Archive for March, 2017

24/03/2017

The subtleties of soft power: China is spending billions to make the world love it | The Economist

The subtleties of soft powerChina is spending billions to make the world love itCan money buy that sort of thing? From the print edition IMAGES of China beam out from a giant electronic billboard on Times Square in the heart of New York city: ancient temples, neon-lit skyscrapers and sun-drenched paddy fields. Xinhua, a news service run by the Chinese government, is proclaiming the “new perspective” offered by its English-language television channel. In Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, children play beneath hoardings advertising swanky, Chinese-built apartment complexes in the city.

Buyers are promised “a new lifestyle”. Across the world, children study Mandarin in programmes funded by the Chinese state. Some of them in Delaware don traditional Chinese robes and bow to their teachers on Confucius Day.

For many years, shoppers around the world have been used to China’s omnipresence: “Made in China” has long been the commonest label on the goods they buy. More recently, however, the Chinese government has been trying to sell the country itself as a brand—one that has the ability to attract people from other countries in the way that America does with its culture, products and values. A decade ago the Communist Party declared a new goal: to build “soft power”, as a complement to its rapidly growing economic and military strength. It spends some $10bn a year on the project, according to David Shambaugh of George Washington University—one of the most extravagant programmes of state-sponsored image-building the world has ever seen. Mr Shambaugh reckons that America spent less than $670m on its “public diplomacy” in 2014.

The party borrowed the idea of soft power from an American academic, Joseph Nye, who coined the term in 1990. Mr Nye argued that hard power alone was not enough to wield influence in the world. It had to come from “the soft power of attraction”, too. China was acutely conscious that it lacked it. Many in the West were deeply suspicious of its authoritarian politics. In Asia people feared China’s emergence as a regional hegemon. China knew it could use its economic might to win over governments, such as by building roads, railways and stadiums for them. But Mr Nye saw those kind of investments as expressions of hard power. China decided it needed more of the soft kind as well, so that foreigners would feel naturally inclined to do its bidding.After several years of debate about soft power, or ruan shili, among Chinese academics, China’s then president, Hu Jintao, spoke up on the topic in 2007, telling a party congress that China needed to build it. Mr Hu’s successor, Xi Jinping, has stepped up the effort. In 2013, about a year after he took over as China’s leader, Mr Xi convened a meeting of the ruling Politburo to discuss soft power. Its members agreed that it was a vital ingredient of Mr Xi’s “Chinese dream of the great revival of the Chinese nation”—the term “Chinese dream” being one of Mr Xi’s favourites.

Mr Xi has made himself promoter-in-chief of this new form of power (helped when he travels abroad by the highly visible presence of his elegant, smiling wife). His efforts to boost it were on display at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, where he won plaudits for extolling globalisation and calling for unity in the fight against climate change. Even Mao Zedong, who enjoyed a cult status abroad among some left-wing academics, put far less work into winning over foreigners.

Raise the red lanterns

According to Mr Nye, whom Chinese officials acknowledge as a guru on the topic, there are three main ways that a country can gain soft power: through its political values, its culture and its foreign policies. But winning on all fronts is not easy. The party knows that its ideology has little chance these days of attracting others. Arguably China’s soft power was stronger in the 1950s and 1960s when Mao, a brutal but charismatic dictator, espoused a socialist Utopia that inspired many people around the world. Nowadays some Chinese academics speak of a “China model”—the winning combination, in their view, of authoritarian politics and somewhat liberal economics (with a big role for the state). But Chinese leaders prefer to gloss over the politics when describing their country to foreigners. In 2008 the opening ceremony of the Olympics Games in Beijing barely hinted at the party or its principles.

Instead, China’s soft-power strategy focuses mainly on promoting its culture and trying to give the impression that its foreign policy is, for such a big country, unusually benign. The culture that the party has chosen for foreign consumption is mainly one that was formed long before communism. Confucius, condemned by Mao as a peddler of feudal thought, is now being proffered as a sage with a message of harmony. Since 2004 China has established some 500 government-funded “Confucius Institutes” in 140 countries. These offer language classes, host dance troupes and teach Chinese cooking. Many of them are on campuses (an activity involving one, at the University of Delaware, is pictured). China has also set up more than 1,000 “Confucius Classroom” arrangements with foreign schools, providing them with teachers, materials and funding to help children learn Mandarin.

Let there be no confusion about Confucius

China hopes foreigners will take up some of its traditional customs. For example, it has set out to make Chinese new year as popular as Christmas. In 2010 the government put on fewer than 100 new-year events in foreign countries. This year it sponsored some 2,000 of them in 140 countries to mark the year of the chicken. Red-coloured Chinese lanterns swayed in city streets thousands of miles from the home of the lunar festival. The Communist Party wants China’s cultural presence to reach everywhere: it recently staged a fashion show in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, featuring the qipao, a sleeveless dress that gained popularity among fashionable Chinese women in the 1920s.

China’s diplomats have been busy trying to convince foreigners that China’s rise is nothing to fear. Mr Xi speaks of a “new type of great-power relations”, suggesting that China can co-exist with America without the kind of rivalry that caused the two world wars. His “One Belt, One Road” scheme—involving Chinese investment in infrastructure across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe—aims to reinforce China’s image as a country eager to use its newfound wealth for the good of the world (see article).

To help craft such an image, China has been investing massively in its foreign-language media. Xinhua, the government’s main news agency, opened nearly 40 new foreign bureaus between 2009 and 2011, bringing its total to 162—at a time when cash-strapped media organisations elsewhere were shutting them down (it hopes to have 200 by 2020). The number of Xinhua correspondents based overseas doubled during that time. In December the state broadcaster rebranded its international media service, calling it China Global Television Network. Its six channels aim to compete with global services such as the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. (Mr Xi urged the network to “tell the China story well, spread China’s voice” and “showcase China’s role as a builder of world peace”.) China Daily, the government’s main English-language mouthpiece, pays for inserts in newspapers such as the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

The government is trying to extend its reach online, too. Last year a government-affiliated media group spent 30m yuan ($4.35m) to launch a free, English-language website called Sixth Tone. It tries to sell China’s message by being more sassy, and sometimes more critical, than other state media. With the party’s blessing, private companies are getting involved, too. In 2015 Alibaba, China’s biggest e-commerce firm, paid $260m for the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s flagship English-language newspaper which has incisive—and often critical—reporting on Chinese politics. The deal has raised fears that Alibaba will try to turn the newspaper into a cheerleader for the party. China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, is trying to buy film studios and production companies in Hollywood, the epicentre of American culture (China’s clampdown on capital outflows may have been frustrating his efforts recently—earlier this month he withdrew a $1bn bid for Dick Clark Productions, an iconic Hollywood firm).

China wants its message to be clearly visible in the heartland of America’s capitalist culture. It began advertising itself in Times Square in 2011 (see picture). Last year Xinhua used its billboard there to broadcast a video 120 times a day for two weeks defending China’s territorial ambitions over disputed rocks in the South China Sea. Sometimes the party uses covert means to sway foreign opinion. In 2015 an investigation by Reuters, a news agency, revealed that a Chinese state broadcaster, China Radio International, controlled at least 33 radio stations in 14 countries, including the United States, but was using front companies to mask its ties with them. Reuters said the stations avoided airing anything that might portray China in a negative light.

Sweet and sour

 But when Mr Nye wrote about soft power, he suggested that governments could not manufacture it. He argued that much of America’s had sprung from its civil society: “everything from universities and foundations to Hollywood and pop culture”. The party is distrustful of civil society; its soft-power building has been almost entirely state-led. China has tried to combine elements of soft power with the hard power of its illiberal politics. Far from enhancing China’s global image, this approach has often served to undermine it.

Take the Confucius Institutes and Classrooms. In 2007 a senior party leader described these as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” But many cash-strapped universities have gratefully supplanted their own language courses with ones led (even funded) by Confucius Institutes. In some places Confucius Institutes have replaced or started up entirely new China-studies programmes. Most of them do not actively push the party line, but Confucius Institutes usually skate over sensitive political topics such as the crushing of pro-democracy protests in 1989.

They often attract controversy. In 2013 McMaster University in Canada severed ties with its on-campus Confucius Institute after one of the institute’s employees was forbidden to follow Falun Gong, a spiritual sect that is banned in China (the institute subsequently closed down). At a European Chinese-studies conference in 2014, the Chinese head of Confucius Institutes worldwide ordered pages referring to a Taiwanese educational foundation to be ripped from each programme. Such attempts at censorship only help to reinforce Western misgivings about China’s politics and undermine its soft power.

China’s efforts to use its global media to paint a rosier picture of the country also face a tough challenge. Its television networks employ foreign anchors (and plenty of panda footage) to try to win audiences abroad. But foreigners can also see the Chinese state’s heavy hand, such as when it mobilises pro-China crowds to drown out protesters during visits by Chinese leaders, or when it arm-twists foreign politicians not to complain about China’s human-rights record (Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese human-rights activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2010, languishes in a Chinese jail, rarely mentioned in public by Western leaders). In February an official at the Chinese embassy in London warned Durham University not to host a vocal critic of the party: a former Miss World contestant who was born in China and raised in Canada—the country she represented.

As for China’s message of peace to other countries, many in Asia are far from convinced. Its grabs for territory in the East and South China Seas have fuelled widespread resentment. The rapid expansion of its navy and air force, and its build-up of missiles, have sown anxiety in America, too.

China’s soft-power push has made some gains. In global opinion polls respondents from Africa tend to be more positive about China than people from other regions. That is partly because of the money China has poured into the continent—in Angola every professional football match is staged in one of four, Chinese-built, stadiums. Younger people everywhere often view China more favourably than older people (see chart). This is a sign, perhaps, that the country is capable of being cool—who does not get a buzz out of Shanghai’s skyline? Portland Communications, a public-relations firm, has conducted surveys of public attitudes towards 30 countries—most of them, apart from China, rich ones. China ranked bottom in 2015. Last year it crept two places higher, above the Czech Republic and Argentina.

But money has not bought China anything like the love it would like. A year before Mr Xi took over, just over half of Americans had positive impressions of China, according to the Pew Research Centre. By the end of 2016 that share had fallen to 38% (see chart). Pew found a similar trend in other countries. In 14 out of 19 nations it polled between 2011 and 2013, views of China became less friendly.

No thanks to the party

China’s rapid economic development has won it many admirers. But the social and environmental costs of this have also produced many critics. A country can have soft power and smog as well (America has had plenty of both in much of its recent history). But China’s air pollution undermines its soft power: it is widely seen as evidence of a callous government that cares more about making the country richer than the health of its people or the planet. Many foreigners now associate the country with smog—an important reason why 37% fewer international tourists visited China in 2015 than in 2007. (Other reasons for the drop included the cost and increasing hassle involved in obtaining visas, and the yuan’s exchange rate.) Mr Xi’s eagerness to join the fight against global warming is partly driven by a desire to regain the soft power China has lost owing to its environmental horrors.

Some people in China privately grumble that the party itself, with its intolerance of dissent, is the biggest obstacle to the country’s soft-power development. Since taking office, Mr Xi’s relentless efforts to clamp down on civil society have hardly helped. He has also been trying to strengthen the party’s control over the arts: in 2014 he said they should promote socialism rather than be “slaves to the market”. That is unlikely to help China emulate the success of America’s television shows, which project an attractive vision of American culture into people’s living rooms the world over.

Few people outside China want to watch its programmes, which are often thinly disguised propaganda. The success of China’s most successful film globally, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, a co-production involving American companies, has not been repeated since its release in 2000. “Kung Fu Panda”, an American-made animated film series, has perhaps done more to boost China’s soft power than any movie made by the country itself. Small wonder that China was keen to enter into a co-production for the third in the series, which came out last year.

State-controlled media in China have reported with relish on commentary in America suggesting that Donald Trump’s presidency may deal a heavy blow to the United States’ soft power. If that arises from the appeal of a country’s culture, political ideals and foreign policies, as Mr Nye reckons, then America’s soft power is threatened in two of these domains. China’s political system may not exert much of a global pull, but it could begin to look a bit more attractive to some people when compared with America’s.

China has some attributes that it can play to its advantage. For example, it has no colonial history beyond its current borders and has started no wars in nearly 40 years. In a turbulent world, China’s leadership appears relatively stable and predictable (at least to the casual observer—Mr Xi’s determination to crush dissent suggests he sees serious threats to his power).

When Mr Xi became the first Chinese president to address the global elite at Davos, only days before Mr Trump was inaugurated, he appeared to sense an opportunity to bask in a rare glow. But the upswing in China’s soft power is likely to be limited. Chinese officials themselves quietly ask whether China’s strategy can ever succeed. In 2015 a senior official, Zhou Hong, wondered aloud what state-sponsored soft power could achieve. “Without the broad participation of the people,” he wrote in the party’s main mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, “the external propagation of culture not only loses its meaning, but also loses its intrinsic energy.” Mr Zhou was right about the Chinese people’s role. China will find it hard to win friends and influence nations so long as it muzzles its best advocates.

Source: The subtleties of soft power: China is spending billions to make the world love it | The Economist

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22/03/2017

Chinese supermarkets pull Brazil meat from shelves as food safety fears grow | Reuters

Some of China’s largest food suppliers have pulled Brazilian beef and poultry from their shelves in the first concrete sign that a deepening scandal over Brazil’s meat processing industry is hitting business in its top export market.

The moves by Sun Art Retail Group (6808.HK), China’s biggest hypermarket chain, and the Chinese arms of global retail giants Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N) and Metro AG (MEOG.DE) come days after China temporarily suspended Brazilian meat imports.

Safety fears over Brazilian meat have grown since police accused inspectors in the world’s biggest exporter of beef and poultry of taking bribes to allow sales of rotten and salmonella-tainted meats.

A spokeswoman for Sun Art Retail, which operates 400 Chinese hypermarkets, said on Wednesday the chain had removed beef supplied by top Brazilian exporters BRF SA (BRFS3.SA) and JBS SA (JBSS3.SA) from its shelves from Monday. Brazilian beef accounts for less than 10 percent of Sun Art’s beef supply, she said.

Wal-Mart has also removed Brazilian meat products from its stores, said a person familiar with the matter. He declined to be quoted because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Germany’s Metro has withdrawn Brazilian chicken legs and wings from its Chinese stores, said a manager, who declined to be named as he was not allowed to speak to media. The retailer, with 84 stores in China, does not sell Brazilian beef.

While Brazilian officials sought late on Tuesday to reassure consumers that the investigation had revealed only isolated incidents of sanitary problems, the reaction by Chinese retailers suggests that the probe could have far-reaching repercussions for the world’s top meat exporter.

Hong Kong, the second-biggest buyer of Brazilian meat last year, has also issued a ban on imports, following similar steps by Japan, Canada, Mexico and Switzerland.

Source: Chinese supermarkets pull Brazil meat from shelves as food safety fears grow | Reuters

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22/03/2017

Children dead in China school toilet stampede – BBC News

A stampede at a primary school in central China has left two children dead and 20 injured, state media said.Xinhua news agency said students were crowded into a toilet during the morning break in Puyang when others began pushing their way in.

Another report in a Chinese newspaper claimed the toilet’s wall collapsed from the pressure of the crush.All the injured have been taken to hospital, where some are reported to be in a serious condition.

Puyang county’s government told the Associated Press the incident was under investigation, but declined to provide further details.

It happened at the Number Three Experimental Primary School in Puyang county in Henan province on Wednesday morning.

Similar deadly incidents have happened before.Six children died and 25 were injured in a stampede on a school staircase in South West China in 2014.

Source: Children dead in China school toilet stampede – BBC News

17/03/2017

New rules, new dodges: Chinese football clubs are struggling with new curbs on foreign players | The Economist

MUCH grumbling accompanied the start on March 4th of this year’s season of the Chinese Super League (CSL), the uppermost tier of professional football in China. Managers of its 16 clubs have been gnashing their teeth at a change of rules which was suddenly announced just a few weeks before the first matches. Teams are now allowed to field a maximum of three foreigners.The clubs would have preferred more notice. Many of them have only just acquired even more foreign players. All now have at least four, the previous maximum per side in any CSL game. (One of them, a Brazilian called Oscar, is pictured in a CSL match—he was transferred to Shanghai SIPG from Chelsea, an English club, for £60m, or about $75m, in December.)

Last year China spent more than $450m on footballers, the fifth-largest such outlay by any country.

But all this money has not improved the dismal state of Chinese football. The men’s national team ranks 82nd in the world. In October an embarrassing 1-0 defeat to war-torn Syria triggered protests by hundreds of fans in the city of Xi’an where the match was played. Local media say the Chinese Football Association announced its new rules on orders “from above”. They impose a levy on big transfers and demand that one-sixth of clubs’ spending must be on youth training.

Officials have also been trying to curb the buying of stakes in foreign clubs—Chinese investors shelled out about $2bn on them last year. The government says this is part of an economy-wide clampdown on currency outflows. But it also wants to make the point that foreign talent won’t necessarily help China’s. The government has recently scuppered several investment deals. A Chinese consortium bought AC Milan, an Italian club, for $825m in August, but has been unable to move money out of China to complete the purchase.

Rather than simply moaning about the new rules, clubs have been devising ways of dodging them. Teams must now field at least one Chinese player under 23 each week. Some coaches simply replace them early in the game with older hands.

Source: New rules, new dodges: Chinese football clubs are struggling with new curbs on foreign players | The Economist

09/03/2017

Schumpeter: Mukesh Ambani has made the business world’s most aggressive bet | The Economist

SOME businesspeople are guided by experts, spreadsheets and crunchy questions. What is your three-year target for market share? Will a project deliver a reasonable return on the capital invested? A few hurl all the forecasts and reports into the bin and surrender to their own hunger to make a mark.

One such figure is Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man. In September 2016 he placed one of the biggest business bets in the world by launching Jio, a mobile-telecoms network that allows India’s masses to access data on an unprecedented scale. In the past six months it has won 100m customers. Only one other firm on the planet has such an acquisition rate—Facebook. From Kolkata’s slums to the banks of the Ganges, millions of Indians are using social media and streaming videos for the very first time.

To achieve this, Mr Ambani has spent an incredible $25bn on Jio, without making a rupee of profit, terrifying competitors and many investors. The motivation for his gamble probably lies with his turbulent family history. Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), Mr Ambani’s company, was set up by his father, Dhirubhai, in 1957. Born in humble circumstances, Dhirubhai was famous for three things: running rings around officials; creating a fortune for himself and RIL’s army of small shareholders; and his appetite for giant industrial projects. RIL jumped from textiles into oil refining and petrochemicals. Its refinery in Gujarat is one of the world’s largest. It opened in 2000, two years before Dhirubhai died.

Mukesh Ambani and his brother, Anil, took the reins in 2002 and split from each other in 2005, leaving Mukesh in full control of RIL. Since then his record has been patchy. RIL’s shares have lagged India’s stockmarket over the past decade and its return on capital has sagged, halving from 12% to 6%.

Emulating his father, Mr Ambani has rolled the dice on several huge projects. He has invested huge sums to modernise the petrochemicals and refining business. This decision has been a success—it is an excellent operation that makes a return of about 12%. But Mr Ambani’s other investment calls have flopped. In 2010-15 RIL spent $8bn on shale fields in America. Now that oil prices are lower they lose money. The group invested about $10bn in energy fields off India’s east coast; they have produced less gas than hoped for and are worth little. And RIL has spent around $2bn on a retail business that produces only small profits. All told, RIL’s refining and petrochemicals unit accounts for two-fifths of its capital employed but over 100% of operating profits. The other businesses, developed mainly after Mr Ambani took sole charge, swallow a majority of resources but don’t make money.

A lesser man might have lost his nerve, but Mr Ambani has pursued another colossal bet in the form of Jio. He knows telecoms: in 2002 he oversaw the family’s first attempt to build a big mobile-phone business (his brother now owns the struggling operation). The latest effort has been a decade in the making. Step by step, RIL acquired spectrum, worked with handset suppliers and built a “fourth-generation” network. Jio’s offer of free services caused a sensation. A savage price war has ensued. One rival executive reckons Jio is carrying more data than either China Mobile or AT&T, the world’s two most valuable operators.

That underlines the potential of India’s telecoms market. Data usage is low, there are few fixed lines and most people don’t have smartphones. The incumbent firms are heavily indebted, so have limited ability to respond to a price war.

Jio will start charging from April 1st. Yet even assuming it keeps cranking prices up and wins a third of the market, a discounted-cash-flow analysis suggests that it would be worth only two-thirds of the sum that Mr Ambani has spent. To justify that amount Jio would at some point need to earn the same amount of profit that India’s entire telecoms industry made in 2016. In other words, there is no escaping the punishing economics of pouring cash into networks and spectrum. For every customer that Jio might eventually win, it will have invested perhaps $100. Compare that with Facebook or Alibaba, both asset-light internet firms, which have invested about $10 per user.

Jio’s three main mobile competitors have scrambled to respond. Bharti Airtel is buying a smaller rival to try to lower its costs. Vodafone is in talks about merging with Idea Cellular, another operator. Half a dozen or so weaker companies (including the firm now run by Mr Ambani’s brother) will probably disappear. The best hope for Jio is that in the distant future it will be one of three firms left and that a cut-throat industry will evolve into a comfy oligopoly, which is possible.

RIL’s share price has gone nowhere for years but excitement about Jio’s 100m new customers has helped it bounce over the past month. Still, the scale of the investment illustrates the risks that shareholders face at a firm that is controlled by one man. Even if Jio eventually gushes cash it is not clear if RIL will pay bigger dividends, or if Mr Ambani will instead pursue another grand project. As investors wait, however, many more of India’s 1.3bn consumers will gain—not only from low prices, but a welcome splurge on the nation’s telecom infrastructure.

Defiance from Reliance
And what of Mr Ambani? Perhaps he hopes to get his money back by turning Jio into an internet firm that offers payment services and content, not just connectivity. China’s Tencent, which owns WeChat, a messaging service, has successfully diversified into games and banking. Still, no telecoms firm has managed this feat and it is hard to see how RIL’s clannish culture can become a hotbed of innovation. More likely, Mr Ambani, aged 59, just doesn’t care what all the spreadsheets point to. Sitting atop his skyscraper, overlooking teeming Mumbai, where some 5m new Jio customers are surfing the web at high speed for peanuts, he can at last say that he has changed India. When you are Dhirubhai’s son, that is probably enough.

Source: Schumpeter: Mukesh Ambani has made the business world’s most aggressive bet | The Economist

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08/03/2017

The partition of India: “Viceroy’s House” is an antidote to colonial triumphalism | The Economist

THE fetishisation of British Imperialism is inescapable. Last December, Theresa May cited the East India Company as an example of Britain’s historical trading prowess. Contestants on a recent season of “The Apprentice”, an entrepreneurial reality show, created batches of “Colony Gin”; Marks & Spencer, a retailer, included an “Empire Pie” as part of its Gastropub collection. This nostalgia is borne out by a YouGov poll from 2016, which found that 44% of respondents are proud of Britain’s colonial history.

Those colonised, though, see the empire rather differently. A charge sheet of Britain’s efforts in India—and every territory colonised can produce an equivalent—might list partition, the man-made Bengal famine in 1943 (which resulted in an estimated 3m deaths), the wretched labour system of indenture and the looting of state wealth. Partition alone resulted in 1m deaths and created 15m refugees in a matter of weeks; Hindus and Sikhs fled their homes in what was the become the Muslim state of Pakistan, while Muslims in India took flight in the opposite direction.

“Viceroy’s House”, a new film written and directed by Gurinder Chadha, seeks to document Britain’s role in partition and the cleaving of the Punjab region. In the final months of the Raj, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) arrives to oversee the transfer of power to Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule), and reconcile the demands of independence leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru with those of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Sir Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow)—who had never set foot in India before—is drafted in to assess how 175,000 square miles, home to 88m people, should be split. Ms Chadha carefully balances high politics with its impact on ordinary citizens; relations between Hindu, Sikh and Muslim staff become tense as the prospect of annexing India’s Muslim-majority regions emerges.

The film is good in exposing the Machiavellian motives behind this rushed decision, as well as the gut-wrenching suffering that followed (the house, which “makes Buckingham Palace look like a bungalow”, becomes a camp for the displaced). It is not perfect, however. “Viceroy’s House” absolves everyone—Lord Mountbatten, the British, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims—of blame for the suffering. Some critics have complained that it does not give any attention to the Indian independence struggle, or catalogue the horrors of British rule. These are deserving of films in their own right; Ms Chadha’s decision to focus her lens solely on how partition unfolded is a wise one.

With millions of people involved in the story of partition, “Viceroy’s House” was always going to be a tricky undertaking, likely to be deemed unsatisfactory by many. Ms Chadha tells the story of this multifaceted moment in the region’s history through the lens of one building, framing it as the tale of “the people’s partition” rather than dealing in factionalism and blame. She has subverted the period-drama genre—how many period dramas close on a shot of a desperate refugee camp?—to produce something akin to a “Dummy’s Guide to partition”.

Yet even as a superficial primer, “Viceroy’s House” fills a gap in Britain’s collective consciousness and cultural memory. In the canon of modern British films about India, partition features in “Gandhi” (1982) and “Midnight’s Children” (2012) but gets scant treatment elsewhere. “Viceroy’s House” stands out from these offerings as a British film narrated with heart, soul and profound sadness by a Punjabi film-maker with a personal investment in the story: the closing credits reveal that Ms Chadha’s grandmother lost a child to starvation while fleeing to India.

It will be hard for some to maintain a sense of nostalgia and triumphalism for Britain’s empire after watching “Viceroy’s House”: Ms Chadha intersperses the drama with Pathé news footage of communal violence and Churchill’s dejected newscasts explaining the collapse of law and order. The film has ensured that partition, which is rarely taught in British high schools, has a place in the nation’s shared public culture again. Too right. Partition is as much a part of modern Britain—home to 700,000 Indian and Pakistani Punjabis, many of whom are the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of partition—as butter chicken, saag paneer, naan, bhangra and Bollywood.

Source: The partition of India: “Viceroy’s House” is an antidote to colonial triumphalism | The Economist

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