Event Reports

‘De-mystifying China’: Some thoughts


“You cannot deal with China from Beijing’s perspective,” remarked one of the speakers as he went on to explain the dynamics of centre-state relations in China where important regions and provinces are continuously struggling to undermine or supersede Beijing perspective. The 6 January 2018 roundtable on India-China mutual understanding  ‘De-Mystifying China’  at ORF Kolkata chapter had  promotion of alternative perspectives on China as one of its core agendas.

The lack of familiarity owing to mutual misperception and deep distrust of each other needs to be re-examined at this crucial juncture when the world is awaiting an ‘Asian resurgence’ and India and China are the key players in this systemic transformation. The discussion started on a note that highlighted a new Chinese dream based on increasing global connections different from its previous isolationist policies.

Rakhahari Chattterji, who moderated the session, opened the discussion with the remarks that India has been traditionally inward looking and not greatly interested in knowing foreigners or understanding foreign cultures. This practice has become problematic because India now wants global  power status which  inevitably entails   the responsibility for understanding other powers, especially the neighbourhood where China has an overwhelming presence.

The key speaker of the event was Reshma Patil, author of the book ‘Strangers Across the Border’. She was followed by Krishnan Srinivasan, Ravi Bhoothalingam, Sunanda K Datta Ray, Ashish Chakraborty, Dinesh Trivedi, Hari Vasudevan and Harsh Poddar.

How to de-mystify China

Six broad ideas emerged from the discussion on de-mystifying China: first the new openness in Chinese society; second, predominance of younger generation in political and economic fields; third, China’s  capability for initiating original research with emphasis upon merit; fourth, need for  deciphering the reality of Chinese political system from its form; fifth,  need for  India to  come  out of the 1962 memory trap; and sixth, opportunities for India in the wake of the  transformation taking place in China.

Openness in Chinese society

During the discussion, one of the speakers observed that most of the Chinese journalists working as foreign correspondents in India would know Hindi while only one of their Indian counterparts working in Beijing would know Mandarin. He emphasised that unlike India, the Chinese had begun assessing Indian political culture long back.  Another speaker noted that many in China are now learning English and setting up companies overseas expanding their global outreach. He shared his experience from his last visit in 2017 that practices of suppressing questions or queries were no longer prevalent and there were quite frank  discussions about Chinese party system or political dynamics. Another speaker said that this transformation from a closed to a more open society was an important driver in Chinese economic growth and India should not fail to appreciate this.

Chinese capability for original research with emphasis upon merit

One of the speakers, referring to the tremendous advancement China has made in recent years, cited the case of Chinese Railways. Chinese Railways had been behind the Indian railways until very recently, but now it has gone ahead of  the Indian system by a long way. He attributed this to Chinese emphasis upon sheer merit. The speaker pointed out that India has failed to retain its talented minds who work from Silicon Valley while the Chinese instrumental in redesigning the world resided in China itself.

Predominance of younger generation in political and economic fields

Another speaker suggested that India could take a cue from the Chinese and harness the potential of the young generation. He argued that the younger generation of both countries should be encouraged towards more interaction and dialogue.  One speaker pointed that the top members of Chinese politburo were a young lot hailing mostly from social science background with deep understanding of state power. There is, however, a lack of knowledge about India in the younger generations who consider India as just another country in Asia.

Understanding Chinese political system

Two important observations surfaced during the discussion. One of these underscored the need for understanding Chinese governance structure and institutions.  The narrative of overwhelming political control by Beijing is a gloss since important regions or provinces in China are given extraordinary flexibility in dealing with their neighbours for cultivating political and economic relations, said one speaker. He felt that China was not controlled by Beijing. The other observation made by another speaker mentioned   the strict hierarchisation and two- tier system in Chinese political practice which closely resembled Plato’s utopia. He said Chinese communist schools train brightest minds across China for a career within the party ranks. At the same time, there was an inherent insecurity in Chinese psychology which constitutes one of the greatest threats to the Chinese political system.

Trapped in 1962 mentality

Some speakers emphasised the need for India to come  out of the 1962 mentality of victimhood. New Delhi should follow the example of China-Vietnam relations and intensify economic engagement with China despite having some critical problems.   The costs of 1962 hangover are great and it is time for India to move on. Elaborating the point further, it was said that  if India did not want to be economically dominated by China, it should engage more with China through trade, investments and knowledge sharing.   Such a change in Indian mindset could be possible  if different interest groups in the country came together.  Also, it would be good for India  to stop criticising China for not being a western-type democracy.

Opportunities for India

One speaker said there were  three perspectives that needed urgent attention. First corporate exchanges, second travel/tourism and third academic exchanges. It was noted that China perceived  India to be a stable polity and India should take advantage of this by encouraging Chinese investment in its infrastructure, energy, tourism and transportation sectors.

In an effort to increase interaction and to undermine mutual distrust, it was pointed out that projects based on long term collaboration needed to be identified which would  help mitigate atmosphere of suspicion between India and China.

Growing popularity of Buddhism in China was also noted and it was felt that it could give India a new way of looking at China. The issue of Chinese public perception about Indian media also came up. It was noted that the political circle as well as common people in China perceived Indian media to be anti-Chinese and hoped that the government of India would control Indian media.  State control over media is considered a normal practice in Chinese political culture.

The issue of ‘asymmetry in perception’ also came up during the discussion where one speaker pointed out that China might not consider India of much consequence while another speaker asserted that India should be prepared for an Asian integration under Chinese leadership. In this context it was suggested that perhaps India should nurture more carefully the RIC forum.

(The report has been compiled by Mayuri Banerjee, Research Assistant, ORF Kolkata )