The China enigma

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 August, 2008, 12:00am

The only reason Pallavi Aiyar came to Beijing was to be near the man she loved. But her contact with China became so extensive that six years on it has resulted in the engaging Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China.

The book is a personal account of how a perplexed young Indian woman completely ignorant of China gradually began to understand and appreciate a country and a culture that, despite ancient links across a common border, are dissimilar to her own.

As the years passed, her Putonghua improved and she travelled across the country from Beijing to Tibet to Zhejiang - and her perceptions of China became complex. She realised the portmanteau word Chindia used by some political analysts was deceptive: there was no simple fit between the extraordinary contemporary realities of the two giant neighbours. In some crucial ways the two were opposites.

After the recent launch of her book in India, Aiyar, who has degrees in philosophy, history and media sociology from New Delhi, Oxford and the London School of Economics (LSE), recalled with amusement her response during a discussion with friends years ago about which was the most alien culture in the world.

'I said China, since I saw it as drab, too homogenous, impenetrable, very authoritarian and the last place I wanted to go to,' she said.

But not long afterwards she met and fell in love with a Spaniard, Julio Arias, who was specialising in China at the LSE.

'Julio would go on about how dynamic Chinese society had become, how China was going to be the centre of the world, how Napoleon had predicted the world would tremble when the sleeping dragon woke up,' she recalled.

Aiyar wasn't convinced. So it was with some scepticism and trepidation that she took up a job as an English teacher at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute in 2002 with the sole aim of continuing her relationship with Arias, who had moved to the mainland.

'When I look back, I realise it was a real privilege for me to be able to begin learning about China in that way, interacting daily with 200 young Chinese in a completely Chinese environment,' she says. 'There's a saying in China about crossing a river by feeling the stones. That's what I did.'

The timing of Aiyar's move to China, shortly before the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak, turned out to be propitious. Her initial reaction to the Sars rumours in Beijing was similar to that of her students: the concerns about the epidemic were just the overblown paranoia of westerners. As an Indian, such public health threats held no special terror for her.

Then came the roller-coaster ride that opened her eyes to a significant aspect of China's complex reality: the initial underplaying of the threat by the health authorities; the uncritical acceptance by her journalism students of the false official line; the intervention by the leadership leading to transparency; and the sad and ironic finale of the loss of public faith in authentic official reports and the reliance on wild rumours, which led to panic.

For Aiyar, the Sars experience contrasted sharply with an earlier outbreak of plague back home, when the danger of hysteria in Delhi was checked by the presence of an independent and alert media. But there was another dissimilarity between the two countries that made Aiyar ultimately understand why China would be far more successful at economic modernisation than India.

Once Beijing recognised the seriousness of the Sars threat, the government functioned with impressive efficiency. For instance, to Aiyar's astonishment, a new 1,000-bed Sars hospital was built in a week. She couldn't but ruefully recall that in her Delhi neighbourhood it had taken the municipality three years to build a 20-metre road underpass.

'The Communist Party of China is remarkably good at learning,' said Aiyar. 'The dynamic response to the recent earthquake shows a lot was learned from the Sars experience. This ability to learn, along with the exceptional capacity to focus on development, distinguishes China from other authoritarian countries.'

The Sars crisis also resulted in huge changes in Aiyar's life. She gave up her teacher's job and returned to full-time journalism, eventually making a name as the Beijing correspondent of Indian newspaper The Hindu. She also moved from the media institute's campus to a hutong with Arias, whom she married.

But in the hutong, as in the institute, or everywhere else on the mainland, Aiyar finds herself being repeatedly asked: Do you prefer to live in China or India?

So at the end of the book, she poses the question: 'If I could choose, would I rather be born Indian or Chinese?' Her answer again brings up the dissimilar achievements and drawbacks of the two Asian giants that, by consensus, are going to define the 21st century.

'If I was rich I would like to be born in India, if I was poor I would prefer to be born in China,' she says.

In India, the well-off can enjoy the diversity, the multiple cultural identities, the public debates and the intellectual ferment, not least because their wealth shields them from the government's constant failure to deliver public services. In China, the poor have a better chance of being decently fed, clothed and housed.

'Most crucially,' Aiyar says, 'China would present me with relatively greater opportunities for upward socio-economic mobility. So even though I might be born impoverished, there would be a better chance I wouldn't die as wretched in China as in India.'