About the Book
My China Diary 1956-88 recounts the events which occurred when the author served as a diplomat in Beijing, and what transpired during Premier Chou En-lai's ill-fated visit to India in April 1960. The book concludes with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's path-breaking passage to China. It offers new insights about the complexities of India-China bilateral relations between 1956 and 1988. His overview is fascinating. My China Diary 1956-88 is illuminating, provocative, stimulating and unputdownable.
About the Author
K. Natwar Singh has been Ambassador to Pakistan and Poland, High Commissioner to Zambia and Deputy High commissioner in the UK. He also served in the Permanent Mission of India at the United Nations for five years. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1984.
He is Honorary Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
He has been a member of both Houses of Parliament and the Minister for External Affairs (2004-05).
This book is divided into three sections. The first covers the years 1956- 58. The second deals with Prime Minister Chou En-lai's visit to India in April 1960. The third describes Rajiv Gandhi's path-breaking passage to China in December 1988. He succeeded where his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru;' faltered and failed.
I belong to the 1953 Indian Foreign Service (IFS) batch. I opted for Chinese as my foreign language - the first IFS entrant to do so. Why Chinese? Why not French or Russian? Here's why. In those remote, almost prehistoric days, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru met new entrants to the IFS individually. He gave each of us no more than ten minutes. It was, for young men in their twenties, a very special occasion. To pretend that one was not nervous or tense is to give oneself retrospective airs. of course, one was nervous.
My ordeal began with the prime minister asking me in Hindi, 'Kya humae Cheen se koi khatra hai' (Do we need to fear the Chinese?) I replied, 'lee, hai bhi or nahin bhi (sir, we do and do not) because one's closest neighbour is one's closest enemy and one's closest friend'. The great man's response was, 'Mujhe Chanakya niti sikha rahe ho' (Are you trying to teach me Chanakya's philosophy?). He smiled, asked one or two more questions on the Five Year Plan, South Africa, etc. The agni pariksha (trial by fire) was over.
On 14 April 1953, I joined the IFS and IAS batches at Metcalfe House in Old Delhi for training. Our training was not strenuous. One peculiarity sticks in my mind. The principal and the vice-principal, M/s Bapat and Shukla, both ICS men were not on talking terms. So much for esprit de corps.
At Cambridge, I had been doing history for my tripos. After getting into the IFS, I switched to Chinese. A benign follower of Marshal Chiang Kai-shek attempted to teach me Mandarin. Neither of us succeeded.
On his return from the successful China tour of 1954, Prime Minister Nehru spoke to the officials of the ministry-IFS probationers included-about his impressions of China and its leadership, particularly his discussion with Chairman Mao Tse Tung and Premier Chou En lai. Incidentally, his first letter on his China visit was written to Lady Mountbatten" from Raj Bhawan immediately after his landing in Kolkata on 2 November 1954? The record of his discussion with Chairman Mao Tse Tung and Premier Chou En-lai in October 1954 makes it clear that no real meeting of minds occurred. The Chinese leaders spoke as communists and Nehru, as a genuine democratic socialist, was strong on generalities and less so on specifics.
In December 1954, I was attached to a Chinese cultural delegation which performed in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. It was my first exposure to Chinese dance, music and state-controlled culture. The dance I loved; the music I loathed.
In Chennai, after the show, Vice-Minister Chen Chen Tho garlanded K. Kamaraj Nadar, the then chief minister, who, imagining that all Chinese look alike garlanded the interpreter, whose vigorous protests made the chief minister even more determined! In Delhi, at the beginning of the show, I gave Jawaharlal Nehru a copy of the programme adding, 'One rupee, Sir.' He took out his purse and gave me a rupee. T.N. Kaul, the joint secretary roundly ticked me off for my impertinence.
In December 1955 came Madame Soong Ching-ling (Mrs Sun Yat- sen). I was attached to her. She knew English, but spoke only Chinese in public. She stayed with the prime minister at Teen Murti House and charmed everyone. I gave her the alarming news that I would soon be posted in the Indian Embassy in Peking (now Beijing) and hoped to see her there. She graciously said, 'Yes, do contact me,' and I did.
Before leaving for China in june 1956, S. Gopal, director of the historical division, Ministry of External Affairs asked me to read Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China. It immediately made me an admirer of Mao Tse Tung and his formidable Long Marchers. Thus equipped, I embarked on my not-so-long march to Mao Tse Tung's New China. It was June 1956. My lowly status as third secretary in the embassy ensured my non-involvement in high-level diplomatic deliberations or writing dispatches for the enlightenment of our mandarins in South Block back home. I made no contribution to policy making or policy implementation. No one in particular was passionately interested in my evolution as a worthwhile diplomat. This was a blessing in disguise. I was left to myself and that suited me. Both time and space were available to me. But the latter was limited. Peking offered no hedonistic outlets. It was not a place for sowing your wild oats or burning your bridges and any such attempts would have resulted in personal disaster. I had no intention of tempting fate. Austerity and a Spartan lifestyle confronted one on arrival in Beijing which suited me.
I was then going through a period of ostentatious puritanism. I had an instinctive aversion to bourgeois comforts. Beijing was an ideal place for this unexciting pursuit. Here, a sybaritic interlude of even a minor character was inconceivable. Peking of that era was a good place to have a rendezvous with oneself This I often did. My underemployment continued till I started attending Peking University in 1957. In the meanwhile, I did not go to seed.
My diary from 1956-58 I hope, gives some idea of the texture and tenor of life in the Chinese capital, and the temper of the times more than fifty years ago. It makes no claim to literary excellence. The recurrent trivialities of diplomatic existence, the verbosity, the repetitions, the callow judgments needed drastic weeding out. Personal references have been minimised. Pretentious passages have been given the red pencil treatment. Freshness has not been sacrificed.
As a period piece it may have some value. A diary can be a tyrant.
It can enslave the diarist. This did not happen with me. I did not live for the diary; weeks passed when I did not even go near it.
The China of the late 1950s was still a nation in the making. It was not a world player in any field. In many countries the notice boards read - China: No Entry. The diplomatic corps was small-less than thirty missions. All socialist (read communist) countries were represented at high levels. From Asia, the prominent ones included India, Indonesia, Burma, Ceylon, Vietnam and Pakistan. Only Egypt from West Asia was represented. From Europe - Norway, Holland and Sweden. The UK had a charge d'affaires. The press corps came mostly from the socialist countries. Reuters and AFP have their correspondents.
China, as I said, was not then a world power. Its leaders, however, were of world stature. After the death of Stalin in 1953, Mao Tse Tung was the numero uno communist leader in the world. Chou En-lai was a man of immense charisma, ideological stamina, vision, diplomatic astuteness and supple negotiating brilliance.
It was a heaven-sent opportunity and I made the most of it.
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