China organized the first nationwide homages on Sunday to four soldiers killed fighting Indian troops on the nations’ border in June, the first time the Communist Party had allowed such public mourning over the incident in nearly a year.
Chinese and Indian soldiers clashed over the illegal presence of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops in the Galwan Valley, part of India’s Ladakh region, in June 2020. The PLA troops had reportedly established tents in the area and, when approached by Indian soldiers, attacked. Terms of engagement on the India-China border at the time did not allow soldiers to carry firearms, resulting in gruesome reports of the Chinese troops attacking with rocks, sticks wrapped in barbed wire, and other rudimentary weapons. The steep Himalayan terrain resulted in reports of many deaths due to falls off cliffs and hypothermia, in addition to battle kills.
The Indian government immediately revealed the deaths of about 20 soldiers, including Colonel Bikkumalla Santosh Babu, reportedly the highest-ranking Indian soldier killed in the exchange. Indian media claimed that evidence suggested more than twice the number of Chinese troops died, but Beijing refused to publish a total casualty count, insisting only that Indian media were lying.
Eight months later, Chinese media finally revealed the names of four soldiers it claimed were the only PLA troops killed in the fighting: Chen Hongjun, Xiao Siyuan, Chen Xiangrong, and Wang Zhuoran. The state-run Global Times newspaper rationalized the delay in public mourning by noting that April 4, 2021, was the first Tomb-Sweeping Day since the Galwan Valley incident. Tomb-Sweeping Day is a Chinese holiday in which families flock to cemeteries to honor their dead and clean and decorate their tombstones.
“Chinese people all across China paid their respects to the four martyrs by visiting their tombs, sending flowers, and even sending their favorite foods,” the Global Times reported. In Henan province, home to Wang Zhuoran, the state publication met with the late soldier’s mother and reported that dozens of local residents had lined up to bring offerings to Wang’s tomb.
“Wang Zhuoran’s mother, Yang Suxiang, 51, swept Wang’s tombstone with a towel, took out apples, cakes, and boxes of drinks, and opened the packages before placing them in front of the tombstone,” the propaganda outlet reported. “Streams of local students, police, residents, and villagers from Wang’s home village, also gathered at the square of the cemetery early Saturday to pay their respects to Wang.”
The Chinese Defense Ministry named the four men in February, identifying them as allegedly the only PLA soldiers to lose their lives in the Galwan Valley incident. The Defense Ministry alleged that three of the men died fighting Indian troops while a fourth, Wang, died crossing a river in an attempt to reach those being attacked. At the time, the Global Times repeated the Chinese Communist Party’s insistence that Indian soldiers illegally crossed into China, not the other way around, and that Indian troops attacked first, not the Chinese.
“In June 2020, the Indian military violated the previous consensus and trespassed the LAC and built tents. Out of respect to previous agreements and rituals, Qi Fabao, regimental commander of the Chinese military, went to negotiate with a few soldiers,” the Global Times claimed. “However, the Indian military showed no sincerity and had already deployed more soldiers in an attempt to force the Chinese soldiers to concede.”
The Times alleged this eight months after Indian officials claimed the opposite: that the Chinese troops were stationed and erecting tents on Indian territory and an Indian ranking officer, Col. Santosh Babu, was the first to approach the opposing side.
The Foreign Ministry spent months denying Indian government reports and claiming that Indian officials were “sensationalizing” the incident.
Indian sources told local publications in the immediate aftermath of the June brawl that over twice the number of Chinese soldiers died than Indians.
“The Chinese army possibly suffered more than twice the casualties [of the Indian side],” retired four-star Indian Army General V.K. Singh told the Hindustan Times. India counted at least 20 deaths shortly after the incident among the alleged 600 total soldiers involved. Babu, reports stated, died after he “was pushed” off a steep cliff.
Following the exchange, India rescinded its decades-long ban of firearms on the border. Three months later, in September, Indian forces fired the first shots on the border in 45 years in a standoff that also reportedly involved spears and sticks that preceded a larger move by Indian forces in what China calls “South Tibet.” Indian troops seized a mountaintop that month overlooking Pangong Tso, a lake whose presence in either India or China remains a matter of dispute. The Indian forces reportedly established bases there similar to what the Chinese soldiers had worked on in the Galwan Valley, outraging Beijing, which deemed the move an invasion.
The months of tensions with India have become a publicity disaster for the PLA, which China regularly insists is the world’s most dangerous military. Dictator Xi Jinping quietly replaced the general in charge of Western Theater Command, where the Indian border is located, in December, with an elder general possessing no experience in the region. The PLA also reportedly began investing in exoskeleton suits that theoretically could help poorly trained Chinese soldiers navigate the extreme cold temperatures and difficult, mountainous land more efficiently.
Chinese and Indian diplomats have in the meantime spent months in discussions meant to prevent further hostilities. No significant violence has erupted since September, but reports emerged last week that the Chinese military has once again began encroaching into Indian territory.
“Beijing advanced the expansionism not by directly employing force but through asymmetrical and hybrid warfare. That success in the South China Sea has emboldened China and it has taken that playbook to the Himalayan borderlands,”
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at New Delhi’s Center for Policy Research, told Voice of America last week, comparing the emergence of questionably legal villages in the Himalayas with illegally constructed Chinese artificial islands in waters belonging to the Philippines and Vietnam.