China watchers are on the rise in India – from government officials to academics to the general public

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IIndian watchers of China have gone from admiration for the country’s rapid economic growth to moderating interest. They are now focusing on understanding China’s political and social evolution, what young Chinese people are discussing, and what it all means for India’s future.

Beyond veteran Chinese watchers such as Shivshankar Menon, Nirupama Rao, Vijay Gokhale, Brahma Chellaney and Kavalam Madhava Panikkar before them, there are now Chinese “onlookers” debating the latest developments in the neighboring country on hourly television. great listening. And the bureaucrats who have to deal with “Chinese affairs”, directly or indirectly, realize what it means to be linked to the new international environment in which Beijing plays a leading role.

“I want to develop a ‘Chinese profile’ because it can help my career in the future,” an Indian government official told me on condition of anonymity. This marks a shift from Pakistan as a target country for Indian bureaucrats.

The significance of this new laser focus on China can be gauged by the country’s importance to India’s foreign affairs. India’s new ambassador to the UK, Vikram Doraiswami, is from China and speaks Mandarin Chinese. But the diplomatic core rarely talks about the change, except perhaps off the record or through books.


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Newcomers and “gawkers”

What is unique about the current situation is that the sighting of China has captured the imagination of the general public in India.

A subset of those who have started paying attention to China, due to the recent border standoff, are open source enthusiasts. Finding clues to changing satellite imagery while going to social media to research what Chinese state media said about the border dispute has become a full-time occupation for many.

Television stations have followed suit, offering specialized programs on the Chinese military, the evolution of society and relations with Taiwan – which are somewhat hit and miss. TV stations rely on overseas Chinese and Western experts to fill the void, which can lead to its own pitfalls.

Jennifer Zeng, a Chinese immigrant based in the United States, is one such YouTuber that many follow in India. But she’s been known to exaggerate her claims to gain traction and grow her audience. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, overseas Chinese media such as period time has enchanted many Indians with theories about the origins of the coronavirus.

In recent years, we have seen a new generation of correspondents in China, including Pallavi Iyer, Ananth Krishnan and others investing their careers in reporting from Beijing. But we have some handicaps.

Unlike journalists in the United States and Europe, we still struggle to obtain journalist visas to report from Beijing or Taipei. Reporters from US and European news agencies have themselves taken refuge in Taipei and Seoul as reporting from China has become difficult, even dangerous.

A group of Indian journalists have been granted special access to Taiwan as the island nation remains closed to travellers. Taiwan, with its own unique expertise, can offer Indian journalists the opportunity to observe mainland politics up close – but this has its own limitations. It’s a good start. As India’s status rises, things will change.

The proliferation of newsletters explaining developments in China has become a staple in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. The trend is only accelerating in India as well. Property of ThePrint Chinescope is one such effort, among other newsletters that hope to inform Indians about the PLA, Chinese elite politics and Chinese society.


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The first enthusiasts

India’s expertise on China evolved by reading what American and British experts wrote about the country in the early 20th century.

At the turn of the century, China’s rising status in international affairs caught the attention of Indian diplomats and the strategic community. For a very long time, China observation has been a subject followed by diplomats, academics and experts in strategic studies. A focus on security has always been a mainstay for veteran China watchers in India. But the engagement goes back a long way.

Kavalam Madhava Panikkar was an Indian diplomat who lived under both Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist China and Communist New China.

“But I soon discovered that [the] The Chinese were eager to get to know India. They were in two minds. Instinctively, they recognized that India was their friend; but as communists they could only think of India as a capitalist country, and by all the textbook maxims it seemed clear that India must be reactionary and belong to the opposite camp,” K. M. Panikkar wrote in his memoirs. In Two Chinas: Memoirs of a Diplomat.

At the time, Panikkar relied on his new knowledge and Chinese newspapers to find out how China was changing.

“The cartoons, the paintings on the walls, the articles in the newspapers were all now directed against ‘aggressive American forces in Korea’. The American campaign to gain international support for their action in Asia was also the subject of many sarcastic comments,” Panikkar wrote in his memoir.

Panikkar was doing what many China watchers still do, gleaning the newspapers for an inside reflection on Zhongnanhai. Panikkar used Wade Giles spellings such as “Beijing” and “Mao Tse-tung” in his memoirs.

Panikar belonged to the time when Chinese observers of India had no qualms about using the Wade Giles system – the romanization of Chinese words to aid in their pronunciation – for Chinese names. Although the spelling of Wade Giles may still persist among older Chinese observers, including Subramanian Swamy, newer Chinese observers adopted the Pinyin system like the rest of the world.


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A lesser-known twist and a caveat

Apart from the media, things are also changing in the Indian academic space.

India’s historic bastion of Chinese studies and left-wing politics, Jawaharlal Nehru University strives to navigate its way through Xi Jinping’s new politics.

Kavita Krishnan’s resignation from the CPI(ML) as well as her recent statement on Soviet atrocities and the current Chinese government illustrate the debate within Indian leftist politics over the current international geopolitical environment – a reset may be underway . A proliferation of new institutions and think tanks is underway to address the glaring lack of balance between the development of area studies expertise informed by the drivers of transformation in the international environment.

The Chinese watch community in India is thriving for the first time. But we may want to remove the veneer of superficial expertise by examining the internal drivers of change in Chinese society and politics. Internal drivers will decide how China evolves and where India stands along the way.

The author is a freelance columnist and journalist. He is currently pursuing an MA in International Politics with a focus on China at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a Chinese media reporter at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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