Indian media’s coverage of the country’s ongoing tensions with China has been remarkable for the proliferation of voices from the ‘strategic community’ – a group that includes retired civil servants, diplomats, army officers, as well as international-relations experts, journalists and commentators. Despite such spikes in interest, Chinese politics and society remain understudied in contemporary India, with a visible dearth of experts with facility in the Chinese language and a record of rigorous research.
In this interview, we explore these issues with Arunabh Ghosh, a historian of modern China and the author of the recently published Making it Count: Statistics and Statecraft in the Early People’s Republic of China. Ghosh talks about the poor state of China scholarship in India, the securitisation of the subject after the 1962 war, the two country’s history of scientific exchanges, and how Chinese media covers Southasia.
Himal Southasian: India’s relations with China have once again become a popular subject in the Indian media and among the country’s intelligentsia. In that context, could you give us a brief history of scholarship about China in India? And what is your assessment of the state of knowledge about Chinese society and politics in contemporary India?
Arunabh Ghosh: The systematic study of China in India can be traced to 1937, when Rabindranath Tagore established Cheena Bhavana at Visva Bharati University in present-day West Bengal. Prior to that, knowledge of China primarily consisted of colonial investigations and travelogues and memoirs written by travelers, traders and soldiers. A notable example is the recent translation of Thakur Gadadhar Singhs’s Cheen Me Terah Maas (Thirteen Months in China), which contains fascinating reflections on China during the Boxer Uprising (1898-1900), with thoughtful asides about imperialism and the subaltern condition. Activities at Cheena Bhavana centered on the study of the arts, literature and ancient history. This humanistic focus, an echo of Tagore’s own commitments, represented the confluence of two independent strands of scholarship and scholarly activism: studies of Buddhism and its spread across Asia over the previous two millennia, and the hopes and ambitions of a Pan-Asian revival. Crucial to these efforts was the establishment of the first library dedicated to the study of China. This library remains a terrific resource, especially for the study of China’s history and culture, but is severely underutilised. Over the years, scholars affiliated with Cheena Bhavana have produced tremendously rich and valuable scholarship, but it is important to recognize that these are primarily intercultural in nature – ie, Sino-Indian or China-India – and not explicitly about the study of China itself.
After Independence in 1947 and the creation of the People’s Republic in 1949, an expansion of state-to-state relations helped foster mutual interest and wide-ranging exchanges among Indians and Chinese. These possibilities, which I evoked in a 2017 article, were largely stymied after 1962. Instead of spurring a much wider study of China’s history, economy, politics and culture, the Indian Army’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army paradoxically narrowed the scope of research, restricting concerns primarily to strategic and diplomatic questions. A Center of Chinese Studies, set up at Delhi University in 1964 under the leadership of V P Dutt, is emblematic of this self-defeating approach. To the extent that there was an interest in China’s domestic developments, it existed among those ideologically attracted to the promise of a truly Marxist society, in places such as Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), or among the Naxalists, who actively read Mao Zedong’s writings in translation.
The Indian Army’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army paradoxically narrowed the scope of research, restricting concerns primarily to strategic and diplomatic questions.
One can pursue the study of China at many institutions in India today, but the narrowness of focus has persisted. Compounding the problem is a puzzling reluctance to train students in the Chinese language. Where Chinese language programmes exist, they operate in isolation from area studies or disciplinary departments. The Centre for East Asian Studies in the School of International Studies at JNU, India’s premier social science research university, has no meaningful language requirement included in its China-focused MPhil and PhD programmes. Its students are only required to complete one year of college level Chinese. They are also not allowed to enroll in classes at the neighbouring School of Languages, which has a robust Chinese language and literature curriculum. By comparison, students pursuing graduate work on China in the United States are ordinarily required to complete at least five years of college-level Chinese.
As a result, knowledge about Chinese society and politics in contemporary India is extremely poor and, for the most part, dependent on scholarship produced in other parts of the (mostly Anglophone) world. Unable to draw upon meaningful research or domestic experts, India’s public discourse on China is driven by a dangerous mix of superficial perspectives dominated by racism, stereotypes, ignorance, and, more recently, envy.
(Incidentally, historian Tansen Sen has a forthcoming article in the Journal of Asian Studies that provides a detailed history of the field of China-India studies, which I would encourage interested readers to look out for.)
HSA: The discussions on China seem to be monopolised by people and institutions working in the field of international relations (IR), security and those in the broader ‘strategic community’. Has that always been the case? What kind of gaps do you see in their work on China and its relations with India?
AG: It was not always thus. Before the Sino-Indian war of 1962, there was a great degree of engagement and exchange over a wide variety of spheres, from the arts and literature, to economy and planning, to the sciences and engineering. The sense was that China and India were broadly comparable and there was much that could be learned from each other’s experiences. But 1962 cast a long shadow.
A vast majority of China scholars in India possess no meaningful facility in the Chinese language.
There are at least two aspects that bear elaboration here. The first is the prioritisation of ‘national interest’. Only those topics and those questions that demonstrate a clear link to safeguarding or promoting the ‘national interest’ are valued. Left abegging in this whole exercise is any critical discussion of what the ‘national interest’ ought to be and who ought to adjudicate it. The result is short-sighted and mostly ephemeral scholarship driven by state agendas and bureaucratic practices.
The second aspect, and one that is much more important in my opinion, is the naturalisation of the nation state and its categories as the only legitimate object of research and analysis. That this has happened in the land of Subaltern Studies, perhaps the strongest and most theoretically sophisticated critique of nationalist historiography, is especially ironic. So, we can only think of ‘China’ as a given and self-evident category. It is akin to making claims about ‘India’, without acknowledging its internal diversity, whether of geography, economy, language, culture, or anything else. The point here is not to dismiss IR and strategic studies, but to recognise that they ought to form one constituent part of a much larger web of research and scholarship, not all of which should be required to demonstrate some narrow and immediate utility to the nation.
The most glaring (and embarrassing) characteristic of the strategic studies community in India is its illiteracy. Facility with local languages, at the very least an ability to read in them, is a fundamental requirement for the study of any place. After all, would you take seriously an engineer who knows no mathematics, or an architect unaware of the most rudimentary principles of drafting? And yet, a vast majority of China scholars in India possess no meaningful facility in the Chinese language. So, not only is the focus on IR and strategic studies extremely narrow, the research so produced is also severely hampered by a reliance on a small subset of translated Chinese language materials, or on scholarship produced elsewhere.
(ALSO READ: What the simplistic narratives on China’s advances in the Indian Ocean miss. A review of Bertil Lintner’s The Costliest Pearl: China’s Struggle for India’s Ocean by Amish Raj Mulmi.)
HSA: What can historians, literary scholars and other China scholars working in humanities and social sciences add to that conversation about China?
AG: I would reframe this question: what kind of conversations ought we to have about China? It is India’s largest neighbour and, much like India, lays claim to a long and fascinating history as well as a complicated present. Over the past century, the Chinese people have been witness and party to arguably the most dramatic transformations in human history. These changes span society, culture, economy, technology, the natural world, space – pretty much every sphere of human activity that one can imagine. Some of these transformations are inspirational, others more cautionary. Surely, even those among us who see China purely through the prism of national security will admit that a better appreciation of China’s geostrategic maneuvers requires a deeper understanding of these changes. And what of those of us whose interests are not circumscribed by national security? So, let us ask ourselves again, what conversations about China should we be having?
Once we reframe the question thus, other questions emerge organically. Their salience to India, a country in the midst of its own massive transformations, ought to be self-evident. Here are the results of my own two-minute brainstorming session, restricting myself primarily to contemporary China: How has China urbanised? How has it lifted so many out of poverty? What are the roots of its recent dominance in science and technology? How has art and literature grappled with the dramatic changes of the 20th century? How have social institutions such as the family and marriage been affected? Is the Chinese mode of governance – non-democratic, non-representative, party-state-centric – sustainable? How has China handled diversity amongst its people?
These and the hundreds of questions we can ask cannot be addressed without the disciplinary perspectives of the social sciences and humanities.
HSA: In a piece you wrote some years back, you described the attack on humanities in India by a virulent form of anti-intellectualism. How has scholarship on China fared under such an ideological atmosphere? What kind of structural impediments do scholars of China face in India?
AG: The situation in India has gotten worse since I wrote that op-ed in 2015. A recently released report of the Global Public Policy Institute now ranks academic freedom in India on a par with that in Saudi Arabia and Libya; even Pakistan, which liberals in India like to look down upon, ranks higher. Two major structural impediments, both of recent vintage, have contributed to the decline. The first is the requirement that all intellectual pursuits serve the ‘national interest’, a nebulous and slippery term that in current practice often means furthering the greatness of India as a Hindutva nation. Small surprise then that JNU’s once-famed history department, unbeknownst to the majority of its own distinguished faculty, sees fit to invite a retired army officer to deliver a lecture on the glory of the “Sarasvati Civilization”.
Once we start looking, we are likely to find many other fascinating instances of scientific and technological exchange across the Global South.
A second impediment is financial. The long-standing practice of allocating recurring grants to public and autonomous institutions has largely been scrapped in favour of a project-based funding model. Institutions now have to submit proposals to the government for most projects they wish to undertake. At the same time, the government has also placed restrictions on foreign funds, forcing most think tanks and research institutes to become completely dependent on the state’s largesse. Although defensible from the perspective of reducing wasteful expenditure, in practice the financial restructuring has led to greater government oversight and interference in the selection and prosecution of research projects. Research institutions are now faced with the debilitating challenge of designing an intellectually worthwhile research agenda while also not running afoul of a politically (qua ideologically) determined ‘national interest’.
For long, our approach to Cold War science has been dominated by the assumption that scientific and technical knowledge flowed outward (and downward!) from two nodes dominated by the US and the Soviet Union. This model comes with significant blind spots.
If this were not crippling enough, China Studies continue to be beset by other, long-standing impediments. Outside of a very small number of centres (concentrated in Delhi) it is impossible to receive decent training in the study of China. There is a lack of competent senior scholars who can mentor students, a lack of library resources, a lack of language programmes and language teachers, and a lack of committed funding for any of these activities.
Admittedly, many of these problems are elements of the broader neglect of Area Studies across the entire Subcontinent. The concept of Area Studies has quite correctly been criticised as an American imperial project of ordering the world. But if we unmoor it from those specific associations and think more generally of how to foster knowledge about other places, it will become evident that India lacks a critical mass of scholarship on every part of the world, including its own immediate neighbourhood.
Even as the state has adopted an increasingly interventionist and harmful role in higher education in India, a handful of private universities have begun to build China Studies programs. The most promising among them is Ashoka University, which, in collaboration with the New-Delhi-based China India Foundation and the Harvard-Yenching Institute, will soon establish a China Studies Center, with dedicated faculty, a library and a language programme. The three institutions are also coordinating a new postdoctoral fellowship programme that will place young scholars at different partner institutions across India, where they will teach and research for two to three years. Other private universities, such as Shiv Nadar and Ahmedabad, are also beginning to increase their investment in East Asian Studies. These activities do not make up for the state’s intransigence, but they offer some rays of hope.
HSA: In Making it Count, your book on how the Chinese state looked at statistics in the 1950s, you document fascinating exchanges between Chinese and Indian statisticians. Could you describe that episode and explain to us what it says about a forgotten history of scientific exchanges during the Cold War years?
AG: In 1957, the Chinese State Statistics Bureau invited the Indian physicist and statistician P C Mahalanobis and his colleague D B Lahiri to spend three weeks in Beijing. The visit of the Indian duo marked the high point of a series of exchanges between Chinese and Indian statisticians and planners that began in 1951 and were particularly lively between 1956 and 1959. At the heart of these exchanges was the Chinese desire to learn more about the then cutting-edge statistical method of large-scale random sampling. The Indian Statistical Institute, which Mahalanobis had established in 1932, was a global leader in this new fact-finding technology.
In the book, I use the exchanges primarily as a means to analyse the nature of Soviet statistical aid to China and as evidence of the levels of Chinese disaffection with Soviet-promoted methods, such as exhaustive enumeration. The China-India exchanges, therefore, are a crucial episode in the larger history of statistics in 1950s China.
Beyond the history of statistics, the exchanges are also a compelling instance of South-South technological knowledge sharing. For long, our approach to Cold War science has been dominated by the assumption that scientific and technical knowledge flowed outward (and downward!) from two nodes dominated by the US and the Soviet Union. In this framing, countries and communities in the Global South are re-actors, never actors. As the China-India statistical exchanges show, this model comes with significant blind spots.
Once we start looking, we are likely to find many other fascinating instances of scientific and technological exchange across the Global South. Among my ongoing projects is a collection of essays on scientific and technological networks across China and India from the 1920s to the 1980s. My colleague in the History of Science department at Harvard, Gabriela Soto Laveaga, is currently working on a revisionist history of agriculture development aid anchored in India and Mexico (instead of the US).
Even more generally, taking seriously cultural, scientific and economic life can lead to different sources and different historical arguments than an approach centred on high politics or grand civilisational comparisons. It is therefore encouraging to see the wider interest – institutionally, disciplinarily and topically – that China-India studies has begun to enjoy in recent years. Besides my ongoing project on networks of China-India science, I am also involved in a collaborative project (with the historian Tansen Sen and the literary scholar Adhira Mangalagiri, and involving ten other scholars), which examines archival materials pertaining to China and India from within the recently declassified Jawaharlal Nehru Papers (ca. 1947-1964). Andrew Liu has just published a book on the history of tea in China and India and its place within a global history of capital. We are also beginning to see a steady increase in graduate students interested in pursuing doctoral work on China and India.
HSA: Given China’s authoritarian political system, there is a general perception that Chinese scholarship, particularly in a discipline like history, is quite poor and closed to the outside world. As a historian of China who has spent time in the country and in its archives, how would you respond to that characterisation? And what has your academic experience there been like?
AG: There are no doubt severe limitations within an authoritarian system. The Global Public Policy Institute report I mentioned ranks China even lower than India on the academic freedom scale. But there is an interesting experiment in progress in China now. A commonly held, and in my opinion correct, assumption is that a truly excellent university system cannot survive in the absence of academic freedom. Over the past two decades, the Chinese state has made a concerted attempt to raise the standard of its universities. Some of these universities have received extra funding under a program known as Project 985 (because it was initiated in May 1998) to encourage them to become globally competitive. The results have been impressive. Dozens of Chinese universities now regularly feature in global top-500 rankings, with many in the top 50. At the same time, starting in the last year of Hu Jintao’s presidency, and gathering steam after Xi Jinping’s ascent to the pinnacle of the Communist Party and the state in 2012, there has been a draconian clampdown on civil society, and academic and intellectual activity. How these contradictory trends will play out remains to be seen.
In Nineteen Eighty-four George Orwell offered what is quite possibly still the pithiest distillation of the importance of history: “‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”. No surprise then that history is among the first objects of attack and control for any nationalist and/or authoritarian government. China is no different. In practice, state control has ebbed and flowed. The first decade of this century was a period of relative relaxation, marked by increasing archival access, international scholarly exchange, and exciting new work in several areas of modern and premodern history.
Southasian studies in China remains poorly developed. It suffers from many of the same faults that plague the study of China in India.
These trends have largely reversed themselves over the past decade. State oversight of activities has increased significantly and has led to a concomitant shrinkage in topics that are ‘safe’ to work on. Access to archives, especially for materials on post-1949 China, has virtually dried up, for Chinese and foreign scholars alike. Many Chinese colleagues have confided that they have had multiple grant applications rejected because their proposed projects did not conform to the narrow set of suitable topics identified by the state. Chinese scholars are sensitive to these changes, and try and adapt as best as they can. Some chose to push back aggressively, but most, channeling political scientist James Scott, find comfort in hidden transcripts and other modes of passive resistance, and bide their time.
Chinese historians may have been isolated from a wider global disciplinary discourse in the 1960s and 1970s, but that is certainly no longer the case. There are terrific historians at institutions all over China, doing excellent work on all periods of Chinese history. There are also a large number of younger scholars who have been trained abroad and are now faculty at Chinese universities. My own experiences doing archival work and interacting with colleagues in Beijing, Shanghai, Kunming, Guangzhou and elsewhere have been positive and rewarding for the most part.
Unfortunately, the latest developments, in particular the worsening relationship between the US and the PRC, will likely have a wider impact on the ability of Chinese historians to participate in international exchanges and collaborations. Already there are troubling reports that Chinese scholars are being instructed to withdraw from international conferences. Universities in many parts of the world are also reassessing their ties to Chinese partner institutions. The prospects for international scholarly exchange for Chinese scholars, historians included, appear grim.
HSA: What about the coverage of India, and Southasia, in China? What is your assessment of the Chinese intelligentsia’s understanding of Southasian histories and societies?
AG: Southasian studies in China remains poorly developed. It suffers from many of the same faults that plague the study of China in India (I cannot speak to China studies in other Southasian countries) – an overt focus on strategic studies and international relations, accompanied by a relatively shallow understanding of Indian (and Southasian) history, society, politics and economy. But younger generations of Chinese scholars are better connected to Southasia and to debates in Southasian Studies.
Institutionally, too, there are some small but positive developments. Peking University has long had a tradition of studying premodern India, with a focus on languages like Sanskrit, and on the cultural and religious connections made possible by the spread of Buddhism. In many ways, it mirrors the character of Cheena Bhavana in India. In recent years, Yunnan University in Kunming has set up an Institute for India Studies and appointed the distinguished China-India historian Dai Chaowu as its director. A few years ago, the History Department at Tsinghua University in Beijing hired their first historian of Southasia, a Chinese national trained in the mainland and at the National University of Singapore.
There are other examples, all of which indicate a widening of scope. At the same time, Chinese scholars continue to face enormous difficulties in obtaining research visas to India (my sense is that it is easier for them to do work in other Southasian countries), which I can only interpret as the outcome of a self-defeating and insecure mindset dominant in India’s ministries of Home and External Affairs.
The popular perception of India in China is shaped by official media and by what we might call Indian soft power. Official media tends to downplay reportage of India, favoring much more extensive coverage of Pakistan, China’s closest ally in the Subcontinent. Stories on India tend to portray the country in a negative light, drawing attention to poverty, corruption, communal strife and, not least (and quite accurately), the brutality of the caste system. What they are less able to control is the success of Indian films (Bollywood, in particular) and TV shows. An interesting and relatively recent development among China’s elite is the ‘orientalisation’ of India, which is increasingly seen as chaotic and backward but possessed of a timeless moral and religious wisdom.