Join our Mailing List

"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Book Review: Middle Kingdom deciphered

July 13, 2008

Greater China
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
July 12, 2008

Middle Kingdom deciphered
Smoke and Mirrors by Pallavi Aiyar

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

With the ascent of China replacing the menace of al-Qaeda as the hot
international issue, a flurry of books on the Middle Kingdom has hit
printing presses. Not all of them do justice to the complex realities
of a country in a state of permanent change over three decades.
Western authors typically focus on China's economic marvel, the
challenge that it poses to the United States, or the prospects of it
becoming democratic. Their approaches tend to be either intensely
critical (Peter Navarro's The Coming China Wars) or unabashedly
admiring (Jim Rogers' A Bull in China).

One expects more nuanced analysis from the first and only
Chinese-speaking Indian foreign correspondent who resided in China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Smoke and Mirrors deciphers China through unique
Indian spectacles in a witty and illuminative account that has
flashes of a classic. Aiyar soaks into Chinese culture, society,
economics and politics and reaps rich rewards by capturing what every
author dreams of - the essence of the subject matter. (Disclosure:
Aiyar is a regular contributor to Asia Times Online.)

When Aiyar went from India to China in 2002 to keep a tryst and teach
English journalism, she was stricken by "fear of the truly unknown"
that lay north of the Himalayas. The haze cleared during the next
five years of extensive travel and reporting, uncovering a landscape
of "powerful contradictions" in which a sprinting economic engine
existed alongside stationary authoritarian politics. Smoke and
Mirrors is the story of a country undergoing dizzying change,
recounted through an intelligent Indian prism.

One sign of transformation that Aiyar noticed straightaway was the
febrile construction boom in China, with roads, buildings and malls
sprouting up profusely. Half of the world's concrete and one-third of
its steel output were being consumed by this bottomless drive for
modernity that humbled Aiyar as an Indian. What grated on her senses
was the harsh enforcement of restrictions on rural migrants in
China's metropolitan centers that gave them an extra-sanitized
appearance which is absent in Indian cities.

Aiyar's young students at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute had to
undergo compulsory Maoism courses but "fantasized of little but
money" (p 16). They reviled American foreign policy even while
patronizing McDonalds and chasing admissions to US universities.
Coming from a class of society that benefited from the economic boom,
they were optimistic and ambitious but also apolitical and ignorant
of knowledge deemed "unsuitable". They willfully ignored human rights
problems and held a "bright, nationalistic worldview in which China
was getting stronger and everything was getting better". (p 17)

Parroting official propaganda with sincerity, none of Aiyar's
students knew that Tibetan spiritual leader in exile the Dalai Lama
was a Nobel laureate. The "zero anti-establishment feeling" and
enforced homogeneity of thinking among the brightest minds of the
country dampened Aiyar's liberal Indian mind, but also reminded that
control of information was the key to government legitimacy in China.
Muzzling of the media by the state seemed perfectly normal to the
author's students, who held that "concepts like freedom of the press
were fundamentally unsuitable to the 'volatile' nature of the Chinese
people" (p 22). It was only after the full extent of the SARS
epidemic coverup became evident in 2003 that Aiyar's pupils reacted
with shock and resentment towards their government.

One arena in which China's youth were defying authority was by
breaking sexual taboos. Aiyar notes the irony of the runaway
popularity of cosmetic surgery and titillation toys in a country that
had hitherto condemned women's make-up as a bourgeois practice.

Notwithstanding the Olympics-inspired English-learning fad, Aiyar
remarks that the lack of English skills "remained a stumbling block
in China's projection of itself as a major global player" (p 49).
Continued inability to overcome corrupted "Chinglish" in public signs
was puzzling for a dynamic country where the word "impossible" seemed

On the structural underpinnings of power, Aiyar describes China as "a
pressure cooker, calm on the top but boiling inside" (p 60). Unlike
India, ordinary people in China have few opportunities for the
release of myriad frustrations relating to their livelihood
struggles. There is "no recourse for the marginalized when the
government itself turned tyrannical" (p 209). The author is not
fooled by the exterior calm and orderliness projected by the Chinese
government and speaks of "isolated bubbles of tension" that the
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) blocks from "merging into larger, more
powerful forces" (p 70). She slams "the cruel fangs of China's
autocratic regime" (p 122) that coercively relocated half a million
households to beautify Beijing for the Olympics.

Aiyar's stay in China coincided with a bout of thickening economic
relations between Beijing and New Delhi. While expressing healthy
skepticism about ideas of a merger of the two economies into a
"Chindia", she unveils curious cases of Chinese software
professionals being trained by Indian companies and Indian medical
students and yoga gurus pouring into China for opportunities.

According to the author, a basic belief in the dignity of labor,
which is a legacy of Chinese communism, posed "the broadest gulf
between India and China" (p 105). Although China was turning into one
of the most unequal societies in the world in class terms, it lacked
the ritual social discriminations that bogged India down. China also
fared better than India in equality of the sexes, particularly in
female labor force participation. Aiyar argues that there is "a
greater measure of the medieval in India and a dash more of the
modern in China". (p 135)

Aiyar visited the manufacturing miracle towns of the southern and
eastern coast that rendered "Made in China" into a global household
phrase. The entrepreneurial genius of Zhejiang province was in full
bloom in the contemporary regime of "red capitalism". From socks and
shoes to lighters and garments, the province advertised tales of tiny
start-ups morphing into giant world market-dominating industries.
Aiyar tributes enterprising local bureaucrats who pursued capitalist
profits in the name of socialism and enabled businesses to expand
into international players. Frenetic development of world-class
highways and railways also gave a competitive edge to Chinese producers.

On the question of spirituality, the author observed a major comeback
of officially-proscribed religion. The masses were turning to faith
to counterbalance the country's pervasive Mammon-worship and
corruption. The CCP itself was actively encouraging a revival of
Buddhism and Confucianism to undergird President Hu Jintao's goal of
a "harmonious society". The party set strict parameters within which
religion freedom could breathe. Catholics and Uyghur Muslims were
subjected to tight controls while informal Protestantism and the
Falungong were harshly prosecuted. Aiyar quips that "people were free
to believe, but just not too much". (p 184)

At the Zen Buddhist Shaolin temple in Henan province, the author met
the "party pet" abbot who was an exemplar of the phenomenon of
"religion playing second fiddle to politics" (p 188). In the Muslim
Ningxia Hui region, the author noticed that all imams had to be
licensed and all mosques registered with the government. In Yunnan's
Tibetan monasteries, she found lamas who concealed their India
connections for fear of landing in "trouble". Aiyar doubts whether
the CCP's shepherding of religion into quietist channels is
sustainable, given the inequalities of access and opportunities
afflicting the country.

Aboard the maiden Qinghai-Lhasa train in 2006, Aiyar reconfirmed the
"less than polite" Han attitudes towards China's fifty-odd ethnic
minorities. In the Han imagination, minorities were reduced to
"tourist attractions with quaint folk customs" (p 224), caricatured
as unfit for modern society or economic development. Tibetans, in
general, were "treated by Beijing as suspect and excluded from the
policymaking that would shape their own future". (p 231)

On the "roof of the world", Aiyar met Tibetans seething under Chinese
colonialism and spotted instances of silent resistance.
Modernization, which got a rousing response in Han areas, had proven
inadequate for buying loyalty in China's restive western frontiers.
Aiyar contrasts this with India, which had superior "mechanisms for
negotiating large-scale diversity". (p 242)

In the concluding chapter, Aiyar draws attention to the impact of new
technologies on the ruler-ruled equation in China. The rise of the
legal consciousness movement (wei quan) to defend property rights and
the environment was predicated on the spread of the Internet and
mobile telephony. Yet, the CCP had enough policing prowess in the
communications sphere "to keep the flame low enough to avert an
explosion for a while to come" (p 256). To the author, Deng
Xiaoping-bequeathed pragmatism and openness to "pilot project"
innovations guarantee regime survival in China.

Smoke and Mirrors emerges as the best comparative narrative on China
by an Asian in recent times. After the mountains of statistics-laden
works by economists matching China and India, and the cornucopia of
strategic prognoses by policy wonks on China's threat to the West,
Aiyar's debut book comes as a fresh breeze with a special human touch
that retains objectivity.

Smoke and Mirrors. An Experience of China by Pallavi Aiyar. Harper
Collins, New Delhi, 2008. ISBN: 978-81-7223-746-2. Price: US$ 9.50, 273 pages.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank