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Event Report: Lecture-Discussion on ‘The View from China’

C3S Paper No. 0124/2016

A lecture-discussion on ‘The View from China’ was held by the Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) on August 8 2016. Dr. Indira Ravindran, a Shanghai-based academic, presented her views and engaged in a discussion with distinguished members and staff of the Centre. Cmde. R. S. Vasan, Director, C3S moderated the session.

Dr. Indira P. Ravindran was welcomed as a new member of C3S. She was introduced to the gathering:

Dr. Indira is a faculty member of School of International Relations and Public Affair (SIRPA) of Shanghai International Studies University (SISU).  She teaches undergraduate and postgraduate courses in: International Relations theory and practice; International Political Economy; and China-India Politics & Diplomacy. Dr. Indira also serves as Adjunct Professor for Webster University (China Program), specializing in courses related to US Foreign Policy.  Indira has lived in China since 2007.  She graduated from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA, with a Ph.D. in Political Science.

Dr. Indira will be contributing articles to C3S, while reflecting on her first-hand insights from China. B. S Raghavan, Patron, C3S asserted that she will be a valuable asset to C3S, given her contemporary outlook and fresh perspectives, as she deals with students in China.

Dr Indira talk 1

According to Dr. Indira, C3S is a valuable resource in itself, as it presents alternative views, unlike the other Delhi-centric institutions, which always have an unwavering viewpoint. She shared her experiences as an Indian-born, American-educated person teaching in a Chinese government university. This is significant, as the university trains several party cadres and future leaders.

Although there is not yet an active civil society in China, the academic sphere is quite welcoming to foreigners, and is relatively open and free. However limited access to the internet is a severe impediment. Another impediment is the difficulty of accessing English language material. Academics are expected to give world-class results under somewhat restrictive conditions.

The majority of Indira’s Chinese students aim at going to the U.S, or U.K. to study and to work.  For this reason, law and political science are attractive streams. Despite the Chinese government’s tense relations with U.S.A, China’s citizens look forward to moving to America or Australia, the latter for its ease of entry and pollution-free air.

The Chinese are observed to give most importance to the U.S.A, Japan, E.U and Russia. Africa is considered important by the Chinese for business interests, and Brazil for commodities. However, they do not deem India significant, at least not to the extent that we’d like. While both Indian and Chinese governments are mature and deal with each other to increase trade and tourism flow, it is not the same on the people-people front. The main factor is mutual misperception (or one could even call it ignorance) about the material realities in each other’s society. The Chinese do admire India’s I.T, yoga, Bollywood and Buddhist legacy, but their overall perception of India is that it is messy, backward and superstitious. The last factor is especially ironical given the Chinese’ own superstitions. Nevertheless, Rabindranath Tagore’s works remain popular in China even today

While communism has brought certain benefits to China, such as gender empowerment, rationalism, etc., it is unable to change China’s deep mindset as a traditional Asian society.  One interesting trend is that several people appear to face something akin to a spiritual vacuum, and are openly seeking meaningful spiritual activities. They also appear to be conscious of the inbuilt spirituality of Indians. It is profoundly stated in the words of Dr. Indira’s students: “India has a living culture.”

Overall, there is great potential for both countries to make more favorable mutual impression on each other. However, there are challenges. One such challenge, is the minuscule scale of people-to-people interaction. Estimates of the numbers of Indians in China, for instance, vary from 20,000-30,000, including the medical students. This is a dismal figure, as the two countries’ combined population amounts to 2.5 billion.

A second drawback is that there is no exclusive ‘Indian studies’ center in China. Indian studies are a part of a broader South Asian focus.  Shanghai’s Fudan University  has an Institute of Gandhian Studies, but very little is being done. This is surprising, as next to Russia, India is China’s biggest and most vital neighbour.  It is indeed perplexing that the Chinese have not invested in understanding our political / social systems. They are amazed to hear that Indian women have progressed considerably, and are even powerful leaders. They also miss out on a crucial factor- that India is aware of its problems and is working on them.

A third, and quite serious challenge is the utter lack of mutual trust between the media establishments of the two countries.  A study done by Dr. Indira and her colleagues showed that the Chinese hold very negative perceptions of India, as seen in their online search patterns. Online searches about India, in the Chinese internet realm, bring up only dated material- about caste system, gender, colonialism, etc. There is very little about contemporary India, Indian values, Indian youth and what they want.  In this sense, Chinese media is quite manipulative in terms of what they choose to report on India.  Likewise, Indian media reporting of China is frequently ominous and negative.

All things considered, academia can lead the way in updating and correcting Chinese awareness of India, and vice-versa. The focus in Indian academia, for instance, is on security and trade issues with China. This needs to be expanded to other areas of concern such as contemporary culture and society.  For instance, most Indians appear to think that China is “one people, one language”. In reality, the languages and regional cultures in China are incredibly diverse, as are the political and social belief systems.

Again, many Indians, and indeed many people around the world fail to understand that for ordinary Chinese, the most profound concern is not global domination, but their children’s education. There are some changes taking place in China. These are in the areas of their education system, pollution, food safety, public corruption and upward mobility. China must contend with looming social problems in the coming decades (ageing society, missing girl child, “left-behind children” of migrant workers, rampant, overbuilt ‘development’ projects that have disrupted communities… and so on and so forth). Moreover, China needs to upgrade its Intellectual Property Law if it desires to be world class. Quality must improve and for this retraining is necessary.

Dr Indira talk 2

Dr. Indira suggests that it is worth investing in studying and observing these trends.  She also estimates that despite the long litany of social complaints and problems, the Chinese will support their communist government. This is because Confucian thought upholds social stability to be paramount; and the Party guarantees this – after a tumultuous century and a half.

Whereas earlier there was a policy of “lie low and bide your time” and “speak softly but carry a big stick”, now China is more openly assertive and flamboyant in the Asian region and beyond, a tendency which has caused anxiety for India.

Nevertheless, India continues to maintain good relations with China since PM Rajiv Gandhi’s historic visit in December 1988.  There is great continuity in policy, no matter which party is at the helm.  PM Modi’s visit was a great success, and has resulted in more investments. The border is also stable and secure. India is also keeping its options open in terms of other countries.

Dr. Indira concluded by stating that there is a need for academic and general awareness of India in China. Similarly, India must expand its study of China and not limit it to the defence/ security realm, as pressing as this might seem. There is much work to be done on both sides, and C3S has its job cut out for the long term.

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

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