10 February 2017

Small-town India is waking up to China, but there's still little understanding of its ways

India’s academic expertise on China is limited to a few think-tanks and few universities.

A professor at the Chhatrapati Shivaji night college in Maharashtra’s Solapur city, where hundreds of part-time workers and farmers study from 5 pm to 10 pm, has a new PhD candidate – a high school teacher who juggles a second job teaching in the night college. They are preparing to tackle a rather unfamiliar topic: China.

Chinese investors and officials are panning across India’s interiors in search of smart-city and infrastructure investments, from Pune and Indore to small town Chakan in Pune, where officials and entrepreneurs may have no first-hand experience in dealing with China until recently and no local experts to advise them. India’s academic expertise on China, its largest trading partner, is limited to an inner circle of small think-tanks in Delhi and certain universities in West Bengal and South India.

“A major investment in China studies is no longer a luxury but a necessity,’’ said Alka Acharya, director of the Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies. “We need to train more people beyond the metros who will directly face Chinese presence in job and economic opportunities and social engagement. China is still a black hole as far as our understanding of Chinese society, culture and politics goes.” At its annual China conference in Mumbai last month, the institute, for the first time, included a Marathi session to encourage professors in Maharashtra to look east. Responses came from unexpected places: Amravati, Parbhani, Solapur.

Going beyond distrust

As public views echo the tensions in the strategic relationship, dealing with China is more complex than working with any other East Asian investor from Japan or South Korea. Chinese foreign direct investment into India was $1.2 billion in 2000-2015 and is growing towards $2 billion-plus. Bilateral trade hovers around $70 billion. But only 31% of Indians and 26% of Chinese have a favourable view of each other, according to last year’s Pew Research Centre findings.

Academic conferences on China have spread beyond metros to universities in the south and Northeast but analysts say that the number of newcomers entering the niche field for long-term research remains negligible. Research centres don’t have the capacity to generate a nationwide network of scholars. The Institute of Chinese Studies, one of India’s oldest research institutes on the subject, consists of a seven-member core team. The Centre for East Asian Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi annually enrols about 15 PhD candidates from India and East Asia, including China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and currently has 19 MPhil/PhD candidates from China. Mumbai University plans to launch a centre for China studies next year.

“We seem to have one dominant narrative that China can’t be trusted,’’ said Acharya. “That’s just one part of it. We also need to develop a more nuanced understanding of the China challenge.”

Solapur has a low level of awareness of China, say certain members of its academic community, though the city bonds with Beijing as the hometown of Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis, who died in 1942 on a dangerous medical mission to that country during the Sino-Japanese war. China last year offered drought aid to Solapur and showed interest in collaborating in its smart city plans. Though the border dispute, and moves to boycott Chinese goods in response to the country’s friendship with Pakistan dominate perceptions, there is a growing interest in promoting mutual benefit, especially at the local level.

“As a patriotic person, I thought China was an enemy, because of the 1962 war,’’ said Shriniwas Bhandare, high school teacher and PhD candidate. “But as I started studying Sino-Indian relations, I realised the need to shift focus to economic relations for mutual benefit. So, I want to contribute research in this field’’.

Bhandare’s PhD guide, Mohan Chougule, heads the politics department at the night college in Solapur. In December, he interacted with Chinese citizens for the first time, at the conference in Mumbai where he presented his first paper in Marathi on Sino-Indian ties. “My interest in China was sparked in 2012 when I went to Sri Lanka and observed that the Chinese influence there surpassed India’s,’’ said Chougule. He is preparing a proposal for funds from the University Grants Commission to organise academic events on China at the college, because he believes in preparing for the potential of job creation from Sino-Indian cooperation in projects such as Make in India.

China’s India story

Chinese cities are more “systematically and methodically” building up South Asia studies, said Acharya. Provincial-level officials, entrepreneurs and investors approach university experts for business consultancy regarding India. Beijing routinely consults state-funded university think-tanks for foreign policy inputs. The rising India-China rivalry in the great Asian game has driven Chinese universities to build up small-scale India studies programmes. Centres for India or Hindi and Indian language studies are based in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Jinan and Guangdong. Chinese research scholars coming to India are focussed on gaining insight on specific topics such as caste politics, state economies, cultural and business linkages and the media.

“My teachers told me to focus on Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar,’’ said a visiting scholar from Beijing, requesting anonymity. Insecure about visas, Chinese visitors and expatriates are reluctant to speak to the media, even after Delhi announced e-visas for tourists from the country and tried to ease conference visa procedures. Securing a visa can take up to six months, said a visiting Chinese scholar. Visa apprehensions are resurfacing among scholars on both sides since India in July refused to renew the visas of three Chinese journalists who reportedly withheld their identities on a tour of Tibetan settlements in South India last year.

The Chinese embassy in India in 2015 estimated that one out of five Indians going abroad annually visited China, compared to one out of 600 Chinese outbound foreign travellers coming to India, with about nine lakh visits (including 1.5 lakh Chinese visits) between both sides. Acharya reckoned that interactions at the Institute of Chinese Studies with visiting delegations from China have grown 500% in the last three years. Language barriers, however, constrain interactions when Chinese business groups explore sites. Opportunities for dialogue need to reach out simultaneously to both academic and business communities, and reach small towns and cities. Indian diplomatic missions in China, for example, have taken outreach programmes about doing business in India to small towns and cities that attract Indian trade, investment and diaspora.

“Though there is a move to provide incentives for China studies outside Delhi, it’s still Delhi-centric,’’ said Srikanth Kondapalli, chairperson of the Centre for East Asian Studies. “But interest in the field is indeed growing.” He suggested that universities interested in China studies apply for funding from the University Grants Commission for “area programmes” that tend to be under-utilised.

At the Walchand College of Arts and Science in Solapur, political science professor Neela Sangameshwar wrote his first paper on Sino-Indian economic relations for the conference of the Institute of Chinese Studies. Sangameshwar observed low interest in Chinese politics in Solapur’s academic community, but a growing interest in Chinese culture and the “business point of view’.

Reshma Patil is the author of the non-fiction book Strangers across the Border: Indian Encounters in Boomtown China

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