China 2012: A Year in Review by Mishi Saran

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During this week, China Briefing is featuring a series of specially-commissioned articles from prominent China-based writers regarding their thoughts on the key developments in the country during 2012, and what lies ahead in 2013. Today’s article is written by Mishi Saran, author of “Chasing the Monk’s Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang” and “The Other Side of Light.” The complete “China 2012: A Year in Review” series can be viewed here.

Dec. 27 – A few months ago, I got an email from a Chinese acquaintance asking me for help. Doctors had diagnosed his friend’s elderly mother with lung cancer; the prescribed medication was known to be reliable, and cheaper if obtained from India.

Naturally, I called my own mother in Delhi, who knew a good pharmacist. The grateful Chinese couple took me out to lunch, though no medicines had yet materialized. We went together to the State Bank of India branch on Huai Hai Road in downtown Shanghai to transfer money to the Delhi pharmacist. Bank staff told me that many Chinese clients send funds to India to pay for such medicines. A day later, the Indian pharmacist confirmed the funds had arrived and a friend who happened to be travelling from Delhi carried the medicine to Shanghai shortly thereafter.

The point is this: Amid the rise and fall of China’s official diplomatic temperature with its various neighbors – in this case India – ordinary Chinese quietly go about the business of living and dying, getting sick, suffering heartbreak or looking for a laugh. They find solutions where they can, whatever the official rhetoric may be.

China and India, Asia’s two colossi, have lived in a state of peace for most of history, their awesome geographical boundaries punctured by Buddhist monks of both regions scurrying back and forth in search of answers to life’s most vexing problem: “Why does humankind suffer and how can we stop it?”

When the two ancient realms became modern nations, a sense of joint Asian euphoria erupted. In Soong Ching-ling’s old Shanghai home, now a museum, there are dozens of black and white photos of her travels overseas – meeting leaders of India, of Sri Lanka. There is an approachability and warmth in her interactions visible even in the museum pictures. A further India image: Soong Ching-ling, all cheekbones and quiet glamour, standing by a toothily beaming Jawaharlal Nehru. It was a long trip for the Chinese delegation, from mid-December 1955, to early January 1956. They thought it was worth their time.

The Dalai Lama had yet to flee Tibet into India – that happened in 1959. The worst was yet to come: The 1962 India-China border war that reverberates an astounding 50 years later, though more in India’s humiliated psyche than in China’s glancing victory.

Shyam Saran (no relation) is one of India’s canniest and most experienced diplomats. He delivered a brilliant keynote speech in New Delhi in August 2012, sketching out China and India’s tangled relationship.

“Currently, there are two strands in Chinese perceptions about India. There are strong, lingering attitudes that dismiss India’s claim as a credible power and regard its great power aspirations as ‘arrogance’ and as being an unrealistic pretension.”

Indeed, when India fired its test ballistic missile Agni V in April 2012, Indian media’s blanket coverage triumphantly paraded the nation’s “China killer.” Chinese media also widely covered the event, but in ways that ranged from condescension to outright mockery.

“The other strand,” Saran continued during his speech, “also visible in scholarly writings and in the series of leadership summits that have taken place at regular intervals, is recognition that India’s economic, military and scientific and technological capabilities are on the rise, even if they do not match China. India is valued as an attractive market for Chinese products at a time when traditional markets in the West are flat. China is also respectful of India’s role in multilateral fora, where on several global issues Indian interests converge with China.”

Saran has worked personally and fruitfully with Chinese colleagues at the United Nations Climate Change negotiations and said that Indian trade negotiators found China a valuable ally in WTO discussions.

If China’s cultural memory has shrugged off the 1962 India-China border war, an earlier trauma – Japan’s invasion of China that began in 1931 – lives on as a festering, untreated ulcer that flares up at any provocation.

China’s grandmothers still tell their descendents stories – e.g. of Japanese soldiers bursting into the family house in Harbin and shooting the pet dogs for meat. On a hypothetical scale measuring the violence that unfolded in China between 1931 and 1945, shooting dogs ranks as mild. It would not be an exaggeration to say that most households along China’s eastern seaboard have lost someone, or know of someone who suffered at the hands of the Japanese.

When on September 10, 2012, Japan announced it would purchase the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, also claimed by China, the anger that erupted across China was partly rooted in a fear of Japanese domestic politics run amok: It’s happened before.

Japan could not have been insensible to the timing. It was just a week before the anniversary of September 18, 1931 – a date engraved in blood on China’s forehead, for it marks the moment when an ambitious Japanese army stationed on North China soil, in Manchuria, broke free of Tokyo’s Foreign Ministry and engineered an excuse to attack the most significant Chinese barracks in that region. Immediately, China’s popular boycott of Japanese goods spread and anti-foreign sentiment exploded. On January 28, 1932, Shanghai’s British-dominated Municipal Council deployed troops and declared a state of emergency.

In September 2012, in addition to the familiar boycotts – which have crippled local Japanese automotive and automotive parts’ industries – fearful rumors of an aggressive Japanese-created computer virus scorched through China’s cyberspace. Thousands of Chinese also cancelled national holiday trips to Japan. The similarities in tone and sometimes in action to the 1930s were unmistakable.

This issue will continue to simmer, certainly until (and perhaps beyond) a formal and adequate apology from Japan ensues.

Such historical baggage is just one of the problems that China’s new and little-known President Xi Jinping inherits from his predecessors.

The world may be obsessed with decoding the political bent of Xi, but it should keep a sharper eye on the growing number of Chinese travellers leaving the country (many for the first time) to go see how the rest of the world lives.

Pundits expect the number of China’s outbound tourists in 2012 will surpass the 80 million mark. Ten years ago, a mere 16.6 million Chinese left the country. Furthermore, present-day travelers will spend an estimated US$80 billion. That’s a bit like the entire population of Germany packing its bags and setting off to spend the equivalent of say, Oman’s 2011 GDP.

For an older Chinese generation that has lived through years of numbing Communist rhetoric and endless political meetings, crossing the border can be a personal therapy.

One elderly Chinese woman described to me her recent trip to Taiwan: “I just wandered the streets to look at people. I wanted to see Capitalism for myself.”

Taiwan was impressive, she concluded. It was clean, and you could buy seafood at a local market without fear of it being tainted with polluted chemicals. Businesses could lose their license if they sold fake goods. She was most moved by the passion the tour guides brought to their daily rundown of the Taiwan story. All of which was unlike China, she implied. Still, the knowledge seemed to bring her peace, and you can’t fool all the people all the time.

Luckily Xi Jinping himself is a keen traveler; Xinhua says that over the past five years, he’s been to 40 countries and regions. That’s an impressive average of a trip every six weeks or so, for five years. He should be the first to understand if his people roam the world and come home with some fresh perspectives in their luggage.

After the Indian medicine reached the cancer patient in Shanghai, the elderly woman’s son-in-law dropped in to my home, along with another relative. They were armed with bags of presents. We sipped tea and didn’t say much. With the poetry that infuses the Chinese language, nonchalant and heart-stopping, the son-in-law said softly: “Xue li song tan (雪里送炭),” meaning “In the midst of a snow drift, heat was delivered.”

Which is what neighboring nations should do for each other.

Ms. Mishi Saran was born in India. Her first China stint was spent as a language student in Beijing in 1988-89 and she has been living in Shanghai since 2006. She is the author of the travel book-cum-memoir “Chasing the Monk’s Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang.” To research the book, she spent a year tracing the footsteps of Xuanzang, a 7th Century Chinese Buddhist monk who travelled along the Silk Road from China to India. Her first novel, “The Other Side of Light” was published in June 2012, and she is currently working on her third book, also a novel, set in Shanghai in the 1930s.

One response to “China 2012: A Year in Review by Mishi Saran”

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