I observed the minister fidget with his smartphone on the drive out of the Great Hall of the People. "I don't want to do something illegal on Chinese soil," he muttered from the backseat. The minister from New Delhi was just restless to tweet during his visit to Beijing last year.
During the last four years in Beijing, I watched the startled reactions of Indian visitors coming face to face with a China they didn't know. And in the cafes, I had intense conversations with overseas-returned Beijingers who fumed because they had to hunt for a sneaky server to write in English on a friend's wall. I, too, was taken aback, after I returned to India and found the national press awash with warnings that India is going the 'China way' in muzzling free speech.
The China comparison is being brandished in a sweeping fashion. China, the world's largest online community, is an extreme example of 'harmonising views' to suit a non-elected ruling party. China has a recent record of censoring its own premier Wen Jiabao's sound-bites on democracy to CNN, and blocking a video of President Hu Jintao singing.
India's self-styled internet police, minister, judge or petitioning journalist eager to ban websites ‘like China' may change their opinion after experiencing life in the capital of censorship. They will fiddle with their touchscreens when the flight lands at the Beijing airport designed like a crouching dragon. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube will not open unless the visitors are as tech-savvy as the Chinese netizen to leap over firewalls on the world's most patrolled internet. The usually reliable Gmail may not work if the tech giant is again battling Beijing over censorship and hacking. Visitors will relax in their five-star hotel rooms and switch on the large flat screen for the evening news in English. But sudden black-outs on CNN and BBC will interrupt the broadcasts.
Last April, Salman Rushdie and other writers issued a protest after China barred Liao Yiwu, censored for writing on the 1989 pro-democracy protests, from flying to a literary festival in New York. When Rushdie was prevented from coming to the Jaipur literary festival, a Beijinger's words echoed in my mind: "We can't breathe in Beijing,'' writer Dai Qing told me during the Communist Party's sweep on activists last year. In the context of the power to protest in India, there is no comparison with China.
For now, the largest democracy and third-largest online community is in no danger of ‘doing a China' until its media can hold on to the freedom to go after gag orders. In China, news coverage of censorship and travel bans on writers is banned. In India, it hits front pages and prime time news.
Union communications minister Kapil Sibal backed down last week to say the Indian government never intended to censor social media. At the same time, a newspaper reported that India plans to track the location of every mobile phone user. Beijing beat us to it a year ago with plans for an ostensible ‘traffic control' project to track mobile phone users through global positioning technology. China's sophisticated online surveillance system and tracking technologies have not, however, managed to fully ;harmonise' the internet or prevent bouts of social unrest. Millions of watchful Chinese netizens use micro-blogs as a platform for irreverent pro-democracy discourse and campaigns against misrule. The shadow police delete the blogs; the users tirelessly re-post them.
This cat-and-mouse game with censors can go on endlessly even in India and may sidetrack the emerging economy from debating more urgent tasks. China has swept into our mindset, but did anyone notice the latest Yale-Columbia study warning us that India's air is now dirtier than China's?