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C3S Event Report: International Conference on “China: Cultural and Historical Perspective- Lessons f

C3S Report No: 002/2017

The Chennai Centre for China Studies organized an International Conference from January 24-25 2017 at TAG Centre, Chennai. The theme was on “China: Cultural and Historical Perspective- Lessons for the Future”. The following is an event report of the conference.

Beyond Border Issues & Trade Riddles: An Out-of-the-box View of China


Inaugural Session:

Commodore R. Seshadri Vasan, Indian Navy (Retd.), Director, C3S, Head, Strategy and Security Studies, Center for Asia Studies (CAS) and Regional Director, National Maritime Foundation-Chennai Chapter welcomed the gathering. Mr. Li Bijian, Minister Counselor, Embassy of PRC, Delhi was received graciously as a participant at the conference.

Ambassador C. V. Ranganathan, Former Ambassador of India to China & Vice-President, C3S, delivered the Inaugural Address. He indicated that culture plays an integral part of all aspects of international relations including political alliances. On the other hand, the One Belt One Road has geopolitical implications. China’s President Xi Jinping views OBOR as a road of reform. India, China and Pakistan, the three states which form the South Asian subcontinent, can be connected regardless of OBOR, CPEC, etc. Besides, as Confucius stated, to keep the world in order, the home must first be kept in order. China is safeguarding its strategic assets via its cross border infrastructure projects. Beijing is countering terrorism and extremism in order to protect its interests in CPEC and OBOR.

Mr. Li Bijian, Minister Counselor, Embassy of PRC, Delhi gave the Keynote Address. He appreciated Chennai’s cultural landscape and thanked C3S for inviting him to the event. He described how the Communist Party of China was setup at a time when the Chinese youth were looking for new directions. China had a high illiteracy rate in 1949. After 1979, the economic reform policies brought China high economic growth- around 9 per cent, and transformed the nation. The country aims to be the world’s largest economy by 2020. A peaceful rise is China’s sincere goal. On the subject of relations with India, the positives were recognized: cooperation at the BRICS Goa summit, G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Shanghai pharmaceutical group and new chapters of security/military and maritime collaboration. The high numbers of leaders’ visits are also an encouraging sign. Chinese investment hotspots are rising in Telengana, Andhra Pradesh, etc. Besides, pilgrimage diplomacy is a binding factor. China has also supported India’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It is pleasing to note that Chinese investors are concentrating in Southern India as well. On the other hand, there are areas where differences arise. Nevertheless China and India share a mature relationship which must be taken forward. We should discuss the possibility of signing of a Free Trade Agreement, a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, earliest settlement of border issue and coming to terms about regional connectivity. 2016 has been a year of uncertainty, including job losses. On the topic of the international conference, it was appreciated for its in-depth exploration of cultural and historical dimensions. It denotes a contrast from the view from Delhi.

Shri B. S. Raghavan, Former Policy Advisor to UN (FAO), Chief Secretary, State, Governments of West Bengal and Tripura, Secretary to the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, GOI, & Patron, C3S presented the theme address. He examined the dimensions of what make India and China unique cultural players.

Cmde. Vasan gave the Vote of Thanks. Gratitude was expressed to Mr. R. T. Chari, MD of TAG Group of Companies for sponsoring the venue.

Plenary Session I- History: A Mirror of the Future? (Chair- Amb. C. V. Ranganthan)

The first paper was on “Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream’: Back to the Future?” by Dr. Indira Ravindran, Assistant Professor, School of International Relations and Public Affairs (SIRPA), Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), PRC & Member, C3S. She described China as a modern well-off society. The ‘Chinese Dream’ refers to internal contexts as well as a peaceful rise. Nevertheless, Beijing wants to dispel notions from certain corners that the Communist Party of China is under threat. A need was felt to reinvent the country’s image as projected to the Chinese. For this purpose, the term ‘Chinese Dream’ stands as a good strategy. However the One Belt One Road project could have several consequences. There are massive environmental implications. Local companies could oppose the scheme. There will a huge demand for security along the OBOR. Besides, the general Chinese population is not very concerned about OBOR. The common people are more worried about food safety, air pollution, and their children’s education. The global community should perceive China as a country with a strong government, instead of labeling it as a ‘regime’. In conclusion, China is holding up a mirror to an image of where it wants to be in future as opposed to what it is in reality.

‘China’s Cultural Impact via Maritime Global Expeditions: Then & Now’ was the focus of the paper by Mr. Manpreet Singh Chawla, Consultant, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. His views were his own. He described maritime prowess as the fifth phase of globalization. The significance of China’s ocean trade since ancient times cannot be undermined. In fact history plays a major role in influencing the present scenario. 2005 was the year of the 600th anniversary of Chinese Admiral Zheng He’s voyages. It is Xi Jinping’s view that the future will also witness the Maritime Silk Route playing an empowering role for China. The MSR will also contribute to the spread of Chinese diaspora, who themselves would be a major source of cultural power. It is also interesting to note that while the International Hydrographic Organization, Monaco, articulates China as an extra-regional force in the Indian Ocean Region, history points to a different direction. Historical linkages via maritime routes link China to the IOR, dating back to more than two thousand years. China through its multiple periods of insulation exposure has had an influence on and in turn was impacted by the events in the Indian Ocean in particular. Merchants and movement of goods, knowledge and people, primarily led this outreach for the ensuing centuries. It is no surprise that the historical context has set the foundation for China to now be a leading country in the areas of fishing, maritime power, shipping, Coast Guard activities and port infrastructure.

Dr. Ramu Manivannan, Professor & Head, Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Madras, highlighted in his paper the Chinese dimension of “Buddhism & Confucianism: Ideology & International Influence“. China is a civilizational State with long historical background and the making of nation-state, as we witness today, emerged after bitter rivalries and divisions both within and outside.  The Chinese have found a way to unify the polity through culture and people with the defined historical territory and the undefined quest for land.  The Chinese are an ancient cultural society with layers of consciousness.  The Chinese concept of unity  is based on movement towards the centre as in shifts in layers and the order of these layers are determined by priorities set by the dominant discourse of polity, society and people.  Religion and social philosophy have historically retained an influential space in the society with religion being an inner spirit than institution, social philosophy as flowing than stagnant, China as vibrant and the Chinese as energetic society.  The Chinese mind was explored through religious, spiritual and philosophical spaces of society and its implications for contemporary China and the world.

‘Communism in China: A Journey in Transition’ was the theme of the presentation by Mr. S. Sundeep Kumar, Research Officer, C3S. Since the founding of the PRC by Mao-Tse-tung in 1949, Communism in China has transformed itself at various stages in order to adapt itself to changes in the economy and the society. The journey of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was traced through the leadership of Mao, Deng and Xi.  The domestic conditions that proved favorable for Communism to find its foundations in China were highlighted. The paper reflected the reasons behind the success of communism in China despite the ideology failing in other countries around the world. It was observed how the CPC has contributed in fulfilling the Chinese dream and whether it has maintained the core essence of the ideology which is to have a classless society.

Vithiyapathy Purushothaman, Research Officer, C3S presented an analysis of ‘Taoism: Base of China’s Foreign Policy’. The linkage between Taoism and China’s foreign policy was explored. Taoism seems to be the oldest among the three cultural foundations of China. This philosophy has deep roots in the other two practices as well, namely Buddhism and Confucianism. The history of Lao Tze was traced. The relevance of Dao De Ching was identified with the reference of several Taoist temples in China. It is recognized that Taoism is deeply embedded in the daily practices of Chinese. Hence we could find the secret ingredients to China’s foreign policy. These elements are reflected mostly in China’s Panchsheel and Taoism has become a polar star guiding Beijing’s international relations. China’s present activities in Southeast Asia, Latin America, Africa and Central Asia were seen through the prism of Taoism. The speaker also thanked his Martial Arts- Muay Thai Master Mr. Vigneshwaran Subbaiah and the teachers of Mahayana Buddhism at Dhamma Setu Vipassana Center, Chennai for enabling his understanding of Taoism.

Plenary Session II- China’s Soft Power (Chair- Mr. Li Bijian)

‘Chinese Diaspora- A Channel of Culture?’ was the paper jointly authored by Dr. Binoda Kumar Mishra, Director, Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development (CSIRD), Kolkata and Dr. Mohor Chakraborty, Assistant Professor in Political Science, South Calcutta Girls’ College, Kolkata (under Calcutta University). Dr. Mohor presented the paper by first outlining the history of modern Chinese diaspora formation. According to Dr. Mohor, much of China’s soft power in the realm of diaspora is negated by its domestic political process. The country occupies almost all political high tables but does not enjoy universal acceptability as a global leader. Around 50 million Chinese diaspora control around 2 trillion liquid assets spread over 120 countries. They are in a good position to tell the Chinese story. However the so-called Real China Story is largely perceived as a story being told by CCP, as it controls the political culture back home, the overseas Chinese media, Confucian Institutes and classrooms. Changes are needed to retell the positive aspects of the Chinese story through the diaspora.

The paper on ‘Media Management, Perceptions in China and Role of Think Tanks’ was presented by Mr. Shastri Ramachandaran, Independent political foreign affairs commentator, Delhi & Former Senior Editor & Writer, Global Times and China Daily, Beijing. India does not figure prominently on the Chinese radar. It is our own sense of self-importance that makes us think we are giving sleepless nights to the Chinese. Indian media is often in propaganda, offensive or battle mode when it comes to reporting on China and things Chinese. Media, in both China and India, seem to be motivated by the urge to create a mindset and not to inform or educate; or, create conditions for dialogue that can lead to understanding. Given the responsibility Chinese media has been tasked with, it is doing an excellent job of attracting Indian attention, sending out messages on behalf of the Party and Government and signaling what is expected of those dealing with China. A credible Indian response is lacking. Think tanks in China, staffed by able and competent experts, are effective in setting the tone for public discourse including in international affairs and Sino-Indian relations. They not only “inform” and “educate” the foreigner but also their own media, which depends on them to set the tone and the agenda in international relations.

Ms. Asma Masood, Research Officer, C3S, presented a paper on ‘China’s Literature: The Power of Words’. It must be noted that China has an inherent literary culture since ancient times. This literary mindset sets a foundation for China’s soft power via literature. The paper examined whether there was a clash or convergence between two entities: The pure ‘art’ of literature in China; and the objectives of soft power. Beijing is directing a comprehensive literary soft power strategy since 2004, as seen in the establishment of ‘China Book International’ and ‘Window into China’. China aims to propagate certain ideals and images through its literature to the rest of the world. Besides, the China Writer’s Association is another foundational forum, albeit a political one, shaping China’s literary directions. Chinese books are making an entry into countries like India and those in Africa. However there are some flipsides to this story of Chinese literature going overseas. Nevertheless, some Chinese literary works have become major global phenomena, such as its classics, science-fiction, online literature and even children’s literature. Several of these are winning prominent international prizes. It was questioned what the future holds for China’s literary realm: whether it will embody a distinct niche by portraying not only Chinese culture but also other world cultures through Chinese eyes. The impact of China’s soft power via literature was assessed.

Ms. Preethi Amaresh, Intern, C3S, presented a paper on ‘Global Influence of China’s Film Industry’. While one hears stories about China’s economy slowdown, China’s broad influence of soft power remains optimistic with passion for movies in and outside China. The growth of China’s film industry has been tremendous having performed very well in Asia and South East Asia too. At present, China’s movie ticket sales is second only to the US. China has given huge box office hits like Monster Hunt, Lost in Hong Kong and Avatar to name a few. According to reports, there is not a big movie studio in the world that is not thinking about how to crack the China market from the start of making its movies. Perfect World Pictures of China has also signed deals with the Universal pictures and Dreamworks pictures of Hollywood. The global entertainment and media sector is one of the pillars of China’s 5 year plan. One can also see the budding romance between Indian and Chinese film industries. Bollywood’s trajectory in China was different from that in other countries. An agreement signed by India and China in 2014 envisages collaboration between the two. What is to be seen is whether China can really take on the global stage from the way it is progressing.


Plenary Session III- Socio-Cultural Spectrum & Identity (Chair- Dr. Indira Ravindran)

Dr. Sonika Gupta, IITM China Studies Centre, Indian Institute of Technology Madras began the second day of the conference by speaking on her paper, ‘Internet and Nationalism in China: A Foreign Policy Analysis’. She traced public perception in China as related to the leadership’s broad approach to foreign policy. Popular sentiment as expressed in social media about nationalism/territorial disputes and the nature of Chinese foreign policy was examined. The complexities of the social media discourse and its relationship with foreign policy making were mapped. In addition, the Global Times is adapting to the demands of the social-media savvy netizens of China. Interestingly, there are several phenomena in China’s internet realm vis-à-vis nationalism, such the ‘Little Pinks’ and ‘Fifty Cent-ers’. Besides, there are new media channels which delve into investigating governance, corruption or human interest stories without digging deep into political context. The paper also made inferences on the role of public opinion in formulating foreign policy changes in China.

‘The Impact of China’s One-Child Policy on the Gender Imbalance’ was the theme of the paper presented by Ms. Kirthi Jayakumar, Founder, Red Elephant Foundation. The rationale behind the one-child policy and its implementation were explored. The quantitative impact of the policy was examined. Some of these include: Shrinkage in the working age population, Increase in the age dependency ratio, and that there are 120 boys for every 100 girls. Thus the current sex ratio among newborns is the highest in the world. There were also significant qualitative impacts: discrimination against the girl child, social isolation and violence against women and crime and social instability due to the shortage of women. According to Ms. Kirthi, there were some good sides to the impact as well. An overall assessment of the one-child policy was made.

Ms. Shruthi V., Intern, C3S analyzed the ‘The Idea of Identity in China’ in her paper. There are several components to identity in China such as national, cultural and individual. Chinese national identity is seen in instances such as the diaspora and jingoism in the South China Sea dispute. The major component of cultural identity in China is comprised of the Han Chinese. There are also religious dimensions as seen in Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Interestingly, there is an assimilation of Chinese culture among other ethnic groups in China, including the Bai Chinese, Hui Muslims, Uyghur Muslims and the Tibetans. The identity factor was also observed from the Taiwanese and Hong Kong perspectives. Chinese identity in Macao cannot be undermined. Individual identity in China is influenced in recent times by westernization elements. However the Hanfu movement aims to revive a unique Chinese identity without being influenced by the west. Queries were raised on whether there is hence a coherence or crisis in identity in China.

Plenary Session IV- Diplomacy Diaries (Chair- Prof. Suryanarayan, Former Nelson Mandela Professor for Afro-Asian Studies, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam; Former Director, Centre for South and South East Asian Studies, University of Madras ; & President, C3S)

Dr. Sanjeev Kumar, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), Delhi presented his views on ‘Panchsheel in China’s Foreign Policy, 1954-2016’. He explained the historical and contemporary context of Panchsheel. Panchsheel’s Five Principles were analyzed along with the bilateral and multilateral documents related to Panchsheel since April 1954 to 2016. The differences were brought out between the idealist and realist theories of international relations that combine to contribute the five principles of Panchasheel. From the Chinese perspective, Panchsheel also sets guidelines for the resolution of unsettled boundaries with neighbouring countries. In addition, the post-Mao strategies of China for establishing diplomatic relations with countries and, the resolution of conflict or boundary dispute were analyzed. The principles are broad and provide flexibility with regard to China’s foreign policy.  Inferences were made on the journey of Panchsheel in China’s foreign policy.

‘ASEAN-China Relations: 25 Years of Dialogue Relations’ was the theme of the paper by Mr. Ahmad Fajarazam Bin Abdul Jalil, Consul General of Malaysia in Chennai. From the time of 5th century CE, trade, migration and diplomacy play a vital role in ASEAN – China relations. Officially the year 2016 is marked as the 25th year of the ASEAN-China Dialogue Partner relations. The presentation shed light on the overview of the quarter century of relations between the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the People’s Republic of China through the context of the ASEAN Dialogue Partner relations. The overview of the relations is examined through the three pillars of ASEAN cooperation. The political-security, economic and socio-cultural relations were described. Cultural aspects include tourism, people-to-people contacts, etc.

Dr. Josukutty C. A. Assistant Professor & Director, Survey Research Centre, Department of Political Science, University of Kerala, Kariavattom Campus, Trivandrum, put the spotlight on ‘Sino-U.S Socio-Cultural Relations’ in his paper. Sino-U.S socio-cultural relations are a significant aspect of the most important bilateral relation in international politics today. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the US in 1979, tools of cultural and public diplomacy have been widely used to know each other and strengthen the relationship. China and the US have great cultural presence in each other’s country. However the Chinese view Western culture as an aggressive threat to China’s own cultural sovereignty. The US is apprehensive of China’s growing cultural offensive.  The US believes in spreading democracy and freedom as the best way to ensure peace and prosperity whereas the Chinese wants to bring peace and prosperity by forging the world into a harmonious community of shared destiny based on win-win cooperation. These divergent positions are reflective of their cultural contradictions and their percolation into other spheres. Thus Sino-U.S socio-cultural engagement has an impact on the relationship between the two countries.

‘China-Japan Relations: Beyond Politics’ was the focus of the paper by Dr. Dharitri Narzary Chakravartty Assistant Professor in History, School of Liberal Studies/ Deputy Dean, School of Undergraduate Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD). Despite the bitter Sino-Japan relations post World War II one cannot overlook the growing social contact between them, especially in a globalized market economy. Japan’s rise as an economic power in the region and its global presence had a transformational affect on China. While economically maintaining a business approach was acknowledged in the bilateral relation, this paved the way for other forms of interactions increasing people to people contact. This contact is not limited to public exchanges between institutions or organizations and is visible even in private spheres. An increasing number of Chinese and Japanese are getting into international marriages despite the strong nationalistic sentiments and growing number of Chinese students are choosing Japan as the destination for higher education. Likewise, more and more Chinese are traveling across to Japan and vice-versa, for number of reasons, and all of these engagements are interesting to observe given the current political vibes both share. It is interesting to observe what keeps China-Japan relations ticking and the significance of maintaining the status-quo.

Plenary Discussion V- Panel Discussion (Chair: Mr. Ahmad Fajarazam Bin Abdul Jalil)

Theme: China’s History and Socio-Culture: A Mirror of the Future or A Prisoner of the Past? Recommendations and prescriptions for India in response to China’s socio-cultural and diplomatic influence.

Participants: Prof. Suryanarayan, Dr. Indira Ravindran and Dr. Ramu Manivannan.

Dr. Indira Ravindran opined that we need to understand asymmetric perceptions with regard to China. We must “normalize China” in our thinking.  A good way for Delhi to gain China’s respect and attention is to increase India’s economic growth. As Indians, we must learn from China. China’s work ethic is a paradigm in itself. There is also a necessity for both countries to build mutual collaboration in the field of media relations. Public diplomacy efforts must be galvanized to enable greater people to people exchange. The border issue cannot be ignored. Solving it will pave the way for accelerated cultural ties between India and China.

Prof. Suryanarayan expressed the view that India should not remain as a status quo power. Culture needs to be studied as an instrument of foreign policy. The role of Narasimha Rao cannot be undermined in shaping India’s foreign policy. Recommendations were given to increase people-people contacts between India and her neighbours. For instance the visa fee can be relaxed. There are natural landscapes connecting India to other countries such as Myanmar. Therefore the border should not be a deterrent to cultural exchange.

Dr. Ramu Manivannan stated that as Indians we lack belief in ourselves. One should not over-read Pakistan vis-à-vis China. There are cultural and political forces to be considered.  With regard to Panchsheel, an analogy can be made that China took the cake and India was left with the icing. Today, our neighbours neither trust us nor fear us.

The conference was summed up by Dr. Ramu Manivannan and Ms. Asma Masood. Ms. Asma stated that India should not wait for a crisis in the international system before seriously pursuing cultural relations. Culture should be an important aspect of India’s foreign policy, be it as a main plan or a lifeboat plan. In an era of rising nationalism, cultural identity should not divide nations. Rather, socio-cultural dimensions of foreign policy should be seen as a binding factor.

Ms. Asma Masood gave the vote of thanks.

(Compiled by Asma Masood, Research Officer, C3S.)

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