A scene from Wuhan University. Image Courtesy: Chinanews.com / english.sina.com
C3S Interview 002/2019
In the run up to the 70th anniversary of the founding of People’s Republic of China on October 1 2019, Ms. Asma Masood carried out a series of C3S interviews with scholars working and studying in China. They share their first hand views on the Chinese landscape in light of the country’s achievements, challenges and projections for the coming decades. This interview, which is the first in the series, is with Ms. Monika Sethuraman. She is Member, Young Minds of C3S and is pursuing PhD in International relations at Huazhong Normal University. She graduated with a Master ‘s in South Asian studies from UNESCO Madanjeet Singh Institute for South Asian Regional Cooperation, Pondichery University, India.
Q1: Monika, you are presently at a site of immense importance- Wuhan, where the first Modi-Xi informal summit was held in 2018. The 2019 informal summit is to be held soon after the Chinese National Day, which would celebrate 70 years of PRC’s founding. Our readers would like to know about your observations on the ground at Wuhan then, and an outlook on the October 2019 meeting. Do your fellow Chinese students share similar views?
Since the 2018 Modi-Xi Informal Summit, Prime Minister Modi has risen into being a popular world figure next to only Trump among the Wuhanese. Wuhan’s famous East Lake Scenic spot gained more attention after Xi-Modi summit as a popular attraction for tourists and locals. It is believed here that Central and Southern Chinese are much open and aware about their neighbors as they are constantly in trade contact with outsiders. And in that aspect, as a big city with the Yangtze River as lifeline, Wuhanese have long established trade contact with outsiders. You will be surprised to know that most cumin seeds consumed in Chinese barbeques are imported from India. The local spice traders are familiar with Chennai too, by calling the city in their own Chinese way as “Madelasi 马德拉斯”.
In association with the Embassy of India, Wuhan Corporation organized an India photo exhibition week, and also organized International Yoga Day events at Wuhan’s famous “The Yellow Crane Tower”. Wuhan’s Changjiang Weekly also gives special focus coverage to China’s relationship with its South Asian partners. Currently Wuhan is the host city of “2019 Military World Games”. The city underwent a massive infrastructure transformation to facilitate these “2019 MWG” such as expansion of Metro lines and addition of more public toilets. As it is said here, “Wuhan Mei tian Bu Yiyang 武汉每天不一样” (“Wuhan is different every day”). This is said in reference to the changing weather pattern, however, as a testimony to the saying, it can be added that the city never sleeps be it harsh winter or stormy rainy season and that there is change everywhere owing to 100 years of the Communist Party of China (since May 4 1919 protest) celebration and 70 years of the birth of modern China.
In its 70 years of modern statehood, China has restored lost treasures and conducted repatriation and retrieval of cultural relics at a massive scale. It cannot be forgotten that among the places that Xi and Modi jointly visited, one was the Hubei Provincial Museum, which is revered on CCTV as home to culturally significant Treasures of Central China. The present Indian government made the right choice of selecting Mamallapuram for the upcoming Modi-Xi Summit, which is a significant opportunity for India to showcase its civilizational heritage. India is also a member of the ‘Intergovernmental Coordinating Committee for the Silk Roads serial transnational World Heritage Nomination’ group, which met for the sixth time this September at Iran to review the state of conservation of the inscribed Silk Roads World Heritage property. Mamallapuram would be a significant platform to introduce the charm of Indian culture and UNSECO inscribed monuments to the Chinese. The Modi-Xi informal summits have become landmark achievement in terms of cultural cooperation and exchanges between the two nations. The Chinese side believes they see advancement in mutual understanding and friendship between the two nations.
By establishing people-to-people bond through cultural cooperation, interaction and exchanges President Xi aims to fulfill his vision for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is apparent that through the BRI, Xi’s China aims to revive its civilizational influence across the globe. Some Chinese scholars are hopeful that Xi will convince Modi to join the BRI infrastructure projects. It is reported that Xi will direct USD 100 billion towards India and that China is looking for areas of expansion in India, especially in transport, telecommunication and electricity sector.
Q2. From the prism of an Indian student, what is your evaluation of the present Chinese educational system, especially for studies on international relations? How does this compare with the Indian scenario, especially in the projections for the coming years?
In just 40 years since opening up and reforms, China has held more cultural exchange activities than anywhere else in the world. It has the most diverse international student community in the world.
As for the Chinese education system, it is highly competitive and very rigorous in its own way. The Language program and Bachelors program curriculum demand more effort as compared to that for classes in Masters Degree and PhD. There is a clear difference between the quality of education given in Chinese teaching mode to Chinese students and the quality of education given to foreigners in English teaching mode. The Chinese students have a very busy schedule unlike the international students who have a more relaxed class schedule. Military training, volunteer service and sports activities are compulsory for Chinese students and they get credit scores for each activity. Although it is not compulsory for international Students to participate in public-volunteer activities, those who take part are given Certificates of Appreciation & Acknowledgement with added perks, rewards and insensitive. These certificates of social service are highly regarded by the Chinese Scholarship Council and CPC in review of International Student’s Annual Performance. CCNU has an active international students’ volunteering community known as “Yang Lei Feng”, whose members are recruited by Wuhan City Corporation to be part of the 2019 World Military Games, Wuhan Marathon, blood donation camps, environmental awareness campaigns, etc. In China it is all about “what students can do for the state and the public” unlike India where students unions are more focused on “what the state should do for welfare of the public”.
Apart from the above characteristics of Chinese education institutions, I find the classes are relatively monotonous in nature. In India our classroom culture is more participatory and interactive; this culture helps students in critical thinking and more logical reasoning about international events. I believe it is this more democratic vibrant Indian classroom culture which has shaped Indian students to be very competitive amidst the international diaspora in China and elsewhere. Unfortunately there is less scope for student interaction and participation in a Chinese classroom. And it is in this sphere that I feel India meets the West in terms of freedom in educational institutions. Despite the fact most Chinese faculty members have studied abroad (such as at Japan, UK and Australia), they strictly adhere to the Chinese classroom culture.
Q3. How does your experience in China till now, shape your perception of the country which stands at crucial crossroads on the international platform, 70 years since the PRC’s founding? Have there been any shifts in perspective and if so, what triggered them?
I was amazed at the rapid development of China while the country simultaneously sustains its civilizational spirit. In the West and in India, we discuss a lot about the Cultural Revolution and its impact on Chinese society and very less is discussed about China’s massive retrieval projects for cultural relics. After coming to China I witnessed the Chinese Government’s emphasis on conservation and preservation of Chinese cultural identity, tangible and non-tangible cultural heritage and inheritances. CPC also promotes domestic tourism through promotion and preservation of cultural heritage. China’s tourism industry accounts over 10% of the country’s total employment and it contributes more than 10% to the country’s GDP surpassing automobile and banking industries.
As part of promotion of culture, China has established 525 Confucius Institutes over the past four decades and organized more than 4000 Chinese cultural events showcasing Chinese acrobatics, Beijing Opera, calligraphy, Thai Chi and martial arts. The National Museum of China in collaboration with Ministry of Culture and Tourism kick-started a month long exhibition titled “China’s achievements in cultural relic retrieval over the past 70 years” showcasing 600 valuable cultural relics and artifacts, which includes 2000-year-old bronze ware retrieved from Japan. China takes pride of the fact that since the birth of People’s Republic of China it has retrieved over 150,000 cultural relics. Many Chinese do feel that with ‘Xi Dada’, as he is popularly known, being at the helm, the cultural confidence among the Chinese is growing.
Another achievement of China which gets no mention in global media is the minority reservation policy in the country’s education system. Like the ST/SC quota in India, China also grants scholarships and reservations for ethnic minorities or nationalities to study in city schools and colleges as part of mainstreaming the non-Hans.
Today, Mainland China is no less international than that of Hong Kong. All the public transports and direction boards are bilingual (English and Mandarin). And Wuhan is home to the second largest international students community in China, the first being Beijing. Wuhan is also home to 100+ colleges and universities, making it the “Haidian District” of Central China. The growing number of Universities and Colleges are signs of the Chinese Dream being translated into reality.
It is true that rapid urbanization since 2012 and 2018 have led to change in consumption pattern or consumer behavior. Today the Chinese consume not only everything American but also Norwegian water, Thai rice, Australian butter, Ukrainian milk, Indian spices, Jamaican coffee, Ceylon tea, German cars and French cosmetics.
China has not only made garments cheaper, it has also made cement and steel cheaper which in-turn facilitates its economic boom. China’s Ansteel Steel Corporation, the first iron and steel company established after the founding of PRC, recently declared a breakthrough innovation in steel industry by manufacturing ultra-high strength steel at low weight. This new innovation is believed to revolutionize automobile industry as it aims to save energy and cut emission. This is one of among the Green Technology initiatives led achievement of China.
One of the biggest achievements in the 70 years since the formation of PRC is lifting millions out of abject poverty and becoming the first developing country to have realized the UN Millennium Development Goal of poverty reduction. A growing concern of the Chinese government is to sustain feeding its population. With respect to climate change and sustainable development Beijing aims to promote potatoes as staple food replacing rice and wheat, as the former requires less water and soil quality. China’s grain consumption is predicted to double its size in next two decades, thus the government in Beijing is of the opinion that grains may not be sustainable in a long run. The Chinese government also opened a photo exhibition at Geneva displaying 70 years of poverty alleviation- a term which the Chinese call as “Pursuing Happiness for the People”. The sense of pride is evident among every Chinese that they are no more a poor state.
The strong statesmanship of Chinese leaders, the vision of the Communist Party, and the commitment of Chinese people are inseparable parts of the China’s 70 years of social construction and human rights achievement. Whether it is possible to realize Xi’s vision of a global community of shared destiny or shared future for mankind, whether the Silk Road spirit will forever linger, and whether the United States of America and China will escape the Thucydides’s trap are some questions to be answered in the future, specifically by 2050.
Q4. How do the Chinese look at Indians in China, especially in the student community?
Indians are respected as partners and competitors rather than weak aid receivers. I did witness how students from certain countries receiving aid are treated by the common man of China. The Chinese perception of these students is influenced by the view that they come from weaker states. On the other hand, I can say with no doubt that Indians are respected based on the fact that we are viewed by Western countries as a developing nation and a rising Asian giant. In other words, many Chinese see the world from the narrow “Western” prism rather than them forming their own opinion.
Fortunately, the renowned Chinese novel of “The Journey to the West (India)” has been taken up in many forms and brought back life to the ancient Buddhist connection between India and China. Movies based on “Sun Wukong” (The Monkey King) have been the top grossing Chinese movies of all-time. My Chinese friend even insists that Sun Wukong is the ‘Hanuman of China’, and many young Chinese revere him as a cultural icon. The top rated animation movie of Mainland China is “Monkey King: Hero is Back”, to which Jackie Chan rendered his voice. Apart from ‘Journey to the West’, many movies produced between 2014 and 2018 have mentions of India. China’s famous comedian Wang Baoqiang produced and acted in a movie titled “Buddies in India” filmed mostly in Rajasthan, India and it had good reception among young Chinese.
(The views expressed are the interviewee’s own.)
(Ms. Asma Masood is Research Officer & Programme Director-Internships, C3S. Email- email@example.com)