India’s China watchers have gone from being in awe of the country’s rapid economic rise to reining in their interest. They now focus on understanding how China is evolving politically and socially, what the Chinese youth are discussing, and what all of this means for India’s future.
Beyond the veteran China watchers such as Shivshankar Menon, Nirupama Rao, Vijay Gokhale, Brahma Chellaney and Kavalam Madhava Panikkar before them, there are now China ‘gawkers’ who debate the latest developments in the neighbouring country on prime time television. And bureaucrats who are having to deal with the ‘Chinese affairs’, directly or indirectly, are realising what it means to be linked to the new international environment in which Beijing plays a prominent role.
“I want to develop a ‘China profile’ because it can help my career in the future,” an official in the Indian government told me on the condition of anonymity. This marks a shift from Pakistan as the focus country of Indian bureaucrats.
The significance of this new laser focus on China can be gauged by how much the country matters to India’s foreign affairs. India’s new ambassador to the UK, Vikram Doraiswami, is a China hand and speaks Mandarin Chinese. But the diplomatic core rarely talks about the change, except perhaps off the record or through books.
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The newcomers and the ‘gawkers’
What is unique about the current situation is that China watching has gripped the wider public imagination in India.
One subset of those who have grown to be interested in China, because of the recent border stand-off, is the open-source enthusiasts. Finding clues for developments in satellite imagery while shifting through social media to look for what the Chinese state media has said on the border dispute has become a full-time activity for many.
TV channels have followed suit by offering specialised programming on China’s military, changing society and relations with Taiwan — which are somewhat hit-and-miss. The TV networks rely on overseas Chinese and Western experts to fill the gap, which can lead to its own pitfalls.
Jennifer Zeng, an immigrant Chinese based in the US, is one such YouTuber many in India follow. But she is known to exaggerate her claims to gain traction and build viewership. In the early phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, overseas Chinese media outlets such as Epoch Times enchanted many Indians with theories about the origins of coronavirus.
In recent years, we have seen a new generation of China correspondents, including Pallavi Iyer, Ananth Krishnan and others investing their careers on reporting from Beijing. But we have a few handicaps.
Unlike reporters from the US and Europe, we still struggle at securing journalist visas to report from Beijing or Taipei. The reporters of the US and European news agencies have themselves escaped to Taipei and Seoul because reporting from China has become tough, even dangerous.
A group of Indian journalists were granted special access to Taiwan, as the Island nation remains closed to travellers. Taiwan, with its own unique expertise, can offer Indian journalists an opportunity to observe mainland’s politics up close – but this comes with its own limitations. It’s a good start. As India’s status rises, things will change.
The proliferation of newsletters explaining developments in China have become a fixture in the US, Europe and elsewhere. The trend is only now picking up in India as well. ThePrint’s own Chinascope is one such effort, among other such newsletters that hope to inform Indians about the PLA, elite Chinese politics, and Chinese society.
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The early enthusiasts
India’s expertise on China evolved by reading what the American and British experts wrote about the country at the beginning of the 20th century.
At the turn of the century, China’s rising status in international affairs caught the attention of Indian diplomats and the strategic community. For the longest time, China watching was a subject followed by diplomats, academics, and experts in strategic studies. The hardcore focus on security has always been the mainstay of India’s veteran China watchers. But the engagement goes far back in time.
Kavalam Madhava Panikkar was India’s diplomat who lived under both Kuomintang (KMT)’s nationalist China as well as the new Communist China.
“But I soon discovered that [the] Chinese were anxious to know about India. They were in two minds. Instinctively they recognized that India was friendly to them; but as communists they could only think of India as a capitalist country, and by all textbook maxims it seemed clear that India must be reactionary and must belong to the opposite camp,” wrote K.M. Panikkar his memoir In Two Chinas: Memoirs of a diplomat.
At the time, Panikkar relied on his new acquaintances and the Chinese newspapers to find out how China was changing.
“Cartoons, paintings on the wall, articles in newspapers were all now directed against ‘the aggressive American forces in Korea’ The American campaign to secure international support for their action in Asia was also the subject of much sarcastic comment,” wrote Panikkar in his memoir.
Panikkar was doing what many China watchers still do, glean the newspapers for inner thinking of Zhongnanhai. Panikkar used the Wade Giles spellings such as ‘Peking’ and ‘Mao Tse-tung’ in his memoir.
Panikar belonged to the era when India’s China observers had no qualms about using the Wade Giles system — romanisation of Chinese words to help with their pronunciation — for Chinese names. Though Wade Giles spellings may still linger around among old China watchers, including Subramanian Swamy, new China watchers have embraced the Pinyin system as the rest of the world.
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A lesser-known shift and a caution
Apart from the media, things are changing in India’s academic space as well.
India’s historic bastion of China studies and Left politics, Jawaharlal Nehru University is making an effort to navigate its way through the new politics of Xi Jinping.
Kavita Krishnan’s resignation from CPI(ML) along with her recent statement on Soviet atrocities and the current Chinese government, captures the debate within India’s Left politics on the current international geopolitical environment – a reset might be on the way. A proliferation of new institutions and think tanks is underway to address the gaping absence of striking the balance between developing area studies expertise informed by drivers of transformation in the international environment.
India’s China watching community is thriving for the first time. But we may want to peel away the veneer of superficial expertise by looking at the internal drivers of change in Chinese society and politics. The internal drivers will decide how China will change going forward and where should India stand along the way.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with a focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)