Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Seven Days in China

Pravin Sawhney at the Great Wall of China

FORCE Editor Pravin Sawhney spent a week in China at the invitation of the Chinese ministry of national defence. In Beijing and Shanghai, he met officers from PLA Army, PLA Navy and PLA Air Force, plus members of Chinese press. Here are his 10 takeaways from the visit

Beijing/Shanghai: It took me some time to figure out who had invited me on a week-long visit to Beijing and Shanghai. The call came from the first secretary, press section at the Chinese embassy in New Delhi. When told by my office that I was in Munich, he called me there. Extending the invitation on behalf of the All China Journalists’ Association (ACJA), he asked me to join a group of ‘senior Indian journalists’ to visit China. The proposed dates did not suit me, so in less than 48 hours the Chinese graciously altered their dates by a week.

Two things struck me as unusual. Why did the ACJA not invite me directly and why were the dates changed to accommodate me? When I asked the Chinese press officer about the programme, he spoke about the opportunity to meet with Chinese military officials and visit defence installations. The detailed itinerary, he said, was being worked out and would be provided on arrival in Beijing. I had never been to China and here I was being offered the opportunity to meet with Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) officials. That I was excited is putting it mildly. I have been working on China for years and my first book: ‘The Defence Makeover: 10 Myths that Shape India’s Image’ published in 2001, long before the Indian government woke up to the military threat, listed ‘China is not a military threat’ as the foremost myth successfully perpetrated by New Delhi.

My maiden visit to China from June 17 to 22 was a success and here are my 10 takeaway observations:

·                     Months before the visit of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to India in December 2010, China decided to unilaterally announce its perception of the border, making any further negotiations on border resolution impossible. For this reason, at the 15th round of Special Representatives (SR) talks held in Delhi on 17 January 2012, both sides signed the ‘Border Mechanism Framework’ for stability on the Line of Actual Control. The two foreign offices had established formal means to keep the border peaceful. Against this backdrop, Colonel Guo Hongtao, staff officer of the Asian affairs bureau, foreign affairs office, Ministry of National Defence (MND), who had participated in the Special Representatives (SR) talks on border resolution, told me with an air of finality: “China’s border with India is 2,000km long”.

·                     China has indicated that its claims on the disputed border are more complex than are understood in India. “Indian security forces have made more intrusions in 2011 into Chinese territories (disputed border) than we Chinese have made into India,” said Major General Yao Yunzhu, director of the Centre of China-America Defence Relations, PLA Academy of Military Sciences. She was seated next to Colonel Guo Hongtao during the long interaction with us (visiting Indian journalists) at the Ministry of National Defence (MND) in Beijing. In another interaction, the deputy director general, information department, ministry of foreign affairs, Ma Jisheng, went a step further and asserted that: “All reports (in Indian media) of Chinese ingressions are false.”

·                     China says that the complex border resolution should not come in the way of overall bilateral relations, especially trade. “As both sides have agreed to have peaceful borders, the (Indian media) focus should not be on the border issue,” General Yao said. In another meeting, another day, Ma Jisheng cautioned, “There are HIGH difficulties in border resolution. I believe the issue will be resolved with time.”

·                     There is an extraordinary consistency in what the PLA (MND) officials and diplomats (ministry of foreign affairs) say on the disputed border issue. Unlike in India, not only is the PLA authorised to speak on the politically sensitive border issue, it has an extremely important, if not the leading role in this policy-making.

·                     There were repeated suggestions for the Indian media to exercise overall restraint when talking about China so as not to impede improvements in bilateral relations. The lead in conveying this was taken by senior editor, Zhu Shouchen, executive secretary, member of the board of leadership, ACJA. He spoke at length about the ‘code of conduct’ followed by the ACJA. Most of the Chinese media are members of ACJA organised in 494 media committees under six major regional centres, across China.  Each regional centre contributes a vice-chairman to the Board of Leadership of ACJA. The ACJA has three tasks, namely to train journalists, teach them to abide by the code of conduct and facilitate foreign journalists in China. Any lingering doubts on Chinese media and journalism were cleared by senior editor, Wang Lan of the multi-billion dollar Wen Hui group in Shanghai. The code of conduct, she said, meant journalism with Chinese characteristics. “My media group is open to healthy criticism of the government on health, education and science and technology matters,” she said with a smile. Earlier, a senior editor at the China Daily newspaper office in Beijing admitted that a government constituted board cleared every evening what news would go into the paper.

·                     China is conscious that as a (the) risen power, constantly on the global radar, it needs to open up and be transparent. This has been accentuated by an inter-dependent world shrunk further by the information revolution. The world’s focus on China is clearly in two areas: defence and diplomacy. China opened its State Council (council of ministers) Information Office in 1990, established the foreign ministry’s Press Information Office in 2001 and set-up the Ministry of National Defence (MND) spokesperson system in 2008. Both the state council and foreign ministry information offices that we visited are grand buildings with posh facilities and extremely competent staff. I was told that there are nearly 700 foreign journalists living in Beijing alone. The daily regular press briefing (packed with foreign journalists) that I attended could well have been at the US state department, the only reminder that it was Beijing was the Chinese spokesperson speaking native language through a translation gadget provided on each desk.

The chief information officer at the State Council Information Office, Xi Yanchun was a bright and attractive lady in her thirties (she told us) who had worked in the US media for four years when she was offered the present position. She has been in this position since 2002 and was happy to talk about China’s public relations system. “Before 2002 there were no press conferences and the news releases, if any, were ad hoc. There was no mechanism,” she recalled. “Now, this office does a variety of things, from press releases to organising press conferences and briefings, to interviews and replies to emails and of course publicity on the internet,” she said. With a pause and smile she added that it was still difficult to get officials to understand the importance of media interaction. The staff under her has increased and many people have been sent to the US and the UK for ‘internet training.’ She admitted that after the foreign ministry and MND opened their own information offices, few journalists come to the state council information office. “Those two offices are considered important,” she added rather ruefully.

·                     All the Chinese officials I spoke with agreed that Wei qi (pronounced way chee) is the most popular intellectual game in China as opposed to Chess in the rest of the world. More as an afterthought, one PLA officer said that many Chinese now play both games with equal interest and ease. At one of the official dinner banquets I attended, another PLA official told me that in today’s world, it is difficult to hide capabilities. What Wei qi teaches is the art of hiding intentions, which should never be disclosed. Explained by Henry Kissinger in his book, ‘On China’ Wei qi is about strategic encirclement as opposed to Chess which seeks a checkmate with head-on collision. Later, spending some time by myself in a Shanghai popular market, I discovered that no shops kept chessboards, but Wei qi was readily available.

Kissinger provides a keen insight into the two games in his book. ‘If Chess is about decisive battle, Wei qi is about the protracted campaign. The Chess player aims for total victory. The Wei qi player seeks relative advantage. Chess teaches the Clausewitzian concepts of centre-of-gravity and the decisive-points, the game usually beginning as a struggle for the centre of the board. Wei qi teaches the art of strategic encirclement. Where the skilful chess player aims to eliminate his opponent’s pieces in a series of head-on clashes, a talented Wei qi player moves into empty spaces on the board, gradually mitigating the strategic potential of his opponent’s pieces. Chess produces single-mindedness; Wei qi generates strategic flexibility.’

Once we finished discussing Wei qi, I found that all of us had been presented with two slim booklets titled ‘The Wisdom of Sun Tzu’ and ‘The Great Wall’ by the MND information office in a small gift bag. Sun Tzu is about China’s distinctive military theory which is in harmony with Wei qi. The central message of Sun Tzu, I remembered, is to develop strategic thought that placed a premium on victory through psychological advantage and preached avoidance of direct conflict. The Great Wall of China suggests that China has no expansionist designs. This was mentioned to me by a PLA officer at another official dinner. He added that the Chinese fight in self-defence only when their core interests are affected.

·                     The Chinese view colonial rule, (which started in the mid-nineteenth century with the Opium wars and ended with the arrival of Mao’s communist China), when China was subjugated by Britain, France, Russia and later Japan, as a period of deep humiliation. During the visit to the National Museum in Shanghai, our guide dwelt on the humiliations depicted in a series of paintings. But this was not the real point they wanted to drive home. Speaking in English, the museum guide and our language interpreter compared China and India under colonial rules. Unlike all Chinese, many Indians believe that the colonial period had ‘many positives’ about it, they averred.

China, we were told, sees itself as the ‘Middle Kingdom’, conveying the notion of China’s centrality in global affairs and the importance of both national unity and the need to recover territories, purportedly lost during the subjugation period, now called core interest areas. Probably, this is a reason, why all Chinese officials we met during the visit spoke only through the language interpreter, a pleasant freelancer called Liu Non, when making official points even when they understood and spoke good English. An added benefit of speaking through an interpreter is that the person gets more response time to a query; this may help in thinking up a credible rather than the real reply.

·                     All PLA officials I met were reluctant to talk about Pakistan, which has been indicated as China’s bilateral relationship. The need, they said, was for India and China to have more bilateral cooperation and openness. However, without asking, PLA officials in command positions spoke about the West and the US in particular as their enemy. For instance, during the visit to 1 armoured regiment (brigade) outside Beijing, the commanding officer, senior colonel (brigadier) Su Rong said that during simulation training, the home forces are depicted in red colour, while the enemy is shown in blue. With a grin, he pointed to a soldier practicing simulation shooting and said the tank he was seeking to destroy was the US Abram.

He did not stop at this and decided to drill his point further. The PLA soldier, he boasted, can fight better with a fourth of the food eaten by a US soldier. And unlike the US which dropped nuclear bombs, Chinese soldiers will fight only in self-defence. Interestingly, the three military installations we visited — the PLAA (PLA Army) 1 armoured regiment headquarters, the PLAAF (PLA Air Force) 24 air division outside Beijing and the PLAN (PLA Navy) Shanghai naval garrison — were new and grand constructions. If indeed the PLA has such good defence works for its middle-level command headquarters, it conveyed an eloquent sense of generous finances being spent on acquisitions and capabilities.

·                     All presentations emphasised on the PLA ‘making progress towards “information-isation”, which it hopes to complete by 2020.’ Explained, this means total networking of all sensors, communication & reconnaissance systems and platforms, with computers at each level. To test the waters, I casually mentioned that Indian senior military officers (especially army officers) aren’t comfortable using computers. Colonel Yang Yujun, the Deputy Director General of the information office, MND was quick to tell me that senior PLA officers do not suffer from this handicap. “All officers are comfortable with computers,” he asserted.

However, in private, a senior PLA officer in a lighter mood conceded that many PLA generals were also uncomfortable with computers, in which junior and middle rank officers are adept. If this is indeed true, will the new generation of PLA officers, which understands equipment and ‘informationised’ operations better, have a larger say in defence policy making as well? And will they be more assertive? I wonder.

The answer to who had actually invited us was provided by the itinerary. The invitation was from China’s ministry of national defence (MND) and the All China Journalists’ Association (ACJA) was merely the front. This was probably the first time that the MND has invited Indian journalists for a peek into the enigma that is the PLA. After the visit, the first secretary, press section of the Chinese embassy sent me a message expressing hope that the Indian military would consider a reciprocal interaction. The visit was China’s attempt at transparency in defence matters.

The last thing I wondered was why had the MND invited four Indian journalists with such dissimilar understanding of the subject? Surely, they would have done homework on the invitees’ backgrounds?
Instead of focussing on PLA’s perspective on various issues, a lot of time was spent by my colleagues asking questions which could make page-one stories for newspapers back home. For example, what do you say when an Indian journalist who’s been covering defence for a Hindi newspaper for over three decades, asked the Shanghai naval garrison commander what he thought of the INS Shivalik’s combat capabilities (It had recently come port calling there). All the poor fellow could say was “The ship was clean and tidy and I understand it has stealth capability”. Talking through the interpreter, this ate unnecessarily into the allocated time.

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