Express Investigation Part-4: Foreign secy, Niti CEO on list; Facebook bans Zhenhua Data

Responding to The Indian Express reports, Zhenhua Data late Tuesday night said it was privately owned, its partners did not have any background in the Chinese military or the Chinese government, and its operation was “not illegal or unreasonable”.

At least 200 influencers, including scholars, researchers, think tanks and media organisations, and 40 serving and retired Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officers who held key diplomatic positions are listed in the Overseas Key Information Database (OKIDB) created by Chinese firm Zhenhua Data, an investigation by The Indian Express has revealed.

From Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla to India’s Ambassador to Israel Sanjeev Singla, who earlier served as Private Secretary to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the IFS officers being tracked include those posted at the United Nations: TS Tirumurti, Permanent Representative of India to the UN; and A Gopinanthan, member, Joint Inspection Unit, the only independent external oversight body of the UN system.

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Also on the list being monitored are those at India’s key strategic missions such as Venu Rajamony, Ambassador to the Netherlands and Permanent Representative of India to the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague as well as responsible for India’s relations with the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Among the diplomats in OKIDB are Ambassador to Japan Sanjay Kumar Verma who earlier served in Hong Kong and China; Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Ausaf Sayeed, and Ambassador to Madagascar Abhay Kumar. The Western Indian Ocean is seen by China as the gateway to Africa. In 2019, India appointed a defence attache for its mission in Madagascar.

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Policymakers such NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant, scholars historian Romila Thapar and political psychologist Ashish Nandy; Dhruva Jaishankar, director of the US Initiative at Observer Research Foundation (he is son of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar); are also monitored by Zhenhua Data, a firm that has links with the Chinese government and its agencies.

The database mentions Ashoka University professor and The Indian Express Contributing Editor Pratap Bhanu Mehta; and C Raja Mohan, Contributing Editor with The Indian Express and director, Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore; and Republic TV co-founder and the BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar, as a trustee of Washington-based conservative think Hudson Institute.

Responding to The Indian Express reports, Zhenhua Data late Tuesday night said it was privately owned, its partners did not have any background in the Chinese military or the Chinese government, and its operation was “not illegal or unreasonable”.

Sending its response through official sources in the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi, Sun, a representative of Zhenhua said, “The Overseas Key Information Database (OKIDB) does exist, but not as magical as media reported, it merely connects individuals to the social media they use… There is nothing about the operations that are illegal or unreasonable. We collect information from public sources that are accessible to everyone. But we do not get private information from confidential sources such as chat histories, psychological profiles or anything that the user chooses to conceal.”

While the operations may not be illegal, Facebook has banned Shenzhen Zhenhua Data Technology from its platform. Responding to queries by The Indian Express, a Facebook spokesperson said: “Scraping public data, as this company appears to have done to a number of services including Facebook, is against our policies. Even public data shouldn’t be collected in this way. We have banned Shenzhen Zhenhua Data Technology from our platform and sent a cease and desist letter ordering them to stop.”

Facebook, however, did not state when it banned or ordered a cease and desist letter to Zhenhua Data.

In the database curated by Zhenhua Data are also:

· Think tanks such as Vivekananda International Foundation, Centre for Policy Research, Observer Research Foundation and Jindal School of International Affairs.

· Media organisations ranging from Press Trust of India (PTI) and Asian News International (ANI) to Times of India and Aaj Tak.

· Institutions such as Delhi School of Economics, University of Mumbai, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli.

· Publishers including Random House India and HarperCollins India.

· NGOs Greenpeace, WWF-India, and Population Foundation of India.

For think tanks and researchers, OKIDB’s primary focus in India is on the Observer Research Foundation, the Centre for Policy Research and the Institute of Chinese Studies. Other Indian research organisations in the database include Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Indian Council of World Affairs, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, Data Security Council of India and Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation.

OKIDB has a wide range of Indian policy influencers, experts and researchers. They include JNU professor Amitabh Mattoo; CSDS directors Rajeev Bhargava and Sanjay Kumar; former foreign secretary and CPR senior fellow Shyam Saran; former Delhi School of Economics professor Ashwini Deshpande; Hemant Adlakha of JNU’s Centre for Chinese & South-East Asian Studies, and author Rajiv Malhotra.

Among social activists in OKIDB are late Abdul Jabbar, convener of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, an organisation that worked to get justice for gas victims and their families; and Sikkim’s Tseten Lepcha of NGO Affected Citizens of Tensta. Nachiket Mor, former country director (2015-2019), Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is also in the database.

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