The Indian President In China: Snippets from Shanghai

Alka Acharya, Director, Institute of Chinese Studies is visiting Shanghai to participate in the Shanghai Forum 2016, 28-30 May 2016.

Had I been in Beijing during the Indian President’s visit to China from the 26-28th May – or even in Guangdong – the impact and sense of the visit could possibly have been different. As it happened, I landed in Shanghai the day the President reached Beijing from Guangdong – and I had the opportunity to assess the visit from China’s commercial capital. Reports on President Pranab Mukherjee’s China visit were routinely issued in the various bulletins – more regularly in the CCTV English channel – but they were quite pro forma in fact and not every hour – it did not appear to be billed very high. Scholars I interacted with at Fudan University or even those who had come from other parts of the world to attend the Shanghai Forum, were more interested in discussing the G-7 meeting that was taking place and what China thought of it. The newspapers too made a brief mention of the visit, noting that the two countries had pledged to maintain peace in the border areas and that the visit was expected to advance the relationship. The buzz was all around the G7 meeting in Tokyo, Obama’s visit to Hiroshima (that occupied huge media attention); the statement on the South China Seas made from the G7 platform and the upcoming G-20 summit in Hangzhou.

The electronic media that I followed through the day certainly gave no sense of any particular excitement around the visit – to the extent that it matters, the symbolism was certainly there. Cultural and educational exchanges were stressed. President Mukherjee’s visit to Guangzhou had highlighted the commercial and trade potential – referring to the 5,000 Indian businessmen in the capital of China’s fastest growing province – and that US$590m had been invested in Gujarat – the sister province of Guangdong. That appeared to be the sub-text – business has to be shaken up – the India-China story has been scripted, cameras are poised, but the action appears to be in slow motion. The few conversation with some Chinese entrepreneurs (who by the way had funded some of the sessions on specific themes at the Shanghai Forum) was all about how India would open up to Chinese investment.

Shots of the Indian and Chinese Presidents inspecting the guard of honour in Beijing were interspersed with snapshots of the NSA dialogues and Yang Jiechi’s India visit in 2014. There was an excerpt from the President’s speech at Peking University during which a shot of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressing a gathering was inserted. There was no reference to previous visits by Xi Jinping or Indian Primer Minister Narendra Modi to India and China respectively.

Special reference was made to President Mukherjee’s statement on the need for both countries to “develop better political understanding” and “comprehensively address the boundary question”. The media particularly highlighted his statement that “while it was natural for neighbours to have a difference of views on certain issues”, he “consider[ed] it a test of the political acumen of both countries” that from time to time they [were] called to “draw upon our civilizational wisdom” and respect these differences and resolve them to mutual satisfaction of both sides.”

The spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry, Hua Chunying made a short statement to the effect that China shared the same vision. Both countries were committed to resolving the dispute through negotiation and “China is willing to work in unison with India to expedite the framework negotiation of the boundary question, settle this issue left over from history at an early date and further develop China India relations. The Chinese position on the boundary question is that the shared border is around 2,000 kms long and disputes in some areas along the line triggered the war in 1962.” Mukherjee’s visit, it was affirmed, would consolidate the resolving of the boundary issue as well advance progress in other aspects.

In a Q&A session with experts (with a backdrop on which was written in bold “CHINA/INDIAN) it was pointedly asked that since the President was only a titular head, how effective would he be in pushing the much-required changes to galvanise the bilateral relationship? One regular commentator on the CCTV, Victor Gao Zhikui stated that if anything, the boundary dispute was the fault of imperialist Britain – it was not China’s or for that matter, India’s fault. Both countries would be in need of each other for centuries to come – and resolving the boundary dispute would release enormous emancipatory potential.

There was a brief independent discussion with opinion from experts on the state of India-China relations. [This was telecast only on the English language channels – I tried to confirm whether it had also been broadcast in Chinese – but nobody seemed to have come across it]. India at this juncture, it was pointed out, was where China was ten years ago. (It was interesting that they see us only a decade behind them – our own estimates seem to be less optimistic). Mention was also made of the fact that India was even beginning to surpass China in the pace of growth. China’s strength however was its capital which most Indian industries lacked. India, as the visiting Indian President had pointed out, would welcome Chinese investment. Concurrently, China was also facing some economic problems and was looking for investment destinations. Its experience of labor-intensive industries and the management of reforms in a period of high growth and fast pace of manufacturing in particular, which was India’s biggest challenge, would be of special relevance.

Till 2014-15, investment levels from China were rather low, but after Xi’s visit to India in 2014, he had committed to investing up to US$20 billion. Over a period of time, both China and India could begin to complement each other – as China would begin to contribute more to the Indian government’s “Make in India” and other flagship programs. However, India would have to seriously address some of the major hurdles faced by the Chinese investors such as tariff barriers, bureaucratic and ‘red tape’ hurdles and corruption. The China-India Business Forum should be playing a greater role in promoting a positive environment.

The discussion referred to an emerging consensus in India, which is aware of the importance of Chinese investment and which, therefore, advocates the creation of an enabling and welcoming investment environment. They also spoke of how Indian partners are desirous of almost replicating the Chinese scenario – such as designated areas, which mimic Chinese conditions to make the Chinese businessmen feel at home.  In passing, one may mention that in the English broadcasts, “Mukherjee” was pronounced impeccably – recalling to mind the infamous ‘Eleven’ Jinping gaffe on our very own Doordarshan.

The reports on the Indian President’s visit were often followed by other news on India. The unprecedentedly high temperatures and its impact on the economy were also given a special section on the CCTV news channel. Footage of the roads in Valsad, with people struggling through the melted tar, leaving behind footwear were shown. The report focused on the estimated US$100b losses from the drought that is sweeping across ten states of India and mentioned that 330 million out of the country’s one billion farmers were under severe stress. Pictures of parched and cracked agricultural land and farmers staring in the distance were flashed. It also cited an Assocham study which predicts massive water shortages and the apprehensions that the bulk of the funds earmarked for development would have to be channeled into subsidies and support for the farmers – this would take its toll on the government’s dreams of no poor by 2032. The Assocham Secretary-General was also interviewed and he identified food inflation and management as the critical upcoming challenges. While a good monsoon was predicted, the fear was that major funds would have to be diverted for relief work.

On the whole, it was not a visit that took the relationship to the next level – arguably, it was not intended as such. Some MoUs were signed between central universities in India and universities in China. [But we still wait for an implementation of the decision to ease the administrative strictures on permitting visits by scholars and conferences without which, these MoUs are pointless.] There was a time when it was vital that high-level visits were regularized – it was indicative of a normalizing process – as also an important signal of political will. Such visits now need to emerge as important landmarks – with routine matters being left to the maze of mechanisms that have been set up over the past decades.

As a rather humorous tailpiece, I would like to narrate a conversation that I had with a couple of young students at a roadside eatery. They were studying economics in Fudan University and were clearly trying to practice their English, which I must say was rather good – as will be evident by the nature of our conversation. They were mildly aware of the Indian President’s visit but were not following it closely. They were more interested in Indian economic development. Among other things, they mentioned a programme they had seen on Channel News Asia. This was on the politics of cow slaughter in India, in which an investigator had gone around to different places interviewing farmers, cow owners, and trying to understand the “beef ban”. The subject by the way was utterly baffling to these young students. In the show apparently, a veterinarian was quoted as saying that an ultrasound examination of pregnant cows was legally banned in India. When asked why, the answer was that with the ban on cow slaughter was done because people had started aborting male fetuses. Considerable mirth was generated because of the comment of the journalist – that in India, in the case of humans, female fetuses were aborted but in the case of bovines, male fetuses were. I made a mental note to search out and watch this programme.

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