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Rahul Kanwal on 11 things you didn't know about #ModiInChina

Key takeaways from prime minister's foreign visit.

 |  Bite Soldier  |  10-minute read |   19-05-2015
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1. Foreign secretary's psy ops

During his press conference in Beijing on May 15, foreign secretary S Jaishankar was asked whether Chinese tourists would be given e-visas as was being widely reported in the media. The foreign secretary's curt reply was that the media had been carrying wrong reports and the government had so far taken no decision about offering e-visas to Chinese nationals. Within two hours of the foreign secretary's firm rebuttal, the prime minister in his speech at Tsinghua University announced that Chinese tourists too would be eligible for the government's e-visa scheme.

This led hacks to question if the foreign secretary was clueless about what his boss intended to do. But apparently, the foreign secretary's denial of the visa question was part of psychological operations with the media. Jaishankar wanted to ensure that the surprise element was not lost when the PM made the big announcement and therefore chose to take the bullet even though he ended up looking silly himself. Sources in the MEA pointed out that the prime minister made the announcement while reading from a prepared text and not while he had been speaking extempore during the question and answer. All the PM's speeches are written by MEA staffers and vetted by the FS before being sent to the prime minister's office.

This is the second time in recent weeks that the PM has done the opposite of what the FS said. During the PM's trip to Paris in April, the foreign secretary had said that no decision had been taken on the purchase of the Rafale fighter aircraft from France. Shortly after the FS' denial, Modi announced that India would be buying 36 fighter jets from France.

2. Where are our leaders?

Prime Minister Modi signed up on Weibo with the aim of reaching out to social media users in China who have no access to Twitter and Facebook. But Modi's online outreach has caused some unintended consequences for the top Chinese leadership. Modi's selfie with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang went viral within minutes of the PM posting it. At last count there were 68,000 retweets of the post. In one week, Modi has been able to build a follower base of more than a lakh and a half. The comments section on Modi's handle made for an interesting read. This was the first time Weibo users had seen their premier beaming in a selfie with another world leader. Users gave the picture a thumbs up but started asking why China's leaders were not on social media. One post read, "This picture is nice but why can't our leaders join Weibo so that we can directly ask them questions".

Alarmed, China's censors immediately swung into the act and blocked any further messages and replies to Modi's post. For many hours no new replies could be seen and the figure kept hovering around 1,500 even while the number of retweets kept climbing. After careful vetting 300 new replies have now been released. The new replies are vanilla and largely apolitical. Winning powerful friends, influencing people

Prime Minister Modi seems to have taken a leaf out of Dale Carnegie's cult self-help book Winning Friends, Influencing People during his frequent foreign sojourns. In the past 355 days Modi has travelled to 33 cities in 19 countries. This reporter has observed the PM in action in the United States, Nepal, Australia and now in China. What is remarkable is Modi's ability to very quickly strike a personal rapport with the world's top leaders and his ability to modify his behaviour in keeping with the culture of the host country. At the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia, Modi's put his arm around the shoulder of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. His relationship with Abbott exuded a great level of familiarity and bore a casual air. Modi, however, was far more formal with the Chinese president. But that didn't stop him from holding President Xi's hand at the Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian. Modi took Xi behind a tree and the two were seen having an animated conversation, with officials looking on from a distance.

One of the least highlighted achievements of Modi's China visit is the personal equation he has been able to strike with the most powerful man in Asia, President Xi. In a protocol conscious nation like China, India's PM ought to be holding official talks with his counterpart the Chinese premier. But Modi has been able extend his reach beyond Premier Li. In Xi'an, Modi spent a full day holding talks with Xi. This was the first time Xi had welcomed a world leader outside Beijing. Given the all powerful status both men enjoy in their countries, Sino-India watchers are hoping the personal chemistry between the principals will help overcome the bureaucratic and security landlines that crop up at every step on both sides of the Himalayas.

3. CEOs touch Modi's feet

There was a Godfather-like moment at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Shanghai where Indian and Chinese companies entered into a slew of memorandums of understanding (MOUs)to further their business relations. A total of 26 MOUs adding up to $22 billion of investment were signed in Modi's presence. After handing over the official papers to their Chinese counterparts several of the top Indian CEOs bent to touch prime minister's feet and seek his blessings. The list of those who paid obeisance included the CEO of one of India's IT majors.

4. Chinese media not a monolith

The hyper nationalistic Indian media latches on to every negative word published in the Chinese state-run media as if it were a direct diktat from the Communist Party headquarters. Headlines are spun and many hours of prime time television devoted to critical opinion pieces appearing in broadsheets such as the China Daily. But the reality is far divorced from perception. With the Chinese government trying to cut down on expenditure, even the state-run media is having to rely more and more on its own sources of revenue generation and is driven by the same set of commercial considerations that push Indian media organisations.

Like hard-line Indian generals and diplomats, China too has its share of hawks. With an eye on catering to populist urges editors tend to give greater play to those with more extreme views. But many of the strategic affairs experts and former diplomats who write frequently in these publications have no hotline with the government in Beijing and are living a quiet retired life just like our own former generals and diplomats. A line repeated often in the China Daily may reflect the view of the Chinese government but it is completely wrong to assume that every word is dictated by the government in Beijing.

5. World's worst airports

The one things that China surprisingly has still not been able to fix is its aviation sector. Flights of China Air, South China Airlines and China Eastern routinely run behind schedule. Quality of service is terrible and reminds one of Russia's Aeroflot. According to FlightStats, which tracks airport statistics, Beijing's airport ranks last among the world's top 35, with 82 per cent of the flights failing to leave on time. Second worst was Shanghai with 72 per cent of the flights running late.

Majority of the Chinese air space is tightly controlled by the military. Recently there have been reports of irate passengers trashing airline check-in counters and getting into fisticuffs with the staff. No wonder the popularity of the high-speed network is surging across China.

And for some reason the passenger announcements on the China Eastern flight from Shanghai to Delhi were a straight lift from the announcements made on Pakistan International Airlines. Instead of choosing Hindi for a flight bound for India, the announcements were made in chaste Urdu, making the returning media delegation wonder if the language was an oversight or was the choice deliberate.

6. Water from Kailash Mansarovar Lake

At a time when PM Modi is doing heavy lifting globally for his Make in India campaign, Shanghai resident of Indian origin Vaishali Midha was come up with a unique Made in China but Made for India idea. Vaishali Midha is the wife of the Dell chief for the Asia Pacific region, Amit Midha. The couple has been living in Shanghai for the last ten years. Starting October, she is planning to launch a mineral water brand which will sell water from the Kailash Mansarovar Lake. Vaishali has set up a bottling plant near the Mansarovar Lake. The special packing has been designed by TV actor Mohit Raina and comes with rudraksh beads on the cap and has Lord Shiva's teachings printed on a parchment inside the pack. Each bottle will be priced at Rs 80.

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7. University student's googly

Most of the questions posed at the university interactions of Prime Minister Modi are scripted well in advance. However, one question asked by a young student at the renowned Tsinghua University in Beijing stumped the PM and created quite a flutter. A young girl wanted to know, "If democracy is so good then why is India still not developed". The official translator dutifully repeated the question. But official minders jumped in and the question and answer session was hastily drawn to a close. The PM left after the vote of thanks without having to answer the question.

8. First rally in years

Political rallies are banned in China. The communist government goes to extraordinary lengths to forbid any political gathering. The last rallies were organised in the country at the time of the cultural revolution in the '60s. To facilitate Modi's address to the expatriate Indian community in Shanghai, special permission was granted by the Chinese government. When they entered the Shanghai Expo Pavilion on May 16, officials from the Communist Party looked quite flummoxed by what they saw. There was Bollywood-style song and dance and the atmosphere seemed more like a music festival. Even Chinese journalists from the state-run CCTV, who are used to covering staid public interactions of their leaders, looked bewildered.

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9. Stop selling Shanghai dream

Before every election, netas in Maharashtra are fond of claiming that their party will turn Mumbai into Shanghai. But given the rapid advancements Shanghai has made over the past two decades in upgrading its infrastructure, Indian netas must stop building castles in the air. Shanghai's nightlife, cuisine and shopping avenues have already over taken Hong Kong and are beginning to give New York a run for its money. The city has a development plan which charts its course of development for the next 20 years, while in India that is sometimes how long projects get delayed by. Instead of fooling people into believing that they can turn Mumbai into a smart city like Shanghai, our netas should instead focus on trying to ensure that Mumbai starts looking more like a city instead of an overgrown slum.

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10. Indian govt's jugaad technology

The clear instruction from the prime minister's office to the external publicity division of the ministry of external affairs is to post as many pictures as possible of the prime minister during his events overseas. But with Twitter and Facebook banned in China, the great firewall of China posed a formidable challenge to the MEA officials. That's when good old Indian jugaad came to the rescue. Local embassy officials helped the MEA team log into local Virtual Private Networks or VPN servers, which bypass the great firewall. What's a little bending of the rules when the focus is on India-China Buy-Buy!

11. Beijing's Weird Food Street

One of Beijing's attractions is Wangfujing Street, popularly called the Weird Food Street. Located in downtown Beijing, every creature that moves is sold on the counters of the hole in the wall stores that line the narrow street. From scorpions, to lizards, snakes, crocodiles, cockroaches anything and everything is available barbecued and sautéed. The street is a big hit with Western tourists who try the exotic dishes as their own real life version of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. Not used to eating much more than chicken, fish and mutton, Indian tourists are a lot less adventurous than the Westerners. Most desis prefer to take a few quick selfies and head to the exit.

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Writer

Rahul Kanwal Rahul Kanwal @rahulkanwal

Managing Editor, India Today TV.

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