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Diplomats' Reminiscences

 

HOW I ARRIVED ON THE CHINA SCENE

Vinod Khanna

49

Like many other contributors to this book, I heav spent a very large part of my working life, diplomatic and academic, dealing with China. When Prof. Tan Chung invited me to record my ‘Reminiscences and Impressions” I thought that I might try to ret what China had meant to me before I entered it for the first time on 1st July 1966. While each individual has his own unique intellectual and emotional background, perhaps the perceptions of China with which I began my career were shared in son measure by many others of my generation.

As far as I can remember my first encounter with China was as a child in early 1940s in the shape of something V. beautiful: a roll of exquisite silk bought by my family in Lahore from a bicycle-borne Chinese vendor. A little later I saw Shantaram’s popular film Dr. Kofnis ki Amar Kabani (The immortal story of Dr. Kotnis) which dealt with the heroism, romance and death in China of this young Indian doctor. He had gone there as a member of the Indian medical team led by Dr. Atal sent by the Indian Congress in 1938 to assist the Chinese in their struggle against the Japanese invaders. If such experiences one’s childhood leave a lasting impression on one’s mind, I began with a decidedly positive image of China: a country which produced lovely things, a country for which our leaders, still fighting for Ma’s own independence, had great affection and sympathy, a country which was cruelly treated by the Japanese.

In my youth as a student in Bombay I became an ardent and almost unquestioning admirer of our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. We looked at the outside world largely through his eyes. As far as foreign policy was concerned, what he said almost defined for us what any patriotic Indian should believe in. I was too young to react to the birth of People’s Republic of China (PRC), or to China’s liberation” of Tibet. However, I was old enough to fallow keenly the visit to India in 1954 by Premier Zhou Enlai (whose name we spelt as Chou En-lai then and for years thereafter till overwhelmed by the Peking/Beijing-ordained Pinyin standardization) and that of Nehru to China later in the same year. Not all my schoolmates took much interest in these matters but those of us who did were thrilled by the realization that these were representatives of two most populous nations of the world, two of the most creative ancient civilizations, two neighbours who ,had never gone to war with each other through history, two Asian giants - now masters of their own destiny. Each time one thought of India’s foreign policy, two words seemed enough: Non-Alignment and Panchsheel. The latter, it will be recalled, was the name given to the Five Principles of peaceful co-existence first formulated in the preamble to the agreement between India and China in regard to Tibet which was signed in April 1954.

However, even at the height of our youthful immersion in the Hindi-Cheeni Mai-bhai fervour, there was an element (ambivalence in our attitudes. We developed early a dislike for the non-liberal elements in Soviet and Chinese communism. I a sense, therefore, one might say that the deterioration of Sine-Indian relations which set in towards the late 1950s resulted greater harmonization in our perceptions respectively of Mao’s China and his party, the Communist party of China (CPC).

In college I did a course on the modern political history of East Asia. This gave me a better understanding of this background to the triumph of Mao in China. One read with revulsion about the Opium War, the shameful imposition of unequal treaties on China and the brazen carving up of areas of influence by the imperialist powers. I read with admiration about that revolutionary activities of Sun Yat-sen and his ideas as incorporated in the Three Principles of the People: nationalism, democracy and socialism. It was interesting to see that just as all lndians (or almost all) hailed Mahatma Gandhi as the Father of our nation all Chinese, whether the Kuomintang (KMT) or the Communists, revered Sun as the “Father of Modern China”. I liked to play with such speculative - and, in a sense, meaningless - games as to what would have been the shape of the Chinese revolution if Sun had not died in 1925. The KMT-CPC conflict over the subsequent 25 years made absorbing reading. Accounts of two events, in particular, left a lasting impression: first, the awesome endurance embodied in the Long March led by Mao and Zhu De and, secondly, the speed with which the forces of Chiang Kai-shek collapsed during the final stages of the civil war (1947-49) in the face of the much smaller, relatively ill-equipped but better led and motivated People’s Liberation Army (PL4) whose greatest strength clearly lay in the increasing popular support it enjoyed.

At a student of political philosophy, first in Bombay and then at Oxford, I naturally read a certain amount of the original writings of Marx, Engels and Lemn, but none of Mao.

In October 1961, I returned to India as a lecturer in the Department of Politics of my old college in Bombay, I found myself being swept into the mounting national anger both against the perceived foreign aggressor and the Indian government for failing to deal with it effectively. I was in the midst of the U.P.S.C. examination for entry into government service when the India-China war broke out in October 1962. Many thought we would be conscripted. Depressed by the accounts of reverses on the battlefronts and disconcerted by the newspaper accounts about the “human wave” tactics, which it was said were being used by the Chinese Army to overwhelm the Indian troops, we found it difficult to concentrate on our examination papers. A few months later, along with the rest of the country, I wept unabashedly on hearing Lata Mangeshkar’s famous musical tribute to the fallen soldiers.

Soon after appointment to the foreign service, every Indian Foreign Service officer ‘is allotted a foreign language which he has to study and in which he has to pass an examination. We were asked to indicate our preferences and I had selected French and German. As we were awaiting Ministry of External Affairs’ decision while undergoing training at the National Academy of Administration in Mussourie, a friend of mine coined his favourite term of abuse: “May you be allotted Chinese”. This was a reference to both the known difficulty of the language and the unwelcome prospect it held out of a posting in “Peking” (its Indian image in 1963) rather than Paris or Bonn. My first reaction to the news that I (along with my batch-mate Ranjit Sethi) had indeed been allotted Chinese was of pure dismay. It was, however, only a passing emotion. Very soon I found myself looking forward to the challenge. In any case, the blow was softened by the information’ that the language was to be learnt not In Beijing but in Hong Kong which appeared to be a very much more attractive first foreign assignment.

We were the first batch of IFS probationers whom Jawaharlal Nehru (who was not only the Prime Minister but also the Foreign Minister) did not meet. This gave us an indication of how frail his health had become. When he died on 27 May 1964, like the rest of the country I was grief-stricken and convinced that his death had been hastened by the shock of what we all regarded as betrayal by the Chinese.

Being a Chinese language pr0bationer I was attached for a few weeks to the East Asia Division, or to be precise, to C.V. Ranganathan, the then Under Secretary (China). Rangi (that was how we called him) who, by a series of happy coincidences, was to become my senior colleague in China-watching through most of my career, asked me to prepare a paper on the impact of the Sine-Soviet dispute on the Indian communist movement. This meant, of course, first trying to understand what the Sino-Soviet confrontation was all about. It was intellectual fun reading about Chinese reaction to Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization speech and his views on non-inevitability of war, the possibility of a non-violent transition to socialism, and the idea of peaceful co-existence. It was fascinating that the Chinese attributed greater significance to Soviet sucesses in launching the first ICBM and earth satellite, than did the Soviet Union itself. It was my first exposure to Mao’s genius in coining such striking phrases as the “east wind prevails over the west wind” and “the atom bomb is a paper tiger” - a heady mixture of ideological conviction and determined pursuit of very concrete objectives.

I commenced the study of Chinese language (Mandarin as it was called, but academically designated as “Modern Standard Chinese”) at Hong Kong University in October 1964. I do not have a talent for learning foreign languages, being not blessed with those skills which make some people natural linguists. I realized early that I could never be as good a speaker of the four-tone Mandarin as some of my colleagues. Of the Chinese speaking foreigners there was none more proficient than our own V.V. Paranjpe, then a First Secretary in our Commision im Hong Kong. I sought to compensate to some extent for the inadequacy of my spoken Chinese skills by concentrating on acquiring as much competence as possible in reading and writing. Learning a couple of thousand characters (totally inadequate for true literacy), each involving several strokes, was tough but frankly I enjoyed it. I had a slightly ambivalent attitude to the simplification of characters by the Chinese government. I was relieved that it made easier the task of learning to read (not, alas, what was being published outside China as Hong Kong and Taiwan refused to adopt what was regarded as a sacriligious move) but some of the characters did look more meaningful -and beautiful - in their original complex shape.

Language study apart, Hong Kong provided an opportunity to take a preliminary look at some facets of the magnificent Chinese culture. I was eager to acquire some knowledge, no matter how elementary, of the famous schools of Chinese thought. The recommended introductory text was Fung Yu-Ian’s A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. I shall never forget the opening lines of the book, “The place which philosophy has occupied in Chinese civilization has been comparable to that of religion in other civilizations. In China, philosophy has been every educated person’s concern. In the old days, if a man was educated at all, the first education he received was in philosophy.”

Confucianism appealed to me greatly because of its humanistic ethic independent of revealed religion. The Analects became one of my favourite books. It is full of pithy sayings encapsulating perennial wisdom. “A gentleman” says Confucius, “in his judgement of the world, has no predilections nor prejudices: he is on the side of what is right.” Elsewhere, he advises, “Do not be concerned that you are unknown, but do something to deserve a reputation.” Naturally, living and teaching as he did around 500 B. C., he spoke from within the feudal politico-social setting of his day and it would be strange if we were to fault him for the non-applicability of some of his ideas today.

I also made an attempt to understand the aphorisms and paradoxes in Daode Jing (or spelled as ‘Tat-te thing”) attributed to Laozi (or Lao Tzu). This small book, according to the introduction in the copy which I acquired (with English translation) had had as great an influence on the Chinese mind as all the Confucian classics put together. Repeated encounters in conversations and other readings with the multifaceted concept of Tao, led to the realization that like Dharma, this word (though generally translated as the Way), has no precise equivalent in English. To quote the philosopher Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) : “Tao cannot be conveyed by either words or silence. In that state which is neither speech nor silence its transcendental nature may be apprehended.” One could not help but be struck by a sort of affinity with some of our Upanishads. Some thirty years later, serendipitously, a Taiwanese friend presented me with a scroll on which was written the character Tao” in splendid calligraphy.

We were taught that a really good Chinese painting, with its lightening brushstrokes and seductive suggestiveness, was a particularly vivid manifestation of Tao. My wife Gita and I became very fond of the work of Chi Pai-shih (or Qi Baishi, in Pinyin). The painter in our family is Gita. In Hong Kong she found a good teacher to introduce her to Chinese brush-painting and this has become her life-long passion.

I had not read much Chinese poetry before coming to Hong Kong. Now it became one of my favourite pastimes. I could not wait till I acquired sufficient competence in Chinese and so turned to translations. Fortunately, thanks to Arthur Waley, Ezra Pound, and other outstanding translators, classical Chinese poetry has long been accessible in English. The very first major work of Chinese literature, the Book of Songs, was an eye-opener. Tradition attributes its compilation to Confucius himself. Whether or not that is true, this belief testifies to the antiquity of these songs and ballads. They capture with engaging simplicity and lucidity an amazing range of human experiences. To quote just a couple of memorable lines:

 

“My sad heart is consumed, I am harrassed

By a host of small men.”

 

Almost a millennium later came the great Tang poets. (I am not suggesting that there were no great poets in the interregnum but I am just concentrating on some of my own favourites). Reading Li Bai (Li PO) and Du Fu (Tu Fu), was a very special aesthetic experience. Hailed as two of China’s greatest poets, they were dramatically different: Li was a happy-go-lucky Taoist who loved his drink; Du was a serious and sober intellectual.

At the Hong Kong University, my priority -for purely professional reasons - was to acquire the ability to read Chinese newspapers of the People’s Daily variety. However, I did manage to reach the stage of being able to read - with the help of our teachers and the famous Mathews’ Chinese English Dictionary - some writings of a few famous modern Chinese authors. I recall in particular Lu Xun’s (Lu Hsun) biting satire The True Story of Ah Q , Cao Yu’s (l’sao Vu) powerful indictment of contemporary social ills in his play Thunderstorm and Lao She’s novel Rickshaw Boy.

Naturally one had to get down to trying to understand Mao’s political thoughts. Stuart Schram’s book, with excerpts from Mao’s more important writings, provided an excellent starting point. As far as I can remember the first Maoist tract which I read in original Chinese was his “Report of an Investigation into the Peasant Movement in Hunan”. This confirmed what one had heard about Mao’s deep first-hand study of the peasant question in his country. But there was also another lesson which I learnt from this exercise which came in handy in later China-watching. When reading any Chinese communist tract one had always to note the year of the publication. This essay, like so much of Mao’s work, was updated for political correctness. References to the leading role of the working class and the Communist Party were added later in order not to bring into too bold a relief his deviation from the German Marxism-Russian Leninism’s relegation of the peasantry to a secondary position in the revolutionary process.

On the whole Mao, quite rightly did not seem to have much inhibition in Sinifying Marxism. Thus in his report to the Sixth Plenum of the Sixth Central Committee, October 1939, published as On the New Stage he has this to say [in Schram’s translation], “A Communist is a Marxist internationalist, but Marxism must take on a national form before it can be applied . . ..If a Chinese Communist, who is a part of the great Chinese people, bound to his people by his very flesh and blood, talks of Marxism apart from Chinese peculiarities, this Marxism is merely an empty abstraction. Consequently, the Sinification of Marxism - that is to say, making certain that in all of its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese peculiarities, using it according to these peculiarities - becomes a problem that must be understood and solved by the whole party without delay . ...” I suppose today we would use the word “characteristics” in place of the awkward “peculiarities”.

I remember reading with keen interest what Mao had to say on the problems of a socialist society, particularly his views on the question of “Correct handling of Contradictions among people”. It seemed that there was considerable flexibility in defining the terms “enemy” and “people”, and, therefore, of the terms “antagonistic” and “non-antagonistic contradictions” leaving sufficient scope for the Party (or the Great Leader) to move a person, and the classification of the ‘contradiction” with him, from one category to the other.

It was only on reaching Beijing in the summer of 1966 that I acquired and ploughed through most of the 4-volume Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung. It took more than a decade before the political situation was found propitious enough for the release of the fifth volume.

Mao, one discovered to one’s pleasant surprise, was a reasonably good poet. There is, for instance, his rather touching tribute to his first wife, Yang Kaihui. Entitled "The Immortals” it is addressed to a woman whose spouse, like Mao’s had been killed by Chiang Kai-shek’s regime:

 

“I lost my proud poplar, and you your willow,

Poplar and willow scar light/y to the ninth heaven.”

(Mao has resorted to a pun to refer to Yang as the name can mean “poplar”.)

Mao’s writings are replete with classical allusions. One repeatedly encounters strong evidence of how well-versed he was in classical Chinese culture. The vulgarity and philistinism of the Cultural Revolution therefore came as an even greater shock than it may otherwise have done.

I studied in a general way the developments which had taken place in China since 1949 though I cannot now remember what were the books and other sources I relied on. “Hundred Flowers Campaign” gave one an insight into one facet of Mao’s vision as well as into his tactics in dealing with domestic dissent. I did not agree with those who felt that Mao had deliberatly lulled the intellectuals into revealing their true views in order to suppress them. I got the impression that he had genuinely miscalculated. I had much greater difficulty trying to comprehend what had actually happened during the Great Leap Forward. Looking at the history of Chinese Communist Movement, I was impressed by the fact that one had to take into account both ideas and personalities. The conflicts within the Party seemed to be a blend of ideological and power struggles. As Hong Kong was at that time the Mecca of China-watchers, I was able to supplement my reading with discussions with experts of various hues. In the Indian. Commission itself, besides Paranjpe, with his superb knowledge of Chinese history and personalities, there was Sivaramakrishnan (alas no more) who did not know Chinese language but had an incisive mind. One batch senior to us were the fellow-probationers. K. Raghunath and Kiran Doshi. Talking to the highly cerebral Raghwas always a stimulating experience and laid the foundation for very close cooperation later in Beijing. Kiran was my guru in chess and bridge, the games which were to provide much joy during the long evenings in Beijing of the Cultural Revolution. Many of the very well-informed staff members of the Far Eastern Economic Review became good friends. It was a real pleasure having as one’s fellow students of Chinese language, the very bright British diplomatic colleagues all of whom became my colleagues in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. Leonard Appleyard (later their Ambassador in Beijing), John Weston (their Permanent Representative in New York) and Roger Garside who left the diplomatic service to become the author of much-acclaimed writings on China. The Americans, who at that stage did not have an Embassy in Beijing, posted some of their most outstanding China experts in Hong Kong and with one of them (Nick Platt, now the President of the New York-based Asia Society) I am still in touch.

But not all the members of the Hong Kong-based China-watching tribe were equally intelligent; worse, many of them clearly lacked objectivity. There were some who were convinced that China, and in particular Mao, could do no wrong: at the other end of the spectrum of prejudice were those who indulged perpetually in unthinking condemnation.

Among the starry-eyed admirers of Mao there were those who still spoke in glowing terms of the Great Leap Forward. They hailed it as one of Mao’s spectacularly bold moves beyond the comprehension of his slow-witted critics. They accepted Maoist statistics of the Great Leap Forward’s achievements and the Maoist alibi for the economic disaster which it generated. (In 1988’ I sat in a classroom in Harvard listening to Prof. Amartya Sen presenting with precision and objectivity an account of the millions who died of starvation thanks to Mao’s quixotic vision.) I was, therefore, more amused than impressed when these same people became ecstatic about “the bold vision” which inspired Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. On my visit to Hong Kong from Beijing towards the end of 1966, one of them, a well-known writer, dismissed my eye-witness accounts of brutality and chaos as being a misunderstanding (I suspect she meant ‘slander’) of a genuinely revolutionary movement because of my bourgeois background. By the same token, I learnt to take with a grain of salt the observers who saw every Chinese foreign policy move as an expression of its alleged incorrigible expansionism or a step in a grand global revolutionary strategy.

We soon realized the necessity of learning how to pierce the opacity of official media as that was about the only source of information available. Sometimes one felt that the language was the least of the barriers. And I soon discovered that even those observers who were deeply versed in Chinese history and politics were often totally foxed. One thing was obvious enough: the official propaganda was not to be taken literally. People's Daily always spoke with an air of supreme self-confidence and certainty. But from the twists and turns in Chinese policies both domestic and foreign from 1949 onwards, it was obvious that there was no reason to take China’s course at any given moment as permanent, or to believe that Chinese leadership was gifted with some unique omniscience that would insure them against making grevious mistakes.

Useful training was provided by the study of the campaign against Wu Han’s historical play Hai Rui Dismissed from office. Gradually, it became clear that this was no mere academic debate about an ancient personality but something with serious contemporary political implications. This lesson about political uses of historical allusions came in very handy in subsequent years. But I was somewhat discouraged by the realization that decoding the precise significance of any allusion would require something more than a passing knowledge of Chinese history, culture and literature. One would have to possess in-depth knowledge of how Chinese themselves saw their past. And often the references would be beyond the comprehension of even learned Chinese, without elucidation by those in the know of the actual political objective behind a particular allusion.

During my days at Hong Kong University, I took only a passing interest in day-do-day happenings in India-China relations. There was one significant exception. The curious mariner in which China sought to intervene in the Indo-Pak conflict of September 1965. After having initially scoffed at China’s ineffectual moves giving India an ultimation to demolish certain structures on the Tibet-Sikkim border and to return 800 sheep and 59 yaks that Indian troops had allegedly taken away from Tibetans across the border, I realized that it would be difficult in future to think of Indo-Pakistan strategic equation without factoring in Sine-Pak I was disappointed when I was asked to proceed from Hong Kong to Beijing in summer 1966 full three months before the completion of my Chinese studies in Hong Kong University. However, I was scan to realize that fate had conferred a very special favour on me because it enabled me to witness the Cultural Revolution from almost its inception.

I cannot say that on the eve of my departure for Beijing I had any idea that we were about to witness a political explosion of inconceivable magnitude. But then I do not recall that any of the veteran China-watchers had predicted with any semblance of accuracy the eventual incredible scope of the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”. of course, it was clear that the Beijing Party Committee of CPC and its formidable first secretary, Peng Zhen (P’eng Chen) were in trouble but I do not think that anybody at that early stage quite understood the significance of the broadcast over Beijing Radio on June 1, 1966, of Nieh Yuan-tzu’s (to be romanized now as Nie Yuanzi) big-character poster.

On 1st July I crossed on foot the border between the British colony and the People’s Republic of China, along with Gita and our 7 month-old first born, Rohit......

 

THE FOLLOWING YEARS

 

So many memories come flooding into my mind when I reminisce about my China-related experiences in the subsequent three decades that initially I was disinclined to try to put them down in a single article. However, on Prof. Tan Chung’s urgings, I am attempting what he calls an “epilogue” in which I shall gallop though these years. This is not meant to be a detailed historical account and even less a serious analytical piece but merely a brief personal memoir.

On July 27, 1966, Mao told a group of student representatives who were complaining about “the black hand” using the workers’ groups to control the disruptive activities by students that he himself was that “black hand”! This in some ways marked the end of the Cultural Revolution. By coincidence I left Beijing on transfer barely two weeks later. China of the period 1966-68 was not always a very pleasant place for diplomats. Many of us were subjected to a treatment which even the Chinese do not defend today. But I find myself looking back on those two turbulent years as professionally a very exciting period. It was a unique opportunity to witness and study an amazing and a very complex phenomenon. And if life was sometimes hard, it was infinitely more comfortable than what the great majority of Chinese were enduring. I shall never forget the sight of a group of boys and girls barely into their teens lashing an aged woman with bicycle chains simply because she had a picture of Buddha in her house. The British diplomats suffered much more than we did. The Indian Embassy at that time was headed by R.D. Sathe as the CDA. As far as I am aware, no other Indian diplomat has spent as many years in China as him, going back to the days of the Agent-General’s Office in ‘Chungking” (to be spelled Chongqing now) in 1945! It was his able leadership - invariably calm, unprejudiced and in control -which was greatly responsible for the outstanding performance of the embassy through these tumultuous years when political chaos in China coincided with intense hostility in India-China relations.

A three year stint as Under Secretary in the East Asia division of the Ministry of External Affairs (1966-71) gave me an opportunity to make a more careful study of the events leading up to the 1962 conflict. I found myself looking at India-China problems with more objectivity and less emotion. For me the tone was set by the remarks of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at a press conference on January 1, 1969. Asked whether India would not any longer insist on the Chinese acceptance of the Colombo proposals she replied, That is not what I meant. What I meant is that we are stuck up in a particular position. That does not solve our problem with China. We should try to find a way of solving this problem.” When the persistent questioner demanded “a straight answer”, she replied, “Unfortunately straight answers are not possible. They come from the wrong ones (questions),” When a journalist referred to the continuing harshness of Chinese media attacks on the Indian government and on her personally, she responded, ‘That is their language. It is not our language. I think we should ignore it.” But the time was not yet ripe for a major break-through. There was naturally much unhappiness at Chinese behaviour in many areas of concern to us. And to some extent, inevitably, India-China relations were’ influenced by the international situation. As a lowly Under Secretary not yet admitted to higher counsels of deliberation nor given access to files with top secret classification, I did not come to know all the facts about some of the episodes like the famous “Mao smile” (actually it was more than a mere smile) bestowed on our CDA Brajesh Mishra on May 1, 1970 on the Tiananmen rostrum.

I was able to continue China-watching to some degree in my next assignment (1971-74) which was as First Secretary in our Embassy in Tokyo, For get-political, security, economic and historical reasons, China always looms very large in Japanese perceptions. This particular period saw a specially intense focus on China. There was the much-hyped trauma which came when they came to know of Kissinger’s secret visit to China followed by Nixon himself. But it was fascinating to see how the “Nixon Shokku” was used by the Japanese to free themselves from the past shackles and to move with electrifying speed to put their own relations with China in order. Tanaka was elected prime minister in July 1972 and by September he was in Beijing signing the Tanaka-Zhou agreement.

Not surprisingly the Sinologists of Japan are among the best-informed in the world. Speaking to the China experts in the Japanese government, academic institutions, media and business world was always an educative and, indeed, a humbling experience. It was also interesting to see a very wide range of attitudes. There were those who were somewhat overwhelmed by a sense of guilt for what Japan had done to China in modem times, a country to which they owed such a huge cultural debt from ancient times. But there were others who saw no reason why Japan should feel more apologetic than other imperial powers, and who in particular resented guilt being transferred to the new generation.

I was back in Delhi and the East Asia Division in April 1978. It was now a new stage in India-China relations. Mrs. Gandhi had in 1976 resumed the exchange of ambassadors. In an inspired move, she had selected Shri K.R. Narayanan for the job in Beijing. Then, we had the Janata government in power. It was clear that despite the positions taken by them in the past, Prime Minister Morarji Desai and the External Affairs Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee were keen to proceed further Wards improvement of relations with China.

It will be recalled that Mr. Vajpayee had to postpone his visit to China, scheduled for October 1978, on medical advice. According to the original programme a tour of China by an Indian cultural delegation was to take place to coincide with the minister’s visit. The minister directed that the cultural troupe should proceed as planned in order to emphasize that there were no political reasons behind the postponement of his visit. As this was the first such delegation to be visiting China after a lapse of more than two decades during which much had happened in India-China relations, it was decided that I should accompany them as some sort of an adviser. Fully conscious of the significance of the event, Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan had put together a very impressive 50-member delegation composed of three dance groups: Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Kadamb and the Kerala Kalamandalam. Among them there were some of the country’s most talented Bharata Natyam, Kathak and Kathakali dancers (some of the younger ones were to go on to acquire much-deserved fame in subsequent years). The delegation was led by Mrs. Mrinalini Sarabhai who did a superb job, handling the crucial pubiic relations with great dignity and charm. The Chinese hospitality was overwhelming. During the four week tour, performances were held in five cities (including Shijiazhuang, the city of Dr. Kotnis) to full houses, rave reviews and very substantial TV coverage. The enthusiastic response of the Chinese audiences was truly astonishing. This was both a recognition of the qualify of the performances and the fact that the Chinese had been culturally starved during the Cultural Revolution.

Equally exciting for me was an opportunity to see a China closed to me by the hostile and turbulent political environment during my earlier two-year posting in Beijing. Besides the mandatory - and, from a professional point of view, very useful -visits to model factories and farms, we were able to visit universities and art institutions to meet scholars and artistes, They spoke with pain and sorrow of the oppression and humiliation by the Gang of Four. But the abiding impression I gained was that of their resilience, their indomitable spirit. Particularly memorable was the visit to the famous Beijing University and meeting with the great scholar Prof. Ji Xianlin who told us of his work on translating Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana into Chinese. On a visit to a prestigious dance school I watched with amazement as a famous Chinese dancer, Dai Ailian, (much persecuted during the Cultural Revolution) gave a brief performance of a Bharata Natyam piece learnt some 25 years ago during a visit to Madras.There was also the simple joy of being able to speak to people in the street. Some of us, for instance, walked unannounced and unescorted, into a small school somewhere deep in Changhsha to be greeted with much affection and excitement by the school principal who spoke nostalgically about seeing, ages ago, the Hindi film Do Beegha Zameen and expressed the fervent hope that there will be close friendship again between our two countries.

The next few months back in Delhi were dominated by preparations for Foreign Ministers visit to China now scheduled for February 1979. Foreign Secretary Jagat Mehta, who himself had a long experience of dealing with Chinese, laid down the guidelines for us. The burden naturally fell primarily on the East Asia Division now led by my old friend Rangi. Thanks to the phenomenal work put in by all the colleagues in the Division we were able to prepare an extraordinarily comprehensive set of briefs covering every significant facet of our relationship with China.

At that time many Indian foreign policy analysts - both within and outside the government - still painted a fairly demoniac picture of China. It was, for instance, argued that the Chinese expressions of goodwill were merely tactical ploys, designed to trap us into some suicidal foreign policy moves. Still bearing the scars of 196, they saw the Chinese policy-makers not only as harbouring diabolical designs but gifted with some sort of fiendish cleverness which their Indian counterparts would not be able to match.

The fact that the Chinese decided to launch their attack on Vietnam even before Mr. Vajpayee had left the Chinese territory was a most depressing experience. The critics of the government’s China policy had a field day. But the long-term impact of the minister’s discussions in Beijing was certainly positive.

I for one was not surprised when Mrs. Indira Gandhi on return to power made it clear that she intended to proceed ahead with the normalization process. The new Foreign Minister PV. Narasimha Rae, soon after taking over, sat down to a conscientious study of the outstanding problems in India-China relations. In the meanwhile my old boss, Mr. RD. Sathe, had become the Foreign Secretary. If and when MEA throws open to public its secret files of this period, students of India-China relations may find it interesting to study how various options were prepared under his guidance for consideration at political level. They will, in particular, be able to fill an important lacuna in the usual accounts of the normalization process: the visit to Beijing in June 1990 of a two-men team led by Secretary (East) Eric Gonsalves. (I was the second member.) If I remember correctly it was meant to be a secret visit squeezed in between the publicly acknowledged visits to Pyonyang and Tokyo, but G.K. Reddy of the Hindu, with his unfailing contacts at the top level of government, got wind of it. The importance of the talks which we had with the Chinese

can be gauged from the fact that the Prime Minister met us not only before our departure for our trip but also immediately after our return. There was a particular poignancy about the second meeting as it took place soon after the death of Mrs. Gandhi’s son Sanjay in a tragic air-crash.

While I was in Beijing I received a message that I had been appointed to succeed Rangi as the head of the East Asia Division, By now we had a clear-cut political decision to continue developing mutually beneficial relations with China in as many fields as possible, while trying to look for a satisfactory resolution of the most important outstanding issue between the two countries - the border question. In August 1990 there was a little hiccup. A small Indian army unit on patrol duty on the border lost its way and wandered into Chumbi valley. Successful negotiation with the Chinese of the safe and smooth return of these men was a small but significant step in the evolution of mutual trust so essential if we were to have peace and tranquility on the border.

My last active involvement in official India-China exchanges during my years a! the headquarters came with the visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Hua in June 1981. Actually I had already handed over charge of the division to my batchmate Ranjit Sethi and was about to leave for an assignment abroad, but the Foreign Secretary instructed me to stay on to assist in handling this visit. Among the results of the visit was an agreement between the two Foreign Ministers to initiate regular official-level talks on the boundary question and further improvement of bilateral relations. The first round of these talks took place in December 1981. But by then I was in Cuba on my first ambassadorial assignment.

Naturally China was somewhat remote from one’s concerns in Havana but it certainly was not so in Jakarta where I served as Indian’s Ambassador from 1985 to 1988. It was yet another stage in one’s perpetual learning process, I fell I now had a better understanding of how Indonesia, the largest member of ASEAN, saw China’s role in Southeast Asia. Another theme which fascinated me was the overseas Chinese community in Indonesia. Their position is full of contradictions on which much has been written.

It was only when I got to Bhutan in 1989 that once again my involvement with China was not confined to observation and study. Sine-Bhutanese relations are obviously of great strategic interest to us. Not surprisingly, Sino-Indian relations were also of very great concern to Bhutan. China, therefore, figured, rather prominently in my discussions with then Bhutanese government.

I particularly value the opportunities I have had 10 lode at China in academic settings: a year as a Fellow at the Centre (“Center” as they spell it!) of International Affairs at Harvard University (1988-89). two years as “Visiting Ambassador at the Department of Chinese and Japanese Studies of the Delhi University (1992-93), and my continuing association with the Institute of Chinese Studies.

The year at Harvard enabled me to meet and attend lectures by not only some of America’s leading Sinologists but visiting experts from all over the world including the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. I also experienced at first hand the “love-hate” cycle in the often wildly fluctuating American attitudes towards China, a phenomenon so brilliantly analysed by Harold lsaacs. I shall never forget the transformation in one particular eminent Sinologist. When I arrived in Boston in September 1988 she had just returned from her trip to China and spoke to me with admiration bordering an adulation of Deng Xiaoping. A few days before my departure in June 1989 I was in the auditorium as she denounced Deng with all the passion of a betrayed love. It was, of course, the Tiananmen incident which made the difference.

My assignment at Delhi University as “visiting ambassador” was jointly sponsored by the Ministry of External Affairs and the University Grants Commission (UGC).The idea was to forge a closer link between our ministry and the academic community. This was the first time that such a concept was being tried out. Given my background it was felt that the Department of Chinese and Japanese studies would be an appropriate place for the experiment. Two successive heads of the Department, Profs. Sharma and Gupta were both most supportive. The main responsibility entrusted to me al Delhi University was to join Prof. Mira Sinha Bhattachajea in teaching a course on Chinese Foreign Policy to M. Phil. students. Mira, of course, is a more genuine  on the subject than I am.

During this period one of the activities which gave me special satisfaction was a two-day seminar on “China and South Asia in the post-Cold War World” which I was able to organize on behalf of the Department of Chinese and Japanese Studies and the India International Centre. The idea was that a paper on China’s relations with each of the South Asian countries would be prepared by an academic expert and the discussant on the paper would be a former diplomat with professional experience relating to that country. The papers later appeared as a special issue of the China Report Vol.30 No. 2 the journal of the Institute of Chinese Studies. Unfortunately it was not possible to cover in that issue the highly stimulating discussions which the papers generated.

From my Hong Kong days I have been greatly attracted by Chinese calligraphy. I find it perfectly understandable that, through the centuries, excellence in calligraphy has been regarded by the Chinese as a hallmark of a truly cultivated man. One of the more memorable moments in my two years with the Department was the opportunity to hear and see in action the President of the Chinese Calligraphy Society who came to give a lecture-cum-demonstration. Thanks to a UGC grant I was able to visit China for a week in November 1993. I had discussions on China’s foreign policy and security concerns with experts in the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations, the China Institute for International Strategic Studies and the Shanghai Institute for International Studies. I had also a long session with the President of the Chinese People’s Institute for Foreign Affairs. It was refreshing to find that most of them had junked ideological jargon and now spoke in terms recognizable by students of international affairs everywhere. Further, though all adhered in broad terms to the official line of the day, significant variations would emerge when we got down to detailed analysis, attributable often to the different background of each of these institutions. But all the presentations by my interlocutors reflected China’s growing self-confidence arising from the fact that while the Soviet Union had collapsed China had not only held together but had achieved impressive economic growth. Asked about China’s current threat perceptions they pointed out that China May had a better security environment than at any time since the Opium War, and that for the first time since 1949 they did not have hostile relations with any of their neighbours. They spoke in spoke terms about the complexity of their relations with USA and Japan. All of them were sanguine about the future of India-China relations,

A meeting with economists in the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and Fudan University as also a visit to the ambitious new Pudong project and the spectacularly successful city of Wuxi (harbour city on the Yangtze which according to its officials had more than 2,000 joint ventures with foreign investment of over US $ 2.5 billion) gave me a better idea both of the undoubted economic achievements of Dengist reforms and of the social problems generated by the abandonment of the Marxist-Maoist egalitarian vision.

After voluntarily retiring from government service in March 1994 and a brief but fruitful stint as the Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies in Delhi I accepted an invitation to proceed to Taiwan as the first Director General of the India-Taipei Association in March 1995. My professional responsibility was to promote trade, investment and tourism and I hope I did not do too bad a job of it. But what gave me real pleasure was the fact that my wife and I could now savour many facets of Chinese culture of which we had up to now only read or heard.

Visits to the National Palace Museum in Taipei never ceased to thrill us. It houses in an imposing complex the richest collection of Chinese art in the world - a treasure that came in 4.800 cases from the mainland on the eve of the communist truimph. I was able to spend an occasional holiday admiring at a leisurely pace the fabulous bronzes, ceramics, paintings, and jade pieces. I used to feel sorry for the tourists who had to rush through the museum in an hour or so but I must confess that every now and then I enjoyed the lightening tours in the company of volunteer guides who were full of insightful comments and amusing anecdotes. Through their help one discovered the symbolism of exquisitely carved animals with three themes dominating: longevity, fertility and aspiration to climb up the bureaucratic and social ladder.

On 28 September 1995 I joined the teachers and students gathered in the courtyard of the Confucius Temple in Taipei to pay homage to the sage on his birthday which is celebrated in Taiwan as Teacher’s Day.

One of the memorable experiences was an opportunity to see a master painter in action. Prof. Ho-nien Au’s bold and swift strokes brought alive, in a matter of minutes, a stunning landscape on a blank paper.

Another intriguing aspect of Chinese culture into which I was able to get a glimpse in Taipei was the Chan (Zen/Dhyana) School of Buddhism. As is well known, according to Chinese tradition, this Meditation School was brought to China from India by Bodhidharma, that extraordinary monk whom the faithful regard as an incarnation of Buddha or Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, and whose arrival in Canton (Guangzhou) in the 6th century is one of the seminal events in the history of India-China cultural relations. Before leaving Taiwan I was able to call on Master Sheng Yen who had the reputation of being one of the foremost living masters of the Chan tradition. One of my precious possessions is a scroll bearing the single character ‘than’ presented to me by the Master in his own calligraphy.

With China in one way or another occupying so much of my adult life there is an endless reservoir of memories. Naturally one responds to a phenomenon like China at many different levels. Students of international affairs cannot afford to harbour any illusions. However, I would agree with what the then Foreign Minister Vajpayee had said in Parliament after his return from his visit to China: “Just as I would caution against euphoria, I would also urge a measure of self-confidence that any effort at improvement in relations need not mean the sacrifice of our national interests and aspirations.” Further, no matter what the state of India-China relatiM1s at any given time, or indeed of any other facet of Chinese contemporary behaviour, all members of the human family can take joy and pride in the great achievements of Chinese civilization.

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© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

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Published in 1998 by 

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