India in the Thinker’s Cafe

Have you heard that Premier Wen Jiabao is in New Delhi? When I posted the question this week, I ended up informing some Beijingers that their leader happened to be in India.

The three-day meeting achieved more on trade deals and camera-friendly handshakes than strategic substance. The joint statement hit a discordant note over China’s Kashmir policy with India leaving out a standard reference to Tibet and the one-China principle included in past statements. As HT reported,  there was no change in India’s official stance but the joint statement was less explicit.

The Chinese media reports said the visit was a success.

On Saturday morning in a quiet cafe above a dusty bookstore, I got a sense of softening public opinion on the bilateral relationship, compared to before the visit. (However, on some People’s Daily forums there were strains of dismay and rebuke from netizens against fence-mending overtures.)

I was at the Thinker’s Café, a hangout for intellectuals and bookworms in a suburb of students and young migrants. A waitress with Chanel emblazoned on her jeans served my cappuccino. Sweatshirts and spectacles seemed to be the standard customer id except for the Buddhist in maroon robe at a corner table next to a window bathed in sunshine. A toy Santa, reindeer and assorted stuffed animals stood on the centrepiece next to traditional porcelain vases.

At the table next to us, IT professional Lei Qu said he had missed news of the India-China dialogue in Delhi. I asked him if he thinks India and China are friends, rivals or just neighbours. “Most of the time India and China are friends,’’ he said. “The most important thing in the 21st century is economic ties. Friendship is good for both sides. The disagreements will not affect people-to-people ties and business ties.’’

Lei’s views were not shaped by state-run propaganda. He said he reads the newspapers but doesn’t find regular news about India in the Chinese media with exceptions for dispatches on Bollywood and the disputed border. Lei spent five years as a computer science student in Los Angeles, where he made friends with Indian students and formed his own impressions of India. For instance: Indians are good at business…and they talk a lot’’.

Wang Shan who brought us the bill said she had followed Wen’s visit on national television. “India and China are neither friends nor rivals,’’ said the former law student. “They are just neighbours.’’ She was the only Chinese person I met that day who knew about the Premier’s tour of India. She explained her belief that India-China cannot be rivals because they have ‘no disagreements’. It’s not uncommon to hear the Chinese express friendship toward India, but it’s rare to meet someone who sums up that the neighbours sharing a disputed border don’t have disputes.

The previous day in another part of Beijing, an elderly school teacher who is an avid newspaper reader had also expressed the same view. “India-China are just neighbours without any disagreements,’’ said Zhang Qiuyan. “Nowadays, relations between the US, Japan, Korean Peninsula are pretty tough, so we are eager to make friends with India, which faces the same developmental challenges as China. Wen’s visit to India will improve relations.”

The café had emptied so we went down a staircase lined with dusty pumpkins forgotten since Halloween. Next to a few translated copies of Aurobindo’s Letters on Yoga, we met Tsinghua journalism and communications student Alexander Lui. He thinks that India-China are friendly neighbours and it’s ‘a pity’ that he doesn’t have more Indian students to interact with on campus.

“We all know India has a long history. India gave birth to major religions like Buddhism.’’

What do you know about modern India?

He laughed good-naturedly. “I know basic facts…Gandhi, Nehru…and no more!’’

Back home, I was still thinking about the comments jotted in my notebook. So I reread Wen’s speech in New Delhi. “China and India should always be partners and friends. We should never be rivals. We should tell this to everyone.”

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