• Hamsini Hariharan

Why boycotting Chinese products is not the same as being 'vocal about local'

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on June 15, 2020 and can be accessed here

Milind Soman may literally be the poster boy of ‘Made in India’ in the 1990s, but last week, he went ahead to prove that he was more than a namesake. Over the previous two weeks, Indian media has been aflame with videos and reports of clashes across multiple stretches of the border. Then, Sonam Wangchuk, who runs an NGO in Ladakh, put out a now-viral video asking people to use their “wallets rather than bullets” to defeat China. After this, celebrities, including Milind Soman, Amul, and Baba Ramdev, were the pictures of model Indian citizens as they echoed that they, too, were boycotting China. Apps like Mitron and ‘Remove China Apps’ as touted as Indian solutions shot to the top of the play store but are shady and both flagged by Google for deceptive behavior.

Since the Swadeshi movement, citizen boycotts have been popular among citizens, particularly rich ones. And boycotts against China aren’t new either. Back in 2014, the paramilitary Hindutva organization Rashtriya Swayamseva Sangh (RSS) called for a boycott of Chinese goods. In 2016, after China blocked India’s bid to get Masood Azhar designated as a terrorist, consumer boycotts again took the fancy of politicians and people. Since then, WhatsApp forwards have done the rounds about how crackers and diyas, the emblems of Diwali and other Indian festivals, are now made in China rather than in India.

Of course, there’s the question of effectiveness. It’s easy to explain why any boycott of Chinese goods will not benefit India. The reasons are many, ranging from the problems within India’s manufacturing sector, the impossibility of genuinely boycotting Chinese products in a globalized world, and the minuscule impact that a boycott will have even on the bilateral trade relationship. Chinese investment in India (much of it in the tech space) has crossed $26 billion, and much of this is sorely needed considering the current state of our economy. and As Pranay Kotasthane and Raghu SJ colorfully note, “Boycotting Chinese goods to teach the CCP a lesson would be as effective as getting Virat Kohli to bowl out Steve Smith.

Our call to national duty is not unique. Over the last two decades, Chinese citizens have also begun to use consumer boycotts to reflect their patriotism. In 2012, when the Japanese government purchased the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands from a private buyer, it led to an attacking of Japanese businesses and calls for the boycott of Japanese goods, particularly automobiles. After South Korea deployed an American anti-ballistic missile program in 2017, Lotte faced boycotts in the mainland and eventually left the Chinese market. Another boycott of Dolce and Gabbana, which began in 2018 after a racist ad, has still seen the brand mostly canceled in China. In the last year, as US’ oppositions to Huawei increased and it urged its allies to ban it, Chinese netizens began to call for a retaliatory boycott of Apple products. In a separate incident, after the general manager of a basketball team tweeted in support of Hong Kong last year, there were considerable calls to boycott the NBA in China.

While in China, state manipulation and popular nationalism are intertwined, consumer nationalism, for the first time, allows citizens to express a diversity of political opinions and reflect it in their actions. But in China, an authoritarian state has a vested interest in stirring up patriotism. Indian politicians have actively participated in these calls for boycotts in the past. Now, with the Modi government trying to establish better trade relations with China, it has not yet fielded issues of a boycott. Meanwhile, citizens see this as their opportunity to be vocal about local – even if it is a misguided and ultimately useless attempt.