India's new gateway to China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 October, 2007, 12:00am


Young Phon Fat, a 77-year-old ethnic Chinese woman in Calcutta, couldn't believe her ears when her son broke the news that China was reopening its consulate in the Indian city after a gap of 45 years.

'My mother clapped her hands like a child and did a jig,' says her son, Lee Weng Woun. 'Her happiness knew no bounds when I told her about the inaugural direct flight to China from Calcutta next week. She was on cloud nine.'

As Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal state, boasts India's biggest Chinatown, Ms Young's excitement is shared by many. Tangra, the once-bustling Chinese enclave, had 50,000 people in its heyday. Now it's down to 6,000 and falling but it has retained its ethnicity and distinct cultural identity against all odds - even publishing a daily newspaper with news from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Now the community has reasons to celebrate. The first China Eastern Airlines flight from Kunming , capital of Yunnan province , will land at Calcutta's Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport tomorrow. A few hours later it will fly back to Kunming's Wujiaba International Airport, signalling the start of thrice-weekly services between the cities.

Meanwhile, a Chinese diplomat is scouting for a piece of real estate in Calcutta for a consulate. Mao Siwei, the new consul general of China in Calcutta, is still living in a Hyatt hotel suite and spends the day sizing up properties accompanied by his deputy Zheng Xinyou. Their deadline is looming: the consulate is scheduled to be up and running before the year is out.

'As China's third diplomatic mission in India, besides our embassy in New Delhi and consulate in Mumbai, the Calcutta consulate will be a bridge between Beijing and the sizeable local population of Chinese origin,' says Mr Mao, an affable 56-year-old career diplomat.

'Their nationality is no doubt Indian but historically, culturally and ethnically they are Chinese. My job is to strengthen cultural ties, extend community services and celebrate festivals like the Chinese New Year with them. I have plans to invite home as many of them as I can in February.'

The consulate in the upscale Salt Lake district will have 10 diplomats besides supporting staff and cover five Indian states: West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.

Significantly, the new consulate's jurisdiction does not extend to India's restive northeastern region, which borders China. Besides claiming a large chunk of the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh as its territory, Beijing is suspected of having links with some separatist groups. Although Beijing stoutly denies it is fanning insurgency, its diplomats will not be allowed to travel to the northeast.

But Mr Mao is unfazed. He insists that, besides wooing ethnic Chinese, his goal is to foster economic and trade relations between the mainland and eastern India, particularly West Bengal, which has been communist-run since 1977.

The ruling Communist Party of India, which also props ups Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress Party-led coalition government, has excellent ties with China's Communist Party. Indeed, their links run so deep that several top Indian communist leaders were imprisoned as China's agents during the 1962 China-India war and opposition parties still rake up their 'tainted' past.

In a recent meeting with West Bengal chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya, Mr Mao was told the state was banking on Chinese investments in various sectors to boost industrialisation and rejuvenate the red province's stagnant economy. Not surprisingly, one English-language newspaper described the reopening of the consulate and the air link as gifts from one communist bastion to another.

'The gateway of India in Bombay faces west,' says Mr Mao. 'It's time to build another gateway at Calcutta, looking east, symbolising a reunion with the past yet heralding the future and a great new beginning.'

The Kunming link will offer connecting flights to major mainland cities, meaning Calcuttans travelling to China for business or pleasure no longer have to take a circuitous route via Bangkok or Singapore.

Before the 1962 war severed relations between the continental powers, Calcutta was a key point for commerce and trade, much of which travelled through Nathu La, a Himalayan mountain pass in Sikkim along the India-China border.

In those days there was a Chinese consulate in Calcutta and an Indian consulate in Tibet. Old hands still remember how India and China promoted border trade; there were telegraph lines all the way to Lhasa.

The telegraph lines and trade offices in Kalimpong in Sikkim and the Tibetan town of Yatung were set up by India's British rulers after they signed a trade accord with Tibet more than a century ago. This formed the basis of the subsequent trade agreement between independent India and China in 1954.

But the 1962 war changed all that. Bilateral relations froze, commercial ties were snapped and diplomatic and trade missions were hurriedly closed. Relations nosedived further in 1975, when India annexed Sikkim, which it had inherited as a protectorate from the British in 1947. China was furious because it considered the tiny Buddhist kingdom to be within its zone of influence.

Worst affected by the breakdown in relations was Calcutta's 50,000-strong Chinese community. The prosperous diaspora was hounded; their bank accounts frozen, properties seized and restrictions imposed, including compulsory renewal of residential permits.

Thousands of people were deported for anti-Indian activities - a charge never proved. Although they were eventually granted Indian citizenship, which had been denied them in 1947 when India became independent, by 1981 the Chinese population had shrunk to 10,500.

Lingering suspicions still drive educated Chinese to seek a better life abroad. Their favourite destinations are Taiwan, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, Sweden and Britain.

The gradual normalisation of relations between China and India has not turned the clock back in Tangra, Calcutta, though. Even the reopening of Nathu La last year has not lifted residents' spirits.

Can Mr Mao and his band of diplomats revive Tangra's fortunes?

'It's New Delhi's and the West Bengal government's responsibility to make the Indian Chinese feel wanted,' he says. 'We can merely quench their cultural thirst and encourage them to nurture business ties with the land of their forefathers.'