China-India People-to-People Exchanges: Status Quo and Future Trends

As a communication conduit between China and India in the field of ¡®low¡¯ politics, cultural and people-to-people exchanges are easier to develop than political and security cooperation.
by Luo Shaoqin
January 10, 2019: Indian medical students, who work as interns at a local hospital, experience traditional Chinese folk customs such as papercutting at Dagang Community in Lianyungang City, Jiangsu Province. VCG

Since the Modi government came into power in 2014, China-India relations have gone through many ups and downs. India was first apathetic about the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative, and then fell into disagreement with China over its attempt to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and blacklist Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed chief as a “global terrorist” by the UN Security Council. The border standoff in the Dong Lang (Doklam) area and the Dalai Lama’s visit to the so-called “Arunachal Pradesh” made bilateral relations drop to a record low in recent years. However, their frosty relationship thawed after the leaders of both countries met at the ninth BRICS Summit in Xiamen and held an informal meeting in Wuhan. In the process, cultural and people-to-people exchanges have played an increasingly important role in deepening China-India relations, and have become the fastest-growing realm for cooperation between the two countries.

Four Major Characteristics of People-to-People Exchanges

So far, cultural and people-to-people exchanges between China and India have formed a relatively complete framework, showing the following special characteristics:

First, the scope of bilateral exchange has increasingly expanded, and the topics of bilateral communication have been constantly broadened. In September 2014, when Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first visit to India, China and India published a joint statement on building a closer development partnership, according to which both countries launched a cultural exchange program aiming to promote communication in fields like tourism, youth exchange and museum exchange, establish a ministerial-level consultation mechanism for cultural exchange, perform mutual translation of classics and contemporary works, exchange movies, broadcasting programs and television shows, and teach Indian languages in China and Chinese language in India. Subsequently, communication in media, healthcare and other realms further broadened cultural and people-to-people exchanges between the two countries.

Second, cultural and people-to-people exchanges between China and India are increasingly institutionalized. The establishment of such mechanisms as the China-India Think Tank Forum, the China-India Forum on Local Cooperation, the China-India University Leaders Forum, the China-India Media Forum, and the China-India Forum has regularized the conduits for cultural and people-to-people exchanges between both countries, and to some extent guaranteed their stability and further development.

Third, after years of effort, China and India have formed an organic framework of cultural and people-to-people exchanges, in which top leaders guide the overall direction, specific departments take the responsibility for coordination, various mechanisms provide institutional guarantees, business enterprises play a leading role, and people from all walks of life participate. Co-chaired by Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, the first meeting of the China-India high-level people-to-people exchanges mechanism was held in New Delhi on December 21, 2018. It was not only to implement the consensus reached during the informal summit in Wuhan, but also to review cultural and people-to-people exchanges between China and India and outline plans for future development. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at the meeting, the mechanism is expected to play a guiding role in cultural and people-to-people exchanges between China and India, urge the two sides to mobilize all kinds of resources and give full play to their respective advantages, and push cultural and people-to-people exchanges between both countries to achieve new breakthroughs and developments in this new historic era.

Finally, cultural and people-to-people exchanges between China and India are increasingly integrated into multilateral mechanisms. With the increased interactions between China and India in those multilateral mechanisms such as BRICS summits, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and China-India-Russia trilateral mechanisms, multilateral cultural and people-to-people exchanges have also developed rapidly. Under the framework of BRICS, a number of multilateral people-to-people communication platforms such as the BRICS Youth Forum, the BRICS Wellness Workshop, the BRICS Legal Forum, the BRICS Urbanization Forum, and the BRICS Academic Forum have enabled China and India to carry out cultural and people-to-people exchanges in wide-ranging areas.

Opportunities and Challenges

Thanks to the continual improvement of bilateral relations and the efforts of both governments in promoting dialogues, cultural and people-to-people exchanges between China and India have improved in both quality and quantity, and shown intentionality. However, some challenges still lie ahead.

First, mutual personnel visits remain negligible, considering the massive combined population of both countries, and the two peoples still lack mutual understanding and a strong willingness to communicate with each other. In 2017, only a million mutual visits were made, and the number of Chinese travelers to India was less than 200,000, about one-fourth of Indians visiting China that year. As early as 2016, a total of 500,000 Chinese tourists visited Myanmar. This demonstrated that outbound Chinese tourists show little interest in India.

Second, over a long time, the population of Chinese in India and that of Indians in China have been extremely limited, so in the two countries there are few who have insight into each other’s customs, folklore and culture. Consequently, the two peoples cannot understand each other’s rationale for action, resulting in misunderstandings in bilateral interactions. In 2017, the number of Indian students in China reached 20,000, but the number of Chinese students in India was only about 2,000. Partly because of India’s strict visa policies, only a few Chinese have obtained Indian work permits.

Third, media outlets of both countries, especially those of India, are eager to report negative news about each other’s countries for the purpose of winning fierce market competition. Sometimes they even resort to fake news, which distorts the public’s awareness of each other’s countries. Of 3,030 reports published by China’s major online news portals on the border standoff in the Dong Lang area from June 26 to July 25, 2017, about 15 percent aimed to rebuke the Indian media’s false reporting on this incident.

Fourth, Chinese and Indian think tanks pay insufficient attention to researching on each other’s countries and conducting exchanges between the two countries. Only a few scholars are willing to engage in the relevant academic research and field surveys. After the first China-India Think Tank Forum opened on December 11, 2016, think tank exchange between the two countries boomed, which enhanced mutual understanding between Chinese and Indian scholars. However, the number of scholars with deep insight into each other’s countries remains negligible.

Fifth, due to their victim mentality and great power sentiment, the negative recognition of Indians on China is likely to increase. Even in 2016 when the two countries saw close high-level interactions, as I searched the 15 most popular English books on China via Amazon India, I found that three of them were different English versions of The Art of War (an ancient Chinese military treatise by Sun Zi), three about the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict, four about China-India competition in the 21st century, two about Chinese internet giant Alibaba and its founder Jack Ma, one about China-Pakistan relations, and the final two were polemical. This carries a clear implication for the Indian public’s feelings about China.

Despite so many challenges, there are also plentiful opportunities for cultural and people-to-people exchanges between China and India. In the Wuhan consensus reached by the leaders of both countries in 2018, cultural and people-to-people exchanges occupied a large proportion, showing that top leaders of China and India attach great importance to such exchanges. The consensus on building a China-India high-level people-to-people exchange mechanism had been implemented by December of that year. This demonstrates the strong willingness of both countries to promote cultural and people-to-people exchanges. As a communication conduit between China and India in the field of ‘low’ politics, cultural and people-to-people exchanges are easier to advance than political and security cooperation.

Moreover, as two neighbors separated by the Himalayas, China and India are both major countries in Asia. In the future, cooperation between the two countries in domestic development and regional and international affairs will become more frequent. This will, to some extent, deepen mutual understanding and promote bilateral cultural exchange. More importantly, as two ancient civilizations, China and India have learned from each other over the past more than 2,000 years, and left countless literary and artistic masterpieces that provide fertile soil for continuing their millennia-old friendship.

The author is a Ph.D. candidate at Renmin University of China.