Meeting the press: India and China, A clash of cultures

Anand Giridharadas – The International Herald Tribune

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Wednesday, April 13, 2005
BANGALORE, India As India and China emerge as global megaforces and sidle diplomatically closer, it is becoming fashionable to recall a long history of trans-Himalayan contact, suspended by 20th-century geopolitical quirks.
“The richness and variety of early intellectual relations between China and India have long been obscured,” Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate, wrote in a recent essay.
Sen cited evidence of India and China connections stretching back two and half millennia. Indians bought, and devised Sanskrit words for, Chinese silk, camphor, vermilion and leather, as well as pears and peaches. India exported Buddhism to China.
But as a Chinese delegation, led by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, visited India this week for a widely anticipated diplomatic summit meeting, a different story lurked behind the scenes.
Beneath high-flown pronouncements of dormant pan-Asian bonds waiting to be renewed was rampant, ground-level evidence that the devil of détente lies in the details.
The business of diplomacy consists not only of handshakes, agreements and ribbon-cutting; it is also an endless series of arrangements: providing security, fixing menus, staving off correspondents.
And as the two neighbors carried out these humdrum tasks, there were moments that evoked the foreign-policy equivalent of a first, awkward school dance.
Nothing more starkly divides India and China than their attitudes toward media. Last Saturday night, as Wen met privately with local government officials in Bangalore, it was Indian democratic frenzy versus Chinese Communist control.
A mob swelled outside the wooden doors: Indian television and print photographers vying for the first shots of the first handshakes.
The photographers were told no pictures were allowed. They began to howl. They jostled with the city’s khaki-clad, pot-bellied constables, while trading ribald jokes with them. They growled about “rights,” about “fairness.”
“We also have to do our duty,” said K. G. Vasuki, a television correspondent trapped behind a faux-velvet rope line.
An Indian Foreign Ministry official, red handkerchief in pocket, circulated, seeking to placate the aggrieved reporters.
Beefy Chinese bodyguards, wearing crisply tailored suits and plastic ear pieces à la the U.S. Secret Service, seemed incredulous. They rolled their eyes. They huddled. They conferred. They kept motioning to the constables – who were pulled from their beats and appeared not to be bodyguards in any strict sense – to do something, anything, about the din.
Every few minutes, the wooden doors would open and a Chinese handler would emerge to make that language-transcending gesture: an index finger to the lips attended by a punctuated “Shhhh.”
Then the Indian Foreign Ministry official said photographers would be admitted for a few seconds. The door cracked open, and the cameramen began a stampede, pressing up against the Chinese guards.
The looks on the guards’ faces suggested that being pushed, and then pushed aside, by journalists was a brand new addition to their professional repertoire.
Yang Shuying, a Chinese Embassy official, kept shrinking from journalists seeking information, walking away mid-sentence.
A young Indian reporter tried a fresh approach: woman to woman. “You have a cute smile,” she told Yang, who was not smiling. It worked. Yang smiled and cupped the reporter’s cheek in her hand, in a near-motherly gesture.
Then she said no, again. She turned and walked away, repeatedly uttering “I’m so sorry” until her voice trailed off.
Perhaps hoping to head off such cultural collisions, the Chinese planned meticulously and well in advance. Such was the extent of their preparations that it seemed every now and then that they were the hosts and Indians the guests.
Tata Consultancy Services, an Indian information-technology firm that was a pioneer in setting up Chinese operations, discovered that behaving like a Chinese company was a useful strategy, not just there, but back home in India as well.
In its presentation to Wen on Sunday, the company stressed its eagerness to bend to Chinese norms. V. Rajanna, who heads the business in China and has learned Chinese, said the company was “very well integrated with the local landscape.”
Learning to operate like a Chinese company thus came in handy back home. In preparing for Wen’s meeting, the Chinese laid down the law. Tata Consultancy Services had to fax in an exact seating chart. There would be no media. Having pledged access to a few reporters, the company asked to let in just a few.
That request prompted threats to cancel two or three times, organizers said. “If you don’t fall into line, there’s a risk that the whole thing will blow off,” said one person involved in the planning.
Reporters were notified the day before that they would be on a different floor in the building when the prime minister arrived. When he actually arrived, Chinese and Indian journalists exploited the flurry of activity to pack into the elevators and bury themselves in the crowd, hoping to become indistinguishable from the dozens of functionaries.
All flooded into the room – the one, in theory, that was off limits to the press. But while Indian journalists were quickly ejected, physically, by Indian handlers, reporters from China’s state-controlled media walked in breezily with the delegation.
To make the Chinese comfortable, the consultancy – whose parent company, the Tata Group, runs the Taj luxury hotel chain in India – even paid a rival hotel company, the Sheraton, to serve tea and biscuits at the presentation.
For dinner Saturday, flying in a chef from Beijing provided consistency. The buffet included Indian dishes, but the imported chef’s signature preparations were such treats as stir-fried prawns in black-bean sauce.

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