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Better Understanding



Surjit Mansing


The assertion that more Indians should study contemporary China should need no justification. But perhaps those who find such a statement self-evident inhabit the somewhat rarified domain where knowledge is the preferred path to wisdom, where people from many countries meet and talk, and where the study of cultures, languages and political systems different from inherited ones is nothing strange. In contrast, it sometimes seems many people avid for information question the need of knowledge, dismiss the idea of studying another country as no more than an academic eccentricity, and laugh at the suggestion that a quest unrelated to consumption is a worthy and enjoyable enterprise.

Perhaps sceptics of the need for Indians to study China could be persuaded by a utilitarian rationale. Without entering into an epistemological ocean we catch the piscine gleam of comparative knowledge as one route to improved self-knowledge and offer it here, along with other workaday, even statist, reasons why more Indians should study contemporary China. These are: China’s importance in the world as a great and ancient civilisation as well as a global power today; problems posed by China’s proximity to India; China’s diplomatic and economic achievements that Indians envy; current threat perceptions in India and the concomitant requirement for a solid base of scholarship capable of making independent assessments of China’s capabilities and intentions; India’s need to build realistically and knowledgeably on the slowly widening opportunities of cooperative commercial (or other) ventures with China so as to open an exciting new chapter in the age-old encounter between Chinese and Indian civilisations.

First of all, China is today a recognised great power of vast extent -the largest in Asia - and population - the largest in the world. China is a veto-holding permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council (one of the P5) whose support or acquiescence is necessary for any collective action to be taken by that body. Within the P5, Britain and France are closely allied to the United States (US) and Russia is in a relatively weaker position than the former Soviet Union, so that China stands out as an independent centre of power, taking decisions on the basis of possibly different, and certainty non-Western, criteria than the others. We do not now posit China as an opposing pole, or counterweight, to the US in world bodies (though that possibility cannot be ruled out for the future), but merely point out the imperative of carefully studying China in an India desirous of enhancing its own profile in the UN.

China’s decisive impact on the economic, military, and political security of Northeast and Southeast Asia has become increasingly obvious and well-publicised by the international media in the 1990s. China’s participation was integral to negotiated settlements reached in Cambodia and North Korea. China’s claims in the South China Sea and to Taiwan led to international crises in this decade and may well lead to more in the next. The fail-out on China of the recent financial crisis in East Asia is a matter of world-wide concern. India is not, and cannot be, insulated from developments in the rest of Asia where China’s role can be decisive. Moreover, China’s political and economic dealings with the Central Asian Republics - from border agreements and ceremonial visits, to increasing cross-border trade, feasibility plans for pipelines and, perhaps, undocumented movements of people - have a profound impact on those countries too. As presently projected, India’s relationships with Asian countries to its east and to its north will broaden and deepen in the decade ahead, stimulated by trade and common membership or association in regional organisations, and to mutual benefit. India’s need to know and understand these Asian countries better than it has done in the recent past will grow correspondingly; so too the need to assess and understand their multi-faceted relationships with China.

The people’s Republic of China (PRC) is the present-day manifestation of a great civilisation, which, like Indian civilisation also flourished in the earliest stages of world civilisation and enjoyed periods of great cultural efflorescence. As in the case of other great civilisations past and present, the difficulties of grasping an unfamiliar language, script, art form or philosophical framework, are more than amply rewarded by the aesthetic, emotional and intellectual pleasures of exploring another tradition. Hence the appeal of Sinology. In addition, no civilisation is free of troubles or has an unbroken record of success, least of all civilisations that span several millennia, as do China and India. Study of the troughs is likely to prove as stimulating as study of the heights, Both Sinic and lndic civilisations have grappled with many similar situations and problems over the ages. The list is almost endless but would include the following: the problematic interaction of nomadic and settled peoples, the opposing pulls of centripetal and centrifugal forces, the formation and disintegration of states, the symbolic delineation of imperial space, the legitimisation and exercise of power, the structured stratification of agrarian societies, gender inequality in patriarchal systems, the absorption - or not - of alien groups and religions, subordination by European imperialism - albeit in markedly different degree and form - and the consequent tussle between social reformers and political revivalists in the late 19th century. Each civilisation evolved its own particular responses to similar situations and problems, with costs and benefits that are worth comparing. The experiences of China and India in the 20th century may provide many more contrasts than similarities, but it is evident that one theme common to both is “how a great tradition modernises”. Again, there are many lessons that can be learned from each other. Especially important, perhaps, is the more balanced perspective achieved by those who might have thought India is sui generis with unique problems, and find that China too considers itself sui generis and has similar problems, particularly in these years of rapid change affecting every sphere of life! What is likely to interest such students is how each has tackled -or not tackled - these problems.

In short, the first reason we offer for more Indians to study contemporary China is the cultural richness of that civilistion and the likelihood that China’s already significant influence on world events will increase in the rapidly approaching 21st century. In the future, persons knowledgeable about China stand to be at an advantage over those who are ignorant, in much the same way as those at ease with the language and culture of European powers have benefitted in the past and present.

Secondly, China is not only an important civilisation “out there”, it is India’s largest neighbour “right here”. With the military incorporation of Tibet into the PRC in 1950 and the Government of India’s oft-repeated official acknowledgement of Tibet as an autonomous region of China, the PRC ceased to be a “distant neighbour” and became as proximate to India as the states of the Indian subcontinent itself. China’s close and exceedingly cordial relations with Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh reinforces this point, as does China’s sustained effort (not yet successful) to establish a resident mission in Bhutan as a neighbour (along with India and Bangladesh). Opinion varies in New Delhi circles as to whether the former anti-India content in China’s relations with India’s smaller neighbours remains high or has diminished, and we do not enter into that controversy here. Suffice it to say that for Indians whose prime focus is South Asia, there is an imperative to study China as well.

Furthermore, whatever be the final alignment of a lineal border between India and China, yet to be defined and demarcated in mutual agreement, its total length is bound to be well over 2,000 kms, as is the Line of Actual Control (LAC) along which the two governments are pledged to maintain peace and tranquillity by an agreement of September 1993. The precise length of the final border will depend on what coordinates of longitude and latitude are agreed upon for the western and eastern, extremities, and therefore involve agreements with Pakistan and Myanmar, as well as the natural features of the terrain in between. But the maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the LAC depends on the correct understanding of China’s capacity, capabilities and intentions by the Indians responsible for those stationed on duty or living in the vicinity. Sentiment alone is not enough. Confidence building measures initiated in recent years and formalised in November 1996 must be bolstered with constantly upgraded knowledge and communication if they are to facilitate lasting peace and eventual settlement of the border problem to mutual satisfaction.

One barrier to self-confidence and peaceful expectation in lndia is the psychological trauma suffered in the border war with China in 1992 and carried over to this day, Even without attempting 16 revisit the controversial events preceding that war, or bemoaning the continuing unwillingness of Chinese officials and scholars to admit any share of blame for it, it is undeniable that Indian decisions taken at that time were NOT grounded in adequate, up-to-date, knowledge of what was transpiring within China or the motivations of China’s then key decision-makers. Stated briefly, New Delhi failed to decipher what Allen Whiting later termed the “Chinese calculus of deterrence” and India suffered disproportionately. There is no excuse for allowing such a lacuna to occur now or in the future. Every welcome reduction of Indian military forces along the LAC, so often used as living barbed

wire, must be fully justified by demonstrated reciprocity of force reduction and intent on China’s part, and not rest on mere expressions of intent in joint communiques, China probably will continue to be troubled by unrest in its two western autonomous regions, Tibet and Xinjiang, geographically juxtaposed with the Indian subcontinent. At the very least, India needs to be fully informed of developments there as well as in Beijing so as to frame appropriate and realistic policies of its own, and not be caught unawares with the fall-out of China’s repression of what it calls “splitism”, as it was in 19.59 and after.

Thirdly, China’s diplomatic and economic achievements over the last twenty years are nothing short of spectacular. They appear all the more striking when seen against a background of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1999, a decade of destructive chaos produced by the Cultural Revolution, the death-dealing famines of the Great Leap Forward years, the long drawn out civil war, and the preceding century of humiliation at the hands of the European and American powers. A natural question arises in the minds of many Indians at the dawn of the 21st century-what accounts for China’s success? (The question may well be evoked by India’s relatively lagging performance at this moment in time but we refrain from comment on that issue.)

Eminent economic historians such as Dharma Kumar remind us that China’s key economic indicators were significantly higher than those of India even in the declining phase of the Qing Dynasty and the first quarter of the 20th century. Historians have found the multivarious effects on a people of indirect colonialism - such as occurred in 19th century China - to be less traumatic or negative than those of direct imperial rule - such as experienced in India. Political scientists might argue that totalitarian, or authoritarian, systems are likely to be more “efficient” than democratic ones, especially in foreign affairs. Anthropologists could refer to the social discipline of Confucianism and the racial homogeneity of the Han people in China, contrasting the exuberant individualism and incredible multiplicity of community in India. Conspiracy theorists might like to point to United States behaviour for explanations. Nevertheless, the question remains, and not even tentative answers can be assayed without study of China’s achievements and how they were gained.

Among China’s diplomatic achievements that deserve particular note are those relating to relations with the US. The PRC’s success in winning American recognition for its own primary objectives, especially the principle of “one China” and derecognition of Taiwan as an independent political entity, has been notable from the time of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon’s visits to Beijing in 1971 and 1972, through the formal establishment of diplomatic ties in January 1979, to the summit meeting of Presidents Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton at Washington in October 1997 -less than 18 months after a major crisis and military stand-off over Taiwan in 1996. Only 94 countries presently recognize Taiwan, and this number does not include either the US or Japan - which have close (but informal) relations with Taiwan and arguably would prefer the status quo to an actualisation of China’s “reunification”, peaceful or otherwise. Moreover, the PRC withstood the western embargoes placed on it after June 1989, countered the American-led campaign against Human Rights abuses in China with a White Paper and pan-Asian campaign of its own against linking trade issues with human rights (as well as a few carefully timed releases of imprisoned dissidents), welcomed Clinton’s explicit de-linking of human rights criteria from US grant of Most Favoured Nation status to China in 1994, and won explicit support from Washington for China’s membership of the World Trade Organization in 1997.

Furthermore, improvement in Sino-Soviet relations was accompanied by improvement in Sine-Soviet relations in the 1980s leading to the Gorbachev-Deng summit in 1989 and important agreements between China and Russia in the 1990s on their long disputed border, trade, and defence cooperation, with China buying top-line military aircraft as well as the services of several thousand scientists and technicians from Russia. China’s ability to consolidate relationships with rival states simultaneously is also visible in its substantial dealings with Israel, Iran and the Arab states, as well as its pursuit of normalisation with India without sacrificing support of Pakistan’s nuclear programmes. China’s tactful flexibility is noteworthy in Southeast Asia where its claims (and occupations) in the South China Sea and attempted coercion of Taiwan in 1996 certainly heightened apprehension but has not triggered in ASEAN an alarmist retreat from engaging China in a multilateral security dialogue or an attempt at anti-Chinese collective security.

Without attempting to analyse China’s diplomacy here, its skill in using various assets to advantage precisely defined objectives must be stressed. One asset - that can also be a liability - is the role of people of Chinese origin in the domestic political and economic structure of countries, especially in Southeast Asia, with which China seeks closer ties. The diffusion of decision-making power in the US political system, and the influence this gives persons or groups with single-point agendas, has proved to be another asset for China in softening the policy impact of American rhetoric critical of China’s human rights and nuclear-proliferation record during the Clinton Administration, Thus, as a result of the Clinton-Jiang summit, Boeing Corporation (located in Seattle) signed a contract to sell China 50 jets valued at US$3billion, and the ardent pro-Tibet pro-Dalai ‘Lama lobby

(particularly strong in Seattle) got only Washington’s promise to appoint a “coordinator on Tibet” with undefined duties. Similarly, US nuclear companies were given permission to sell equipment to Chinese nuclear power plants, perhaps to the tune of $60 billion, and China’s long presumed assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability was not mentioned.

But China’s greatest asset assuredly is its booming economy, from which no world-class potential investor or salesperson wants to be excluded. Many detailed studies have been made of China’s economy since Deng Xiaoping launched his “opening up” reforms 20 years ago, pronounced that “to be rich is to be glorious”, and led a quadrapuling of national income in two decades. The World Banks recent publication, China 2020, and other independent reports testify that China has made two major transitions: from a command economy to a market economy (albeit “with Chinese characteristics”), and from a predominantly agrarian economy to a largely urban industrial one (though with a huge force of mobile labour now and an ever present threat of high unemployment). Equally important, the number of people surviving below the poverty level has reportedly declined from about 250 million to about 50 million - no small achievement in a total population of over 1.2 billion - and other indices of human development such as mortality, longevity, literacy, fertility, access to education and health facilities, and even treatment of women, point upward at statistical rates higher than those recorded for India over the same period of time. From the point of view of independence in international dealings, the most significant factors of all are the volume and value of China’s foreign trade -accounting for more than 2.5 per cent of world trade as compared to India’s 0.6 per cent - and its foreign exchange reserves of nearly US$100 billion - as compared to India’s less than US$20 billion. Both factors have been signification augmented by the addition of Hong Kong, a considerable financial and trading entity in its own right, to China on June 30 1997. On the assumptions that these positive trends would continue, and that resulting social strains would not pull China apart, many experts predicted that China’s economy soon would be second only to that of the US.

It is not our intention to engage in a romantic extolling of Deng’s (or post-Deng’s) China similar to what once was fashionable for Mao’s China, much less to suggest that the aforementioned successes are the result of some special “Chinese magic” or genes! Rather, we emphasise the need to decipher which Chinese policies and programmes succeeded internally and externally, and which failed, so as to study their possible applicability in comparable Situations in India, for example; in dealings with the US. It may also be possible to anticipate Beijing’s actions in future, because there is enough evidence to suggest that Beijing dissects the results of its own various policies quite carefully and is willing to make adjustments for the sake of greater success.

Fourthly, the need to build a strong and independent tradition of China studies in India is a palpable one, well expressed in a Note authored by members of the China Study Group in Delhi published in China Report (24: 4, 1966). As they pointed out, Cheena-Bhavana was founded by Rabindranath Tagore at Visva-Bharati in 1937, the Chinese language and area studies progmmmes at Jawaharlal Nehru University date from its founding, and Chinese studies were introduced at Delhi University in 1964, when China Report was also launched, yet the general picture remains gloomy. These programmes are not matched in universities elsewhere in India, not even in Calcutta, and most distressing of all, have not spawned the kind of integrated research programmes that contribute to solid theoretical or empirical progress in the social sciences field or Sinology. To quote the Note cited above, “even though a few notable achievements have been registered in the field by Indian scholars of China, they can be attributed more or less to isolated efforts by individuals,” It cites as major shortcomings the absence of a well-led foundational programme or an adequate milieu of Area Studies in any Indian University, compounded by the lack of finance for long-term field research in China or documentary and advanced language training facilities in India. We also observe that the habitual insulation of governmental defence, external affairs and intelligence agencies from the wider intellectual community does not serve India’s need for well-researched, well-documented, carefully analysed and independent assessments of China that can assist the process of policy-making as well. To repeat a point made earlier, India cannot afford to misread China or uncritically accept extra-Indian evaluations of China’s capabilities and intentions if it is to safeguard national security and advance India’s interests in the world. For example, what is the validity of a zero sum paradigm? Does Chinese success automatically threaten India? What can be learned from China’s new dealings with Russia or with Vietnam? How will Japan and China manage their relationship in future? At the moment, it is probably easier to use the copious Western analyses of China’s developments and intentions available in published form than to generate reliable Indian ones.

Some useful assessments surely will be generated by the 1993 research project “China Into the 21st Century" steered by the Institute of Chinese Studies, that itself grew out of the China Study Group in Delhi. But these papers should be the beginning, not the end, of a process. The objectives of the Institute of Chinese Studies include training a new generation of China scholars, promoting systematic study of China in India, contributing to more regular interaction and wider dissemination of knowledge of China in the public domain, and encouraging greater academic and intellectual exchange between India and China (as well as other international centres of China studies).

These are laudable objectives which need much more support from the University Grants Commission, the internationally minded public and the Indian government than they presently receive. For example, universities with language and area studies programmes on China, such as Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University, also need to provide resources and materials for research (which they do not possess at the moment) if their scholarship is to become profound. Nor should the bolstering of China studies be confined to the scholarly community. To make a start, major Indian newspapers should station correspondents in China, give them language training, and encourage them to report on a variety of subjects including the rapidly growing border trade between China and most of its neighbours. Such reports may well stimulate more thought and action within India than research papers on the same topics! Further, officers of the defence services should be given many more opportunities for multi-dimensional knowledge of China than presently available to them. The 1992 and 1994 exchange of visits between the Indian and Chinese defence ministers led to formal ties between the military establishments of the two countries and subsequent exchanges of visits at high-level. The benefit of increased exchanges at mid-levels as well as good-will ship visits can be more than ceremonial only if the officers detailed for them have a prior base of understanding and evaluation.

A final argument for paying more attention to China studies in India is the mundane one of expanding employment opportunities in commerce and industry Bilateral trade between In Bilateral and China has grown over the ten years of revival to a value of close to two billion dollars, and is slated for further growth and diversification. In today’s competitive market, no exporter can hope to maximise profits without an accurate profile of his customers. And it is hard to imagine market research being conducted in China without some knowledge of Chinese language and culture! The two governments have established a Joint Group on Economic Relations and Trade, Science, and Technology in 1988, and sub-groups being meeting periodically. But ministers and secretaries to government can only encourage, they cannot actually do the work of trading goods or technology, Those who would do so with an “open” China come from the private sector themselves and must develop contacts and knowledge equal to or better than their competitors from other countries, many of whom are likely to be of Chinese origin!

Some infrastructure will be provided by the broadly based India-China Joint Business Council set up in 1997. In the same year, the Confederation of Indian Industries opened a representative office in Shanghai, and the Federation of Man Chambers of Commerce and Industry, in collaboration with Wisitex Foundation, organised an industrial and trade exhibition to promote Indian products and technology in China. But one witness to the latter event bewailed the lack of adequate preparation on the part of Indian firms represented mere, contrasting that with the exhibition of Chinese products and technology in Delhi held in December 1997 where Chinese representatives arrived, with samples and order books in hand and did a brisk business. By the end of 1997 there were approximately 50 Chinese joint ventures in india with an investment outlay of $190 million (much of it in technology and personnel rather than finance), and four Indian joint ventures and two wholly Inian-owned companies operating in China with an investment outlay of $7 million. The desirable and likely expansion of joint ventures, and the success of existing ones, have been stressed at some length at practically every India-China meeting held in the last few years, including those of non-officials sponsored by the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. But what the chief executive officer of Ranbaxy Laboratories, (the oldest and most successful Indian venture in China manufacturing pharmaceuticals in Guangdong since 1993) had to say on the subject on one occasion, and most forcibly too, was that a good investment in China depended on a thorough training of personnel in Chinese language and social mores.

As more and more educated Indian youth take up careers in commerce, finance, management and industry, and as the economies of both India and China expand in the international as well as the bilateral domains, it will be commonplace for Chinese to study India and for Indians to study China. The assertion that more Indians should study contemporary China becomes self-evident.


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

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