Trapped on the Wrong Side of the India-China Border

From a pandemic to geopolitics, for families and businesspeople caught by border closings, things are going from bad to worse.

Air passengers wearing protective suits walk out of the arrival lounge of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata, India, on July 6.
Air passengers wearing protective suits walk out of the arrival lounge of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata, India, on July 6. Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images

Air passengers wearing protective suits walk out of the arrival lounge of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata, India, on July 6. Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images

Air passengers wearing protective suits walk out of the arrival lounge of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata, India, on July 6. Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images

“In Indian [chat] groups, I see a lot of anti-Chinese emotion bubbling. It gets difficult to oppose emotions with logic,” 30-year-old Gaurav Kumar, an Indian businessman who lives with his 34-year-old Chinese wife, Bonnie (Baozhu) Qi, in Shanghai, told me in early July. Both are now stranded in the south Indian city of Bengaluru. “I’m told, ‘Your China is doing this.’”

Kumar, who is originally from Jamshedpur, met Qi, originally from Liaocheng city, in 2014 at a global MBA program that united Xavier Labour Relations Institute, an Indian business school in Jamshedpur; Tongji University in Shanghai; and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. In 2018, the entrepreneurs started B2 Consulting to help Chinese companies set up shop in India. “This was an opportunity to work as a mediator, to provide these services with comfort. Bonnie managed things at the Chinese end, and I managed Indian suppliers and vendors,” Kumar told me. By January 2020, the couple was working with around 50 companies, employed a staff of five, and had hired hundreds of employees for their clients.

Since then, things have changed—first because of the coronavirus pandemic and then because of heightened tensions between China and India. From their outpost in Bengaluru, the couple has frozen hiring because of the pandemic, laying off two employees in China and one in India and making do with temporary workers. Smaller companies they work with are also downsizing.

For now, Qi and Kumar conduct only essential business meetings with those clients who remain in India. “Getting approvals in these kinds of conditions is difficult,” he said, of the regulations introduced by New Delhi in April requiring the Indian government to approve all new and additional investments from neighboring countries. At the moment, around 50 proposals are under review. “In 95 percent of the cases, we’re not getting approvals. When regulations came in April, we saw a lot of customers not going ahead with projects, trying to finish up earlier projects,” he explained.

The couple traveled to India in February for work, at the height of the pandemic in China. “A child called me ‘coronavirus’ when I was going around this building,” Qi recalled last week, describing an anti-China backlash that has been echoed around the world. “It’s worse when adults do this. And in China, social media and newspapers reporting about India can make Chinese people a little worried. I’m not very interested to talk about politics. What I think is most important is what policy can bring benefits to the most people.”

For the last five months, the couple have been living at Kumar’s brother’s apartment, and it may be a while before they can return home to Shanghai. While trade has long bound the two countries, Indo-Chinese relations turned difficult after the drawing of the disputed Line of Actual Control some 60 years ago—and recently became even more strained. In mid-June, a skirmish between the two nations in the Galwan Valley left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead, the bloodiest conflict in several decades. Countless meetings and opinion pieces later, China began to de-escalate on July 6 by withdrawing troops from the Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso, but the future remains unpredictable.

Uncertainty is bad news for those, like Qi and Kumar, who depend on cross-border trade. Despite these frictions, trade between the two countries is set to pass the $100 billion mark this year, according to India’s ambassador to Beijing, of which China’s portion is roughly four times India’s. But these numbers offer little solace to the several thousand Indian expatriates who live in China and are stranded in their country of origin; the thousand or so Chinese expatriates who remain in India and seek a continued presence there; and those who seek to reunite with family on both sides.

Those left of the nearly 56,000 Indians who normally live in China report that life has not changed greatly, except that all foreigners are now treated with suspicion—ironically, because of fears that they might have brought the virus back from other countries. But there are also stories of Indian workers who have been laid off and are stranded in China, their visas invalidated and bills mounting; some returned in June through India’s Vande Bharat mission, which aims to repatriate thousands of Indians in phases.

It is unclear whether disease or politics will prove the biggest threat to these expatriates’ hopes. China appears to have controlled a second wave of COVID-19, but as of now, India has the third-most cases in the world. Meanwhile, recent calls in India to boycott all Chinese products have rattled more than a few people, as have India’s efforts to ban Chinese technology like the popular messaging, social media, and mobile payment app WeChat and the potential suspension of Bollywood releases to China. India’s international flight ban, declared on March 25 as part of its nationwide lockdown and in place until at least July 31, complicates matters; China closed its borders shortly after, on March 28, but is currently considering reopening them.

Indian businesspeople stranded on the Indian side of the border have reported receiving the invitation letters required for them to return to China, but these are of no use until the Chinese Embassy opens.

“It’s emotionally as well as financially a big setback for us,” Kusum Brahmaniya, a homemaker, told me last Wednesday. Her husband works for the battery-maker Svolt in Baoding and lives in Beijing. Her husband is still in Baoding, but she is stranded with their children at her in-laws’ home in New Delhi. There are plenty of others in her shoes, and they are divided on what to do.

One Indian sales manager who normally works in Beijing but is currently stuck in Mumbai has decided to leave his life in China behind. He doubts anything will improve before 2021 or beyond and is uncomfortable with the “snooping” around that expats are subjected to in what he calls a “surveillance state.” Considering business options in the Middle East and other parts of Asia that may be just as lucrative as China, he feels his China dream is over.

Others are not daunted. “I want to go back. I’m loving it as my second home,” said a Tamil homemaker who lives in Tianjin and is currently stranded in Chennai with her daughter. “I have only had good experiences; Chinese people have been so helpful. My husband says everything is normal there—it’s just that there are no flights for Indians.”

There are plenty of Chinese nationals stuck in India as well. Before the pandemic, there were around 3,000 Chinese nationals studying or working in India. Many have reported concern about staying on due to stigmas linking China and the coronavirus; about half returned to China before India’s nationwide lockdown was implemented on March 25, and more were repatriated in June. “Even during the lockdown, Chinese could not feel very safe in India,” said one Chinese scholar, who described hearing news reports about individuals who were attacked by locals.

The most difficult cases, of course, may be the ones in which one partner is Chinese and one is Indian. “It’s a devastating experience. I keep hoping every day to return, that there might be some policy introduced in our favor,” 37-year-old Surender Sharma told me. Married to a Chinese national, he works for the Indian fertilizer company Coromandel International in Shanghai. After more than four months apart from his family, he left his hometown in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh on June 10 and has been in New Delhi since then, waiting to apply for his visa. His flight back has now been postponed to Aug. 7. Sharma’s wife, Zhang Yanyan, also 37, and their twin 4-year-old daughters, Khushi (Xinghao) and Tanu (Xinghe), are with Zhang’s family in Shandong (a seven-hour drive from Shanghai) while he is away.

Once the twins turn 18, as overseas citizens of India they can choose their nationality—although if they decided to become Indian and quit their Chinese nationality, they can’t get it back, Sharma explains. Indo-Chinese families like Sharma’s walk a complicated tightrope between the two countries, and the challenges of unifying a family under one nationality and language—even, now, one roof—are daunting. It is possible for Chinese nationals to become Indians, but Indians cannot become Chinese, and no one within the Indo-Chinese community knows of anyone who has switched.

Kumar and Qi, who have been together since 2017, when Kumar moved to China, have also faced major obstacles. At first, Kumar’s parents were not comfortable with the union. “I’m from a small city, Jamshedpur—even intercaste marriages are a very big thing there,” he told me. “My father once got so angry that he wrote a letter about how bad I’ve been, not caring about my family, and sent it to me on WhatsApp,” he recalled. Qi’s family were also unenthusiastic about the prospect of their daughter marrying a foreigner—any foreigner—and worried about stories they had heard about Indian men taking several wives. When the families finally met, they hopscotched between Hindi, English, and Chinese, and Qi’s father-in-law insisted on his own translator, to hilarious effect. Soon, Kumar’s family accepted Qi, and Qi’s family warmed to Kumar; Chinese families are most concerned with a partner’s economic prospects, Qi explained.

“I want to go back whenever it is possible, as I miss my space there. My books, my notes, my research, everything is on my table there, just the way I left it, thinking I would be back in a month,” Anna Thomas, a 34-year-old assistant professor at the Anhui Normal University’s School of History and Sociology in Wuhu city, Anhui province, told me last month. Having specialized in modern and contemporary Chinese history, she has worked on grassroots democracy in China, traveling to many villages in the province as part of her research. Fluent in Mandarin, she now teaches a course on the society and culture of modern India within the institution’s South Asian history department. Thomas first visited as a doctoral student with an India-China bilateral scholarship program and has since made this scenic city on the banks of the Yangtze River her home.

On Jan. 14, she returned to her family home in Trivandrum, the capital of the south Indian state of Kerala, for the winter holidays. At the time, she did not know about the virus then taking off in China. The university has since asked her and around seven other foreign faculty members not to return until it is safe to do so; meanwhile, she has been teaching online. (Her classes begin early, around 5 a.m. in India.) The silver lining has been spending time with her family, but transferring her salary from her Chinese account to her Indian one has been a challenge, and she may face difficulties if she can’t return to China by August, at which time she will have to renew her visa to China in India.

For now, she is more concerned about the virus than about geopolitics. “India-China relations have always seen ups and downs,” she told me. “Relations between common people are always smooth and friendly.”

Her counterparts in India agree; one Chinese scholar teaching at an Indian research institution was also fearful primarily because of the pandemic. “My nationhood is not important in my class. That is the situation of those who [enable] communication, economically, socially, culturally, between the two countries,” he told me.

To stay safe when numbers began to spike in India, he headed back to China before the current diplomatic crisis. Well-versed in politics, he understands India’s response to the skirmish on the border. “As a democratic regime, the government does not enjoy the same autonomy as China in foreign policy. The ruling party has to react strongly to avoid further criticism,” he pointed out.

Rather, he said, “The issue should be development for both.” Like other experts, he advocates immediate de-escalation and renewed negotiation when the time is right. An aficionado of Mohandas Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, and other great Indian thinkers, he wants to return to India to continue to research development. For now, though, that is out of his control—and will be as long as the pandemic rages and geopolitical tempers flare.

Rajni George is a freelance editor and writer. She has been a senior editor at Penguin Random House India, a reader at Granta, a poetry editor at The Caravan, and an editor at Hippocrene Books in New York. Her work has been published in Al Jazeera, National Geographic TravelerThe SpectatorEl País, the New York Times, and American Book Review, among others.

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