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Beijing, a week before the top leadership change, seemed relatively oblivious to the transition from President Hu Jintao to ‘princeling’ Xi Jinping. I’m in town for a conference at Tsinghua University on the troubled China-India nuclear relationship. Put together by the tireless Lora Saalman, the first US scholar to be awarded a PhD for a dissertation submitted in Chinese, the meet had participants from the US and Japan.
The US-based Nuclear Threat Initiative board, supported by Ted Turner of CNN fame, was on hand. The abolition of nuclear weapons has gained surprising, but welcome support from influential US quarters (recall the Obama speech). Ex-senator Sam Nunn and former defence secretary William Perry persuasively reiterated their disarmament exhortations. This is music to Indian ears; for, Delhi has been an ineffectual vanguard of this campaign since the Nehru era. The predictable dissonance over China’s abiding support to Pakistan’s nuclear programme came to the fore when my Chinese interlocutor and I sparred robustly. But the silver lining was the focus on nuclear disarmament in Beijing—and the encouraging correspondence among the US, China, India and Japan. Not in my lifetime, cautioned President Obama about zero nukes. But he has just been re-elected: so the tilt against this windmill will hopefully gain traction.
I tried in vain to discuss the fine print of the Hu-Xi transition with my Chinese contacts—academic, diplomatic and military—but was adroitly deflected. Wait for the 18th party congress was the polite suggestion. The local media was as circumspect, with the focus more on Hurricane Sandy and what it had done to the US east coast. There were no posters of the leaders—incumbent or designate—but China’s social media made up for the reticence. Microblogging is the preferred route for the youth to evade strict controls on information dissemination. Weibo is the Twitter equivalent in China. At last count, the number of users has crossed 300 million, with many more staying cyber-hidden. My attention was drawn to the various issues being avidly discussed in the run-up to November 8 (when the congress began) in this subterranean domain. One theme was dominant: the increasing disenchantment with the double standards of the Communist Party leadership, the ‘new Emperors’. From Bo Xilai to Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, the recent scandals that were absent in local print and TV sloshed around in cyberspace, much to the dismay of the Party. Clearly, the new challenge for the nascent Xi Jinping era is going to be a cascading ‘Cyber Revolution’; unlike Mao’s ill-conceived Cultural Revolution, the people will call the shots.
For a vegetarian, eating out in China presents more of a challenge than elsewhere. Having some experience from earlier visits, I now have a routine. Locating a relatively modest joint, where one can meet the aam aadmi’s counterpart, I ask for vegetarian soup and steamed rice. The staff are always intrigued, and bemused, by this request, but—despite the language constraint—gradually understand. This time around, sitting in Beijing’s Haidian district, one notices the many groups of young Chinese, either in avid discussion or poring over their iPhones. I ask for pepper and soya sauce to burnish my soup. The waitress is perplexed. A young lady from the adjoining table helps, “Please write down what you want.” Out comes the iPhone, the English words are entered, and voila, the Chinese characters flash. The crowd starts to smile, and I get what my Andhra palate is looking for. I am not sure if ‘avakai’ has a Chinese equivalent! My soup-rice meal was billed at 18 yuan.
This Shared Air
Traffic in Beijing can be more daunting than even that of Delhi during peak hours. The city of 20 million has more than 5 million registered cars as of 2011: a figure expected to rise to 6 million over the next four years. Consequently, air pollution is a major challenge. Before the 2008 Olympics, as much as $17 billion was spent to redress this. Managing the rising demand for automobiles is a major issue; a very unpopular lottery system has been introduced to control the number of new cars entering Beijing. Demand is surging among the new rich. China leads the rest in the sale of the world’s most expensive cars. But can the pollution be managed? Currently, many parts of Beijing, which has installed as many as 35 monitoring stations, report pollution levels four times the national standard. The similarity with Delhi is evident and is perhaps an area for potential cooperation: designing user-friendly, environmentally sound public transport for the megacity soon to punctuate China and India. Beijing has a metro network, which my hosts cautioned me against trying given the tussles while getting in and out. Next time perhaps.
While On An...
After-dinner stroll near my hotel and savouring a cigar, I was approached by a leather jacket-clad young man. “Want a massage?” As I demurred, he flashed a set of photos of buxom, scantily clad women. “200 yuan. 30 minute. Give me room number.”
Commodore Uday Bhaskar is former director, Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses; E-mail your diarist: cudayb AT gmail.com