Indians told to boycott Chinese goods after Beijing backs Pakistan on Kashmir

(SCMP) – Days after China backed Pakistan and prodded the United Nations Security Council into an informal discussion on New Delhi’s decision to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy, anger is brewing in India against the Asian dragon.

A campaign is slowly gaining traction that calls for an economic boycott and heavy tariffs against Chinese goods, even as India struggles with a flailing economy and an unprecedented jobs crisis.

The Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist ideological fountainhead of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has launched a campaign across the country asking Indians to shun Chinese products.

The Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT), a nationwide group with over 70 million affiliated businesspeople, has joined in. The group wants Prime Minister Narendra Modi to raise import duties to 500 per cent. All this has been backed by a vicious social media campaign.

The sentiment is that China, the economic Goliath, must be punished, and the answer is to hit Beijing where it hurts.

Such ideas are far from new. In February, after a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of Indian paramilitary personnel, killing more than 40, there were similar calls for a boycott. The reasoning then was that China’s economic might was helping Pakistan fund militants targeting India.

But with the Modi government adopting an increasingly aggressive, nationalist agenda, many Indians, including some of the prime minister’s core supporters, believe the time is right for an economic shot at China.

Unequal partners

This might be easier said than done. China is India’s second largest trading partner, and the two have a highly unequal trading relationship that favours Beijing. More than 13 per cent of India’s imports come from China, but India only manages to send 5 per cent of its exports to its northern neighbour. The trade deficit between the nations stands at more than US$57 billion, close to 40 per cent of India’s total trade deficit.

Last year a report by an Indian parliamentary panel showed just how well entrenched Chinese imports were in the Indian economy. It was estimated imports from China accounted for 90 per cent of the country’s pharmaceuticals.

More than 80 per cent of the Indian government’s purchases for a scheme to encourage the use of solar technology came from China.

Many now want to end this dependence. The SJM believes it can be done with the boycott and what it calls sustainable policy changes.

In the coming week the SJM will be spreading out across 500 of India’s more than 725 districts to mobilise support and encourage people to send letters to Modi pushing for a boycott.

SJM spokesperson Deepak Sharma said the timing was crucial.

“China is hurting right now – there have been news reports that it has a burgeoning debt and its economy has immensely slowed down. It is a sinking ship that will sink due to its own weight,” Sharma said.

He insisted India must join forces with the United States in its trade war with Beijing.

“India, along with the US, forms the bulk of Chinese trade. If we join forces, it will definitely dent the Chinese economy.”

SJM has also voiced opposition to the participation of Chinese tech firm Huawei in the Indian government’s plans to roll out a 5G network.

“China is a threat to India in every way, especially in the economic and national security spheres. Hence, Huawei should not be allowed at all,” Sharma said.

SJM had consulted domestic telecoms firms before arriving at its position, he added.

Pan-India traders body CAIT also said a boycott could be an effective, befitting response to both China and Pakistan.

“Until we hurt China economically, it is never going to walk straight. When we impose such a boycott and slap heavy duties on imports, China will have no option but to tell Pakistan to mend its ways and stop terrorism,” said Kirti Rana, senior vice-president of CAIT.

But Rana added that success rested on public support.

“We are going to ask all our 70 billion traders, which includes shopkeepers and retailers, to tell each customer about why such a boycott is necessary. When people become aware, they will automatically stop buying Chinese goods and our imports will go down.”

Rana is not alone. There are other attempts under way to sway public opinion, especially on social media.

Some WhatsApp groups run by sympathisers and members of the BJP contain messages asking consumers not to use popular China-made firecrackers during the upcoming Indian festival of Diwali. They sometimes feature calculations of the ripple effect an individual’s decisions could have.

‘Not realistic’

But not everyone is enthusiastic. In Mumbai, the country’s financial hub, there are serious concerns about the effectiveness of such a ban as well as the timing.

India’s economic growth has slowed, clocking in at 5.8 per cent between January and March. Car sales are down 31 per cent, and there has been a 7 per cent rise in the number of unsold homes, indicating low consumer demand. The jobs market is also in trouble, with the automobile industry alone shedding 350,000 jobs since April.

“These calls for a boycott are mostly political rhetoric and don’t make sense, especially when we are in such a delicate economic situation,” said Viren Shah, a garment trader and the head of Mumbai’s Federation of Retail Traders Welfare Association.

The group has more than 200,000 member retailers. It said dependence on Chinese goods made a boycott unfeasible.

“In retail, for instance, over 80 per cent of our sales are Chinese goods, and people prefer them because they are cheaper and, often, attractive, even if they are not great quality,” Shah said.

Foreign policy analysts were similarly unenthused. Karan Pradhan, deputy editor at FirstPost, an Indian news website, called the move a knee-jerk reaction not grounded in reality.

“One needs to look at the import numbers from China to understand that such a threat isn’t realistic … Given how cheaply Chinese goods are imported, such a boycott would be counter-intuitive,” Pradhan said.

Calls for reprisals against China’s decision to back Pakistan were an overreaction, he added.

“China, obviously, calibrated its move well. It had to back its ally Pakistan, and hence, the informal United Nations Security Council meeting was meant to only offer a hearing to Pakistan.”