Date:24/06/2008 URL:
Back Book Review

China through a smoky lens


A first-hand account of the complexities of a society that is evolving at a double-digit pace

SMOKE AND MIRRORS — An Experience of China: Pallavi Aiyar; Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, A-53, Sector 57, NOIDA, Uttar Pradesh-201301.

Rs. 395.

Pallavi Aiyar, the blurb tells us, has university degrees in philosophy, history and media sociology from three different and well-known institutions of higher education, two in the U.K. and one in India. She has lived in and reported from China for over five years, serving during a part of this period as the Beijing-based China correspondent for The Hindu group of publications. It is therefore with some expectations of scholarship being in evidence that one begins to read the book. While the book is for the most part readable, despite its not infrequently awkward use of words, phrases and expressions, it is far from being an objective or scholarly account.

To be fair to the author, she explicitly admits her ambiguities and her prejudices here and there, and often seeks to come to grips with these honestly. However, while there is interesting material in the book, her strong and visceral dislike of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and its political system tends to detract from even some of the valid points she makes.

Despite this limitation, the author is to be commended for recognising some of China’s achievements, and even more importantly, for being sensitive to the many social and economic ills that characterise India. Her critical remarks on China’s political system and the CPC are not to be dismissed either. These observations merit reflection. Unfortunately, even where the author herself recognises the Chinese government and the Communist Party of China to have done something good or praiseworthy, she tends to characterise it as merely tactics of survival. This does get tiresome and cynical.


Aiyar’s basic dilemma seems to be that she is unable to come to grips with the complexities of a rapidly changing Chinese society, using a historical perspective. Joan Robinson, the renowned economist, once remarked of India that for any proposition that is true of India, its opposite would probably be equally true. Such was the complexity of the beast. That this is often the case for China should hardly occasion surprise. Yet, in her eagerness to find very definite and categorical answers to questions that seemed important to her, the author often ties herself up in knots. She herself recognises this towards the end of her book when she remarks: “I was reasonably good at ‘problematising’ everything, but less good at arriving at firm conclusions,” and adds with the ambiguity that typifies the book: “This was perhaps a good thing. Then, on the other hand, perhaps it wasn’t.”


If one were to negotiate all these ambiguities in an attempt to decipher her message, it seems to be that China today is a capitalist country, and the ruling Communist Party’s claim to be building socialism with Chinese characteristics is just a sham. No argument is offered for characterising China as capitalist, and the claim that China is among the most unequal societies in the world is made on the basis of uncritical acceptance of a Human Development Report calculation of the Gini coefficient of income distribution. By contrast, India may be doing poorly on a number of economic and social indicators, but by virtue of being a democracy, it should be able to set its house in order sooner or later, and thus achieve a more sustainable type of development.

Even though Aiyar recognises the real denial of democracy to millions in India because of such factors as caste oppression, she is completely oblivious to the denial of democracy that the neoliberal regime in India represents, despite its democratic trappings. Her naïve (if not class-biased) understanding of Indian political realities leads her to “contrast” the Chinese government’s alleged “embrace of pragmatism and willingness to experiment with new ideas” with “the tired, ideological opposition by India’s communist parties to virtually anything new, from special economic zones to new directions in foreign policy.”


The author’s innocence of political economy is reflected in her equating the Chinese policy on new economic zones with that embodied in the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) Act and policies in India. Her (unspecified) reference to new directions in foreign policy suggests an endorsement of an India-U.S. strategic partnership and abandonment of a policy of independence and multi-polarity in foreign policy without any argument in support. These are questions where Aiyar could well have done more homework before pronouncing her judgments. Similarly, while she correctly notes the failure of the Indian state in several areas of development, especially human development and basic infrastructure, she does not link it to the self-imposed budgetary constraints arising from neoliberalism with its emphasis on expenditure reduction by the state and tax breaks for the rich, embodied in the absurdity of the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act.

And when she remarks that the success of India in fields like IT was despite rather than because of government, she is simply unconsciously echoing the views of self-appointed IT czars who conveniently forget the role of public-funded higher education in providing the IT sector with cheap skilled manpower, not to mention the decades-long, tax-free regime which the IT sector now seeks to perpetuate by migrating into the SEZs.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Aiyar’s account of her experiences in China is not a bad read. It is only when she seeks to reflect on larger issues based on her experience that her prejudices and inadequate scholarship become obstacles.

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