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China through Indian Eyes

China through Indian Eyes

Monday, 31 May, 2021 - 06:30
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

Hotels are nice nations. They are a roof over the heads of strangers, whose goals and nationalities differ. They are optional nations. Your ancestors did not make you suffer the burden of their legacy or curse for your entire life. The most beautiful thing about hotels is that you can run away from them and search for alternatives.


I like these kinds of nations because their peoples are like gardens. This one searches for sunlight and nothing more That one is hastily looking to strike a business deal so he can make his way to the airport. Another has been tasked by his company with the major task of doubling its income. Another is anxiously searching for his future. That one dreams of delaying old age and extending his life. Another carries in his briefcase an arsenal of numbers and graphs to persuade a backer to finance his risky project.


My story is much easier. It is one of interviews or meetings. I spend the rest of my time collecting stories. It does not bother me at all for a guest to engage me in idle chat to kill the time. In fact, I consider stories my bread and butter. I belong to a school that prefers to listen rather than talk and read rather than write.


At a hotel in Dubai, the guest appears bored. He apologizes for starting a conversation, but I was quick to welcome the discussion. He said that he was an Indian businessman, who is attracted by Dubai’s modern and sophisticated services, as well as the warm hospitality a guest is accorded. He asked me about what I do, so I confessed. At first, I thought I had let him down and that he would have preferred to engage with someone working in business and the stock market, rather than someone who listens to stories to please a profession that balances between the accuracy of a spy and the warmth of a writer.


The man realized that he was speaking to a journalist and that the discussion should shift away from business. He changed the conversation and said that he was not at all pleased with the Indian government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, describing as a tragedy the number of fatalities and infections. He added that it was unacceptable for a country - which has reached a certain level of scientific and technological advancement - to wait for the pandemic to overwhelm it before deciding to confront it rather than prepare at an early stage to combat it. “This is most significant for India considering that the virus had emerged at a bat market or a lab from our neighbors,” he said.


I noticed that he said “our neighbors” with a disapproving or resentful tone. When it comes to countries, enemies are almost always neighbors, whose greed and claws are difficult to clip.


The Indian guest said he does not have damning evidence that COVID-19 had escaped or was deliberately let out of a Chinese lab. He said the world wanted to avoid any serious investigation into the origin of the virus because knowing the truth would have severe consequences. He remarked that China was at least guilty of delaying talking about the pandemic and withholding information for some time. He speculated: “The Chinese authorities’ success in containing the pandemic and limiting the damage and infections leads many to believe that the scientists in that lab knew early on about the virus and kept it from the world.”


I was surprised when the guest said that he did not admire Donald Trump, but he does credit him for “realizing the real danger of the project engineered by the Chinese Communist Party and that it is hiding behind the silk of the so-called Belt and Road Initiative. When dealing with China, one should not neglect its ability to manipulate numbers, not just elements of the tale and witness statements.


“There can be no denying that the ruling party succeeded in taking out millions out of poverty. But we must also remember that China’s success means that democracy is not a condition for progress. This strikes at the core of freedoms and human rights.


“The truth is that China has not really changed the depth of its spirit and project of hegemony that it harbors, but it just changed its methods. It has excelled at business, but is still playing the same game. The party is taking away the will of the people. The politburo is taking away the will of the party. Its secretary-general is taking away everyone’s will as if he were connecting the massive Communist Party machine to the imperial past.”


We talked for some time. I am sometimes wary of the theory of conspiracy. Moreover, my travels have taught me that hatreds sprung from geography remain in the memory for a long time and are passed on to new generations. My guest was adamant, however, saying: “The world will weep for American hegemony when it finds itself at the mercy of China’s hegemony. In the United States, the constitution forces the president to leave office at the end of his term. In China, the constitution works in the shadow of the powerful president as if it were another employee at his office.”


I pondered his words about China given that it will preoccupy the world for years to come. The driver taking me to Dubai airport was Indian. It was obvious he was waiting for an opportunity to condemn his country’s government. He said four of his relatives died from the pandemic. He accused the government of negligence and corruption and of being prejudiced and slow to react. He noted how China succeeded in protecting its people. In an attempt to lift the dour mood, I asked him if he preferred to have been born in China. He firmly replied that he would rather be born in India even if it meant dying from COVID-19.


The pandemic has not eased geographic hatreds, rather it seems to have deepened them in some cases.


The driver decided to change the conversation. He asked me where I am from. So, I confessed. He revealed that for years he used to work for a Lebanese lady. I worried that he would ask me about the stalled efforts to form a government, Michel Aoun’s thorny relationship with the constitution and the stirring divorce between Saad Hariri and Gebran Bassil.


For once I was lucky. The driver took out his phone and music poured out. He said that he listens to Fairuz, Elissa, Nancy Ajram and Najwa Karam. I believe that Fairuz’s voice is ethereal, Elissa’s voice is timeless, Nancy is sweet behind her youthful image and Najwa is the master of the traditional “mawwal”. The Indian driver appeared to be clutching the last remaining flowers of the Lebanese garden. Such a fan he was that I even expected him to ask me about the recent “2020” television show and its lead actress Nadine Njeim – a gem Lebanon can hang on to after it lost everything.


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