Beijing International

The curious case of ‘soldier’ Wang Qi

Before darkness fell, which brought alive this year’s annual Lantern Festival — a visually pleasing event well covered in the press — the Chinese media were chasing another compelling story, with a strong Indian connection that echoed the memories of the 1962 war.

On February 11, the 15th day of this year’s Chinese lunar calendar, an Air China plane that took off in the early hours from New Delhi arrived at Beijing airport just before noon. It was hardly a routine flight. On board was the 77-year-old Wang Qi, a grey-haired former soldier of the People’s Liberation Army, visiting his country after more than five trying decades in India, mostly in Tirodi, a remote hamlet in Madhya Pradesh.

In the Chinese capital, an emotional welcome awaited Mr. Wang, and three other members of his family — son Vishnu Wang, daughter-in-law-Neha Wang and granddaughter Khanak Wang. The warmth of the welcome spiralled in Xian, the capital of Shaanxi, where Mr. Wang flew from Beijing to receive a rousing reception from his three brothers and sisters, and other kinsmen and friends.

They had arrived to greet one of their own, who had apparently strayed into the hands of the Indian authorities shortly after guns fell silent in the 1962 Sino-Indian war. That night, if Chinese social media is to be believed, Mr. Wang fed on several bowls of his favourite noodles, and slept little. His blood pressure fluctuated, burdened by a barrage of conflicting emotions, triggered by a reunion that had to wait 54 years to materialise.

But beyond the threading of broken family bonds, hard questions also began to simmer. Chinese social media started asking: Was Mr. Wang really a hero whose spirit to get back home remained unbroken for more than half a century? Or was he an Army deserter deserving a court martial? Doubts about Mr. Wang’s story in China that he — a former surveyor in the PLA — had lost his way in the tough borderlands of the Sino-Indian frontier, began to appear amid conflicting accounts.

Interviews in the Chinese media of Mr. Wang’s former platoon commander and his senior officer were the chief cause of the controversy. The platoon commander’s account did not contradict Mr. Wang’s narrative that, after losing his way, he had sought help from riders of a Red Cross vehicle, who promptly handed him over to the Indian military. However, the second account underscored that Mr. Wang went missing as the Chinese Army began its withdrawal at the end of the 1962 war. That raised the grim speculation that instead of losing his way, Mr. Wang may have deserted the Army.

Humanitarian issue

At any rate, two other issues are cropping up from the incident. The first is humanitarian, related to the fate of Mr. Wang’s family. Unlike the ex-soldier, who is a Chinese national, Vishnu Wang and his family are Indian passport holders. Currently they are on a two-year visa to China. Without finding employment, they are unlikely to acquire a residence permit should Mr. Wang decide not to return to India. More important, Mr. Wang’s wife Sushila is not accompanying her husband. Veterans in China narrate horror stories of the many Chinese who were stranded in the former Soviet Union after relations between Beijing and Moscow soured, especially in the 1960s. Many had married local women, but, when the opportunity arose to return, most left their spouses permanently behind.

On a diplomatic plane, the Wang Qi incident is an illustration that Indian and Chinese authorities can work together to handle humanitarian crises with sensitivity, insulated from the not-so-smooth political relationship.

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Printable version | Jun 1, 2020 11:56:46 AM |

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