How India can connect with ‘young’ China

Utkarsh Rai | Updated on June 26, 2020

India’s democratic freedoms appeal to the Chinese youth, which is more ambitious and openly critical of its leaders

The famous Chinese classical work Journey to the West ( where “West” refers to India), written during the Ming dynasty, continues to be a hugely popular piece of literature. It describes Hiuen Tsang’s visit to India in the early Seventh Century. This story is well known in China, and for the Chinese people this is the most popular way to connect with India.

My first interaction with anyone from China was in 1995 in the San Francisco Bay area. Tech revolution had just begun. A new colleague, who was of Chinese descent, commented: “You know IC is not Integrated Circuit, it is actually India-China. You will dominate software and we will dominate hardware, and this is how we will rule the tech industry.” I was surprised by her over-enthusiasm. India had just opened up its economy and the optimism about India’s future was more palpable in the external world than in India itself.

My first visit to China happened more than a decade later in 2009. I visited Beijing where we were setting up our new office. The hired team had trouble with the English language. However, just like any other Asian culture, long hours of hard work and subservience to authority were visible. We visited Xi’an, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Xi’an used to be the ancient capital of the Middle Kingdom. The famous ‘Wild Goose Pagoda’ was built here by Hiuen Tsang upon his return from India; a museum there has original manuscripts in Sanskrit brought by him.

At that time I wrote the following in my travel diary “A strong central government in China, acts fast and is capable of changing the direction of the country in no time. They missed being a superpower in the early 16th Century, when a strong Chinese Navy was suddenly dismantled paving the way for the European dominance and colonisation of the globe thereafter. This time, they appear to have a strong desire to grab the tag of the most powerful nation on the earth at any cost.”

Change in mindset

Fast forward to 2016, and the Beijing office had a different feel. New hires in the last few years spoke flawless English and were confident and ambitious due to their upbringing in the economic growth era. They asked tough questions about the company’s vision and their future. There was a clear divide in the workplace: old versus young, Mandarin versus English, submissive versus aggressive. Interactions with the locals were open and free-flowing, unlike in the past, when they stayed away from any political or controversial discussions. There was a visible social change.

Talking about his teenaged daughter, someone said: “My daughter keeps questioning the government rules regarding our mandatory attendance at certain events. She strongly feels about personal freedom of citizens. It is difficult to deal with such situations as we are conditioned to follow the government orders without questioning.” Another person commented on the rising corruption.

A decade ago, everyone had almost equal status in Communist China, but now people are finding that neighbours who have ordinary government jobs are building bigger houses, buying luxury cars and goods. There was an undercurrent of frustration as a classless society suddenly started to witness class differences, and people were vocal about it.

Current scenario

By 2017, there was a firm mindset that China is a superpower and India is a rising power — but not a threat to China. But Doklam proved antithesis to this belief. One person summed it up well: “(We’ve) never heard that China and India had any problem. Most of our challenges are with the countries in the East. If the Chinese army is so strong then why couldn’t they beat India? Modi is considered a very strong leader in China.”

This ‘superpower intoxication’ among the young people ran into a massive roadblock during Covid-19 times. The Chinese economy started to spiral downwards, unlike anything this generation has ever seen before. This generation’s desire for global dominance is in limbo as the world blames China for the global virus outbreak.

This new generation of Chinese has now put the government on trial and, therefore, Ladakh is one among many shows of muscularity by the Communist government to win their trust back.

This new generation is enraged by their government’s secrecy on Galwan and other such incidents. They think logically, expect transparency and are asking for more individual freedom, with access to free-flowing information. India’s noisy democracy provides all this. Once again, India can use its soft power to connect with the Chinese as it did way back during Hieun Tsang’s time through scriptures and knowledge.

The writer is a leadership coach and the former India and China head of an IT MNC

Published on June 27, 2020

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