Thoughts on a big red book
Among the hundred or so books on China in my home, there is a hardback red volume titled “The 60th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between China and India.” The book is outwardly a boring set of largely black and white photographs of official visits and events held between India and China obviously taken by the government-hired photographer of the day.
The shots consist of lots of elderly men in suits shaking hands, backdropped by flowers and flags, a translator and other hangers-on on the sides. The Chinese title is in gold pictographs and two ambassadors from the respective countries provide dull forewords.
However, glancing through the book there are a number of things that come through.
One is the remarkable disruption that occurred in the diplomatic relations of the two countries after the 1962 war. In all the sets of pictures, whether the official visits, the economic exchanges, cultural and people-to-people contacts, there are dense clusters of photographs up to 1962 — and then suddenly no photographs until 1978. Then the flow of officials picks up but doesn’t really reach that early density until 1988.
Even the visits of Indian communist leaders — visits by senior Indian party leaders of all varieties are intermingled with those of officialdom — don’t resume until the late 1980s. The pro-Soviet communists lagging behind the Maoist-oriented variant by about five years. Indian service chiefs don’t show up until the 1990s.
But the discontinuity is sharp.
Two is the many Chinese leaders who are shown in the book, grasping some visiting Indian’s hand, who disappeared in purges, cultural revolutions or other political maelstroms. Defence minister Peng Dehuai is seen sharing a laugh with Lieutenant General JN Chaudhary. Peng was purged, tortured and killed by Mao Zedong a few years later. A similar fate awaited Liu Shaoqi, who pops up three or four times, as does Marshal Zhu De.
But the party has accepted the errors of the Mao years. It has not eased on the view that the Tiananmen Square demonstrations were dastardly deeds done with counter-revolution on the mind. So if Zhao Ziyang, the leader turned dissident turned exile, met an Indian official this book has no record. (He met at least our Indian ambassador of the time.)
Three, the set of photos on trade and economics is particularly bare. Little happened before the 1962 war, and little happened afterwards. The flow of visitors and events only takes place from the 1990s.
In other words, when India’s economic liberalisation programme starts to make India more than just another socialist failure.
Finally, there seems to be a slight difference between India and China in how they assess the war and its role in the diplomatic relationship.
The Chinese simply treat the entire 60 years as one continuous thread. The border war is simply treated as nonexistent or immaterial. The Chinese ambassador’s foreword can blithely talk of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai as a “token of long-lasting friendship between the two peoples” and then suddenly fast forward to “the 21st century.”
Foreign minister Yang Jiechi, in his opening words to the book, doggedly makes the same claim, “Since the establishment of diplomatic relations, peace friendship and mutually beneficial cooperation have remained the mainstream of China-India relations.” A position negated by the sheer number of photos which revolve around some sort of meeting dealing with the boundary. The only reference to the war in the Chinese officials’ statements to all that past nastiness is the Chinese ambassador’s dismissal of differences as “a patch of cloud in the sky” “eclipsed” by the “brilliant sun” of bilateral relations.
The Indian official narrative is different. It merely argues that the past is over and there is a “new relationship” between India and China, as the Indian ambassador’s foreword notes. References to the Sino-Indian relationship of the past are missing. This is a “new phase” in the relationship, the foreword mentions, and it will be cemented by economics — the new mojo in Sino-Indian relations.
The preponderance of black and white photographs even after colour film became de rigeuer is a mere curiousity in comparison.