A Chinese film called Dying To Survive could do more to improve India-China relations than all the summits between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping put together. The film tells the true story of Lu Yong who was arrested for importing inexpensive cancer drugs from India to save the lives of critically ill Chinese patients. The prices of cancer drugs in China are among the highest in the world. The film, made just on a budget of $15 million (Rs 103 crore), saw a record $200 million (Rs 1,380 crore) in box office sales in its opening weekend.
“The story of Lu Yong is remarkable. In 2002, he was diagnosed with leukaemia and was prescribed Gleevec, which cost approximately 25,000 Yuan (Rs 2.5 lakh) a bottle. After spending nearly Rs 70 lakh of his own money, Lu switched to Veenat, an Indian cancer drug which is not only as effective as Gleevec but also sold at one-tenth of the price. Besides treating himself, Lu also made it his mission to assist hundreds of other cancer patients by selling them Veenat. In 2014, the Chinese authorities arrested him. According to China Daily, however, the Chinese Supreme Court took a lenient view of Lu’s case considering his health and the fact that he had helped hundreds of other patients. Many scenes were shot in Mumbai, from where the drugs are smuggled in ships to Shanghai,” writes Rinchen Morbu Wangchuk in The Better India.
Dying To Survive was screened in China despite it projecting the Chinese government in poor light. Chinese audiences have lapped up the message in the film: Indian pharmaceuticals save Chinese lives. Coming on the heels of the success of Aamir Khan’s Dangal, “cultural diplomacy” is clearly a new weapon in India’s armoury as India-China relations—following US President Donald Trump’s fierce trade war on China—embark on yet another reset.
The BRICS summit in Johannesburg last week underscored the new warmth in India-China ties. Beijing needs India’s support on global trade more than ever. One reason why Chinese censors allowed the screening of a film like Dying To Survive, is because Beijing needs to keep its ammunition dry for the forthcoming battle against Trump’s trade war. If the US carries out its threat to impose tariffs on all $507 billion worth of Chinese exports to the US, the Chinese economy will be severely hit with long-term annual GDP growth estimated to fall below 4.5 per cent.
India finds itself in the flattering position of being the third angle in the US-China-India triangle. Both Washington and Beijing need India in their respective camps as their battle for economic supremacy intensifies. As the reaction to the movie suggests, Indian soft power has been poorly used in diplomacy. After Lu Yong’s story went viral, several Chinese companies sprang up in Shanghai offering medical tourism visas to India. The Chinese tourists travel to India to buy generic cancer and other drugs in bulk. The Indian pharmaceutical industry, which exports pharmaceuticals valued at a miniscule $27 million to China’s $110 billion pharma market, has woken up to the potential for a quantum jump in exports of generics.
But it is on the evolving geopolitics of the region that India’s soft power can have the maximum influence. India has traditionally punched below its geopolitical weight. The Ministry of External Affairs is understaffed. The total number of IFS officers, according to a written reply by Minister of State for External Affairs V K Singh in Parliament on January 3 is only 941. The total strength of India’s diplomatic corps is 2,700. In contrast, China has 4,500 diplomats posted worldwide. Japan has 5,700, France, 6,000 and the US, 20,000.
Modi and Xi have met three times in the past four months—at their informal summit in Wuhan, during the SCO meeting in Qingdao, and at the BRICS summit. China’s tone has softened considerably. The Chinese foreign ministry says India and China must work together to establish a globalised trading order—a reaction to America’s assault on Chinese exports and rampant intellectual property theft. Xi has meanwhile confirmed that he will travel to India in early 2019 to meet Modi for their second post-Wuhan informal summit.
The emergence of Imran Khan as Pakistan’s prime minister-designate has added a new dimension to the rapidly evolving India-China relationship. Imran’s proximity to Islamist terrorists worries Beijing. China though, is enthused by Imran’s strident anti-Americanism that has marked his politics for years. Hard-headed Chinese strategists already deal directly with the Pakistani military that calls the shots on security and foreign policy. With Imran, the conversation with the Pakistani army will be even more direct. China has cracked down hard on Islamists in Xinjiang. The Belt and Road Initiative runs through Muslim-majority countries in Central Asia and could counter long-term Islamist influence seeping across the borders of north-western China into Xinjiang.
Even as Dying To Survive is set to cross a record $500 million (Rs 3,400 crore) in box office collections this month, the message of how the lives of cancer patients are saved by Indian generics has created huge interest among ordinary Chinese in India’s thriving generics pharmaceutical industry. While US companies charge exorbitant prices for life-saving drugs, Indian firms like The Serum Institute acquired global recognition over a decade ago for providing AIDS medicines at $1 a shot to African patients, garnering enormous goodwill. The movie is a reminder to India’s hidebound MEA bureaucracy on how soft power can be as effective as the projection of hard power—so successfully achieved at Doklam—in India’s evolving relationship with China.