Two decades ago, there were no Indians in China. Except Janaki Ballabh. He has been in Beijing off and on since 1956, when he was invited to China by a publishing house owned by the Ministry of Culture. He had been working in Delhi as language advisor to the magazine China Pictorial. When they decided to expand operations, Ballabh headed north.
It wasnt exactly north. The first leg was Delhi to Kolkata by train. Then by ship to Hong Kong. Another train to Canton (then an insignificant fishing village). And a train yet again to Beijing. It took me more than a week, Ballabh told us. (Incidentally, Chairman Mao was there at the station to meet Indonesian president Sukarno.)
There were 15-20 Indians in China in those days; the earlier no Indians was an exaggeration... There are about 4,000 Indians today in Shanghaithe business city. There are far fewer in the political centre Beijing. There are other categories of Indians, but even the embassy does not seem to have a clear picture of the numbers...
So how does Brand India figure in China The government in New Delhi needs to remove its blinkers; more than 95% of the country has not even heard of India. Chinese children are taught about the Boxer Rebellion (in which Indian troops fought to capture Beijing for the British), but the India-China war of 1962 is a footnote. It is dismissed as a minor border skirmish. In the cities, they know India for IT; in the villages, India is the mythical land that produced the Buddha...
The first Indians to make China their home were the executives of multinational corporations who rushed in when the country was thrown open. In some ways they are difficult to distinguish from other nationalities in peer positions. But Indians seem to have acquired the reputation of being a trifle stingy, the sort of person who may disappear when it is his turn to shout for a round at the club. The common perception is that they get paid less than Western executives. Locals do get paid less, so the Chinese dont find this too surprising.
The next lot of Indians were the traders. Some of them were from among the MNC executives, who saw more money in entrepreneurship. They continued spreading the parsimonious impressions. Indians want to buy goods at the cheapest possible rates. There are, in fact, three rates going for the same productone for the Western markets, one for the domestic market and one for Indians. Indians are always looking for bargains, says a Shanghai-based trader (lets call him Don). The Chinese wont cheat you on quantity. But they will cut corners on quality. And the Indian consumer has become accustomed to poor quality wares.
Don had an interesting story to relate about how little the Chinese knew about Indian languages. His own language on telephone calls back home to India used to be full of expletives. His two female assistants were curious. He explained that they were words of respect, of veneration to elders. A few months later, there was a delegation from India. Welcome BC, chirruped one assistant. Greetings MC, said the other. These were new buyers from a religious charity. (They were looking for candles.) Needless to mention, the padres didnt find the situation humorous.
The early tradersunlike PG Wodehouses auntswere gentlemen. With their natural instincts for getting the best deal, of course. Besides, some of the traders were not on their own; they were part of large business groups. The two Indian groups with the biggest operations in Chinathe Adani Group ($10 billion turnover) and Reliance Industries ($4 billion)are principally into trading.
The third set of Indians was made up of the executives of Indian companies who were sent there to run the operations of subsidiaries and joint ventures. These people were all at sea initially, contributing to a picture of a muddled Indian. The MNCs take care of their own. The traders had to fight their own wars. But those BCs and MCs knew how to manage. The executives of Indian firms were thrown into the deep end when they didnt know how to swim.
Manish Mehra, then CEO of Berger Paints China, travelled from India a few years ago with 200 kg of rice and dal.
Indians always carry their own food wherever they go, says CR Sasikumar, CEO, State Bank of India (Shanghai Branch). Mehra is not the only one. Most of the Indians we met in China eight years ago were into carting food from India. Everyone would get at least the masalas, says Prakash Menon, the head of NIITs operations in China.
Times have changed. Today, there are at least 20 Indian restaurants in Shanghai. You wont recognise the fare, however. It is bland and tasteless. (The Chinese too will not recognise what passes as Chinese food in India. It is too spicy.) The Chinese have taken to Indian food. They may start with rasagollas and end with the fried fish. But, then, in China you have your soup last...
Cats and dogs dont starve in China these days; you will find stores stocking pet food, next to cereals for breakfast. Earlier they were breakfast. Our guide in Shanghai is not amused at the joke. The Cantonese are giving us a bad name, he says. Only they eat everything. In the rest of China, we mind our menu.
The fourth constituency that is shaping Brand India are the students. They are going to Chinese colleges in the thousands to study medicine. They dont need to try out the local fish preparations; they take cooks with them from India.
Studying medicine in China is all the craze because admission is simple. The Chinese want foreign students in their universities. Most Americans are essentially rednecks but each generation the country gets an infusion of talent and the overall IQ increases. China wants its university system to attract brains from all over the world. There are scholarships for foreign students and they are allowed to travel in large groups with cooks, coordinators, translators and even teachers. Some 28 universities have been identified as being suitable for foreign students. That number is being upped.
The infrastructure here is far better, Khuram Malik, an Indian student at Suzhou Medical College told us when we visited in 2005. Even including transport costs, it works out much cheaper. And they even have more corpses; we dont have to compete for cadavers.
The Indian embassy in China realises that these students have an important brand-building role to play. And they are taking their job very seriously. Here are some guidelines issued by the Embassy of India in Beijing (they could only have been framed by a headmaster):
Always remember that you are an Indian and that your behaviour will determine the image of India and Indians.
Dont talk so loudly that other people are disturbed.
Dont ask personal questions of strangers...
These are the people who the Chinese hope will one day become their citizens, when the American dream sours. China will overtake the US as the worlds largest economy in a few years. India will take a bit longer. All this could be fast-forwarded if people understand that the Americans are living on the rest of the worlds charity. In China, they are realising that.
The latest set of Indians to go to Chinaprobably at the same time as the studentsis the new generation of traders. They have congregated in places like Yiwu and are up to all sorts of mayhem. This is Brand India at its most reprehensible. There is not a single other Indian in China who has a good word for them. At Yiwu, it reached flashpoint when a trader who had cheated his Chinese counterpart was gheraoed in court.
Somebody should expose them, says Milind Yedkar, an old China hand now in Singapore. Traders get greedy, says Menon of NIIT. They enter illegally, they trade illegally, they overstay.
This is the Ugly Indian. The local papers even talk of rape and murder. That could well be an exaggeration. But the damage is done...
Confucius say Indians in US = Red Indians; Indians in China = Green Indians. Thats not only because they are all at sea; they have just been told what they had for breakfast.