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The China Report


Srikanth Kondapalli

SMOKE AND MIRRORS: AN EXPERIENCE OF CHINA
By Pallavi Aiyar
Fourth State, an Imprint of HarperCollins, Delhi, 2008, pp. ix 274, Rs. 395.00

VOLUME XXXII NUMBER 10 October 2008

Reporting from China has always been a fascinating experience. Nevertheless, much as in ‘area studies’, western- and-ethno-centrism and value-judgements dominate analyses by foreigners on China. The travails of language barriers and cultural differences of a foreigner to a homogeneous society like China makes it all the more challenging for anyone to interview, interact and analyse the Chinese reality. This has been the case with the Christian missionaries who ventured into China in the 18th and 19th centuries to the socially committed journalists and observers such as Edgar Snow, William Hinton, Jack Belden, and Israel Epstein in the 20th century. The Cold War period also produced several images of China, specifically in the western press in what Felix Green’s eye-opening Curtain of Ignorance revealed of systematic obfuscation of whatever Chinese in China. Opening up of China for foreign economic competition in the Special Economic Zones from 1980s also provided opportunities for a new breed of reporters and others to venture deeper into several layers of Chinese consciousness. Pallavi Aiyar belongs to the latest generation—with the difference that in the book under review she makes an attempt to compare China with India in all possible fields of observation.   Unlike the ‘embedded’ varieties who tend to question the Communist state in China, Aiyar ventures out cautiously, with the narrative mostly in terms of reflecting on the societal forms. The most distinguishing aspect of her reporting from China, is her ability to connect events in China with those in India. The outcome, then, is a unique experiment in comparison—often commonsensical—between China and India in almost all walks of life.   Aiyar, to be sure, is not the only Indian to have ventured out in China. In recent memory, several Sikhs and Gorkhas of the British Indian times have landed and made China their home. Later, Kotnis is generally eulogized for his medical help rendered to the Communists in their war against the marauding Japanese forces in the 1930s. While the border war in 1960s and the aftermath closed avenues for several Indians to visit China, business opportunities from the late 1990s rekindled such interactions at the popular level. Indeed, many an Indian spent several years living and observing events in China. While some of them wrote snippets of their escapades in China, Aiyar provides a relatively extensive account of her experiences, even if most of these depictions appear to be related ...


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