Prime Minister Narendra Modi had pitched considerable personal capital to trigger an uptick in India’s mass cultural appeal in China. Chinese netizens have not forgotten Mr. Modi’s carefully choreographed itinerary during his state visit to Xian and Beijing in 2015. While his presence with President Xi Jinping at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian, showcasing Chinese monk Xuanzang’s epic journey to India, stirred the deep undercurrent of India and China’s common heritage of Buddhism, other events that were staged were no less significant. A Yoga-Taichi demonstration , in the presence of Mr. Modi and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang at the Temple of Heaven , a world heritage site, showcased the tantalising possibility of a symbiotic revival of two ancient civilizations. By opening a Weibo social media account, the Prime Minister established a direct cyber connect with China’s tech-savvy millennials .
Bollywood further built on these foundations. Dangal, Secret Superstar, Hindi Medium, and Bajrangi Bhaijaan were super hits, establishing a deep emotional connect with Chinese audiences. TikTok, the short video-sharing app, opened new channels of curiosity about India among young Chinese.
Striking the right balance
But India’s tepid response to the mounting woes of ordinary Chinese — the target of the novel coronavirus, which has killed over 1,800 people , spread panic, and threatened to derail the economy — has put these impressive soft power gains on notice. Chinese netizens question whether India has struck the right balance in protecting its domestic population from the deadly disease and dousing the flames of a neighbour whose house is on fire. “Chinese people believe that a drop of water given in need shall be returned with a burst of spring, which means if others offer even a little bit of help, one should return the favour with all he or she can,” wrote the state-run tabloid Global Times , on India’s response.
Many contrast New Delhi’s arguably overcautious response — initially banning all export of face masks, suspending e-visas for over a billion Chinese, and sending a delayed message of empathy at the highest level to the distressed Chinese — with the solid and spontaneous support shown by the Japanese for their embattled neighbour.
Disregarding the trauma of Tokyo’s 1937 invasion and its enduring fallout, Chinese Internet users have showered praise on a retailer from Japan, which donated one million masks to the city of Chengdu. The Japanese city of Oita sent 30,000 masks to its sister city, Wuhan. The hashtag #Japan sends a million face masks to aid Wuhan# went viral, with more than 500 million views on Weibo. The Japanese also avoided fire-walling their borders. In their initial response, Japanese authorities barred the entry of only those Chinese citizens whose passports had been issued in Hubei province, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Despite the initial damage, there may still be an opportunity for India to recover some of its soft power erosion. The key would be to follow the precedent of 2003, when George Fernandes, then Defence Minister, travelled to Beijing to express India’s full support to the Chinese people, during the SARS outbreak.
That visit reminded people of Dwarkanath S. Kotnis, an Indian surgeon who had died in China, where he had gone in 1938 as part of a five-member medical team to assist Chinese revolutionaries at the time of the Sino-Japanese war. That team had been cobbled together by Subhas Chandra Bose, on the instructions of Jawaharlal Nehru, to flag anti-colonial internationalism in Asia. Incidentally, before entering ground zero of the Chinese revolution, the Indian medical unit had been moved from Hankou port in Wuhan, where SARS-CoV-2 was first detected.