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China winning race to influence people

Beijing plans to spend $10 billion to build 100 centres across the world to spread message of cultaral harmony, reports Nilova Roy Chaudhury.

india Updated: Dec 02, 2006 20:33 IST

As with all things Chinese, the scale and scope are breathtaking. Beijing plans to spend a whopping $10 billion to build 100 Confucius Centres across the world by 2010, to spread the message of "cultural harmony" in its mega blitz to win friends and influence people.

Despite the huge setback of the 1960's and the Cultural Revolution era, when it lost masses of its ancient legacy, China has gone about leveraging its soft power as it makes inroads politically, strategically and with its economic muscle, particularly into Central Asia, Africa and South America.  

"It's all about winning hearts and minds," said a diplomat from a European Union nation. "That's where all the wars will be fought."

Struggling to cope with the onslaught from late entrant China, India is looking at ways to leverage its "very considerable soft power" from antiquity to the modern era, music, dance, movies, cuisine, books and art as all great powers have done since the end of the Second World War.

The United States very successfully exported the USIS, Britain the British Council, France the Alliance Francaise, Germany the Goethe Institute (Max Muller Bhavans in India), Russia its cultural centres and Japan the Japan Foundation. All of these organs of "soft diplomacy" are almost entirely funded by government funds by the Foreign policy departments of those countries.

India made a great beginning, said Pavan Verma, Director General of the Indian Council for  Cultural Relations (ICCR), with the creation of this organisation (ICCR) in 1950, with the aim of "leveraging India's status as a cultural superpower," said Verma, but "somewhere along the line we have fallen behind and appear unable to meet the demand."

Citing an example, Verma said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, when he visited Kabul last year, announced 500 scholarships for Afghan students to come and study in India.

Over 12,000 Afghan students swamped the Indian Embassy in Kabul to take that exam, of whom 500 were selected to study in universities across India.

ICCR offers 1800 scholarships each year (and has been providing scholarships since its inception), and when those students go back home, "we have created goodwill ambassadors for this country." "We would provide more if we could," said Verma.

In the first phase, India plans to raise the number of cultural centres it has abroad from the current 22 to at least 30, beginning with Washington, Paris, Kabul, Kathmandu, Beijing, Tokyo and "somewhere in the Gulf" probably Dubai, as soon as it can.

For this phase, the Ministry of External Affairs, which is the parent ministry for the ICCR, has sought an annual budget of Rs 100 crores (around $ 25 million ), up from the Rs 60 crores it now receives for ICCR.

But funds are proving a constraint, with the Finance Ministry "sympathetic but not entirely convinced," said ICCR President Karan Singh.

The Nalanda University project, the forthcoming Festival of India in Japan and the ongoing India-China Friendship year (including, for the first time, a display of 70 ancient Indian pieces of sculpture travelling to four cities of China), not to mention the fact that India will soon assume the Chair of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) are all opportunities to create more interest.

But "Somewhere," said Verma, "we are going to lose out for lack of funds," because "we have entered a qualitatively new phase where demand for India exists everywhere. We don't have to create it. The antiquity and diversity of the past coupled with the excitement of the present and India's huge potential for the future have people across the world wanting more," said Verma. 
 
Email Nilova Roy Chaudhury: nilova@hindustantimes.com