WHEN I FIRST MOVED to China in 2002, there was one Indian journalist who worked for the government newswire, PTI, based in Beijing. At the time, India-China trade stood at $5 billion and there were no direct flights between the two countries. I used to have to take Ethiopian Airlines from Beijing to Addis Ababa with a stopover in Delhi, in order to visit home.
Twenty-one years later, bilateral trade stands at about $136 billion and connectivity has greatly improved. Cross-border relations are more fragile and flammable than ever. And these have global implications so that the world’s eyes are on them. But the number of Indian journalists on the ground in China is back to one gentleman who works for PTI. In some ways, it is a classic example of the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Moreover, this last man standing is in imminent danger of the nonrenewal of his visa, which would then take the number of Indian foreign correspondents in China down to zero, a numeral that highlights the nadir that the current India-China relationship is fast approaching.
We are witnessing the culmination of a series of tit-for-tat measures against journalists that have unfolded since 2016. In that year, China hosted four Indian journalists while India had well over a dozen Chinese reporters. However, following the visit by three Xinhua correspondents to Tibetan camps in Karnataka for which special permissions were required but not taken, India began to deny visa extensions to some Chinese reporters. Over the years, New Delhi began to issue Chinese journalists only very short-term, three-month-long, visas, which made it difficult for them to open bank accounts and secure school spots for their children.
By April this year, two Indian journalists in China, my successor for the Hindu newspaper, Ananth Krishnan, and the Prasar Bharati correspondent had their visas frozen by Beijing. They were informed that this was in response to a Chinese journalist being forced to leave India at the end of March, following which only two Chinese reporters remained in India. China’s actions ensured that parity of two journalists in each country was reached.
Then in May, India asked another Chinese reporter to leave, and so the Hindustan Times reporter in Beijing was told to do the same. There is now one Xinhua man left in India, for one PTI man in China, but it is likely that neither will get visa extensions. And so, two neighbouring countries with a 4,000km-long shared boundary, that are amongst the fastest growing in the world and that together account for a third of the world’s population, will have precisely no one with any depth of understanding explaining one to the other.
WHEN I BEGAN writing from China, first for the Indian Express newspaper in 2003, and then as the Hindu’s China bureau chief between 2005 and 2009, I was the only Mandarin-speaking Indian foreign correspondent in the country. It was apparent from the beginning that the way I saw the country was substantially different from the manner in which my Western colleagues viewed it. We cannot help but filter our observations through our implicit lenses.
The traffic in Beijing for someone from Delhi, for example, came across as remarkably orderly, with drivers largely sticking to their lanes, little evidence of honking and none of the stray cows threading through the cars. For someone from Europe, on the other hand, it was remarkably chaotic, with no one sticking to their lanes and drivers liable to swerve any which way without much warning. Same ‘fact’—Beijing traffic—but opposite observations. However, the world, most Indians included, learnt about a China of chaotic traffic, not one of orderly driving, given the pre-eminence of Western lenses on China reporting.
Again, what passed for ‘poverty’ for a Western journalist could seem quite middle class to me, conditioned as I was to see evidence of white goods like fans and fridges as markers of prosperity.
Another ‘fact’—public toilets were much written about by foreign correspondents at the time, given that we were in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The old-style conveniences with their unpartitioned holes in the floor and lack of running water served to highlight for these reporters how degrading life for many Beijingers remained, even as the city’s new rich lived in the lap of skyscraper luxury. New and fancy ‘Olympic’ loos, on the other hand, illustrated an authoritarian government set on stage managing every aspect of its international “coming out party”, as the 2008 Games were habitually described.
I, too, wrote about Beijing toilets, but what interested me were the toilet cleaners. Gandhi had identified toilet cleaning as key to revolutionising society. He’d stressed that in a society’s approach to private and public sanitation lay its commitment to true freedom and dignity. I argued that if he were correct in his beliefs, then it was authoritarian China, not democratic India, that had achieved self-respect for its citizens.
This is the other reason why foreign correspondents on the ground matter. They don’t just inform their audience about other parts of the world, but in doing so they also hold up a mirror to theirhome nations, as provocations for thought and action.
There is now one Xinhua man left in India for one PTI man in China, but it is likely that neither will get visa extensions. and so, two neighbouring countries with a 4,000km-long shared boundary will have no one with any depth of understanding explaining one to the other
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BEFORE I MOVED to China, I had believed it to be inscrutable. The scale of its architecture had felt outlandish, the language impenetrable and the art of the chopstick beyond my grasp. Once I was in Beijing, I walked around the city’s crisscrossing core of hutong alleyways. What I immediately noticed was the familiar cadence of kabariwallahs crying out for waste to recycle as they slowly bicycled past the faded glory of courtyard-style homes.
I delighted in the spicy sizzle of street food and noted the manner in which strangers addressed each other as family: ayi (auntie), nai nai (grandmother), ge ge (older brother). Rural folk shared their boiled eggs and oranges with me on bus rides across the country, reminiscent of similar journeys in India. In the unlikeliest of places—outside the Great Mosque in Xi’an, on the waterfront Bund of Shanghai, and in a taxi in the far northeastern city of Harbin—people sang old Hindi movie songs like ‘Awaara hoon’.
Unlike every stereotype I’d known in India, the Chinese I spoke with had a ripe sense of humour and laughed often, and loudly. They also enjoyed moaning about corruption and uncaring politicians. They spat on the streets and jostled while queuing. They did not sit obediently in their seats when planes landed until the aircraft came to a halt. They often folded their hands into namastes and bowed in reverence upon learning I was Indian. “Sakyamuni”—the Buddha— they’d mutter. How had I ever thought this country to be alien, I’d wonder.
A country should not be defined by its generals or political strategists but by its people and their cumulative hopes and quotidian preoccupations. This is what is lost when we lose on-the-ground foreign correspondents. In their stead, we gain Twitter trolls and professors from WhatsApp university, none of whom has actual skin in the game of hyper-nationalism and xenophobia that they engender.
Pallavi Aiyar is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has spent the last two decades reporting from China, Europe, Indonesia and Japan. Her most recent book is Orienting: An Indian in Japan. She is a contributor to Open