An informal talk program on Sino-Nepal relations held at a hotel in Itahari, a business hub of eastern Nepal, in mid-November 2021 stirred every invitee’s memories of China.
“When we were kids, we used to have Chinese-operated tippers. We used to find their working style praiseworthy and we were positive about the project they were involved in,” recalls Dhrubaraj Acharya, a local teacher.
Jiwan Parajuli, a tourism entrepreneur, vividly remembers how, over ten years ago, Chinese people came and stayed in the city to sell their calculators, necklaces and other commercial products.
Parajuli, who runs Hotel Tourist Inn, has equipped his hotel with Chinese furniture, culinary items and decorative stuff. Despite the Indian border being just a few kilometers away, he bought all the necessary items from China considering their high quality and reasonable cost.
According to journalist Amar Khadka, who is also a FNJ central member, there used to be a meat production and processing center owned by a private Chinese firm in southern Sunsari, one of 14 districts in Province no. 1.
Bookworms from Itahari and neighboring Dharan and Biratnagar cities enjoyed golden days when books of Chinese communist revolution and Chinese culture had easy reach.
In the program focusing on China without any representatives from China, participants recalled being fans of Chinese radio programs in the eastern Tarai belt. At that time lots of intellectuals loved to write letters to the Chinese radio that was broadcasting in Nepali, and they in turn received lovely gifts from Beijing.
Those beautiful things that made a deep impression on their minds, however, are now no more.
Chinese businessmen, government officers and language teachers, they had all long since disappeared, to seemingly never return.
In contrast with the expanding Chinese community in Kathmandu Valley, locals living in non-tourist destinations in the 22 districts of the Tarai plains rarely see a Chinese, and the Covid-19 pandemic has made things worse.
In a series of interviews with Chinese from all walks of life who are living and working in Nepal, a rather gloomy picture of China’s influence in the Tarai emerges. From eastern Jhapa to far-western Dhangadi, only a handful projects, businesses and factories are operated by the northerners.
Wu Xiaoda, a veteran investor from China’s Sichuan province, started his Nepali business in 2007. The next year, he visited Biratnagar, the capital city of Province 1, where he never met a compatriot until 2010. The pleasant surprise of running up against some Chinese there haunts him till now.
“Tarai plains are a real foreign land for me,” says the old campaigner who invests in Birgunj, Nepalganj, Janakpur, Biratnagar, all of them major cities in the southern belt.
“Most local people resemble Indians. Most importantly, there are no Chinese food that can tickle your taste buds, no Chinese people with whom you can play mahjong. It’s not like in Kathmandu,” he says.
At the same time, people also complain that China is indifferent to this low-elevation area of Nepal.
In another talk program on a similar topic held in Kathmandu recently, representatives from southern plains summarized main causes of the misfortunes of Madhesi ethnic group—cruel exploitation by India, unbearable discrimination of the central government and incomprehensible ignorance from China.
According to the 2011 national census, 50.26 percent of Nepal’s population lives in Tarai-Madhes, but the Madhesi ethnic group in this region comprises only 19.3 percent of the total population.
Nowadays, many NGOs and INGOs are active here, most of them close to India or the West. Padam Adhikari, social worker and a civil society member from Itahari, says Chinese passiveness is partly to blame.
Says Binod Pokharel—a permanent resident of Itahari, the largest city in Sunsari district—who returned from South Korea to start a share-trading business, “China is our idol, we love China, but China should love us back in the same way.”
The long and narrow plains have been seeing greater enthusiasm for China and Chinese goods.
Himal Dahal, a renowned journalist from the same city, shares that in most households in Tarai region there are products made in China, be it kitchen appliances, clothes or other daily essentials. Particularly, the electrical appliances imported from China are most popular.
China did try to love the Tarai more. In 2009, Chinese ambassador Qiu Guohong and Nepali Minister for Culture Dr. Minendra Rijal had jointly inaugurated a Chinese language project with fanfare at the Janata Secondary School of Itahari.
After two weeks, however, Liu Hangsang, the Chinese man assigned to the project who could speak fluent Nepali, left the school all of sudden, without telling anyone. Looking back, 54-year-old Lokendra Kafle, who worked in the same school and witnessed the event, feels sorry for the unhappy ending.
“Not a single class could be run there,” Kafle says. “I guess there was some indirect pressure.”
This former member of Chinese Listeners Club started building contacts with China as early as 1995 and was even invited to visit China in 2006.
Chinese traditional medicines and treatments so piqued his interest that he even tried to get his daughter interested in studying so as to export them to Europe, Australia and America. But he was compelled to send his daughter to Kathmandu to study Chinese language.
“There is no working atmosphere for Chinese projects in the Tarai,” the public figure sighs.
This writer asked Chinese investor Wu about the reluctance of his colleagues to do business in Tarai plains.
“To take root in this region close to India is a challenge. I have to fight a lot each time I want to open a factory in these plains,” says this 43-year-old man rather helplessly.
On the other hand, almost everyone from Tarai plains taking part in the discussion of Sino-Nepal ties expressed both full support for China’s expedition to their districts and high expectation of an upturn in Chinese visibility.
They had a long wish list for China, with concrete suggestions too.
Krishna Niraula, a businessperson from Sunsari district, urges the two governments to open Chentang-Kimathanka point at the earliest, arguing that it is the key for the prosperity of eastern Nepal.
His remarks find an echo in Ganesh Khatri, a local political leader who hopes China would be flexible about border-crossing movement between Province 1 and Tibet, to the benefit of both the sides.
During Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to Kathmandu in January 2012, China and Nepal had signed an agreement to update six existing trading points in China-Nepal border areas, including Chentang-Kimathanka.
On behalf of farmers of Sunsari district, Bhairab Prashad Sapkota, a retired teacher, says farmers want to run animal husbandry business with Chinese breeds, do agriculture with Chinese seeds, use furniture items made by Chinese factories and learn other skills from China.
As the head of Jagaran Public Library, Sapkota is ready to provide his popular library for a China study corner, to be later upgraded into a multi-purpose library where Chinese educational materials and books can be kept for the public to enhance people-to-people relations.
Suresh Karki, an active youth leader, is charmed by China’s green development and desires the highest prosperity of Nepal driven by Chinese technology. “I want to focus on green. We need green schools, green hospitals, green conference halls with Chinese assistance and investment.”
“I like Chinese engineering,” says Ganesh Mandal, a Madhesi civil society activist. He suggests China provides two or three youths and girls from each ward in the 22 Tarai districts technical training scholarship. As a reward, these engineers will bring back to Nepal Chinese technology, language and culture.
Sunil Bhusal, provincial head of the Swiss Chamber of Commerce, advises China to learn from Europeans who are carrying out various projects and activities in the eastern region. According to him, the Swiss government has already invested Rs 1 billion there in skill development and tourism.
“India might be angry with your increasing presence in the Tarai, but Indians often go to Mustang and other districts bordering China’s Tibet,” reminds the Nepali businessman who runs Premier Group of Companies.
The author is former chief of Xinhua News Agency Kathmandu Bureau