‘Beyond Binaries’ review: A fresh perspective on India-China relations

Men trip not on mountains, they trip over molehills. Or goes the Chinese proverb at the beginning of Beyond Binaries: The World of India and China. In the India-China relationship, even molehills are mountains, and Shastri Ramachandra’s book gives a clear-eyed view for peak gazing and aims the reader to skip past the molehills.

In an ever-expanding bookshelf on understanding China, Ramachandran’s book provides the much-needed reporter’s experience. “Most expats tend to assume censorship and restrictions even when they do not exist,’’ he writes about when he worked with the Global Times. He narrates an incident when he wrote a piece that centres on Chinese politics, pulled no punches, but found that the editors who kept an “eagle eye against transgressions’’ said that he was “not critical enough’’. 

The anecdote is illustrative of the kind of fresh perspective that Ramachandran offers in his book. In India, he writes China is like the proverbial Indian elephant ‘seen’ by five blind men. What you don’t see is what you get. And in this space of “a threat’’, “enemy’’, “rival’’, “competitor and rising power” “itching for a war’’, Ramachandran has chosen to introduce another—a fly-on-the-wall journalist, with old-fashioned curiosity. His book which traces the relationship through the ages, does so from the perspective of this journalist covering the beat. 

An old China hand, he has spent 12 years in the country. His first trip to China was in 2008 when he travelled with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for an economic summit with Premier Een Jiabao—a defining moment, as he writes—and then, he worked in Beijing with China Daily and Global Times. This experience gave him a ringside view of China—from newsrooms—that is a vastly different view. 

“India and Indians need to face up to the fact that we are not in China’s sights as much as we think,’’ he writes. In short, India does not matter, much. During his first months in China Daily, India figured prominently only a few times. India does not matter that much. Then, why China’s Global Times, is in the news in India for its anti-Indian comments, he asks. His explanation is “to feed the frenzy’’. Or in short, fun. The idea, he says, is a powerful one—that all publicity is good. And on the net that usually spells provocative. During his stint with the paper, for a year, there was only one India-related editorial that was carried. The Global Times English launched in 2009 but became popular. The Chinese edition had been coming out for decades. But it was a year later, that it went viral. As they were meant to be export products for a foreign audience, what appeared he believes is not necessarily the view of the Party, but often also to provide red herrings of what can be said.

If busting the first two myths is not reason enough to read on. Here is another. The 1962 war. It is a war that the Indian army can’t forget. But “few in present-day China hark back to it,’’ he writes. His book aims to push boundaries, fill in silences and add a new view. If there was ever a time to make sense of the Chinese whispers to hear a high-top note, it is now. 

Title: ‘Beyond Binaries- The World of India and China’

Author: Shastri Ramachandran

Publisher: Institute of Objective Studies

Pages: 275

Price: Rs. 750