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Two rising powers and an awareness gap

Wednesday 15 November 2006, by AIYAR*Pallavi

India and China should take steps to bridge the knowledge deficit that exists on both sides of the border to realise the true potential of their relationship.

IN RECENT months, academic and political circles in Beijing have carefully begun to monitor India’s "rise," assessing consequent implications for China. High-level conferences focussing on the competitive advantages of the two neighbours, both among the world’s fastest growing economies, have become commonplace. Underscoring this growing awareness of India, Chinese President Hu Jintao will be making his maiden visit to New Delhi beginning on November 20, the second visit to India by a top Chinese leader in a year and a half.

The question is whether any of this newfound interest in India has seeped down amongst the laobaixing, a Chinese term that literally means "the old hundred names" and that refers to the average person on the street.

Following the 1962 border war, information about India in China became virtually non-existent. With no direct flights for over 30 years and an absence of any significant trade and investment, frosty political ties meant that Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai morphed into Hindi Chini Bye-Bye. Despite a shared border stretching thousands of kilometres and a history of civilisational interaction going back into the mists of time, the average Chinese person knew more about the United States all the way across the Pacific Ocean, than India, a close neighbour.

For years the primary source of information about India in China came from a handful of Hindi films, particularly Awaara, Do Bigha Zameen, and later Caravan and Noorie that became huge hits. Thus, when this correspondent first moved to China four years ago she was often treated to spontaneous renditions of Awaara Hoon upon revealing her nationality.

Among the laobaixing, India seemed mainly associated with the dancing and singing of Bollywood films; the beauty of Indian actors, in particular their large eyes; and for some with Buddhism. Almost all Chinese were aware that Buddhism travelled from India to China, but the majority mistakenly believed that India was a Buddhist country.

With much water having flowed under the Ganga and the Yangtse since my early days in Beijing, I decided to spend a day visiting different parts of the city, speaking with a cross-section of people about India. My purpose was to try and gauge what if anything had changed in the laobaixing’s perception of their southern neighbour in the intervening years.

I began my explorations in the hutongs north of the Forbidden City. The hutongs are crumbling, narrow alleyways, some of which date back to the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), charming remnants of historic Beijing. I met Old Yang, a bicycle repairman, who had lived most of his life in Ju’er (Chrysanthemum) hutong. His face was smeared with grease and silver fillings peaked through his smile.

"Actually, I know very little about India," he said diffidently, "perhaps you should ask someone else." I insisted he tell me whatever little he did know, even if it was meagre, expecting at least a few nostalgic references to Awaara. "Well then," he sighed and scratched his head. "I believe your telecom market is very advanced."

I blinked. "Telecom?" I reconfirmed that I had heard right. "Yes, it’s largely privatised and no longer controlled by the government and so you have some of the lowest mobile phone rates in the world. That’s really cool," said the septuagenarian approvingly.

Things really had changed, I thought to myself as I thanked Old Yang and approached an old woman buying cabbages from a street vendor. She waved me away mumbling in dentureless incoherence something about Indians being very nice people just like the Chinese, but patently uninterested in going into details. I then happened upon a young TV producer, who was out and about shooting a candid camera-type programme in the hutongs. He agreed to be interviewed about India if I agreed to be interviewed about China and thus an amicable deal was struck.

"India?" he said thoughtfully. "Well, I think India has a lot of delicious food, specially curry!" Had he eaten in many Indian restaurants, I asked. He replied, a bit embarrassed, that he had never been to an Indian restaurant and in fact never tried any Indian food but his friends had told him it was good.

Even if he hadn’t eaten Indian food could he tell me what he knew about the current state of Sino-Indian relations? "I think India and China are both countries that are developing quickly and that our relationship is good," he recited. Then, once again looking a bit downcast, muttered, "Err... , actually I really know very, very little about India."

Stereotyped images

And so it went. Old Yang’s knowledge of telecom had given me false hope, but as interview after interview revealed few people knew anything more today than four years ago. Once again I heard about Awaara, once again about beautiful Indian women and their large eyes and once again about how India was a Buddhist country.

One Muslim restaurant owner from Xinjiang talked about Islam in India, another retired gent whom I interrupted painting a street scene, proved knowledgeable about the caste system and the theory of karma.

A few giggly girl students said they felt India was a "land of mystery." A young entrepreneur in a smart neighbourhood said India made him think of "snakes and elephants." "Oh, and your software industry is really good too," he added before hurrying off. Software coming in third after snakes and elephants was a bit disheartening.

Another graduate student in her early 20s talked about software at length, but added, "Your infrastructure is poor and cities quite dirty." Ouch!

Only one out of some 20 persons I spoke to was aware that Mr. Hu Jintao would be visiting India soon.

This ignorance extended back to history, especially among the younger of my interviewees, and none of the students I queried knew anything about the 1962 war.

One young man responded: "I know about the China-Vietnam war but not the India-China war. Maybe at that time we felt India was too close to England and maybe we didn’t like that. That must have been the reason for any war."

An aspiring actor at the Central Drama Academy replied, "Sino-India war? Hmmm. I don’t know about it because I only know about peaceful things." An answer that would have done any beauty contest contender proud!

One older man we found sitting outside a posh shopping mall who turned out to be a former PLA (People’s Liberation Army) soldier, excitedly went into the details of 1962 which he believed had to do with Tibet.

"But it’s no longer a problem," he smiled. "Now we are secure about Tibet and India is our good friend."

The last person I interviewed was a tourist guide. In fluent English she summed up what the majority of the laobaixing I spoke to had expressed. "I believe India and China can have a beautiful and bright future," she said, flashing a coquettish smile.

A laudable sentiment, but one that takes little account of the difficult road ahead that must be traversed in order to realise the "bright future" seemingly desired by the average person in Beijing.

Taking steps to alleviate the obvious knowledge deficit that continues to exist on both sides of the border would be a significant step along this road.

See online : The Hindu

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