The real picture

Updated: Jun 1 2008, 02:57am hrs
Journalist and author Pallavi Aiyar is part of an exclusive club of Indians who have written with authority about China. Living in China for more than five years, her book Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China is at once an experts eye with a senstised touch. Successfully avoiding the cliche trap, she focusses on the China as it is today, and what that means for India and the rest of the world. Suman Tarafdar gets lessons on how to read China, and what to look out for.

What is the largest challenge for a foreigner in China today

That would be the language. Its the first thing that hits you for in most other parts of the world you can get by with a smattering of English. All proper nouns are inaccessible. And a lot of Chinese seems to think the rest of the world would know their language. China is so big and important that the world is learning the language. The challenge is to learn the Chinese way.

Is it a rather insular land

Well, China has been a huge, 5,000-year-old empire. The Manchu and Yuan dynasties came from outside but become Sinified. China has changed everyone in their own image. It got a big shock in the 19th century when the Opium Wars handed her rare losses. But even now you have to learn how to do things the Chinese way.

Can China continue on its current rapid growth path

China will not implode or explode as often speculated in the western media. Growth is a constant driver and the country is seeing a lot of economic and some political reform. The Chinese state has been adept at balancing on the tightrope, successfully managing crisis after crisis. That is not to say China does not have imbalances. The rural urban divide is stark, and perhaps for the first time ever China has made agriculture tax free in 2006. All education has been made free, and there is a new stress on healthcare. Theoretically these have been free in communist China, but there were a lot of cesses, which have been removed too.

As you bring out repeatedly, is money the most important goal for most Chinese

China is a very pragmatic society, and in fact they have adapted the best from around the world. There is an ancient saying, cross the river by feeling the stones. For a long while, ideology ruled, but now there is a desire among the young to get rich. They have the opportunity and the choices and are very matter-of- fact about their desires. In the last century, the people have seen massive social swings, though the direction in the last 35 odd years has been largely positive. The system is still very big brotherish, but the average person has got a lot more freedom now.

You write of the lack of intellectualism among students. Was that surprising Also hardly any mention of the arts

It is disappointing, but in some ways it has benefitted them too, making them process oriented. The long-term ramifications may be bad, but at the basic manufacturing level it helps. There is hardly any literature in China. And contemporary Chinese art sells mainly as investment. The 1980s were a good time for cinema, and then Tianenmen happened. There was a sudden clamp down. Even a lot of those who participated in the events then see it as a mistake.

How is India seen in China Where do you see China vis--vis India

India undeniably has soft power in China. India is seen as a very religious country where the main religion is Buddhism! Then there is the image of Indian cinema from Raj Kapoor to Caravan, the idea that all Indian women can dance, sing and have big eyes much desired in China! And then there is the image of poverty and chaos.

India has the potential to be a balance to China in the very long run. However we are way behind in the developmental process. Till the rest of the world began saying India and China, India did not count for much in Chinese planning. Even now they do not see India as much of a threat, though no longer as a basket case either. Its paranoid to see China as India centric, but China is okay seeing India on the backfoot.

How are the Olympics being seen in China

I think theres been an overkill. China was eager to make a stunning appearance as a debutante at the global stage. But China is already visible and there are going to be both bouquets and brickbats. The Chinese are a bit surprised at the negative publicity though.