China holds a deep fascination for India's urban elite. This is the China of double digit growth and unending capital inflows, of shining new cities, six lane expressways and spanking clean airports. This is also what India's elite aspire for.
The inevitable comparison with China is ever present in the Indian media - why is our Gurgoan not like Pudong or why is India able to attract only a fraction of the investment that is flowing into China? So is the desire to match China in different spheres - in the splendour of the just staged Olympic Games, in the recent flawless demonstration of prowess in space technology.
While China's development story is common knowledge, what is less well understood is what it is that really makes China tick. From where does the government derive its legitimacy? What is the relationship between the citizens and the government? Are there stresses and strains in this relationship? How do the subjects view the changes being brought about in their lives? Is the development in China sustainable?
Beijing's SARS crisis of 2003 reveals the tensions and weaknesses inherent in Chinese society. The very same students who were earlier uncritical of authority now desert the city in droves, defying authority.
Aiyar's initial assignment in China is to teach English to Chinese students engaged in media studies. Aiyar soon realises that to have any meaningful conversation with the Chinese, she needs to know the language and proceeds to learn Mandarin even while she teaches English. In interactions with her students, Aiyar is initially greatly disappointed by their total lack of anti-establishment feeling and their uncritical acceptance of the direction China is taking. This is, however, not surprising, considering that her students are from a section of Chinese society that is upwardly mobile - the very beneficiaries of development in China.
The period of Aiyar's stay is also the period of the wholesale makeover of Beijing in preparation for the Olympics. Old neighbourhoods are ruthlessly demolished to make way for glistening new malls and office blocks. The impending fate of a building is announced by marking it with the Chinese character for 'demolish' pronounced chai.
Aiyar records with pathos the 'ceaseless impermanence' of life in Beijing of those years. "Chai was probably the very first Chinese character I learnt", she writes, "so many times a day did I see it painted in big red or white strokes on the walls and doors of buildings and homes I passed by. Any structure with the character painted on it was doomed. Its presence signified a place on death row and all of Beijing was filled with these marked buildings." By the time she leaves China almost all of the haunts she frequents in her first year - flower shops, libraries, beauty salons - disappear to give way to the new Beijing.
Beijing's SARS crisis of 2003 reveals the tensions and weaknesses inherent in Chinese society. This is also the time Aiyar starts freelancing for NDTV, Hindu and some other Indian newspapers. The very same students who were earlier uncritical of authority now desert the city in droves, defying authority. Aiyar notes that within the space of a few days, Beijing was completely transformed with streets falling silent, restaurants closed, hospitals quarantined and people walking about with face masks. Aiyar tracks the handling of the crisis from close quarters and provides interesting insights into how the Chinese Communist Party managed to recover from a situation that was threatening its very legitimacy.
One of the most interesting sections of the book is the description of life in the hutongs. These are old neighbourhoods in the heart of Beijing; in the words of the author, "willow-lined villages, hidden away from the surrounding urban sprawl". Aiyar takes the remarkably adventurous step of moving into a home in a hutong. This opens up for her "a window to a world that remained rough-edged and un-cosmopolitan and very much Chinese" - a world of sanitation workers, bicycle repairmen, small shopkeepers, old ladies and retirees. Her knowledge of Mandarin servers her in good stead here. The affectionate descriptions of life in the hutong reveal some of the life of ordinary Chinese not usually visible - the narrow streets doubling up as the public commons, old couples dancing for their morning exercise and people playing mahjong and chess outside public toilets.
An opportunity to work as a consultant for the CII gives Aiyar the chance to move closely with Indians visiting China to be part of the China growth story. Aiyar acutely observes that ancient civilizational contacts and bonds of religion notwithstanding, Indians and Chinese are "largely culturally untranslatable to each other". Journalistic assignments take her to interesting places across China - Yiwu which is the home of the largest wholesale market in the world with 50,000 stalls selling 400000 categories of products (including Krishna and Ganesha statues); Tianjin Medical University that turns any Indian student who could pay his/her way into a Doctor and already had 250 Indian students; Shaoxing that has the world's largest textile market and is home to an estimated 10,000 Indians; the White Horse monastery in Henan province, China's first Buddhist monastery, built nearly 2000 years ago to house two Indian monks. The list is long and the journey with Aiyar rewarding.
The comparison of India's economic development with China's is more often than not juxtaposed with contrasting India's political democracy to China's political authoritarianism. Aiyar takes a nuanced view of Chinese politics. Without in any way appearing to be an apologist for its authoritarian practices, Aiyar points out the legitimacy the Chinese Government of today enjoys by virtue of delivering economic growth and contrasts it with India where political legitimacy means winning the vote, period.
Smoke and Mirrors is a good read if you are intrigued by the enigma of China. It may also set you thinking about India's own condition.