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HindustanTimes Thu,30 Oct 2014

Book Extracts

The Dragon next door: Chinese perceptions of India

June 21, 2014
First Published: 11:37 IST(21/6/2014)
Last Updated: 14:12 IST(21/6/2014)
Tiananmen Square blanketed in smog. As in with the rest of the developing world, rapid growth has brought with it the attendant problem of excessive pollution in China’s sprawling cities. (Getty Images)

Reshma Patil’s book – Strangers Across the Border – records Chinese perceptions of India. The chapter on the press in China, especially, brings out the difference between the two nations. An excerpt:

The Chinese government shows it is unwilling to respect and understand the nature of a free press though its newspapers have increased from sixty-nine in 1979 to over 2,000 today — compared to over 85,000 in India.

Beijing has demanded that India regulate media reports on China even back in 1976 and after India’s nuclear test in 1998, says Srikanth Kondapalli, a New Delhi-based professor of Chinese studies. The effort to spin India became openly pronounced as reports of hundreds of Chinese incursions per year, based on differing perceptions of the boundary, became frequent at the end of the last decade...

The Global Times
I was on a bus full of drowsy Indian businessmen scouting for deals in small cities somewhere by the Yangtze in eastern China. A call from an unfamiliar Beijing number snapped me awake. At first, I thought a government spokesperson was on the line.

‘Frankly,’ admonished an Englishspeaking woman, ‘we don’t think your story is positive... how long have you stayed in China?’ It was my first call from the Global Times newspaper —the most extreme example of Chinese spin on India since its 2009 launch in Beijing.

Strangers Across the Border Reshma Patil HarperCollins Rs. 599, PP 296

China and India sell the world’s largest number of newspapers, with an estimated 114.5 million and ninety-nine million copies circulated in 2012… The Global Times is read in India as Beijing’s most belligerent mouthpiece for its reminders of 1962 and warnings against provoking China… (Their) two popular headlines were: ‘India’s unwise military moves’; ‘Indian Prime Minister’s visit [to Arunachal Pradesh] a provocative move’…

The Global Times... does not always represent the views of its younger and liberal-leaning journalists. It does represent the general state view. Most of its reporters deplore censorship. On rare trips to India, they buy stacks of Tibetan books banned in China. A journalist described bowing before the man China calls a separatist — the Dalai Lama — and clasping his palms respectfully in the ‘illegal’ Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala… Over a dinner of curry and rice in Beijing, a twenty-something Global Times reporter gushed to me: ‘In India, I felt like a real journalist for the first time.’

The Global Times’s editor-in-chief, Hu Xijin, an alumnus of a military university, writes several provocative editorials himself. I sent him a questionnaire in order to include the Global Times’s version in this book and he verbally conveyed a message declining comment in person or on email. This is standard protocol in China. Authorities do their best to avoid presenting their side of the story. Foreign reporting in China involves a daily scramble to quote the Chinese view on Chinese news and journalists increasingly rely on plucking quotes from Twitter-like Chinese micro-blogs as a benchmark for public opinion. I gathered that Hu was told to lie low. His last interview to The Sydney Morning Herald had veered off course. He was quoted saying the interviewer was ‘not qualified as a journalist’, The New York Times was ‘full of lies’…

In early 2013, Hu came to India for the first time. His group visited Infosys in Bengaluru and slums in Mumbai. In New Delhi, the delegation invited itself on short notice for a traditional Indian meal at the home of Hindustan Times’s foreign editor, Pramit Pal Chaudhuri. China is more guarded towards inviting foreign journalists home and in government offices — I was allowed no farther than a lobby or visitor’s room. Chaudhuri later blogged that Hu inspected all his bedrooms, inquired about the couple’s income and taxes but evaded answering in-depth to questions on his newsroom practices beyond stating that CCP control on the press was weakening.

The India lesson
…The 2014 World Press Freedom Index ranked India 140, China 175 and the US 46 among 180 countries… Living and working in Beijing tested my journalistic skills like never before even for stories that would be easily done in India. Home visits by the local police or public security officials, each time for a cursory glance at my passport, began to seem normal and rather amusing…

One evening, during my last Beijing summer, I walked into a brown building with a short, panting and overworked man involved in projects to train thousands of government officials every year in public speaking and media management. The spinmeister stood in beige trousers and a yellow striped shirt, brewing a pot of what he called a ‘thousand-dollar’ tea…

‘The great challenge to China is not nuclear attacks and uprising,’ he said, sipping from a flask embossed with a golden dragon. ‘It is the media.’

He was concerned that a conspiracy of anti-government rumours on micro-blogs could disrupt national harmony. The Internet had spun out of control. Rumourmongering media camps had to be reined in. ‘Your editor,’ he added, ‘wrote a good piece on Tibet.’ My editor and I had never visited the Himalayan kingdom. Did he presume I was from The Hindu?

I corrected him and he instantly stopped talking about Tibet. As our meeting came to a close, I asked him to predict the future of the Chinese media. Will the CCP relax or further tighten its grip on the press? I remember his words every time I sit back in Mumbai, reading about Beijing’s continuing campaign to control the press and the Internet. The man looked me in the eye.

'The media will be dead.'

(The author is a former Hindustan Times journalist)


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