Hindi Chini Bye Bye? How Does Shanghai’s Indian Community Feel as China Squares Off With India?
BENJAMIN ROBERTS AND MA YIFEI
(Yicai Global) Aug. 8 — An escalating war has flared between Indian and Chinese media alongside the military standoff simmering between India, China and Bhutan on their respective borders. Yicai Global spoke to a local Indian restaurateur to see if the spat is affecting the lives of Hindi expats resident in China.
Rajesh Prabhakar manages the popular, award-winning Masala Art Indian restaurant. He is a 16-year Shanghai resident. Born in the Punjab, but raised and educated in Delhi, Prabhakar opened his first restaurant — the Patalia Pearl — on Changshu Lu, Shanghai, only the third or fourth Indian restaurant in the city.
India’s press has been in full cry over the impasse, while Chinese media has been reactive, rather than narrative, fueling a spiraling tit-for-tat vortex of vitriol. The Global Times wrote an unprecedented 80 pieces on India last year, with not all of them complimentary.
Has shift in feeling among the Indian community here in Shanghai been underway since the standoff began in June?
“It’s political. For an individual like me, who has a very little knowledge, because whatever knowledge we have is through the media, what we read. As for me, as a person, I don’t think it would be right for me to comment.”
Have you experienced any ill will or comments from the Chinese community?
“China is a very mature, secure country. I don’t think the citizens of both the countries would like to see any bad decision making, which would totally affect the normal citizen now. No, there is nothing, no animosity.”
So, it hasn’t affected business at all?
“Well, you see, unfortunately, July to August are the off-season time. It is the summer vacations, July, August, we always feel the heat as for other businesses. I want to clarify that this drop we are seeing is down to that. It is happening in general if you look at the streets, at the bars and restaurants, they are feeling the same, whether it’s an Indian business, or a non-Indian business.”
[Shanghai’s sweltering summer sends many food and beverage outlets into a traditional downturn now, as the heat enervates customers who feel less inclined to dine out.]
How big is Shanghai’s Indian community?
“It’s not that big, it’s about some 3,000 odd families, but there is a huge business population, which is a floating population, which is very big as you know that trading relations between these two countries are very, very huge. There are a lot of Chinese travelling to India also, and there are Indians travelling to China too.”
To define ‘very, very huge,’ bilateral trade between India and China, is worth USD71 billion dollars annually, mostly in tech and manufacturing. Chinese smartphones are starting to dominate India’s market, e.g. Xiaomi invested USD2 billion there and with 20 percent of the market is the second-biggest handset maker by sales.
In total, 142 Chinese companies have invested USD27 billion over the last 13 years in various industries, per data from the Confederation of Indian Industry. Big investors in India include ZTE, Huawei, Xiaomi and Alibaba.
Alibaba has invested heavily in India’s online payment system Paytm, recently upping its stake to 62 percent. A high-ranking executive at Ant Financial, Alibaba’s online payment arm, denied the conflict’s adverse effect on business.
Labor costs are lower in India, making it more competitive than China today. India’s export trade to China is mainly of raw materials like cotton, copper and jewels worth USD10.8 billion from 2016 to 2017.
“These are the things that bring Indians to this country, because it’s still a major manufacturing hub and that brings a lot of people to the production belt.”
“China has seen a gradual shift in terms of labor costs, especially around 2008, 2009 when more labor laws were implemented,” Prabahakar said. This was China’ Labor Contract Law enacted to protect worker’s rights in the wake of several staff-firing scandals. “Still, compared to India, it’s expensive in terms of labor.”
How did you feel when you first came to Shanghai from Delhi … what was your first impression, for example, of China’s infrastructure?
“It’s totally different — if you look at China, it started its remodeling in the 1990s, if you look at Delhi, it was always at a very slow pace, for our own government reasons, so I think sometimes, in a Communist-oriented system, things work. Sometimes, in a democratic system, in a democracy, it can make a difference. I think that’s where the main differences were. Not now so much, because how India is seeing the shift (to modernization) in the last four or five years is completely different than in the last 20 years.”
It’s speeding up?
“Very, very speedy, very positive changes coming up and it looks very promising as far as the future is concerned.”
Is there a growing middle-class in India, as there is in China?
“Yes, the next 10 years will be very beautiful for India. We are going to see a shift and I hope that we are able to sustain it. That’s very important because at times you can create but you fail to sustain it.”
From your time in and overall experience of China, would you say it’s been a positive experience in general?
“Definitely. I think I came in at a time when it was getting into its peak, around 2002, 2003. Then, in 2008, the whole country was looking to the Olympics and in 2010 everyone was looking at the Shanghai World Expo. Which, fortunately, we became a part of it because we got chosen as the only Indian restaurant to be a part of it. So, I think it was very positive, a very good experience working for the last 15 years.”
On a geopolitical level, the dispute is not strictly between India and China, more of a dispute between Bhutan and China over the disputed Dong Lang (Doklam) area. India takes the side of Bhutan, a country China has no diplomatic relations with. Do you think people know the row involves more than just India and China?
“Could be — I have absolutely no idea about it because I’m very much a focused person as far as my trade is concerned. It’s not just happening in Asia, it’s not just happening between China and India. It’s happening anywhere and everywhere. Look what’s happening with the US, North Korea, look what’s happening with Syria, the US.”
“But I think it’s part of this world. I think people are trying to show their presence, show their power, maybe and I think that’s way humans are moving today, in a very ‘unhuman’ way, which I personally don’t feel is right. So, it depends on people to people, culture to culture. At the end, I think we all want to live, we all want to live well. That’s a message that all good people have been exchanging here in China.”
This issue should be solved diplomatically, by talks. China has already held 24 rounds of discussions with Bhutan, hopefully it can be resolved this way.
“This is obviously the best means of communication and I’m sure people in the government understand this also, they are taking it up. I think good people … the good government are the people to resolve it in a very peaceful manner. I think that’s the way it should be as a citizen, as a normal person. Because solving it in a show of power, I don’t think fights between countries are the way we are today.”
This is probably the majority view, as shown by an ongoing survey on our Yicai Global Twitter page @yicaichina. When asked about the possibility of a second war between India and China following their 1962 dust-up, 33 percent of respondents replied yes, 50 percent said no, and 17 percent said they were unsure.
Let us hope that ‘the boundary issue’ between Bhutan and China can be resolved amicably and peaceably and reinstate the tenets of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence they agreed in the 1954 ‘Panchsheel Pact’ into China-India relations:
1. Mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty
2. Mutual non-aggression
3. Mutual non-interference
4. Equality and mutual benefit
5. Peaceful co-existence.
Banners were exchanged with the legend ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ — ‘India and China are brothers’ to commemorate the treaty’s signing. Despite India and China’s complicated diplomatic relations, India has rejected the One Belt, One Road Initiative, for example, their economic brotherhood is just too close to lose by drawing the sword over a sward of windswept turf on the roof of the world.