As we entered the Peking University classroom where Arunachal Pradesh is studied as 'southern Tibet,' a student turned to me and asked why the Indian media is 'so negative' on China.
India and China are ending the year of the big fight over Chinese stapled visas and mutual core concerns - Kashmir, Tibet and Taiwan - while celebrating the 60th anniversary of relations. The diplomatic channels between Beijing and New Delhi are grappling for a breakthrough to lift bilateral ties out of the slump when Premier Wen Jiabao makes his second visit to India from December 15-17. It will be a visit high on atmospherics to find ways to improve national sentiments on both sides.
To hear how future Chinese opinion makers perceive India, HT went to the top campus in China. The former Chinese leader Mao Zedong was briefly a librarian at Peking University. Today the campus is better known for producing China's highest number of future billionaires.
The average age of the five-member class is 22. The Masters students of the School of International Studies speak softly but with a strong sense of conviction and nationalism punctuated with few laughs.
Han Xiaolu came straight to the point. "I think India and China may be friends in the future, but not now."
Zhang Yuyan, the only Beijinger in class, wrote an undergraduate paper on 'southern Tibet' and finds Arunachal Pradesh a difficult name to remember. She is studying the Indian media for her next paper. "There is still conflict over Kashmir and southern Tibet, but I don't think it's a bad idea to develop friendship," Zhang said. But she really wanted to know: Why can't the Indian government control the media?"
During an hour spent in the classroom, one senses the impact of negligible public exchanges and visits between Asia's largest nations. The world is raving about the rising economies of India and China, but the Indian GDP is not a talking point inside this campus where future bureaucrats and foreign policy intellectuals are trained. The students discussed an ancient India of caste divides and more recent tensions between Hindus and Muslims. They were puzzled why the Indian government cannot alleviate poverty.
"You must be from a higher caste!" blurted Chen Taofan, looking unconvinced when this reporter described her cosmopolitan life in Mumbai. "If India is moving to be a modernised country it is should change a lot, especially change the caste system to ensure equality and liberty," Chen said.
He asked if the stuff in Slumdog Millionaire is true. "Why can't the government do something about it?" The front-row student follows reports of Indian military purchases and troop deployments but he's also curious about fragments of exotica. "Is it true that people burn dead bodies in the river?"
From the backbench, Zhang Yan, a student fascinated by the caste system and a political party few Chinese can name - the Bharatiya Janata Party - spoke up from behind his laptop. "I like India. India has many things we never see in China or any country and Hinduism is very tolerant."
Jiang Wenjun, who admires the Indian education system for producing 'quality' scientists and engineers, spoke last. "India is a very important actor in the international scene. In future, China will be a democratic nation. In this aspect, China should learn from the Indian experience." The others vetoed that order and development are more important for China in the short-term. Asked if they believe India's rise is peaceful, Chen was first to answer. "No."
We are Re-rising
India's rise is being reviewed among think-tanks that influence Beijing foreign policy. Even India's record medals count at the recent Asian Games in Guangzhou gave a sense of a 'totally different India,' said Rong Ying, vice-president of the China Institute for International Studies, a foreign ministry think-tank.
"India and China are re-emerging economies. We are re-rising," he said, but emphasised that a large gap remains between how policymakers and the public view bilateral ties. "We still have strategic and psychological obstacles to overcome. Improving perceptions is a huge task," said Shi Yinhong, director of the Centre for American Relations at Renmin University. Shi pointed out that the visit holds special strategic significance. "Chinese leaders need a diplomatic success to compensate for relations with the US and regional tensions."
The Kashmir Question
New Delhi has signaled that Beijing may resolve the stapled visa issue but it will be a tricky balancing act for Chinese relations with Pakistan.
"Tibet and Taiwan are not disputed territory. Kashmir from the Chinese perspective is a disputed territory," said Rong. "If you bring these three issues together it's not good for the Chinese side."
The students wondered why the Indian public largely perceives China as a threat. The state-run Chinese media keeps several sensitive disputes out of the news, like Indian objections to Chinese stapled visas for Indian residents of Jammu and Kashmir, and demands for mutual sensitivity on Kashmir the way India respects Chinese core concerns on Tibet and Taiwan. The Chinese public remains uninformed about how Indians debate Chinese assertiveness in Asia and footprint in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
"We have to agree to disagree pending a settlement and not play up the issue," said Rong. "We need to view each from a more accommodating mindset."
Put unsolvable issues like the border dispute on the shelf, suggested Shi at the Renmin University. "Both nations should reduce attention to unsolvable issues that can only spoil relations. At least, we can be good neighbours and not touch each other's sensitive points."
For the Chinese, the Premier's visit to India in the 60th year of ties remains higher on symbolism than actual agreements. In China, the number denotes the completion of a full circle.