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Diplomats' Reminiscences




C. V. Ranganathan


I was assigned to Beijing for the second time in my career in 1987. My previous posting there was as First Secretary in the Embassy from 1965-68. I understood then what the proverbial Rip Van Winkle must have felt when he woke up to find his world transformed after a 20 year sleep!

The hundreds of portraits and statues of Mao Zedong had given way to just one at the Tiananmen Square. Some old messengers of the Embassy who joined in Red Guard demonstrations against us in 1967 received me warmly at the airport. Shiny skyscrapers overshadowed stodgy Soviet-style structures. Air hostesses went out-of-the-way to make passengers comfortable instead of thrusting red-books at their faces. The last Indian diplomatic walk-out from a Chinese-hosted Reception receded more than a good 15 years. Many models of Japanese cars plied the streets where traffic jams were common. Foreign tourists crowded the Friendship Store. So many signs of a China which was so different from the sixties. While it was evident that China had changed, I had the confidence that things could also change for the better in Sino-Indian relations.

Two days before I arrived in May 1987, Mr. PN. Haksar came as special envoy of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi accompanied by Mr. V. V. Paranjpe. The evening of my arrival we were invited to a fabulous dinner by the late Prof. Wu Xiaoling, a close friend of Mr. V.V. Paranjpe and a great Sanskrit scholar. During the dinner Mr. Haksar and Prof. Wu Xiaofing recited verses from Kalidasa’s Meghdoot in Sanskrit. Mr. Haksar had by then finished rounds of discussions with then Premier Zhao Ziyang and senior Chinese officials. The message conveyed by Mr. Haksar was that India was prepared to be forward-looking, that India did not consider China to be an adversary and that both countries must make efforts to put the past behind. A clear signal of India’s desire to work towards better understanding and improved relations with China and thus conveyed at an authoritative level.

Within two weeks of this visit, there was the transit halt in Beijing of the then Minister of External Affairs, Mr. N.D.Tiwari, on his way back to India from Pyongyang. Discussions with the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Shuqing took place after the evening banquet. The background to the visit was the situation created on the ground over the previous two years in a small section of the Kameng frontier in Arunachal Pradesh, over which there was a measure of mutual dissatisfaction. Indian and Chinese troops had stationed themselves in close proximity to each other in an action-reaction sequence. There was wide publicity given to each side’s viewpoint thus leading to speculation in domestic and international circles that India and China were headed in the direction of an escalation of tension along the border, if not an armed conflict. Discussions during the Tiwari visit led to a lowering of public disputation and the determination that differences over the territorial question would not impede the development of relations over a wide gamut of subjects.

In December 1997 came the visit to India of the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Shuqing with a formal invitation to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to visit China. The Prime Minister’s immediate acceptance of the invitation came as a big relief to the Chinese side. It was a concrete sign that India meant to follow-up on the messages conveyed during the Haksar mission.

My familiarity with Chinese language and an earlier assignment in Beijing were not the only factors which helped in my becoming fully acclimatised to the China which was so different in the eighties when compared to the sixties. The Embassy war staffed with officers, all of whom knew Chinese, were excellent students of China and who enjoyed a wide network of contacts with the China that had “opened up”. Led by Counsellor Shivashankar Menon, they briefed me thoroughly in each area of their operations and assisted me in all my calls on senior Chinese officials. Amongst the vastly expanded diplomatic and journalist corps, there were atleast three others who knew me from earlier times. Among the Ambassadors with whom I enjoyed discussions was Troyanovsky from the erstwhile Soviet Union. Coming to China after a two-year stint in Moscow I was fully aware of the vastly improved tenor of Sine-Soviet relations consequent on Gorbachev’s assumption of office in 1985. Hearing Troyanovsky urging for better relations between India and China was a refreshing contrast from Ambassador Vorontsov’s discouraging remarks on this subject, a decade earlier in Delhi. From Troyanovsky one got a good sense of the several areas of political, economic and military interactions which were rapidly re-opening between Beijing and Moscow and the softening Chinese posture over their three problems with Moscow.

1988 was a year of preparations for the Rajiv Gandhi visit. A few delegations from the Congress-l Party visited China and were well received at high levels. They were told that the Prime Minister would be received warmly at the highest level, that his visit would give the momentum so necessary in relations and that it was seen as a foundation-laying exercise from which both India and China would benefit. Similarly a few hand-picked leading journalists were despatched to China to gauge the sentiment in China and to help prepare the public-opinion base in India. A few days before the visit I was interviewed about Indian expectations from the visit by the leading newspaper Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily), the Xinhua Agency and by Radio Beijing. People had forgotten when an Indian Ambassador was last given such positive media prominence in Beijing. The editorial in the People’s Daily on the day of Rajiv Gandhi’s arrival in Beijing, on a cold winter morning in December 1988 was warm and very friendly. The two preparatory visits undertaken by Foreign Secretary, K.P.S. Menon, ensured that the visit itself would pass off smoothly and that the substantive discussions during the visit and the bilateral agreements to be signed would lead to beneficial results.

The visit of the Prime Minister of India to China after a gap of more than three decades, which had seen friendship turning into hostility prior to the gradual normalisation of relations, was of great symbolic and substantial significance. Enough has been said of these aspects elsewhere. Less reported perhaps is the deep impact that the attractive Rajiv and Sonia couple imprinted on the youth of Beijing and Shanghai and the quiet contrasts they drew with the aging Chinese leadership. Their appreciation and identification with the image of an attractive and modern India which the couple reflected was evident in the thunderous applause accorded by the students of Qinghua University, when they were addressed by Rajiv Gandhi. Official talks with State President Yang Shangkun, Supremo Deng Xiaoping, Premier Li Peng, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Zhao Ziyang were conducted in a warm and friendly atmosphere, with the leaders of both sides carrying oil conversations

as though there had never been any break in highest level dialogues between India and China. The highlight of the visit to the Forbidden City by the Indian Prime Minister and his party was the first-ever opening of the private chambers and collections of some early Qing Dynasty emperors. The astronomical predictions which guided sowing and other agricultural operations inscribed in stone were explained in great detail at the Temple of Heaven.

Apart from the official programme in Beijing, one of the highlights which pleased me very much was the reception organised by the Embassy for our Prime Minister and party at the State Guest house complex at Villa No. 18 in Diaoyutai. Normally reserved for head of states, kings and queens, the Chinese opened this Villa for our Prime Minister. The Chinese generously allowed the Embassy to use the spacious Reception halls of this Villa for an evening reception, where leading Chinese academic figures and professors who devoted their lives to classical studies on India attended, along with Chinese Ministers, former Ambassadors to India, senior Foreign Office officials, leading representatives of the burgeoning business groups, dancers, musicians and young Chinese scholars who had studied in India. The galaxy included the doyen of Indian studies of Beijing University, Prof. Ji Xianlin, along with the translator of Ramacharitra Manas, Prof. Jing Dinghan, an old student from Santiniketan (who happened to be Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s classmate) Prof. Wei Fengjiang, Prof. Huang Xinchuan, Director of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies (formerly of South Asian Studies), Prof. Wu Baihui, a well known interpreter of Indian philosophical texts and scores of senior associates from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and other higher educational institutions like Beida etc. engaged in studies of contemporary South Asia. Each of them presented writings on India to the Prime Minister, My satisfaction with the fullest Chinese cooperation in ensuring the success of this moving event was particularly complete since my proposal to have this reception at the Embassy premises was, turned down by the advance Indian Security Party in yet another instance of arbitrary decision-making and interference in the programmes or visiting dignitaries not warranted by a proper appreciation of local conditions.

Rajiv Gandhi’s departure to Xian on the morning after the conclusion of the Beijing segment of the visit by special plane was delayed by some three hours on account of foggy conditions in Beijing and Xian. Throughout the delay, I was impressed by the close attention to the details of adjustments to the programme and the up-to-the-minute information that was provided by the Chinese Protocol Department to some of the impatient higher-ups in the Indian Party! The Xian programme consisting of visits to the Terra-Cotta Warriors, the Xian Museum, the Mosque, the ancient City Walls and the evening banquet by the Governor of Shaanxi Province etc. went off smoothly, the only practical adjustment being to the banquet which was delayed by an hour and a half. From Xian the Prime Ministers party flew to Shanghai. An extensive visit was arranged to a suburb of Shanghai to the Malu township in Jiading county. There we saw many Township and Village Enterprises (TVE) (one of the proud hallmarks of Dengist Reforms) and had an insight into the graphic Chinese saying of “Leave land-tilling without leaving the village” (li tu buli xiang), and “Enter factory without entering the city” (jin chang bujin cheng). Small scale industrial production of consumer requirements, ancillary components of larger industry, food processing units were the features of the TVEs here. As in other parts of China, these enterprises located near urban capitals feed the requirements of the bigger towns and have been the engines of contemporary economic growth in China. The mandatory drive through Shanghai city to view the sights from its days as a British “concession” attracted vast crowds who were blocked in Shanghai’s narrow streets by the security authorities to allow the long motorcade to pass unhindered. Chinese media publicity over the previous few days to the visit as much as the blocked roads ensured that hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic public applauded as the motorcade wound its way to the State Guest House. Here Zhu Rongji, then Mayor of Shanghai and now the Premier of China, hosted a luncheon where he spoke eloquently about Shanghai and the proposed Pudong Development Project, the economic prospects of Shanghai and its vast social problems, A few hours after that the Prime Minister and his party left for India.

The Minister-in-waiting Qu Yuanjing and his wife, with whom my wife and I waited on the tarmac till the Air India plane went out of view, turned around and hugged both of us and in an uncharacteristic gesture kissed me on both cheeks, We both obviously were greatly relieved that the visit passed-off smoothly. Since that date not an opportunity is missed by Chinese spokesmen on Occasions of high-level exchanges between Indian and Chinese leaders to recall the visit and its historic significance. The impact on the Chinese psyche and the frequent recall of the importance of this visit is a proof positive of its outstanding success, no matter how critics in our plural society view it!

Reference to the Rajiv Gandhi visit would not be complete if one forgot to mention the uncharacteristically large delegation of VIPs who accompanied him. Former Ministers Narasimha Rao, Dinesh Singh, Shankaranand, Natwar Singh were in his entourage. Secretaries to the Government, K.P.S. Menon, Ahluwalia, G.K. Arora. S.K. Misra (Civil Aviation), Veeraraghavan (Culture), Gowarikar (Science) were also there amongst other officers from the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office. Nearly a hundred Indian journalists came either in the same aircraft or separately. The unsung heroes of the visit were my Embassy colleagues who managed the logistics of separate meetings for practically all of the above VIPs with their Chinese counterparts, in addition to looking after their private requirements of special diet, shopping etc. Ably coordinated by Counsellor S.S. Menon, the officers and staff performed outstandingly and my thank-you Reception for the Chinese and Indian colleagues was small compensation for the grinding demands they made on themselves for over two months in November and December of 1988. My wife went through self-taught crash courses on the Forbidden City, the famous artistic street, Liulichang, and the historic old city of Beijing to guide Mrs Sonia Gandhi on her separate tours.

1989 was remarkable for the Tiananmen Square episode and the Gorbachev visit to China in the latter half of May when the Square was fully and most colourfully occupied by demonstrators. From a couple of days after the former General Secretary of the Party Hu Yaobang’s death, the Square began filling-up. Intellectuals, students from practically all the higher institutions of learning were joined by workers in massive demonstrations, The age-old big character posters, leaflets, pamphlets, banners sprouted almost everywhere. The Army which was called in from the outskirts of Beijing to disperse demonstrators was blocked with the public refusing right-of-way to the hundreds of their transport vehicles. Public expression of dissatisfaction to which our avid Chinese readers in the Embassy had access, ranged from the serious to the trivial, The “have-nots" from every layer of society and those who saw no sign of personal benefit from Chinese reforms documented their grievances. Opportunistic politicians sprouted from amongst the youth as well as articulate self-appointed leaders. To one who was witness to the years of the Cultural Revolution, the big difference in the demonstrators attitude, reflecting the changed environment in China and the world was their readiness to share their grievances, real or alleged, with foreigners, The foreign media played a direct rote in the turmoil to a much greater extent than it did on the occasion of the mourning for Zhou Enlai, more than a decade earlier. We mounted a 24 hour monitoring of events in the Embassy and were able to predict the exact moment, where high level internal bickerings would lead to the decision on the use of actual force to disperse the demonstrators. Gorbachev arrived to find the ceremonial welcome in the Square cancelled, no official engagements were possible for him at the Great Hall of the People and the major achievement of full Sino-Soviet normalisation was overshadowed by the happenings in Beijing.

There was a fall-out on our Embassy of the Tiananmen Square event. A very high level delegation of Indian writers consisting of U.S. Anantamurthy, Mrinal Pande and others arrived in Beijing a couple of days before the use of force. Chinese authorities were understandably keen to continue agreed exchanges and important visits with foreign countries in an effort to show that Beijing was normal. Our delegation was put up in a hotel near the centre of student rallies near the university area. Since some of their interlocutors sided with the students, they were not available for planned meetings with them. Worse still, after the demonstrators were dispersed from the Square, communications with our delegation were cut off. Accompanied by my colleagues, I visited them in their hotel on the same afternoon of the entry of tanks into the Square. My ride to their hotel enabled me to see the burnt-out remains of tanks, lorries and trucks which were on their way to the Square. The Indian writers were told that the rest of their programme was cancelled and there was nothing to do except to return to India. The difficulty was in obtaining airline seats for them as the hosts had disappeared.

The other fall-out from these events was more direct, leading to some difficult decisions. For a couple of days after the clearance of the Square of demonstrators, patrolling armed soldiers from armoured carriers shot at random into the high rise buildings where foreigners stayed along the Changanjie -the diplomatic area of Beijing. A few shells dropped into the apartments of foreigners including some of our staff quarters. On one occasion when I was on the phone around noon with the Joint Secretary in the MEA, Vijay Nambiar, he could pick up the sound of light gun fire let-off by Chinese patrolling troops near the Embassy. We decided then that it would be best if for some time till full normalcy was restored in Beijing, wives and children of officers and staff were repatriated to India. This was done soon thereafter. The Indian Writer’s delegation was also on the same aircraft. The wives and children returned to Beijing after normalcy returned sometime in late July. Most of the Western, South East Asian and some African Embassies also temporarily repatriated their families. Schools for foreign children in Beijing closed down for 4-6 weeks. Mr. and Mrs. B.K. Nehru visited China as tourists in early June. I packed them off from Beijing two days before the tanks entered the Square to Guilin and Guangzhou. They heard about the events only 4 days after, when they reached Hong Kong.

Fairly soon after Jiang Zemin’s appointment as General Secretary of the CPC, it so happened that Mr Ghulam Nabi Azad, then one of the General Secretaries of the Congress Party, scheduled a transit visit through Beijing on his way back from Pyongyang. This was a good opportunity to be received by the new Chinese General Secretary. My request was met immediately and we became the first foreign delegation to be seen by Mr Jiang Zemin after he became General Secretary. For the rest of my tenure in Beijing I had three other occasions to be received by him when delegations from Indian political parties visited China.

In July 1989, Foreign Secretary SK. Singh visited Beijing for the first Joint Working Group meeting set up to discuss the boundary and other related bilateral and international questions, He was received by Premier Li Peng. In the discussions, the Premier frankly acknowledged the lack of Chinese expertise in controlling mobs, the bitter memories of the chaos during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the paramount need to maintain stability as the highest value in society while thanking the Government of India for its understanding attitude when referring to the recent turmoil in China. During the autumn, as in previous years, we participated in the tour engaged for Heads of Missions by the Chinese Foreign Office. This time it was to Jiangxi Province. An important footnote was the picnic at the scenic Lushan mountain where in the stormy meetings of the Poliburo of the CPC in 1959, Mao Zedong victimised Marshal Peng Dehuai. Lushan has one of the most attractive botanical parks I have ever visited with trees and horticultural species from all over, the world.

In early 1990, Qian Qichen the Foreign Minilster visited India when a different government under Mr. V.P. Singh's Prime  Ministership was in power and when Mr. I.K. Gujral was the External Affairs Minister. Hearing Mr. Singh’s very affirmative remarks about the Rajiv Gandhi visit and its significance, the Chinese Foreign Minister said at a Press Conference that he could see with his own eyes that there was a consensus cutting across all parties on India’s relations with China. Through 1990 and till mid-1991 when I left Beijing on transfer for India there was a brisk exchange of official and non-official delegations from various


I left in May 1991 after a 4-year assignment which saw events fully packed with significance for China and for India-China relations, While it was a privilege to have witnessed some of these events, life in China was very satisfying for a variety of less publicised and therefore perhaps more fulfilling engagements.

Just a few months before the Rajiv Gandhi visit, the Embassy had started a journal, “India Digest” which was the Chinese version of the well acclaimed English version of the same name which my colleague, the then Commissioner in Hong Kong, PP. D’souza had launched. For the Beijing edition we had added contribution from Chinese scholars on India and a page on comments from our Chinese readers. It was heartening to see how well this publication was received in China and print-orders had to be increased, a small reflection of the more open intellectual atmosphere in China. Like the Annual Children’s painting competition held by Shankar’s Weekly we too had a similar event in Beijing. Selected school children from Beijing and the Provinces participated along with children of the Indian Embassy. Subjects were allotted by a panel of Chinese judges who adjudicated the competition held in a spirit of enormous good-will and fun. Gifts were exchanged, snacks and drinks consumed and impromptu songs and dances performed.

My several visits to Prof. Ji Xianlin, the doyen of classical stars on India at Beijing University (“Beida” as we called it) were always very educative. He was instrumental, at Tan Chung’s initiative, in getting me to address in Chinese, an international seminar on Dunhuang and Turfan studies organised by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The Embassy organised functions to confer the Desikottama award from Visva-Bharati University on Prof. Wu Xiaoting. On another occasion we launched the Chinese translation of volumes of Tulsidas’ Ramcharita manas undertaken by Prof. Jing Dinghan. We presented on more than one occasion, collections of classics and contemporary books from India in English and Hindi to the Beijing Library, Institute of Foreign Languages and Beida.

One of the memorable tours undertaken by my wife and I was to Xinjiang and Gansu. In Kashgar we visited the ok “India House” made famous by Lady Macartney’s memories, where the Sathes stayed as the last Indian representatives. The ok and now dilapitated “India House” and its spacious grounds were dominated by a multi-storeyed hotel, the favourite lodge truckers and traders from Pakistan. From Urumqi we drove in the company of my Danish colleague and his family to Turfan and then via Hami to Dunhuang. The Chinese guide from the Xinjiang branch of the Foreign Office accompanied us. His family an that of the driver, brought delicious packed food for us, along with botttes of beer and drinks to last us over the three-day drive With the Tian Shan mountains on one side and the desert on the other, one saw such a variegated landscape. A dip in the famous Kerez (underground springs of delicious freshwater) was most reviving as were the grapes and peaches of Turfan. At Dunhuan I established contacts with the director of the Museum and Grottoes, Prof Duan Wenjie which were consolidated by Dr. Kapil Vatsyayan and the IGNCA.

The Embassy was provided a gardener, Lao Yu, who was an expert in rose-cultivation. Thanks to his tender and full time administration, the Embassy won the best flower-garden category” of the annual competition run by the Diplomatic Personal Service Bureau. These and scores of other personal memories of travels, of meetings, of chance encounters, some good friendships and dozens of outstanding meals would remain as souvenirs of the culmination of a career connected with China.

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© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without written permission of the publisher. 

Published in 1998 by 

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