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Hello Chinese friends: India’s Modi gets mixed reaction on Chinese social media debut

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sit on a traditional swing at the Sabarmati River front in Ahmadabad, India, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.  (AP Photo/Press Trust of India) INDIA OUT

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a reputation for skillful use of Twitter to get his message across. But his debut on Chinese social media Monday, days ahead of a visit to the country, received a decidedly mixed response.

Modi picked up nearly 24,000 followers and close to 13,000 likes after posting his first message on the Sina Weibo microblogging site: an anodyne comment in Chinese and English which he said he was “looking forward to interacting with Chinese friends through Weibo.”

But some Netizens reacted with hostility and racism, reflecting deep-seated distrust between Asia’s giant neighbors.

Many posters raked up China’s territorial dispute with India, declaring that “southern Tibet” belongs to China – referring the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Some referred to India’s reputation for violence against women, an image fueled by brutal gang-rape and murder in New Delhi in December 2012. "Please improve women's position in India and ensure women's safety! Otherwise we foreign women dare not travel to India," said one user.

Still others used the opportunity to mock Indian accents, to make jokes about curry or insult Indian people for supposedly being dirty. All were common themes in a study of online Chinese attitudes by Simon Shen, an associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education published in 2011, which found widespread “hostility and contempt for India.”

Surveys of attitudes by Pew Global Research show few Chinese people have a favorable image of India, and similarly few Indians have a favorable view of China. Citizens of both countries report significantly more favorable views of the United States than of each other.

Indeed, Indian attitudes appear to have deteriorated in the past decade, tarnished by the border dispute, a nationalistic media and a growing sense that China’s military and economic rise poses a threat, Pew data shows.

Read: Distrust challenges peaceful rise of India and China

Modi wants to turn that negativity around. As chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, he visited China on several occasions, and made no secret of his admiration of the Chinese economic model.

Now, he hopes to attract more Chinese investment, in particular to help rebuild India’s creaking infrastructure. China, for its part, talks of building a more constructive relationship with India based on a “common aspiration for prosperity.”

Modi also used the occasion of the Buddha Purnima festival to celebrate the neighbors' shared Buddhist heritage.

“Buddhism is the glue that holds Asian countries together,” he posted. “It can become a strong force of cohesion, and make this century the century of Asia.”

Some users welcomed Modi’s openness, suggesting that by opening a Weibo account he had “put Chinese leaders in shame.” Some were dismissive: "Are you going to buy high-speed rail from China? If not, then we'll ignore you," one posted.

But others appeared confused about Modi. Some appeared to think India’s prime minister was still Manmohan Singh, while others responded with the Thai greeting “Sawadika” -- rather than the Indian “Namaste.”

Modi has around 12 million followers on Twitter, and was recently ranked as the third-most followed world leader on the social media platform, behind President Obama and Pope Francis.

He is widely seen as having used social media deftly during his successful 2014 general election campaign. But he has some way to go in China, where the U. S. Embassy’s weibo account has more than 920,000 followers, British soccer player David Beckham has 5 million and Chinese actress Yao Chen boasts close to 78 million followers.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September 2014 was overshadowed by a standoff between troops on their disputed Himalayan border. Modi is due to arrive in China for a three-day visit on May 14.

Read: Troops face off at India-China border as nation’s leaders meet