Major General Ashok K Mehta


M y Chinese name is Lui Yang, my English name is Lewis -- do call me Lewis -- is how the moon-faced bellboy dressed in bow-tie and jacket introduced himself on entering my room in the five star Diaoyutai Hotel. It took me all of three days and the sign language at my command to make Lewis get me a tablespoon. Instead, he brought a Chinese soup spoon. The Lewises of Beijing are learning English fast. At the same time, they're imbibing even faster, the virtues of getting rich.

June is summertime in Beijing with temperature a mild 28 degrees centigrade (like April in Delhi). Beijing is two and a half hours ahead of the Indian Standard Time. The airport is a sea of red, the colour of the shirts worn by the ground staff. The arrival terminal resembles ours at Delhi -- immigration, customs and out. It is quick, courteous and efficient. No Mao jackets, only slick western clothes, mainly jeans and Chinese slit skirts and a horizon full of hoardings greet the newcomer.

A new airport alongside the old is to be inaugurated on October 1, 2000 on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. Beijing is being renovated just for its half century, in a country where an ordinary blessing for life is 10,000 years. No sacred thought, deed or monument is younger than 5,000 years.

An expressway as good as any German autobahn, lined with smoke and gum trees and weeping willows, costs 15 yuan (one yuan is Rs 5) for transit. The old road parallel to the new is also available. By Western standards, Beijing is not expensive. Traffic flow is rectangular, not circular as in Delhi, with side streets and roads cutting across the main avenues at frequent intervals.

Traffic is multiple and chaotic, like the Dharamtalla-Chowringhee crossing at Calcutta. Trams, buses, bicycles, carts, Chinese cars, other cars resembling Maruti vans and Zens ply carelessly jumping red lights. The cyclist and pedestrians are emperors of the road. Beijing has the highest accident rate in the world. It has also had the highest sustained growth rate in the world of between 7 and 10 per cent over the last ten years, quadrupling its GNP in 20 years. Only Chinese leaders have the temerity to declare publicly the desired national targets and time frame for achievement.

Avenue for Eternal Peace is Beijing's main road, the historic and cultural lifeline along which live some key symbols of Chinese civilisation. Its modern heart and soul centers on the revered and (simultaneously) reviled Tienanmen Square currently quarantined for a face lift. Just a few days ago on June 4, the tenth anniversary of the clash between old guards and modernities, another stand off was averted. Smart soldiers of the People's Armed Police, revamped after the confrontation at Tienanmen ten years ago from a half million to one million force to reduce clashes between the people and the People's Liberation Army, patrol the scaffolding behind which stand the obelisk and Mao's mausoleum.

Tienanmen Square represents the struggle for harmony between the ordinary living and the invincible dead. Opposite this square and the pirouetting policemen minding the traffic along Eternal Peace is the currently forbidden Heavenly Gate to the Forbidden City adorned by a massive Mao portrait.

China's royalty from the Yuan to Ming dynasties lived in this Forbidden City with courtyards the size of five football grounds, several moats and gate after the Heavenly gate of Eternal Pace. In the main courtyard barricaded from public interference, PLA and PAP recruits are being schooled in drill, discipline and divine thoughts. The film, The Last Emperor, banned in China, was shot amidst the galaxy of symmetrical palaces of this city.

Each of the half a dozen palaces was functional: from the Hall of practising Moral Culture to the Hall for Nuptials to the Gate of Great Harmony. This unique architectural marvel outside its last gate is overlooked by what is called a Hanging Garden where the emperor would seduce his favourite queen.

China's modern day Communist Party leaders dressed in dark suits and practising a rare blend of Kissinger and Mao thoughts live in the nearby Zhong Nann Hi Palace which is out of bounds for ordinary mortals. Outside the party's residential quarters, emblazoned in gold letters on red walls are these eternal slogans: 'Ten thousands Years to the Great Chinese Communist Party! Ten Thousand Years to the invincible Mao Zedong Thoughts!

A less ancient and more modern structure is the Great Hall of China with a seating capacity of 10,000 where the National People's Congress is held. Anything short of 10,000 years will not do in China.

Until Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh came here last month and untied the knot in Sino-Indian relations, Indian diplomats have been virtually quarantined following India's nuclear tests last year, after naming China a threat and the reason for tests. There are few memories here of the bitter 1962 Himalayan war, at least not in public. The people are friendly and pragmatic. Getting rich is no longer scorned. It is China's modern gateway for Heavenly Peace.

Beijing has a small but immaculate metro which was built in the late fifties as a nuclear shelter against a soviet nuclear attack. Even today the Russian embassy is the largest foreign colony in Beijing. Public transport is clean and convenient. Taxies come in different colours and rates according to their quality. There is a glass partition between the driver and the passenger in the front seat. The driver is required, when asked, to give a receipt for the fare.

Beijing food is not regarded as authentic Chinese which is to be found in Shanghai. Yet restaurants serve a variety of Oriental food. A typical Chinese meal, approximately Rs 250 per person, will consist of soup, prawns for starters, steamed rice, pork, chicken or beef and one vegetable. There is no concept of a sweet dish or vegetarian food. Ordering pudding in the hotel restaurant was sacrilege. It sent the bevy of delicate waitresses in a tizzy saying 'Moment! Moment! Moment! They are all programmed for a fixed course of functions with little scope for flexibility. Half an hour later, ice cream was produced, procured from Baskin Robbins.

Peking Duck is the gourmet speciality. There are only three outlets in Beijing which serve the original recipe though in five star hotels the version has been stylised. Although there are no more than 30 Indians living in Beijing (the bulk are in Shanghai) other than the embassy staff, there are a couple of Westernised Indian restaurants -- the Shamiana, Taj and Tandoor. The Shamiana has a Maharashtrian chef from Bombay. There is a brightly lit Moscow restaurant nearby, probably intended for the big Russian community in China.

Beijing has two main English newspapers -- People's Daily and China Daily. They are the mouthpiece of the Communist Party and the government. They cost less than one yuan and are on the Internet: http: //www.chinadaily.com.cn

On June 14, the day Jaswant Singh arrived for talks with his Chinese counterpart, Tang Jiaxuan, China Daily reflecting the Chinese position of relative neutrality on Kargil, on its opinion page produced an uncaptioned cartoon. Poor look-alike caricatures of foreign ministers Sartaj Aziz and Singh were shown playing cards. Aziz is waving a card depicting a tank and Singh, a jet fighter. And both are seated on nuclear weapons. This was China's public posture.

In private the Chinese Pakistan tilt in Kargil came out loud and clear from an exchange with Chinese scholars at the Academy of Social Sciences. No wonder Sino-Pak relations are described as 'comprehensive and all weather.' Unfortunately the weather packed up the next day on the Long March to the Great Wall of China.

Seventyfive km west of Beijing are the 10,000-year-old Badaling Hills. Badaling means the Great Wall. It is China's premier tourist attraction, a spellbinding experience even under a heavy drizzle and overcast sky. The Great Wall logo is everywhere. 'I climbed the Great Wall of China' is printed on souvenirs and can be tattooed too.

The Great Wall notice reads: 'The Great Wall is one of the greatest wonders in the world. She is a living marvel and the greatest military construction in the world. The construction began during Zhou dynasty (220-221 BC). Its walls were meant to protect Chinese territory. The Great Wall stretches from Yalu river in the east to Jiyan Paiso Pass in the west, covering six thousand km spanning five provinces and autonomous regions. The Wall is 7 metres high, 5 m width and has many fortresses and beacon towers. She was designated a major historical asset in 1801.'

The walk along the Great Wall may remind some Indians of the walk to Vaishno Devi except this is full-fun pilgrimage: breaks for archery, camel ride, horse-ride, souvenir-hunting and love-making. Despite the rain, the stone-cobbled pathway on the wall is clogged with tourists.

The Great Wall expressway ensures the return to Beijing in less than 45 minutes. There is time for Hengda beer and a quick shower before Indian Ambassador Vijay Nambiar's banquet for Jaswant Singh and Friends of India and China. Instead of Mao Tai there is French wine, no Peking Duck but Tandoori Chicken. And it is back to Panch Sheel, the five principles of peaceful coexistence.

With China and India no longer a threat to each other Singh proposed a toast to (10,000 years) Sino-Indian relations. Madam Qian Zhengying, president of the Friendship Society, reciprocated the goodwill. The unsung star of the evening, however, is Zheng Qingdian, director of the Asian department in the ministry of foreign affairs. The youthful Zheng is an old India hand, speaks Hindi fluently and has kept the India desk since 1981.

As a result of the latest round of talks, China has proposed starting a security dialogue and offered at last to give clarification on the Line of Actual Control. Veteran China watchers contend that Zheng is the key player in the LAC negotiations. To a request from an Indian delegates: 'LAC key mamle ko khatam keejiye' he replied: 'Zaroor khatam karenge.'

The diplomatic enclave in Beijing is located between the all weather Friendship Store like our Cottage Industries Emporium in Delhi, and a departmental store on one side and the flea market on the other. Made in Thailand clothing with exotic brandnames goes for the fewest of yuans. Although Chinese currency is fully convertible, the dollar is much sought after. Luckily there is no hassle about money change. The exchange rate is uniform -- 100 dollars equals 807.43 yuan. One can buy back dollars at the same rate with the leftovers.

Pakistan's army chief, General Parvez Musharraf was in Beijing last month for an ten day visit at the invitation of Defence Minister and Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission Chi Hau Tin. He met Gen Fu Quan You, CGS, PLA, who visited India before the nuclear tests last year. Musharraf also met the seniormost PLA officer and Vice-Chairman CMC (No 1) Zhang Wan Nian.

Pakistan and China are collaborating on joint production of a fighter jet F 7 MG, a 21st century tank (T-88) and modern frigates. The most notable event of Musharraf's China travel is the now famous tape intracepts of his telephone conversations from Hotel Chinaworld no 83315 with his CGS, Lt Gen Mohammad Aziz. These are known as the China tapes.

Soon after Jaswant Singh left for India, the Chinese were expecting Thomas Pickering of the US state department. The Chinese are very angry with the US over what they regard was the deliberate bombing of their embassy in Belgrade. They object to US unilateralism and hegemony. It is now the turn of the Americans to untie the knot.

Singh not only broke the Gordian knot but also put an end to the controversial Nuclear Tests and Threats chapters. India cannot fight on two fronts. Both India and China have, according to Singh, turned over a new leaf. The Chinese have a saying: 'No war without Victory.' Singh has turned this around. For India it is now 'Victory without war.'

Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd) accompanied Jaswant Singh to Beijing.