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  • Published 8.08.14

Strangers across the Border: Indian Encounters in Boomtown China By Reshma Patil, HarperCollins, Rs 599

India and China celebrate this year the 60th anniversary of Panchsheel, the agreement on ‘peaceful co-existence’ that the two countries signed in April, 1954. Governments and the people of both countries and the rest of the world today see that euphoric period of India-China relations as a false dawn. In his review essay on a recent book, India in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion and Thought in the July issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Tansen Sen, well-known scholar of Chinese history, calls it the era of the ‘bhai-bhai lie’.

The problem is that much of the discourse on India-China ties still clings to that lie. There is also a modern variant of the old rhetoric in the idea of Chindia, mooted by Indian politician, Jairam Ramesh. On the other extreme, we have scholars, analysts and politicians telling us that the two countries today can only be rivals, if not enemies.

True, there were thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore and his Chinese contemporary, Liang Qichao, who hailed the ‘brotherly’ cultural ties between the two countries. In the first half of the 20th century, a new generation of Chinese scholars sought to rediscover India through their studies of Sanskrit and Buddhism. When he was forced to work as a security guard on the campus of Peking University during the Cultural Revolution, Ji Xianlin, well-known Indologist, took refuge in secretly translating the Ramayan into Chinese.

However, for all that these Chinese scholars achieved or Tagore initiated at the Cheena Bhavan in Visva-Bharati, India and China remained strangers to each other. The lie about the ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’ was nailed by China’s occupation of Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s flight to India. Then came the brief war of 1962 and China thereafter remained an enemy in official Indian policy as well as in the popular imagination. Across the border, official Chinese propaganda also stirred anti-India sentiments.

All this is in the past, but the past is never quite dead. Reshma Patil’s brief tenure as an Indian journalist working in China tells her how much of the past lives on to colour the Chinese perceptions of today’s India. The world looks at the two countries as the Asian ‘giants’ that are poised to shape the 21st century in major ways. But the majority of the Chinese, the author finds, are dismissive about the Indian ‘dream’ of becoming a big power.

An undergraduate class at Fudan University in Shanghai thus has only four main things to say about India —“India is dirty; India is poor; India invaded and seized China’s land; and India hosts the Dalai Lama”. It is similar to the stereotyping of India as ‘the dirty nation’ that a 2011 survey by Hong Kong-based academic, Simon Shen, found to have been widespread on Chinese cyberspace. Curiously, the study finds that the Chinese, who never tire of complaining about the ‘century of humiliation’ by foreigners, are increasingly becoming racist in their attitude to dark-skinned Indians.

It is not difficult to think of a similar, negative study on Indian perceptions of China and the Chinese. The result could read like this: “Large parts of China are also poor; China betrayed India and invaded it; China cannot be trusted; China supports a rogue State like Pakistan and helped it become a nuclear power; and China is not fair in trade and commerce.” Nothing delights a section of the Indian media, particularly some television news channels, as much as an opportunity to blast China for a border ‘intrusion’ or some other act of perfidy. Indian journalists working or travelling in China are routinely asked, as Patil’s experiences show, why the Indian media is so ‘biased’ against China. But then, a Chinese newspaper such as The Global Times can be accused of as much, if not of more.

But retelling the old story of rivalry and mutual suspicion is not the main thrust of the book. Its main appeal is in its attempts to capture the facts on the ground. And these facts are rather different from the stereotypes that official policies and media reports tend to construct. The facts come alive through the author’s encounters with Indians, especially entrepreneurs, working in China and with Chinese businessmen eager to enter the Indian market in the aftermath of the 2008 recession in the West. She travels to big cities as well as to obscure towns in China to capture the little-known encounters between the two nations.

The call of the market is really the new thing about India-China relations today. Chinese businesses are keen to capture a share of the Indian market. Indian entrepreneurs too want to see what advantages China has to offer to small manufacturers or even traders. The book tells us that the rites of commercial passage are not easy and can even be troublesome sometimes. It retells the story of the abduction and torture of two Indian businessmen in Yiwu in eastern China that hit headlines in Indian newspapers two years ago. But then, one also remembers recent incidents of harassment of Chinese businessmen and technicians in India.

The images that stick, though, are not of such troubles but of the intrepid Indians, like the young Pilak Shah from Ahmedabad, who defied all odds to set up a new venture in a small town such as Changshu in the Yangtze delta. “The highs”, the Indian businessman tells the author, “have been the unprecedented speed at which things happen... The lows are the cultural differences, as compared to Western culture....”

Patil sees much hope in low-profile Indian entrepreneurs who go to the booming small towns in China to launch 100-worker assembly lines. In her view, they can “improve Chinese business perceptions of the Indian economy in the long run in more personal ways than a Chinese corporation building highways linking India and getting frustrated with the bureaucratic pace of doing business” in India.

This book does not pretend to offer new perspectives on larger issues of India-China relations. What India can or cannot do to China by being part of a grand alliance comprising America and Japan is outside the scope of the book. But it captures a different story of engagement, in which a new generation of Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs, rather than policymakers and strategists, are the key players.