A Great Wall divides families

ByMihir Srivastava

Jun 26, 2020

The border conflict and Covid-19 have been a double whammy for Indians residing in China, resulting in divided families

As tension on the Indo-China border mounts, Indians residing in China are fairly worried. There is double trouble brewing—the Covid-19 pandemic that is still raging and on top of that the possibility of a conflict. These two factors have made life fairly complicated.

Uncertainty about the future is distressing for some 50,000 Indians residing in China—primarily in the two cosmopolitan cities of Beijing and Shanghai—either working for multinational companies or international organisations like the UN, or running their own businesses.

When Covid-19 cases were first reported in Wuhan and then spread across the globe, as many as three-quarters of Indian families sent their wives and children to the safety of their homes in India. Now, they are repenting at leisure.

A resident of Beijing, this 40–year–old professional at a senior position in a multilateral organisation doesn’t want to be identified. Let’s call him Pintu. Let’s call him Pintu. He was one of the very few Indians to have stayed back along with his family in Beijing despite the increasing threat from Coronavirus. After the rise of tension following border skirmishes, Pintu’s parents residing in Delhi, during their daily phone conversations, don’t even mention the border conflict. Pintu’s father, a retired government servant residing in South Delhi says, “We only talk mundane family matters.” For they fear, and these fears are not unfounded, that all their conversations are being recorded and analysed, and any Indian of importance in communist China is under surveillance.

Pintu stayed back with his wife and two school-going children, both under 10 years of age. The school resumed for a while but now they are back to online classes. They study in an international school where the medium of instruction is English. Pintu informs that out of 30 teachers, only two remain, the rest have fled to Singapore. The responsibility of teaching has fallen flat on him and his wife—which is a lot of additional work. Pintu goes to his office every alternate working day after months of working from home.

Beijing in winters when it all started

As far as their friends’ circle is concerned, most of the Indian families are back in India. One of them, Rajesh (full name is not mentioned on request) had sent his family to his parents’ house in Bangalore in February, and since then has been on his own in Beijing. His wife Shweta, 41, is anxious as to when she’ll be reunited with her husband. The situation is precarious as Beijing has cancelled her visa and that of her two teenaged sons, which were valid till the end of the year. If they want to reunite with Rajesh,  they will have to apply afresh for a new visa and go through the entire drill.

Shweta explains the arduous process in detail. That that there are a restricted number of flights from India to China is just the beginning of the problem. Presuming they get the visa, which is not going to be easy, they will fly to China to one of the diversion airports, not to Beijing directly. No flights are allowed directly to the Chinese capital, they have to first land at a diversion airport, could be more than one, before they finally arrive in Beijing.

At all these diversion airports, passengers are tested on their arrival and departure. After the Chinese authorities are doubly sure that passengers are Covid-negative, they are finally flown into Beijing. On arrival in Beijing, they would have to quarantine for two weeks before they get to see their family.

Shweta and Rajesh are not sure if they want to go through this grind. Apart from long periods of isolation, it will make a big dent in their pocket—the average cost would be a couple of lakhs per person. So for Shweta and the kids to unite with Rajesh, it will take at least Rs Rs 6 lakh and two-and-a-half weeks time. And so they wait and hope for the situation to improve.

This is the story of many divided Indian families living in China. “They have spread the pandemic deliberately. Now they create hurdles so that they can remain protected from a pandemic that’s their gift to the world. They are trouble makers, creating problems for everyone. With India it’s along the border,” she says.

Hugo agrees with Shweta. Hugo is a 30-year-old Indian trader who speaks fluent Mandarin and has adopted a local name. A suave entrepreneur, he’s from an Agarwal family in Ahmedabad. A bachelor, he has temporarily shifted to Taiwan from Shanghai where he owns an eatery outlet specialising in Italian food and is also involved in some other trading businesses.

“China has great faith in their economic might because they have become the manufacturing hub of the world,” Hugo explains, “and they want to flex their muscles. India is not the only one. They are hated by Koreans, Japanese and Americans (to name a few). There’s growing resentment against Chinese goods and people.”

Hugo, however, draws a distinction between the Chinese people and the Chinese government. “Chinese people are very polite if they need to work with you. They ignore you if they don’t have anything to do with you. To a casual foreigner, they’re fairly indifferent,” he explains. A foreign resident in China can land himself in big trouble for saying this, but Hugo is in Taiwan, which locals say with emphasis “is a free country.”

Hugo states the unsaid, “The worst affected people due to the high- handedness of the Chinese government are the native Chinese.” He points to the growing struggle within the Politburo Standing Committee. Also, he points out that the Chinese state-controlled media is not giving much credence to the border conflict with India, and presents a very different picture.

Hugo is not keen to go back to Shanghai for at least two months, and Shweta will wait for a few months before she gives it another shot to try to unite with her husband Rakesh, who doesn’t want to risk his job by leaving China. Covid-19 and border skirmishes have led to many divided Indian families who were otherwise living in peace in China—“a distinctive culture,” as Pintu describes it—for years.

“It’s ironic that China spread the pandemic across the world in the first place and now uses it as context to divide families,” Shweta says with an air of dejection.

(Cover: Indians in China during better times)