"The prospects of the 21st century becoming the Asian century will depend in large measure on what India and China achieve individually and what we do together"- Narendra Modi
"The visit was a success. This reaction in the universities and the kind of warmth with which Modi was welcomed are an indication" - Ren Xiao, Fudan University
On May 22, India will have unleashed its most potent weapon on China. Aamir Khan's PK will be released in over 3,500 movie halls across the country, which is just what Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered while addressing students in Beijing's Tsinghua University. He wanted a creative solution to issues that had become irritants. “Sometimes, small steps can have a deep impact on how our people see each other,” he said. Aamir Khan beat Modi to China by a day. And Baoqiang Wang, the Chinese star who dubbed for the movie, is a foot soldier in this process.
Symbolism is huge in China. It was, therefore, fitting that the beginning of Modi’s three-day visit was steeped in it, in a way the 1970s Hindi movies were. The day was grey and rainswept. The Wild Goose Pagoda was the perfect place to meet President Xi Jinping. It is his home town, although he hadn’t come here in a while. Rain, too, is considered a good omen in China. As a Chinese official pointed out, “It symbolises growth and well-being.”
Modi started his visit at the same place as Xuanzang started his journey to India. Centuries later, even with the onslaught of technology, globalisation, a war and many years of peace, the two countries are no closer in understanding each other than when Xuanzang walked across.
Indian food, which has conquered the west, is still nowhere on the Chinese culinary landscape. Bukhara, an Indian restaurant in Shanghai, has largely desi customers. Arnab, an Indian student at Tsinghua University, who has been in China for five years, says most Chinese have not even heard of the Taj Mahal. And students who were handpicked for the Modi event would not mind admitting their preference for Europe over India.
Bollywood, however, has made it through the Great Wall in a way that years of diplomacy could not. Many Chinese download Indian films. There is a market for Hindi films in China. Yet, this has remained untapped. The biggest hurdle, of course, is mistrust. Modi has acknowledged this publicly many times. “Standing still is not an option,” he said. “The prospects of the 21st century becoming the Asian century will depend in large measure on what India and China achieve individually and what we do together,'' he said.
But some of his diplomats continue to rely on the Indian Council of Cultural Relations, which means giving preference to artists and not Bollywood stars. “The Chinese want garish,’’ said an Indian official. “They want big. But we don’t have the budgets.” There have been out-of-the-box ideas, but most have failed. Actor John Abraham was to come once. But he failed to turn up at the last minute, although 500 Chinese had turned up.
The Chinese have a new strategy for India, which was quite evident from the hero’s welcome arranged for Modi. When comments on his new Weibo account started getting critical, the authorities clamped down. A question to Modi, which was to be asked by a student from Tsinghua University, was dropped at the last minute as it was felt that it would have been a little controversial. The crowds to see Modi were chosen with care. An academic who wrote a less than complimentary piece about India in the Global Times on the eve of Modi's visit was likely to face the consequences, said a source.
Modi's visit was covered as breathlessly by the Chinese media as it was by the Indians. “The visit was a success,’’ said Ren Xiao of Fudan University. “This reaction in the universities and the kind of warmth with which he was welcomed are an indication.” Yoga, tai chi and e-visas will be the tools for better relationship in future. It was a win for “soft diplomacy”.
China's biggest strength is money. The trillion-dollar reserves aside, there are the hundreds of Chinese billionaires, who shop at mammoth outlets of luxury brands that dot the broad streets of Shanghai’s shopping district. Hollywood movies do big business in China. Every taxi in China has trailers of the newest release playing on the tiny touchscreen that beams out ads for beauty products and films.
Over the years, China has woken up to the power of cultural diplomacy. Mandarin has already become the language of power. About 1,000 Confucius Institutes are coming up across the world to promote Chinese language and culture. There is CCTV, the state television channel that beams everything from news to soaps. The right accent, the right anchors and the right story, wrapped with a generous dose of culture has become the way to spread an idea, a message and an image. In the words of Chairman Mao, “There is, in fact, no such thing as art for art's sake, art that stands above classes and art that is detached from or independent of politics.”
Cultural diplomacy has become an integral part of the Chinese foreign policy. “In the 1970s, there was Mao and there was Deng Xiaoping where the focus was on economy, manufacturing and entering into the global world. Now that they feel that they have become a mature economy, they are conscious about their place in history, the future and their image,’’ says Indira P. Ravindran, an assistant professor at Shanghai International Studies University.
Even more ambitious are the Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road projects with which China hopes to use shared history and culture to forge connections in economy, infrastructure and trade. It will also help avoid the Strait of Hormuz in the Middle East that the Americans control. So far, there is no estimate about how much money China will pump into the projects. If the smart city programme is Modi’s pet project, Xi has put his weight behind the One Belt, One Road initiative. “The whole country will be mobilised behind it,’’ says Ravindran.
The year 2015 is being observed as Visit India Year in China. Modi has asked the Indian community in China to send at least five Chinese each to India. But with language and food proving to be major barriers, will it change anything? On the diplomatic front, Modi’s selfie diplomacy may be what the Indian officials have been looking for. His picture with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang got 20 million hits in an hour. One Chinese netizen even wanted to know whose phone was used. “If this continues, it is a really powerful tool,’’ says a diplomat.