Smokes and Mirrors, an experience of China
Price: Rs 395.00
Having lived in China for over five years, author and journalist Pallavi Aiyar is able to offer a rare glimpse into the lives of common Chinese in her debut book Smokes and Mirror: An experience of China. She documents the rise of the new China that is unapologetic about money and believes in conspicuous consumption. It offers and allows access to Starbucks coffee, fast cars, designer labels, sex salons, cosmetic surgery and anything else that money can buy. And as the new-found money gives rise to social inequalities all over again, the Chinese grapple with moral dilemmas. Religion is making a comeback and none less than the Communist Party itself is using it to bring stability to society. This conflict between the new and the old is rendering the Chinese social fabric apart.
Full of personal anecdotes and valuable insights, the book is part travelogue, part social, political and economic analysis and commentary, on China. Written in an easy style, it packs hard facts in eloquent and interesting words. It is also a sobering book for those obsessed with comparing India with China. The obsession, says Aiyar, is not echoed the other way round. Edited excerpts from an interview with the author on the sidelines of her book’s launch in New Delhi.
In many ways India and China mirror each other. In many ways if you were to take them together like a mirror, and break it, the China and India parts will fit together perfectly. They mirror each other. India’s strengths are not necessarily China’s and vice versa.
Physically, what strikes you first about China is its impressive infrastructure and what strikes you first about India when you come to India is the poor quality of it. China has done well in parameters like education and healthcare having achieved a fair degree of social equality. On the other hand in India we allow dissent and different opinions that form the basis of our democracy and which is not the case in China.
But is China not facing inequality with rising incomes and how are Chinese dealing with this newfound access to money?
Things are indeed changing very rapidly. The generation gap is like a chasm. Present day kids have no idea of what their parents went through and the kind of restrictions they faced. There had no control over who they married, where they worked or where they travelled. There were internal passports to control migration between villages and cities and life allowed for few luxuries. Today people can travel where they want, study in foreign countries, own cars and houses and are spoilt rotten by indulgent parents. Lifestyles are changing fast.
You mention that Chinese society has an inherent sense of dignity of labour and is more egalitarian than India. Are the differing income levels changing this facet of China too?
There are re-emergent inequalities from the pre-communism period where there was a conscious effort to banish class and such notions from society. The difference is that in China, these are reemerging from a base that has been flat. So while you have people with differing lifestyles, they are not as pronounced as they are in India. People go to the same kind of eating places and other such areas of common public activity. For instance, one of my students wanted me to hire her mother as my “ayi” or helper for home. She was not the least hesitant about it. My landlord cleaned the courtyard of my house, another “unthinkable” in India. So in these ways, there is this sense of all labour being dignified.
You write that women have more equal opportunity in China as compared to India.
China has one of the highest rates of women participation in its workforce. It is higher than the world’s average. You find them in non-traditional roles like cab drivers, petrol pumps servers, driving trains, traffic policeman, etc. You also find them in government roles. I felt safer in China than in any other Western country I visited.
Are there as many women entrepreneurs as men and are there many women in top positions in China?
There is a glass ceiling and it is unlikely to find many women in top slots. Also, there are more men than women entrepreneurs. But on the whole, there is a more equal participation of women in the Chinese workforce.
You say that religion is making a comeback in China. What is driving this phenomenon?
With the new influx of money and rapid growth, there is a feeling that a fast changing lifestyle is leading to immoral behaviour and inethical practices. There is concern for a growing hollowness in societal value systems and this where religion comes in. But you are still allowed to practice religion only within certain parameters as suited to the party. The communist party is using religion for its own good and bringing stability to society. As soon as practices begin to cross the line and start organizing along communal lines, they become unacceptable.
In any case, religion in China has always had a very utilitarian approach instead of being based in mythology and faith as in India. Tao and Confucius are some of the religious influences that are not similar to Hinduism or Christianity that base themselves in the divinity of Gods and such like concepts.
How do Chinese view India on the whole? Also what is the feeling on the ground in Government and business circles?
The amount of attention China gets in India is not the same the other way round. There is less awareness of India as an economic power or an emerging economy There is talk of Mumbai being similar to Shanghai and Indian buildings and roads being as grand as China in India. The Chinese do not do this and benchmark themselves against the US or India. They are quite ignorant about India in general and consider it to be a religious country, the land of Buddha. Bollywood movies have shaped public perception with stars of yesteryears being very popular.
You say that the poor are better off in China and the rich in India. What is the final word on the subject?
In reality, truth is rarely singular and is generally messy. The answer is that I love China with my head and India with my heart. If I was poor, I would rather be in China for the chances of me being well fed, clothed and having basic access to healthcare would be greater there and I would also have greater dignity. If I was a tad bit richer, I would like to be in India. Also here my freedom of expression and ability to indulge in intellectual debates would never be curbed.