Skip to main content

For BRICS, Indian textile merchants in China can be an example of economic cooperation

More than 5000 Indian middleman traders have come to settle down in the textile town of China Photograph: (Others)

Delhi, India Sep 01, 2017, 12.42 PM (IST) Madhumita Saha

The relationship between China and India, as an Indian Ambassador recently pointed out, "Is tangled, complex and fraught." It has been so ever since the Nehru days, with the first prime minister of India expressing faith over India's robust democratic polity, which he considered to be a more significant achievement than the fast pace of economic development in China. While the timbre of India-China bilateral dialogue fluctuated between sombre to shrill over the next 70 years amidst war, recurrent border disputes, and economic competitiveness, the average Indian Joe, however, remained consistently enamoured in Chinese food, played with Chinese toys and flaunted Chinese cell phones. 

Though the physical presence of Chinese is dwindling both in Kolkata and Mumbai, the number of Indians in China is rising over the years.
×

Though the popularity of spicy hot Hakka noodles remained ubiquitous in all restaurants from Chennai to Kolkata, the lingering coldness between the two countries directly impacted the number of Chinese living in the country. With only 2000 Chinese descendants living in the city, Kolkata is a faint reminiscence of a city with a bustling Chinese community of 20,000. Though the Chinatown still stands with its colourful rooftops, temples and festoons, the ownerships of most Chinese eateries are no more in the hands of Chinese. As the young generations have moved away to Canada, US, and Australia, the mecca of Chinese food in Kolkata - Tengra - lacks both the energy and the capital to boost the social and economic presence of the community in India.

However, though the physical presence of Chinese is dwindling both in Kolkata and Mumbai, which once had a flourishing trade relation with China, the number of Indians in China is rising over the years. Unlike the IT sector, which is drawing increasing number of educated Indians to the foreign shores, in case of China, it is the textile trade. 

With the opening up of opportunities that came at the backdrop of China's open policy, more than 5000 Indian middleman traders have come to settle down in the textile town of Keqiao. 
×

Keqiao, located in the eastern Zhejiang Province, is called the Chinese textile city. Rising out of poverty and underdevelopment which plagued Keqiao in the 1970s, the city has turned out to be the largest fabrics export centre of China. With the opening up of opportunities that came at the backdrop of China's open policy, more than 5000 Indian middleman traders have come to settle down in the textile town of Keqiao. 

It was in 1998 that the first Indian came to open a trading office in Keqiao. The first wave of Indian migrants to the city coincided with its exponential growth of fabric exports in the early 2000s. The enterprising cloth traders from India made full use of the institutional support that the local government gave to make Keqiao, 'a Textile Silicon Valley'. With the moving in of the Indian merchants, Keqiao transformed from a local Chinese textile market to an international textile export centre. Even Chinese traders operating from the region recognise the fact that the arrival of many Indian traders drastically transformed the local trade landscape. 

Most of the Indians working as the middleman in the cloth trade are Sindhis. Traditionally a business community, the Sindhis were severely impacted by the partitioning of the sub-continent. In a search for a better fortune, they started spreading across the globe. People in the clothing trade moved to Dubai. When the competition of the fabric middleman business became very keen in the 1990s, they shifted their business base to Taiwan and South Korea. After the South Korean market was badly hit by the Asian Financial Crisis, Sindhi merchants moved to Keqiao in China.

With the moving in of the Indian merchants, Keqiao transformed from a local Chinese textile market to an international textile export centre.
×

In Keqiao, Sindhis came to know that it was indeed easier to find more kinds of fabrics at cheaper prices than anywhere else as the textile factories and shops are highly centralised. Sindhis, as well as other Indian cloth merchants, started setting up trading offices in Keqiao. Unlike the Pakistani merchants in the region, most Indian businessmen come with start-up capital to start the new venture. They tend to employ their compatriots work for them. Most of these employees are in their late 20s and early 30s but have left their home at a very early age, they have years of work experience. 

Currently, there are around 1000 Indian companies located in Kenqiao. The long-term business relationships that they have in place with their buyers and suppliers have helped them to prosper unlike any other business communities operating out of the region. Evidently, the India-run companies outnumber by far the Chinese and  Korean-run companies. 

It is not only the numbers that give Indian merchants at Kenqiao an edge over others but the negotiation skills and in-depth knowledge that they have acquired in the business through their years of experience. One of the Chinese merchants pointed out to Ka-Kin Cheuk, who has been researching the Indian mercantile community, "Indians are the key middlemen in Keqiao. I don't like to do business with them. They are cunning. But only Indian middlemen can give us big orders. Chinese traders find it 'too risky' to do business directly with overseas buyers. Evidently, the Chinese look at Indian traders with mixed feelings of apprehension and appreciation. So, just the like the relationship between the two states, at the individual level too, the relationship is complex, fraught and tangled.

Just as the Indian traders need China to fulfil their economic aspirations, to build up their social and economic capital, similarly the Chinese need the Indian merchants to sell their products in Europe, North America and the Middle East.
×

But just as the Indian traders need China to fulfil their economic aspirations, to build up their social and economic capital, similarly the Chinese need the Indian merchants to sell their products in Europe, North America and the Middle East. Without the Indian network, developed through years of painstaking work during the Cold War, Chinese textiles would not have reached Russia and Eastern European countries. In Dubai too which acts as the entry-point of Chinese goods for the Middle Eastern and African countries, it is the Sindhi mercantile network that carries Chinese textile around. 

So, both India and China may take up a jingoistic posture at each other but this small community of Indian merchants along with their Chinese compatriots will together be representing the global south to the world market. This could well be a lesson for BRICS leaders as how to rise above political quibble to build a platform of economic cooperation. This is what the future needs to be, not isolation and acrimony. 

Madhumita Saha

The writer is an academic-turned journalist. She taught history at Drexel University and New York University before joining WION.

Show Comments
  • delete