Welcome to the first issue of my newsletter, and wishing you a happy 2021!
I’m Ananth Krishnan, a journalist who covers China and works for The Hindu newspaper in India. I’m currently based in India, and have been waiting, like many other China-based correspondents, to return to Beijing to resume reporting from there, which I hope to in early 2021 (but who knows — I’ve been waiting one year already!).
The idea behind this daily newsletter is to present a fresh perspective on developments in China — though I’m calling it The India China Newsletter, it’s essentially a China newsletter, with a focus on how developments there impact India. I’ll also closely follow what’s unfolding on the India-China front, which, I think, for a relationship of such importance, remains strangely under-reported and not very well covered.
I spent 2020 reporting on China from India. In September, I also published my first book on China, India’s China Challenge, which is based on my reporting from there from 2009 to 2018, when I moved back to India. (It’s available on Amazon in India and elsewhere). My reporting last year began covering the unfolding pandemic in China, which I happened to experience up close for a couple of weeks in Beijing last January where I was there to fix up an apartment for my imminent move (which turned out to be not-so-imminent), and which hit us hard in India from late March, when we went into a national lockdown.
COVID-19 hit home in the most brutal way why we should be paying closer attention to what’s happening across the border. I flew in to India late January, on the day when India reported its first case, yet found hardly anyone taking the pandemic seriously. China had gone into national lockdown a week earlier when Wuhan and Hubei were closed off to the rest of the country. When I landed, passengers from China and Southeast Asia were waived through with the most perfunctory questions about whether they were feeling unwell. In February too, I had friends and family fly in from Europe and the United States tell me not exactly inspiring stories about the measures that were in place (that month, newspapers were more preoccupied by the visit of Donald Trump to India than by the coronavirus, from my somewhat hazy memory of what now seems a lifetime ago).
The crisis on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), that started in early May, was the other unexpected story that kept me busy last year. Unexpected because I’d reported from Beijing on how India and China had, since the Doklam crisis in 2017, invested so much in bringing the relationship back from the brink. Yet for whatever reason, the PLA starting in late April decided to mobilise on an unprecedented scale right up to the LAC, and carried out multiple transgressions that would spark the biggest crisis on the border since the 1960s, and the biggest loss of life since the clash in 1967. We are still in the middle of this crisis, and both sides are yet to find a way to disengage and return to status quo (China has shown little willingness on that front). This is a story that’s going to continue in 2021, and will likely impact every aspect of this relationship, from trade and investment to even the thousands of students in India who are still waiting to go back to resume their courses in China (there are more than 20,000 students, mostly studying medicine).
Through this newsletter, I hope to keep you up to date with what’s happening, share with you pieces that I find of interest, track the buzz on what’s happening in China, watch what Chinese media and social media are saying (the debates can be more lively than you’d imagine despite the stifling censorship), and try and put all of that in a useful perspective. I’m still going to try to give you a reporter’s perceptive. Since I started working as a reporter, I’ve had the idea of a separation between news and opinion drilled into my head, as quaint as it may seem in 2021 when most websites have long abandoned any pretence of separating their news and opinion offerings. I hope to follow that principle here too, and keep my personal opinions to a minimum — the opinions I offer, I hope, will be measured and informed.
I also want to use this newsletter to share what it’s like to live in and report from Beijing, which hopefully I will eventually be able to do this year. Every year seems to be a “politically important” one in China, but that’s certainly the case in 2021, when the entire Party apparatus is probably going to be channeled towards making sure the 100 year anniversary of the Party in July goes off without a hitch, and in 2022 as well, when we’ll see the next Party Congress and 10 years of Xi Jinping in office (yes, it’s only been ten!).
In short, I’d expect more of the same for the next couple of years, the trends of centralisation and tightening that we’ve seen hastened by the pandemic. I’ve been struck by how often, over the past year, I kept hearing the word 严格 (yángé, strict) in conversations with friends in China, whether they were journalists or in universities or in business, in so many different contexts, to describe the current environment. That environment seems here to stay.
Having said that, it’s also true that you simply don’t get the sense, when you’re not living in China, of how much more there is to the country than the politics that drives the news. The politics, of course, is important (which is why it’s often the focus of what I report). Yet, a lot gets lost in our emphasis on that, and there is so much more happening than what makes the news. That’s true in the case of the India-China relationship as well. We forget it’s not just a relationship between two governments, but one shaped by, and that continues to shape, the lives of so many people who often get caught in the middle through no fault of their own. The current crisis involving stranded Indian seafarers off Chinese ports is a reminder of that, as also of the students caught in limbo after China restricted visas for Indians in November.
Beyond the political relationship, there is also the incredible warmth that I think every Indian I know who has lived in China for a period of time has experienced (and has been surprised by), a warmth has been strangely immune to the vicissitudes of the relationship. I’ve lost count of the questions I’ve had about the Buddhism circuit in India, where the best yoga studio in Beijing is, and endless conversations about the genius of Aamir Khan. I struggle to remember anyone confronting me about the boundary dispute (barring the occasional taxi driver in Beijing, who never ceased to amaze me with how up to date they were about the latest political developments anywhere in the world. The horrendous traffic in Beijing gives you a lot of radio time, I suppose.)
The idea for this newsletter grew out of my wish to find an interesting platform to share perspectives that go beyond my daily job of reporting on China, and to share pieces I find interesting. Starting this newsletter was also a result of my gradual disenchantment with Twitter, which I’d hoped, perhaps naively, would be just that kind of platform, but is sadly one where I find it’s next to impossible to have any good-faith debates and where most people are reacting to your stories with preconceived notions (often even without bothering to read them).
I hope to keep the newsletter brief and sharp (except for this inaugural edition, I promise!) and above all, informative. I look forward to your feedback in improving it. Often reporters don’t have the best sense of what interests their readers, so please do connect with me and let me know what interests you and I’ll do my best.
With that, I thought I’d end this longer-than-I’d-planned introduction with 10 of the best pieces of journalism on China that I read last year. I’ve left out books and opinion pieces - maybe I’ll save that for another day - and out of a sense of loyalty to my tribe, limited this list to reporting by journalists that really impacted me in 2020. A few of them, I’m afraid, may be behind partial paywalls (but good journalism costs money!) Here they are, in no particular order:
1. Two women fell sick from the coronavirus, one survived
An extraordinarily powerful story by Sui-Lee Wee and Vivian Wang, which brought home how the coronavirus was upending lives in Wuhan (alas, not too many people until the summer in many places around the world were taking this as seriously as they should have. Perhaps if they read this piece, they would have.)
2. How China controlled the coronavirus
Peter Hessler doing what Peter Hessler does best: helping us understand what’s happening in China with granular reporting and above all, a deep sense of empathy.
3. Lessons from Wuhan
This reported piece from Wuhan by Sasa Petricic, more than most, captured a sense of the city, its trauma and resilience.
4. How my mother and I became Chinese propaganda
A deeply moving, powerful, and personal essay by Jiayang Fan.
5. The Chinese thinkers behind Xi's hard line
Fascinating piece by one of the best China reporters in the business, Chris Buckley, capturing the sentiment in Beijing explaining many of China’s recent actions.
6 . How the U.S. misread China’s Xi
Jeremy Page, a reporter whose pieces I never miss, on what he calls one of the greatest strategic miscalculations in the post-Cold War era.
7 . Built to Last
Few reporters have done more work on uncovering the mass internment programme in Xinjiang than Megha Rajagopalan. Here, she reports, along with Alison Killing and Christo Buschek, on the vast infrastructure built to imprison hundreds of thousands of Uighurs.
8. Can India transcend its two-front challenge?
I had to have a piece on the boundary dispute. This by Sushant Singh puts the LAC crisis in the wider context of India’s two-front challenge, and does so brilliantly.
9.The silent victims of China India travel bans
Sixth Tone has become one of my go-to English-language news sources on China and I’m sure I will be linking to a lot of their work in this newsletter. This piece by Ni Dandan reminds us of the human dimensions that we often forget when we talk about the politics of a relationship between nations, looking at the fate of cancer patients in China who have grown reliant on Indian medicines.
10 . The Young Chinese People Cultivating a Love for India on Social Media
On a similar theme, this piece by Luo Ruiyao, one of few Chinese reporters who has spent a lot of time in India, provides a perspective we rarely get from China on how many young Chinese look at India, not within the lens of geopolitics but as a place of wonder and opportunity, something that really resonated with what I experienced when in China.
Thank you for reading this first issue, and looking forward to continued conversations in 2021.
Wishing you a happy, healthy and peaceful new year!