Becoming a Sinophile
It might appear paradoxical and even unbelievable when one first reads that India in general expends so little on getting to know China. In normal course, we should have invested heavily in learning and understanding about our neighbour in the north with who is today one of the two superpowers of the world. But apart from the much repeated fact that we are both inheritors of great civilisations and have different perceptions about the land border which led to the war in 1962, the average Indian knows very little about China. On the contrary, there are many misconceptions about the Chinese people, their way of life, the system of governance there and the role of Communist Party, all of which tend to create false image about this nation.
The reason why we know so little about life inside China is because there is very little literature available on the subject. In the first place there are very few works of fiction in their local language available in the Indian market. To add to this is the paucity of books on the subject written by Indian authors. This is not surprising as Indian media, which is generally considered to be active, vibrant and has presence in all parts of the country, has a meagre representation there.
Ananth Krishnan, in his book “India’s China Challenge” informs that there are only four Indian reporters based in China while none of the television channels have set up a bureau in Beijing. This is despite the fact relations between India and China is a matter of active discussion in print and visual media almost every week. This stands out in contrast with European countries, big and small, who have reporters posted there, armed with resources to pursue their stories. It was this reluctance to deploy staff in China that prompted two Indian newspapers to utilise the services of Pallavi Aiyer, an Indian teacher who had reached Beijing to work in Beijing Broadcasting Institute, to report on the developments there.
Both Pallavi Aiyer and Ananth Krishnan successfully reported from China informing the Indian public about the massive developments taking place there that saw this country catapult itself to a position almost at par with USA in the global comity of nations. More importantly, they wrote books aimed at the Indian readers, not merely chronicling their stay, but explaining in detail about the Chinese society, the polity there, their leaders and how the transformation of a poor and predominantly agrarian society into a global manufacturing hub came about. Written almost a decade apart, “Smoke and Mirrors” (written by Pallavi in 2008) and Ananth’s work (brought out in 2020) also tell the story of different phases of China’s interaction with the world. While Pallavi lived in Beijing in the first decade of 21st century when China was organising the Olympics and wooing the whole world by trying to be responsible member of international community, Ananth’s tenure coincided with the reign of Xi Jinping when the gloves came off and the nation began asserting its enormous economic and military muscle in a brazen manner.
Hence it is only natural that the scripts differ vastly in these books though the subject matter remains the same. Both of them have sought to explode some of the prevailing illusions about China and its stupendous economic growth. They identified that manufacturing activities which commenced in rural China in the early 1980’s which provided the country with sufficient surplus to invest massively in development of infrastructure, which in turn, helped to propel its forward growth as a economic superpower. The monolithic structure of party and government was an advantage but this metamorphosis could not have taken place without the innovative and entrepreneurial skills of the Chinese people. Pallavi and Ananth have highlighted the extreme sensitivity of local Communist Party officials to issues that affect the people in their area and the alacrity with which they address them. This is compared with India where a functioning democracy gives the mandate to elected representatives, which, many a time, acts as an excuse for acts of omission and commission, with little thought for matters affecting the populace. It would emerge from the books that the image of an all powerful party machine steam rolling over the wishes and likes of large swathes of population is largely a myth!!
Pallavi lived and worked in Beijing during a period when relations between India and China were on an upswing. There was one specific reason for the improvement of relationship. China was blamed for origin of SARS virus, which soon assumed the shape of an epidemic and spread rapidly amongst the nations in South East Asia, during 2002-04. Vajpayee was the first leader to arrive in Beijing after the breakout of this epidemic and this created such a favourable impact on the Chinese leadership that they recognised Sikkim as a part of India for the first time ever. This was also the phase when the moniker “Chindia”, which may appear to be preposterous and even ludicrous in the present situation, was used by the west hyphenating the two fastest growing economies of Asia.
Ananth has devoted a full chapter on Xi Jinping, who acknowledged as the person who has singlehandedly changed the terms of China’s interactions with the rest of the world, while at the same time strengthening his hold on the party and the polity. There is a separate section on the domestic trouble spots, Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, giving the origins of the disturbances as well as their present status. Similarly Belt Road Initiative, the mammoth infrastructure project, that seeks to link China with various parts of Asia, Russia and Europe, is discussed in details as are the economic impact of Chinese funded enterprises in other countries.
However, the most interesting portions of Ananth’s book relate to India’s engagement with China, with its historical overtones and the present day problems. He has pointed out the pique that the average Chinese feels when compared with India, a country much smaller in size and possessing a more modest military and economy. As Dr Jaishankar has noted pithily in his new book, China was growing so quickly that they forgot to notice the smaller strides taken by their neighbour! The history of the boundary dispute, the missed opportunities and the stumbling blocks in arriving at a mutually acceptable settlement are elaborated in an objective manner. The course of events during the Doklam crisis and the clash at Galwan in June 2020 are covered in detail, giving the reader the perspective from Beijing.
In the final analysis, both these books give insights into life inside China, which is not otherwise available to Indian public. They are valuable additions to the collection of all bibliophiles keen on understanding the country with who we would be required to engage with the most during the years ahead.