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    Greater China
     Jul 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 anachronistic.

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.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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