A recent poll conducted in India by the PEW Research Centre [Spring 2016] and published recently indicates that only about 31% of the respondents polled had a favorable impression of China. Earlier a similar poll conducted by PEW in China in July 2014, indicated that of the respondents polled only about 30% had a favorable opinion of India. In other words, ordinary people in both countries do not have a very high opinion of each other. What are the reasons for this? Is it because of a lack of contact and ignorance of each other? Let us examine two important parameters that indicate how close the contacts are between the two peoples. These are tourism and the number of students studying in each other's country. These two parameters would give us the empirical evidence that we need to form an opinion.
There are approximately 120m Chinese tourists travelling abroad every year and according to the World Travel and Tourism Council [WTTC], they spend nearly US$215 billion during their travels abroad. It is estimated that this figure may go up to US$ 420 b by 2020. And yet how many of these Chinese tourists come to India? The figure for 2015 was about 200,000; certainly up from the abysmally low figure of 21,152 in 2003. This total represents just about 2.5% of the total number of tourists, about 7 million that come to India; although it must be admitted that even Maldives receives more Chinese tourists than India does. China Travel Service [CTS] has about 122 offices throughout China and out of the 125 tour packaged offered, only two include India and even these are accompanied by severe deterrent warnings of what to expect in India.There is no doubt that much of the work has to be done on the Indian side. A Tourist Office has been opened in Beijing and Ministry of Tourism web-site is now accessible in Mandarin. Many of the existing misconceptions in the minds of the Chinese tourists about India need to be dispelled. But the low priority given to operationalizing the Buddhist circuit in India, has considerably hampered rapid development. New hotels and better travel connections are needed for the Buddhist circuit. Similarly, the air line connections between the two countries are very few, as compared with the air connections that other Asian countries have with China. Through traffic to third countries is also hampered due to the absence of long range aircraft. China Air Lines has been offering connections to the US and Canada through Beijing and Shanghai, but the scope is still limited. Travelers from China to India continue to have complaints about the inordinate delay in granting visas, but with the PM’s intervention, the introduction of e-visas had considerably shortened the time taken.
Another reason why contacts are limited can be seen in the number of students studying in each other’s country. Last year there were only 13,578 Indian students in China, as compared to only 578 about a decade ago. Almost 80% of the Indian students in China are taking undergrad courses in clinical medicine in various institutes in China. Indians are going in greater numbers as the university accommodation is good, tuition fee is low and classes are taught in English. But here again the problem remains that there is still no mutual recognition of academic degrees and this in turn limits the openings for future employment.
From the Chinese side, the number of students studying in India is again very low. Only about 2000 Chinese students are in India, as compared to the 304,040 Chinese students studying in the US! Most Chinese students in India are undergoing language training courses. Also Indian Universities do not figure in the top 100 Universities in the world, whereas there are 3 Chinese Universities in the top one hundred. Naturally Chinese students would prefer to go where they consider they can receive the best education and thereby enhance their employment prospects. The main complaint here also is that there are inordinate delays in granting visas on subjects for study. On the Indian side, a much more robust approach would have to be undertaken to attract Chinese students. What we need to remember is that friendships made at the student level are likely to last a life time.
There is no doubt that India and China are two rising powers of Asia, but as is obvious from the above both remain quite oblivious of each other. In the vacuum thus created, past impressions tend to remain, with no new narrative in position. Much work needs to be done, on both sides, to correct the rather poor impression that seems to be prevalent.