India/China reality check

<strong>Smoke and Mirrors: an Experience of China</strong>

Pallavi Aiyar

<em>HarperCollins India

Go to the bookshop of any major international airport and you'll see a raft of titles, usually in the business section, that herald and seek to explain the emergence of a new India, one that is urban, middle-class, a potential treasure trove for canny investors and speculators. In fevered prose awash with asterisks and bullet points - PowerPoint orientalism, as it were - advice is given on how to break into Indian markets, navigate government bureaucracy and taxation laws, make sense of the nation's cultural and religious codes.

An important subgenre of this literature is that on "Chindia", an imaginative category as much as a physical place, in which the "elephant" (India) and the "dragon" (China) are analysed because, it is claimed, not only are their increasingly deregulated economies booming, but that success could be at the expense of the west. Now, with the Beijing Olympics fresh in the memory and the next Commonwealth Games due in just two years in Delhi, more Atlantic-based consultants and forecasters than ever before will be hawking the idea of Chindia.

All the more reason to welcome the publication of Smoke and Mirrors, a deeply insightful and often very amusing mixture of travelogue, memoir and political analysis in which Pallavi Aiyar, the first Indian foreign correspondent ever to be based in China who actually speaks the language, offers a perspective on the relationship between the two countries that doesn't read as a breathless praise-song to the transforming, medicinal power of globalisation, and that benefits vastly from the time she has spent talking to villagers, small traders and economic migrants as much as to CEOs and think-tank wonks.

Aiyar, who moved to Beijing in 2002, begins by pointing to the relative novelty of this apparent intimacy between India and China. Hindi films had attracted large audiences for some years, the loud colours and uninhibited emotion of the performers serving as an antidote to the greyscale aesthetics so prevalent across the nation, but in other respects, and especially in recent years, India has been viewed as an over-populated, brazenly impoverished backwater. Indeed, it was only in March 2002 that China introduced a direct-flight service linking the world's two most populous countries.

Soon hundreds, then thousands, of Indians began arriving in Beijing and Shanghai. Some were adventurers pursuing the allure of unknown terrain, others entrepreneurs and gold-rushers who saw opportunities available to them as cooks, exotically turbaned hotel doormen and yoga-school managers, others still medical students attracted by the lower fees charged by Chinese medical schools. What they found was a challenge - indeed, a rebuke - to any residue of nationalist sentiment they may have harboured.

Aiyar, too, though she talks with some pride about the role of parliamentary democracy in India and the emphasis it lays on linguistic and cultural diversity, is far from a patriotic cheerleader. China, she realises, may lack a free press, but its levels of foreign investment, infrastructural development and mass literacy are far superior; she contrasts a 20-metre underpass in Delhi that took three years to build with a 1,000-bed hospital for Sars patients in Beijing that took seven days. The Chinese may lack a voice and a vote, but hundreds of millions of Indians suffer just as badly because of caste and religion.

Smoke and Mirrors is revelatory in its analysis of how the Chinese authorities, fearful that free-market economics leaves a moral vacuum, have sought of late to reintroduce a Confucian rhetoric of stability and harmony into public discourse. Balancing spirituality and capitalism is hard: Aiyar travels to Ningxia Province, whose 1.8 million Muslim population was seen as offering a competitive advantage to local food industries hoping to forge links with the Middle East. Increased traffic between the two regions has led to the rise of orthodox Islam in the province, more women adopting headscarves, and communal identity being geared towards global Islamic brotherhood rather than the nation state.

Aiyar is a droll writer, as adept at evoking the huge changes across contemporary China in her accounts of the booming sex-toy industry and the popularity of plastic surgery as she is at explaining the complexities of international finance. Her most amusing, though also rather chastening, chapter recounts her experiences teaching at a language school. The students are at once ambitious and plain-speaking - one of them calls himself Fat: "I chose this name because I am Fat" - but almost wholly ignorant, and happily so, of the extent of judicial corruption, land expropriation and state censorship throughout the country.

Clever, engaging, reflexive: Aiyar's book will affront "India Shining" ideologues as much as it punctures the gassy platitudes of "Chindia" boosters. As she writes, even if India does manage to rival China's export levels, "As long as half of all Indian women remain unable to write their own names, trumpeting the country's imminent 'overtaking' of China, is balderdash."