are not only unhelpful to the situation, but they can also blow up in one’s face, worst of all when it comes from public officials. It’s best to leave Twitter-happy fingers — or Weibo-happy in this case — to the Trumps of this world. Perhaps China should remind the people behind the Zhongyang Zhengfawei Weibo account about a Chinese proverb that says, ‘A good neighbour is a priceless treasure.’