Opinion Papers

Monday June 21, 2021

Indians in China - June 2021

Adit Jain, IMA India June 2021

Sino-Indian engagements   

In 1994, during my days as an investment banker with Lazard, I waited patiently at the offices of Alasdair Morrison, then Taipan of Jardine Matheson, in Hong Kong. Surrounded by classy paintings in the visitors lounge with wonderful views of the Hong Kong harbour, I thought about Jardine’s remarkable history from its formative years exporting opium to China. Often referred to as the ‘Noble House’, the company was one of the original hongs, or trading houses, that did business with Imperial China. Founded in 1832, it has been controlled by the Keswick family, with generations of Keswicks running its massive operations from Hong Kong, an erstwhile British crown colony and now an autonomous territory of the People’s Republic of China. Its history and future was and will continue to be closely linked to the Middle Kingdom. All of this is well known. However, what few realise is the role of an Indian merchant, Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, who financed, supplied goods and partnered William Jardine, also alluringly called the ‘Greed Eyed Devil’. The connection with the Jeejeebhoys was instrumental as Jardine Matheson built up their great firm. A tribute to this connection exists even today in a portrait of Sir Jamsetjee, which hangs in Jardine’s Hong Kong headquarters.

India's recent historical links with China were not limited to business and trade. They were political and military as well. Indians played a key role in the battle of Hong Kong in the Japanese invasion, during World War II. The British had hardly prepared themselves or Hong Kong's Chinese population for war. According to historical records, when the real fighting came, it was the British army that broke ranks and fled. The Indians, on the other hand, fought bravely with the Rajput and Punjab Regiments holding ground. But Hong Kong fell when the Royal Scots Regiment gave way. The Rajputs took the brunt of the fighting from the Imperial Japanese forces and were the last army unit to withdraw. The Royal Singapore Artillery, consisting entirely of Indian soldiers, too, took casualties in the Battle of Hong Kong. Eventually, Sir Mark Young, the British Governor, surrendered at the Japanese Headquarters in the Peninsula Hotel. This was perhaps the only conflict where Chinese and Indian troops fought together. However, historical events leading up to early 1900s and beyond were unpleasantly different for the Chinese, leading to their humiliation and consequent animosity towards India.

The Opium Wars were fought between the Imperial Qing dynasty and the British over trading rights for the sale of opium, produced in India but consumed in China. In fact, in 1895, opium exports constituted 14% of the revenues of the Government of India. Despite decrees by the Chinese Emperor to stop the opium trade, the British using military might unrelentingly persisted with it. The bulk of the actual fighting forces were, however, Indian. Specialised military corps comprising of Indian soldiers were raised in Hong Kong, consisting of 1,000 Indian troops recruited from the Jhelum district in Punjab. Then there was an artillery support unit that transitioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery. Subsequently, in April 1899, a serious Sino-British clash took place when the British moved in to take possession of the New Territories having previously been obtained on a 99-year-lease from the Qing administration. Several thousand Chinese soldiers shelled the Hong Kong Regiment’s camp at Tai Po in the New Territories. However, despite their advantage of greater numbers, the Chinese were defeated, yet again, by Indian troops.

The British subsequently used Indian soldiers from the Punjab Regiment as police beat officers in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Gulangsu, Tientsin, Shamian and Hankou. These tough formidable men seemed over-bearing and terrified the local Chinese population who felt subdued and humiliated by their presence, despite the fact that they actually never carried any weapons. The fact is, British control of China and their influence over its administration were made possible only by the deployment of Indians. The face of military might was effectively those of men from Rajputana and Punjab. Much to the annoyance of the Chinese, Indian troops were a constant presence in Shanghai and other provinces.

Interestingly, in addition to the British Indian Army, several princely states provided their armed forces for battles in China. During the Boxer Rebellion – an armed and violent insurgency against overseas influence, when Chinese troops targeted foreign property and Christian missionaries – cavalry and infantry regiments from the principalities of Jodhpur, Bikaner, Gwalior and Alwar fought alongside the British Indian army. It was here that Maharaja Ganga Singh, of Bikaner, won his first set of battle honours. The Jodhpur Lancers were led by Lieutenant General Sir Pratap Singh, a son of the Maharaja of Jodhpur. Following in the martial traditions of Marwar, until Sir Pratap had killed the first Chinese soldier, the lancers only used the blunt end of their armour, honouring their commander to be the first to draw blood in battle. As the troops advanced towards Peking to relieve a siege on diplomatic missions, a cavalry regiment – Skinners Horse, now a part of India’s Armoured Corps – was a part of a multi-nation alliance. The regiment clashed with the Mongol cavalry. Other Indian regiments included the 24th Punjab, 7th Bengal, 1st Sikh, the 7th Rajput, Poona Horse, and Bengal Sappers. Most of these regiments continue to be a part of the Indian army. Several towns and villages were burnt and housing destroyed, in the plunder that followed. Those cities that provided safe havens for the rebellion, were severely punished. The British commander of the Indian army, General Sir Alfred Gaselee, a Punjabi-speaking officer of the Sikh regiment, allowed his men to loot the defeated, which they did with uninhibited impunity. Chinese historians presumably have a record of such incidents.

An opinion paper published by the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), China’s premier think-tank on security and international strategy, authored by Professor Hu Shisheng, alludes to the fact that the unreconcilable differences between New Delhi and Beijing are based on the legacy of the colonial era. For the Chinese government now, and in the future, this will be hard to ignore. The CICIR is directly under the Ministry of State Security, China’s external intelligence establishment. In assessing the contents of this paper by Professor Hu, Jaydev Ranade, President of the Centre for China Analysis & Strategy (previously a top official in India’s Research & Analysis Wing) wrote, “Hu’s candid assessment in CICIR’s official publication is important and will reflect the view, at the least, of China’s Intelligence establishment. It also implicitly confirms Beijing ambitions”.

After the defeat of the Chinese in the Boxer rebellion, the Indian government’s Political Agent in the court of the Chogyal of Sikkim, toured the border areas with Tibet. Accompanied by several companies of the Sikh Regiment and Gorkha Rifles, the officer went deep into Tibet and engaged with the Tibetan resistance leading to a massacre of their forces. In this process, the boundaries between Tibet, Sikkim and the Kingdom of Bhutan were redrawn. Meanwhile, following the fall of the Qing dynasty, Indian soldiers in Hong Kong kept the army of the newly-formed Chinese Republic at bay.

The Indian army, over the course of history, played a consequential role in China. Although under British command, it was really the Indians that had done the bulk of the fighting. Like the commercial adventures of the Jeejeebhoys, hand in glove with the Jardines in the unholy export of opium, India had given China cause for military humiliation. This might be hard for the Chinese to forget and perhaps in some ways reflects in their view of India even today. But the Chinese have, in more recent history, behaved with an irrational vengeance, which may account for the invasion and Indian embarrassment in 1962. Fortunately, now, the political stance of New Delhi and its military responses have sent clear messages of standing up to aggression and doing whatever it takes to defend India’s territorial integrity. The Jardines, on the other hand, cleverly mended fences with Beijing, moving into more acceptable businesses including retail, real-estate, hotels, shipping, construction and automotives.