Women (Not) In The News

Reshma Patil

They are in demand to discuss #MeToo.

But studies still underscore that women are not yet considered newsy on national television in India on debates ranging across the economy to foreign affairs and farming to national security.

Data from a study released last month by The Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) reckoned that women comprised barely 14% of news panelists – compared to 86% men. About 65% of the news panels surveyed were all-male. There were slightly more women panelists on Hindi channels (23.5%) compared to English channels (17%).

The NWMI report cited some of my writing on the topic based on my days in a journalism fellowship programme in 2017 at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford.

Certain academic and media organisations in the UK have taken the lead in initiatives seeking to end the under-representation of women experts in the media. I met analysts at City University of London who have amassed years of quantitative records and analysis on the low visibility of women specialists in current affairs broadcasting. Their findings have been discussed from the House of Lords to the BBC Academy. The BBC has an online database of women experts and conducts occasional training sessions for numerous first-time women commentators — they identified 164 women commentators in 2013 alone and 48 in 2017 at the time of my research.

The Reuters Institute published my fellowship report here last year. A version of the paper was reproduced on IndiaSpend, based on a separate five-day sample study, which found that roughly four times more men than women appeared as panelists on English-language television news debates.

Initiatives in the UK have demonstrated ways to narrow the gender gap on television news panels. These can be easily replicated in any newsroom that’s motivated to better represent a variety of views from across the country. But as the NWMI report bluntly stated, the absence of women ‘is hardly noticed by decision-makers in TV news and even by the audience’.

An Indian Keeper at The Ashmolean

Reshma Patil

The oldest public museum in the United Kingdom, The Ashmolean Museum in the University of Oxford, last year appointed a new curator for its India collection and as a keeper/ head of its Eastern Art Department.

Mallica Kumbera Landrus happens to be the prestigious art and archaeology museum’s first Indian to take up the two roles and the latter, she acknowledges, ‘breaks at least one glass ceiling in Oxford’.

Visitors may notice that she recently put her stamp on a near-miss corner of the palatial museum building which has the largest art and archaeology collection outside London in the UK.

The Ashmolean Museum now has a first-of-its-kind special exhibit at the museum that’s dedicated to select works of art from India and Pakistan in two decades post-1947. ‘Old Traditions, New Visions: Art in India and Pakistan after 1947’ is tucked in a little corner gallery since last September and it will remain open until March this year.

The exhibit, according to The Ashmolean website, showcases the ‘new modes of expression’ of Indian and Pakistani artists as they ‘faced a significant challenge to express the new nations’ distinctive character and visions’ and ‘engaged with modern European art movements but remained oriented towards their own traditions’.

Entry to this exhibit is free compared to the more prominent Western exhibits under the same roof that attract larger paying audiences.

In an exclusive interview, Kumbera Landrus discussed her new role at The Ashmolean. She’s also associate professor for the history of art in India at the University of Oxford.

The best-known artists on the Indian sub-continent, she argued, are still relatively anonymous in the UK. “My aim was to do a big show to mark 70 years of independence for India and Pakistan. But would it attract audiences?’’ she raised the question.

“The target when we organise bigger shows is that they attract paying audiences,’’ she said. “An exhibit that attracts 40,000 people in three months is considered a success. One wants to make changes but also keep in mind that economics is important, as ticket sales contribute towards keeping the lights on and the doors open.”

Whenever that ‘big Indian exhibit’ happens, she noted, it will be essential that there is ‘substantial interest’ in it.

“One hopes for an intellectually stimulating show, which also represents sumptuously the exceptional history of art in India. However, without the audience numbers, it would not be considered an appropriate success. For now, only a small gallery was available for a free exhibit.”

It took over a year’s planning to acquire 13 paintings for the exhibit from private collections in London. It includes works of Indian artists Vasudeo Gaitonde, M F Hussain, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, S H Raza and Francis Newton Souza and Zubeida Agha, Sadequain and Anwar Jalal Shemza from Pakistan. According to Kumbera Landrus, the exhibit seeks to ‘exemplify the merging of Indian and Western art practices on the sub-continent’.

Patrons who have viewed the collection have found it ‘unexpected,’ she observed, because they are more familiar with Indian art such as Mughal and Rajput paintings or the Hindu and Buddhist sculptures in the museum.

Putting a woman and non-British person (she’s an Indian passport-holder) in charge of a department was ‘a huge change’ for the world’s first university museum to make, she acknowledged. As an Indian who has lived in India, the US and the UK, she says she’s ‘very aware’ of the gender and identity bias in workplaces.

“Some of the most closed institutes in the world are museums,’’ she said. “Based on proven trust, that builds over a long period, usually one takes up a job at a museum when one is very young and works for a few decades before heading a department … and I’m just in my mid-40’s, so I’m the youngest head of a curatorial department as well.”

In the last five years before her current appointment, she worked as a teaching curator at the University of Oxford, and introduced innovations in the classrooms. In her lectures, she interlinks art with subjects as diverse as clinical medicine, business studies and geopolitics and often includes objects from the museum’s collection and vast storage. For many of her students, it’s their first brush with Eastern art and that too in a current context.

The Eastern Art Department has approximately 40,000 objects of art including items from China, Japan and the Middle East. Her curatorial work involves the Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian art. The Indian collection of 10,000-12,000 objects from the Indus Valley civilisation to the 20th century famously includes the first object from India given to any museum: a ninth-century sculpture of Vishnu that came to Oxford in 1686. It made its way to the museum from William Hedges, the first Governor of the East India Company in Bengal.

Kumbera Landrus recently came across a lesser-known find, a Ganesha sculpture small enough to fit on one’s palm, that was once owned by William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was stored in the Library because it was gifted to the University of Oxford in 1640, before the museum was founded in 1683.

“Our collection from the Indian sub-continent is comprehensive between the Indus and 1900, after which it has not really grown,’’ she said. “In the early 20th century, there was waning interest in the UK in Indian art. The great modernists of the Bengal school, for example, are not represented in the Ashmolean collection. We have several Raja Ravi Verma prints but just one oil painting gifted to the museum by the Maharajah of Baroda, Sayajirao Gaekwad III.  Modern art is also very expensive, so we do depend on gifts and some generous donors for objects to expand our collection.”

She aims to further ‘engage with audiences in Oxford’ through exhibits and ‘increase awareness of art in India’. She also hopes to raise funds to expand and care for the collection and to start fellowships to support the study, conservation and teaching of Indian art in India.

The exhibit on art from India and Pakistan will remain open in gallery 29 until March 18.

(The writer was in Oxford from October-December as a journalist fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.)

Letter from an Indian corner in Oxford

“Every week, we get emails from Indian students. Every year, we sift through 150 short-listed applications for scholarships from India.”

Reshma Patil

The only trial of my life in this lovely place is that I have not time to write and tell you everything about all I see, hear and do…”_18 October, 1889. (From ‘An Indian Portia,’ Selected writings of Cornelia Sorabji 1866 to 1954, Edited by Kusoom Vadgama)

A black-and-white photograph of Cornelia Sorabji, the first Indian woman admitted to Oxford in 1889, hangs in a nook of the law library of Somerville, a former women’s college. Portraits of Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher share a wall in another section of the campus on Woodstock Road. Women achievers frame every wall of its dining-hall, a place that is usually a bastion of male portraits in Oxford. And one may walk on its lawns, an activity strictly banned in bigger manicured colleges of Harry Potter fame.

Over a century since Sorabji became ‘the first woman (Indian or British) to sit the examination for the degree of bachelor of civil law at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1892,’ as Vadgama wrote, Oxford is now home to 390 Indian students among the total 23,195 students from over 140 nations.

India’s student strength in the very expensive intellectual capital of the UK is fourth-highest after the US, China and Germany. But it’s still below potential; just five more students compared to Italy.

India’s diaspora in the UK comprises nearly 1.5 million people of Indian origin _  equivalent to 1.8 per cent of the population. But barely an hour-long train ride away from London, on the leafy streets of Oxford’s grand old city-centre, one is likely to bump into more American and Chinese students: 1,573 and 1,151 respectively. The decrease in Indian enrolments in the UK since 2010 is reportedly mainly due to visa and immigration restrictions, but British diplomats have been saying that the numbers can improve again. “In numbers, this meant that in 2015/16, the number of student enrolments domiciled from India was 13,150 less than in 2011/12,’’ according to an estimate of the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

“There are now more students from America studying in the UK than from India,” The Independent reported last year. “Just five years ago Indian students outnumbered their US counterparts by two to one.”

A four-year-old centre at Somerville College, established with a partnership between the Indian government and the University of Oxford, is trying to make its niche contribution to expand the Indian student community in Oxford. The Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development, launched 2013, says that it aims to support ‘exceptional Indian scholars’ to study topics relating to India’s sustainable development at Oxford and ‘translate academic ideas to the ground’.

“Every week, I get emails from students in India who are eager to study here,’’ says Sara Kalim, Director of Development at the centre. “Each year, we sift through 150 short-listed applications for Master’s to DPhil courses from students who have already been accepted into Oxford. The calibre of Indian students is always outstanding.’’

Three of its new-comers are Indian women enrolled in the Cornelia Sorabji Law Programme launched here last year. The centre offers about 10 scholarships at any time and is in ‘fund-raising mode’ to launch more scholarships for example, in environmental law.

Often almost half the Indian applicants say they are unable to make it to Oxford largely due to lack of funding.

“In the short-term, we would like to double the number of Indian students on scholarships here,’’ says Kalim. “In the long-term, we would hope to build a place to house meaningful interactions between Oxford and India.’’

The centre looks for people who are seriously interested in innovative inter-disciplinary research and in returning to India to contribute to sustainable development in the teaching, academic, research and development fields. The centre’s current research activities focus on healthcare — developing inexpensive, remote technologies to monitor and treat large numbers of Parkinson’s disease patients, for example — and on sustainable nutrition issues such as mapping the rice supply chain, marine pollution and studying the sustainability of the public distribution system.

“The natural inter-disciplinary environment of Oxford lends itself well to some of the sustainable development problems of India,’’ says Kalim. “We are a centre for India, rather than about India.”

(A more detailed version of this blog was published on IndiaSpend and also reprinted on Business Standard )


Chinese firms want to hire more Indians – if they can find the right ones

Reshma Patil

Chinese investors are ‘returning’ to India. The headline, in a Beijing-based newspaper, appeared days after India and China ended a 73-day face-off on the disputed Sino-Bhutan border.

At the same time in a northern suburb of Mumbai, a housewife who first studied Mandarin in her late thirties was fine-tuning an English-Mandarin job portal that she plans to launch next month to facilitate recruitment for Chinese companies based in India and China. Usha Sahoo launched Yeh China Education, a language and placements company, about seven years ago. It now has about 40 centres in India.

“Since the last two years,” says Sahoo, “we’ve seen a lot of demand from Chinese companies to recruit Indians who can speak, read and write Mandarin. But the Chinese find it very difficult to reach Indian candidates. And most job portals are in English, so they are not really effective in China.”

From mountains to sea-lanes, geopolitical disputes between Asia’s two rival neighbours occasionally derail the bilateral relationship. Beijing’s warnings of military confrontation during the Doklam dispute from June to August had also raised questions of the sustainability of Sino-Indian economic and trade ties. The Chinese chamber of commerce in Bangalore, for example, hosted a group of investors ‘almost every other day,’ reported the Global Times. The frequency dropped to one group per week during the border stand-off but began to gradually increase in September.

Chinese investment in India, though 17th highest compared to 35th seven years ago, is below one per cent of total FDI inflows in India. Japan, in contrast, represents 7.6 per cent. Indian investment in China is less than a billion dollars at $705 million.

But according to hiring trends of Chinese companies, China’s corporate sector remained keen to scale the great wall at Doklam and get back to business.

Rare Human Resources

They may be the world’s two most populous economies. But Indian companies in China struggle to retain Chinese manpower, and Chinese companies in India struggle to recruit them in the first place.

Nearly 55,500 Non-Resident Indians lived in China in 2016 according to official Indian data. The current size of the Indian community in China is twice as high compared to a decade ago, but relatively low in comparison to 45,000 NRIS in just Hong Kong and 100,000 NRIs in Philippines. About 20,000 Chinese live in India according to 2015 estimates.

“There are good Chinese managers and there are good Indian managers,’’ notes Santosh Pai, a partner at Link Legal India Law Services, a firm headquartered in New Delhi, that also collaborates with the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade. “But it’s a common refrain that it’s difficult to find a good Indian manager to work for a Chinese company and a good Chinese manager to work for an Indian company.”

The demand for this niche group of executives, Pai says, is ‘huge’.

Chinese FDI in India has diversified from the automobile sector, steel and power generation to smartphones, electronics, renewable energy, real estate and mobile wallets.  Chinese majors like Huawei are well-established in India — it operates its largest R&D centre outside China in Bangalore with a few thousand Indian employees. But junior-level Chinese executives exploring India for the first time regularly complain not only about visa and procedural delays but also of a language and cultural barrier in an unfamiliar economy — roughly 1 out of 600 annual Chinese outbound travellers visit India.

In The Silk Road Rediscovered, authors Anil K Gupta, Girija Pande and Haiyan Wang interviewed a Chinese executive whose company wanted to build a local team but faced ‘a big challenge to figure out who the right people could be and to build trust’.

In China, Chinese CEOs and executives I met would always marvel about India’s skilled labour pool. “How come Indians speak English so well?’’ they asked. When they come to India, they find themselves wishing that more people could understand their own language and culture.

Earlier this month, Nazia Vasi, CEO of Inchin Closer, an India-China language and business consultancy, announced that her company would also start corporate placements. Vasi posted job alerts that may not be openly advertised. A Chinese air-conditioner manufacturer was looking for a Mandarin speaker in Ahmedabad. A Chinese real estate company required Mandarin-speaking staff in three cities that are emerging as hotspots for Chinese investment — Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai.

“It’s just opening up now,” says Vasi about recruitment by Chinese firms in India. “The Chinese don’t know how to reach out to Indian recruiters and Indian recruiters don’t understand the high level of Mandarin language skills required to place Indian candidates. Indian universities don’t have tie-ups with companies. The talent pool of high-level Mandarin students is small, so recruitment can’t take off in a big way … it will gradually develop.”

Learning Chinese is not cheap. A 400-hour course with examinations recognised in China can cost up to Rs 1 lakh in India. Job openings for Mandarin interpreters may offer low-level salaries starting at around Rs 5 lakh per year.

Work Culture Contrasts

The Indian Institute of Management in northeastern Shillong offers a one-of-its-kind 14-month course to train postgraduate executives to work in the India-China business sector. The course includes a four-month internship and language-training in China.

Pai, who teaches the ‘legal and constitutional aspects of India-China business’ at IIM Shillong argues that the challenge of training Indian and Chinese manpower to work together goes beyond the language issue.  Interested players in India need to understand mutual business practices, cross-cultural communication and negotiation, he suggests, and emphasises the need for a greater exposure to Chinese culture, history and politics to ‘overcome prejudices’.

Indian companies, from five-star hotel chains to domestic airlines, already book corporate trainers for crash courses on Chinese language and culture for Indian executives. Twenty per cent of the Mandarin course at Inchin Closer, for example, focuses on cultural issues — the importance of punctuality is prominent in the training. Sahoo’s modules also emphasise nuances such as respecting each other’s food habits and the art of Chinese gift giving. Fruit baskets are appreciated, she says, and talking about yoga is a recommended conversation starter.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that Chinese manufacturing, investment and real estate companies are scouting for Mandarin speakers for entry-level sales and marketing staff. They are eyeing candidates below 30 years who are willing to travel. Almost every Chinese company interested in investing in India needs recruiters to help them find full-time interpreters to operate the day-to-day business, from translating Chinese documents to helping Indian and Chinese colleagues interact daily; the task is arguably unappealing to highly skilled Indian professionals.

“The freelancer and interpreter tag should be replaced with business development or corporate trainer labels,’’ suggests Sahoo.

At the senior level, notes Pai, Indian managers with over a decade’s experience are accustomed to autonomy at work. They find it ‘difficult to cope with the hierarchical structures within Chinese companies where information tends to flow bottom up and decisions flow from the top.’

Perceptions of India among Chinese expats, on the other hand, are mainly based on reports in the Chinese media that depict the Indian economy as backward compared to the Chinese economy. Recent Chinese travel safety advisories issued twice in the three-month long Doklam crisis may have strengthened negative perceptions and the trust deficit on both sides. Chinese smartphone makers Oppo and Vivo, as The Economic Times reported, sent 400 expats home during the dispute.

“The number of Chinese relocating to India with their families is slowly growing,” says Pai. “But India is still not an ideal location from a Chinese perspective.’’

Companies outside China have noticed that Indians are speaking Mandarin. Sahoo has begun to receive corporate requests to find Indian candidates fluent in English and Mandarin to operate Indian business process outsourcing or BPO centres of Western companies with Chinese consumers.

“Chinese speakers in India,’’ notes Sahoo, “are more affordable to recruit than in China.’’ If only more Indians spoke Mandarin, then they might be the newest export in the curious Sino-Indian business relationship.

(This blog was also published on The Quint)

Life of an obituary editor

A chat with The Economist’s obituaries editor Ann Wroe who brings to life, overnight, people she can never meet

Reshma Patil

In Mumbai in November 2012, they were mourning the death of Balasaheb Thackeray. In London, a soft-spoken writer and biographer in her sixties, piece of dark chocolate on her desk, had a day and night to imagine the Shiv Sena supremo in 1,000 words. There was just this one thing. Ann Wroe had never heard of the legendary strongman before.

Wroe, writer of over 600 obituaries at The Economist, (about 47 a year since 2003) has worked in the paper since the days when editors smoked pipes.

“His blood boiled inside him…,’’ she went on to write. “Sometimes his tongue would lash the crowd itself.’’

I met Wroe last year during a brief stint as a Chevening fellow at The Economist at its former address on St James’ Street. My window opened to a postcard view from London Eye to the Shard. And my desk on the 13th floor was strategically located by a cupboard overflowing with stationery and sweet and salty snacks from Sainsbury’s, which naturally gave me a chance to interact with nearly everyone on the floor. When they discussed India, they would usually argue about Narendra Modi, nationalism and economic reforms. As Wroe passed by, black velvet waistcoat buttoned up and vintage brooch on beret, I overheard her mention someone unusual. It was a bookseller from Khan Market, Delhi.

For almost three weeks last March, Wroe gathered research material on Balraj Bahri Malhotra, founder of the landmark Bahrisons bookshop in Khan Market, who had recently passed away. Bahri was ‘just the sort of candidate she liked’. We got talking, moving our discussion to the black couches in the lobby. She was planning to pack her research material on Bahri to browse on holiday in Spain. At airports, she usually reads the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads. Bahri didn’t get on the page. There were ‘simply too many famous people dying of late,’ like former First Lady Nancy Reagan and she felt ‘a slight obligation not to ignore them’.

Who reads obituaries? In India, the lost art is occasionally restored mainly for politicians and celebrities; hurriedly penned by other politicians, celebrities and celebrity editors. In the UK, lengthy obituaries survive in sections of the print media though death is considered so commercially taboo that advertisers recoil from selling products next to obituaries. The Times and Daily Telegraph are known to stockpile hundreds of obituaries of living world leaders, celebrities and people we don’t know but might like to read about. I heard that certain readers are addicted to The Economist’s last page and read the anonymously penned obituary first.

Wroe’s stockpile is selective. She has a secret bank of 15 obituaries (including former US presidents and a dictator). Every week, she searches for interesting life stories of two-three candidates until she ‘hears a bell in her head’.

“I’m very keen to find excuses to cover candidates from India … they are indeed rare at the moment, perhaps one in six months,’’ she told me that rainy afternoon. Her Asian profiles tend to veer towards a collection of India exotica for British readers but she insists that candidates need not be exotic. She has profiled actor Shammi Kapoor who ‘seethed with Westernised sex appeal,’ Brajraj Mahapatra, the last prince of the British Raj turned pauper who ‘also killed one elephant’ and Sashimani Devi, the last human consort of god Jagannath in Puri. “As husbands went,” Wroe wrote, “he was not demanding”.

The obituary page of the weekly print edition is planned on Monday and due by 3 pm, Tuesday. Wroe ‘runs off’ to the London Library every Monday to ‘try to get inside the person’s head’ through reams of old interviews and autobiographies.

“You can’t go through the whole life,’’ she says on her craft. “Instead you have to take a snapshot and the essence of somebody’’.

She outlines what she considers the crucial part of the piece, the beginning and the end, on the way home on Bus No 24. The next day, a glass of water and a cup of strong coffee on her desk, she says she tries to write in the tone of her departed subject. It’s a ‘slight challenge’ for certain subjects. Like Osama bin Laden.


Reporting from China on India was a different game not long ago

Reshma Patil

Chinese flip-flops from co-operation to confrontation sound familiar in every territorial stand-off in Asia’s most complicated relationship. But Beijing’s media management of Sino-Indian relations changed this year, crossing editorial boundaries it set in the last decade.

Chinese warnings about teaching India a ‘lesson’ loomed from June to August after Indian soldiers thwarted Chinese road construction that sought to change the status quo in Doklam, a plateau on the disputed Sino-Bhutan border near Sikkim. Until days before it hosted a BRICS summit, China rejected a mutual troop withdrawal of troops and retaliated with a propaganda campaign of anti-India military threats, misinformation and mockery.

One Party, One Script

“India is groundless, unreasonable and helpless,’’ wrote a People’s Daily commentator in the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party.

In the past decade, Chinese diplomats and official strategists diplomatically distanced themselves from extreme rhetoric in the Chinese press. Some of them urged me to just ignore Global Times, a nationalist tabloid known for its extreme editorials on territorial and maritime disputes. This time, the Global Times was almost redundant as it was the foreign ministry which suggested that China could unleash ‘chaos’ anywhere on the world’s longest disputed border. Even after the deadlock ended, foreign minister Wang Yi hoped India would ‘learn a lesson’. The minister spoke like Global Times which recently ran an editorial to teach India a ‘bitter lesson’.

The foreign ministry and Xinhua, the Chinese Communist Party’s news agency, also appeared to share a script, both referring to the disputed border with Bhutan as Chinese territory or a ‘house’. “Get out of my house,’’ said the anchor in a Xinhua video against India’s ‘sins,’ that aimed to impress Chinese micro-bloggers to support the Party’s muscular policies.

I lived in Beijing when the English-language version of Global Times was launched with ultra-nationalist editorials as its main attraction. Even eight years ago, soon after its launch, Global Times had warned India of ‘dangerous consequences’ for opposing China on the northeast border. During its first two years, two articles warning India topped its popular online articles.

The Party line has not meandered. But compared to my years in China, there’s no alternative opinion in the Chinese media anymore. Global Times is affiliated to the Party’s mouthpiece, People’s Daily, which made news in India a few years ago for publishing an online article about ‘narrow-minded’ and ‘hegemonic’ Indians. The recent Global Times’ editorials and commentaries were replete with references to ‘narrow-minded’ India’s ‘regional hegemonism’ and so on. They blamed the PLA’s mood swing on the ‘reckless’ policies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who not long ago objected to Chinese ‘expansionism’.

“If a war spreads the PLA is perfectly capable of annihilating all Indian troops in the border region,” its editorial said recently.

Border censors

In recent years, Beijing made no attempt to prevent increasing Chinese military incursions and tension on the Sino-Indian border. Instead, the foreign ministry attempted to remotely control border news reports and frequently complained to New Delhi to ‘control’ Indian coverage of China.

This year, the foreign ministry’s messages to India borrowed the combative rhetoric of the PLA. Not long ago, when I worked in Beijing, its own senior officials urged the Indian media to report ‘positive news’. A reporter from Global Times once rang me up to reprimand: “we don’t think your article’s positive.’’ The confused guidelines never made any difference. But for a while Beijing believed that subduing the media might dampen Indian opposition to China’s assertive policies.

This time, Beijing’s intention in shifting gears from moderate to extreme rhetoric may have been to intimidate New Delhi to back off from its increasingly bold stance against Chinese land and sea grabs and counter its closeness to ally Bhutan. Beijing dusted off propaganda used since the cultural revolution in the age of Mao Zedong against India, Vietnam and the former Soviet Union to complain that the other side picked a fight. “India’s recklessness has shocked the Chinese,’’ said Global Times. “… If the Modi government refuses to stop, it will push its country into a war India has no power to control’’.

China’s media campaign on the Sino-Indian border began to intensify as early as 2006 when it revived claims on Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet. In Xi Jinping’s reign, the PLA’s provocations are more ambitious on land and sea. China’s pro-Pakistan policy expanded multi-fold from Hu Jintao to Xi, from the United Nations to a strategic corridor under construction to link landlocked Xinjiang to Gwadar.

Missing Moderates

The moderates among Chinese officials and analysts are no longer as prominent in the official media since Xi shifted Chinese policy on India from assertive to aggressive, from cooperation and competition to potential confrontation. In Hu’s time, I met several government advisers in foreign ministry think-tanks who believed in ‘shelving’ the border dispute to focus on improving bilateral economic and cultural relations.

A section of Chinese strategists argued since the economic downturn of 2008-09 that it is in China’s self-interest to improve overall Sino-Indian relations without compromising on the 3,488-km border dispute. In Hu’s last years in power, his foreign ministry would signal a desire for stable relations with India even as it hardened its pro-Pakistan policy from the border to the United Nations Security Council or Nuclear Suppliers Group. Since the Doklam crisis unfolded, moderate views are missing in the foreign ministry-organised interactions of Chinese experts with the Indian media.

The Dragon’s Image

The world’s second-largest economy used to crave favourable media coverage in India, where Chinese companies were nervous late-comers in the last decade. India became legendary in China during the downturn for its fast-growing economy and software techies. Far-flung provincial Chinese governments were desperate to befriend Indian companies for the first time as Chinese export factories collapsed.

Beijing seems increasingly indifferent to Indian public opinion as the eastern trade wind prevailed against negative public perceptions. China dominates the Indian market, from smartphones to power generators. India’s bilateral trade deficit is around $50-billion. Chinese foreign direct investment in India rose to 17th largest in India last year, up from 28 in 2014 and 35 in 2011.

India’s rejection of Xi’s One Belt One Road initiative to connect China with the world may make the economy less interesting for Chinese state-owned enterprises as they shift their excess construction capacity to Pakistan and over 60 nations. The Doklam episode is likely to worsen the business climate for Indian and Chinese companies to work across the border.

Soft Powerless

Former Premier Wen Jiabao, the good cop in the Hu-Wen rule, attempted to build people-to-people relations and reinforce mutual trust. Xi’s government in contrast issued two travel advisories during the nearly three-month dispute to keep Chinese tourists away. The Chinese media, as expected, projected the mutual disengagement of troops from Doklam as Beijing’s victory against India’s ‘illegal trespass’ in ‘China’s territory’ and made no promise to halt road building on the disputed border. “India removes troops from China’s territory in Doklam,’’ said Global Times. Xi’s media and military policies may help consolidate his leadership at the upcoming five-yearly Party Congress while fast-depleting China’s limited reserve of soft power in India.

Public perceptions in the two neighbours underscore the potential to resolve the border dispute. But as Xi became heir apparent, loyalists in China had happily predicted a resurgence of Chinese maritime and territorial assertiveness in the next ten years and dreamt of a ‘golden age’ in Asia for a super-powerful dragon. The state’s spin doctors said the same thing. A recent Global Times editorial forecast: ‘the Doklam standoff is just the start’.