In Other Words
India’s Chinese Wall
If you were born today, would you rather be Chinese or Indian?
Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China
By Pallavi Aiyar
288 pages, New Delhi: HarperCollins India, 2008
To most readers, comparisons of China and India are nothing new. Whether it’s the breathless pace of China’s economy versus India’s slower, more measured growth, or China’s communist political system rated against India’s complicated democracy, the two countries are endlessly dissected in relation to one another. Yet amid all the hand-wringing over which country is "beating" the other in their race to industrialize, one simple question sums up very pointedly the debate over which one is making life better for its citizens. It’s a question few dare to ask in polite circles: If you were born today, would you rather be Chinese or Indian?
Delhi-born Pallavi Aiyar, the first Chinese-speaking Indian journalist based in Beijing and author of an engaging new book about the two countries, takes on the charged question. The best option, she contends, is to be a high-caste Indian man. His political freedom would certainly outweigh the economic opportunities of any Chinese citizen, she argues. But if that weren’t possible, she’d choose to be a wealthy Chinese woman, because she wouldn’t be as constrained as her Indian counterparts by low literacy rates and limits on female participation in the public sphere. If she had to be poor, she’d go with China. An Indian latrine cleaner may get to vote, she says, but a Chinese one is far less likely to be viewed as completely subhuman.
If it sounds like Aiyar’s five years in Beijing have left her reluctant to give a definitive answer to this question — one she poses often in her book, Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China — she is. Like so many other foreigners who gradually discover China, her opinions are constantly evolving. What makes her unfolding view of a booming and globalizing China special is the mix of experiences she brings to bear: She has lived both in Asia and the West, worked in Beijing not just as a journalist but also as a teacher, and knows what her compatriots think of the Chinese as well as what the Chinese think of her homeland. She is, to borrow a term coined by another cosmopolitan writer, Pico Iyer, just the sort of "global soul" we need to guide us into a China that is transforming and being transformed by the world. And her book, which was released in September in India to generally positive reviews, has fresh things to say about the usually overlooked issues between these countries, such as the true experience of expats in both nations.
Part memoir and part reportage, the book covers the period from 2002 to 2007 and describes everything from the unique business opportunities that a booming China offered entrepreneurial yoga instructors, to the SARS scare, to the high-tech, high-altitude train to Tibet, on which Aiyar was an early passenger. After studying in Britain and the United States, she arrived in Beijing to teach English and went on to become the China correspondent for The Hindu.
Every foreign writer’s perspective on China is shaped by the country where he or she grew up. But Aiyar is refreshingly honest about this fact. She knows that her Indian background gives her a lens that’s more interesting than most through which to watch China’s rise. To many Indians, China is close to home geographically, yet mysterious and distant philosophically, often generating mixed emotions — including disgust (the "strange" foods), scorn (the limited freedom), and envy (the skyscrapers, the roads, the Olympics). Aiyar is a bit dismissive of some of these attitudes. When it comes to envy of China’s transformation into a land with spectacular airports and highways free of potholes, though, her own awe-struck reaction helps us understand the nature of South Asian anxieties about the surging country to the east.
Throughout Smoke and Mirrors, Aiyar alternates between describing Chinese people, places, and events, and ruminating on their Indian counterparts. She also lets us eavesdrop on other Indians commenting on China and on Chinese airing their views on India. We meet Jayesh, a "buyer from Mumbai" working in the button trade: "What we need is a government like these Chinese. No unions, no nonsense." And we hear from Nigami, a representative of an Indian bank, who complains about all the smoking and drinking involved in Chinese business transactions, which makes it "difficult for us Indians to adjust here. The Europeans, of course, enjoy themselves here…. Many even marry Chinese girls and the food is fine for them."
From a Western perspective, it might seem that Aiyar’s book, with its reflections on Chinese-Indian tensions, the two countries’ differences, and their economic booms, has arrived a bit too late. A year ago, the totemic pairing of China and India dominated the Western press. Scores of articles fretted over how the joint rise of "the Dragon" and "the Elephant" would challenge the West — or salivated over the countries’ massive markets. Alternatively, some took a Dragon vs. Elephant approach. Overstating the contrasts between Chinese and Indian development paths (and overlooking the parallels between, for example, the two countries’ shared passion for five-year plans since the 1950s), commentators ranging from Danish political scientist Georg Sorensen to American business guru Jack Welch to various Indian public figures often used the two countries to support overly simplistic theses about globalization, democracy, and authoritarianism.
Of course, that was before the global financial crisis, the U.S. presidential election, and the devastating terror attacks in Mumbai. Now, the ways that China and India have remade themselves no longer have the same hold on short attention spans they did just a few months ago. Today, the sound of cascading market crashes seems to be drowning both the fretful and the exuberant China-India chatter — but not completely, probably not for long, and not equally in all places.
As for the "not completely," consider this: A recent Google search for "Dragon and Elephant" yielded nearly 5 million hits, compared with just 531,000 for "Eagle and Bear," a once dominant pair. On the "not for long": However the financial crisis shakes out, we’ll surely see these two economies continue to claim a more central place in global markets, and some analysts have begun to speculate that the crashes might ultimately give these rising powers opportunities to narrow the gap between themselves and the United States, Britain, Germany, and Japan. And "not equally in all places"? Keep this in mind: The front sections of American newspapers might have ignored it, but in late October the front page of The Hindu featured Russia’s announcement that it plans to move toward having China and India displace European countries as its main trading partners.
In that sense, the timing of Smoke and Mirrors is just fine. When the obsession with China and India’s mutual, competitive, and thrilling rise comes back into vogue in the West — and it will — we will benefit from having Aiyar’s cultural vantage point and nuanced lens. She will certainly serve as a better guide to exploring those issues that don’t easily fit into the already hackneyed "Dragon vs. Elephant" cliché. And when it comes to answering that all-important question of how these countries are improving the future for their citizens, who better to help us understand than someone who knows them both with the love of a native and the curiosity of a traveler?