Pankaj Mishra spoke to Basharat Peer about his exploration of China, the Indian encounter with China and East Asia, along with other issues.
One of the few Indian writers to have travelled extensively through China and the East Asian countries in its sphere of influence, Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of the Empire was a path-breaking work of intellectual history that recounted and explained the ideas and lives of Asian intellectuals such as Rabindranath Tagore and Chinese thinkers Liang Qichao and Sun Yat-sen, who were critical to forming nationalist ideas that challenged colonialism. He followed it up with The Great Clamour, a book of ideas and reportage. Mr. Mishra travelled on China’s high-speed train to Tibet, interviewed Chinese intellectuals and poets, reported on the booming cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong, and ventured forth to investigate politics and ideas in Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Japan. He spoke to Basharat Peer about his exploration of China, the Indian encounter with China and East Asia, ideas of democracy, capitalism, and authoritarianism, and of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s travels in the region.
How different was the reality of China from the ideas of China you had received in India?
The Sino-Indian war in 1962 war has fundamentally shaped and distorted Indian attitudes towards China. It also obscured a great deal of what has happened in China since 1962. We have this slightly hostile view of China as an adversary, this enemy that stabbed us in the back, and precipitated Nehru’s death. It is time to move on from that particular narrative. China is now a hugely important trading partner and there is now serious talk about resolving the outstanding border issues. One of the casualties of that era after the 1962 war is that we possess very little knowledge and information and analysis of our own about China. We have been largely dependent on foreign, largely American, sources. There is an extremely weak tradition of Indian writing on China.
There used to be a few figures like G.P. Deshpande, many of them from the Left tradition, who wrote extremely grippingly about China. And we still have some great Indian intellectual historians of China in Prasenjit Duara and Viren Murthy. But in the last 10-15 years, with the changes unleashed by Deng Xiaoping, China has changed so fast, so enormously that we haven’t really kept track of what has been happening there. Pallavi Aiyar was keeping tabs for a while and now she’s left China. We have some International Rrelations experts and security-oriented think-tankers, but that kind of writing doesn’t take us very far, or we have ideologues like Arun Shourie who excel in unsustainable generalisations about entire collectivities. Compare this to the rigorous and sustained intellectual work on Chinese society and politics done by Australian and Japanese writers and academics, or even the tiny Taiwanese intelligentsia, and you’ll see what I mean.
How far ahead from India is China? If we compare the two countries using the terms like “progress.”
I don’t like measuring progress in quite that way. If one were to embrace those indicators, then you would have to conclude that in terms of human development rates and sheer amount of infrastructure, China is certainly 30 years ahead of India. It is not to completely fall for this idea of China being this great modernising nation. We have to take into account the immense amount of suffering the Chinese people have undergone in this process. One can’t separate the two.
We get to hear a lot about the Chinese cities. What is the Chinese village like? How do we compare rural China to rural India?
Life in a Chinese village is much more organised because the Chinese Communist Party has a presence even in the remotest Chinese village, a presence of the kind that no governmental or non-governmental organisation has in Indian villages. That creates a sense of unity and uniformity that is missing in India. Indian villages are much more heterogeneous.
I think the presence of caste in India, how the villages are geographically structured on caste lines is very different from China. The presence of an egalitarian culture is striking in a Chinese village. The old hierarchy of caste, the cruelty and brutalities that you see in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, you don’t see in Chinese villages. The hierarchies in China are more about class, about a rich guy lording over the poor and the weak.
After China, you have spent time in several East Asian countries in its orbit. You have written about Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia and other places. These are places that we have mostly read about in the account of Western writers. How different is it from an Indian perspective?
As an Indian, you feel easily connected with certain histories in places like Indonesia, where one sees because of the presence of the Hindu-Buddhist past, Hindus still living there, or Muslims performing rituals that are instantly familiar. The other thing I found completely fascinating in places like Malaysia is the migration from India and China, how they absorbed the migrants from southern India or China. Those are things that you find very interesting. You have Sikhs and Tamils in Malaysia, you have the Chinese in Penang, they come together to create new syncretic cultures, something an American or a British writer might not look for.
The other interesting thing happening in these places is that the rise of China is transforming these places not only in economic terms — we have to look carefully what the overseas Chinese have been doing. They were the first investors in the Chinese economy. The Indonesian Chinese, the Taiwan Chinese, the Chinese in Singapore, were the first investors in smaller, second tier cities in China. American corporates and businesses didn’t want to go into the hinterland. The result is that the political profile of the overseas Chinese in Malaysia — a troubled racial society — and Indonesia has changed.
The Chinese immigrants in Malaysia certainly suffered a lot. They had economic rights but were forced to keep their heads down after riots. How has that changed?
A lot of Chinese nationalism was a construction of Chinese expats because the overseas Chinese felt humiliated by their experience of living among majority communities in California, Singapore, Manila and Penang. Now, there is a strong sense of the rise of Mother China, and jubilation at the prospect. And the position of the overseas Chinese has become both strong and precarious at the same time. The Indonesian Chinese were scape-goated in the last 15 years but there is now the recognition among majoritarian politicians that these people belong to a larger Chinese world and you have to be careful. It has changed the politics of places like Indonesia and Malaysia.
Is China the New America, the new hegemonic force in these East Asian nations?
One of the things you hear in these places, including Japan, is that India is absent. Indian soft power is absent in these places. We are traditionally not well equipped to project that kind of power and our economic heft is weaker than China. China will certainly be a bigger player. And overseas Chinese constitute a much bigger and more powerful diasporic community in these places. India could assume a more prominent role and it would be welcomed because it has a much better profile than China. China is embraced economically but it is also feared and suspected. This is why the United States has seen an opportunity and is desperately trying to push the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement that contains all major economies of the region but pointedly excludes China. It is America’s great chance of containing China’s economic influence in the region, and limiting its overall strategic and military reach. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election showed the intense desire among the Indian middle classes for an East Asian style strongman. He has completed a year in power now.
You have researched China and the East Asian societies led by strongmen. How do you interpret this desire for strongmen?
What we are seeing is a convergence between the East Asian and the Indian narratives, and the breakdown of the cold war binary of democracy and authoritarianism. India used to be the democratic exception and most other countries were authoritarian or dictatorships. Mr. Modi with his corporate chums is the greatest Indian exponent of capitalism with East Asian characteristics. I think one has to think of Mr. Modi along with Suharto, Lee Kwan Yew, and the CCP provincial bosses who then make it big in Beijing. These are all control freaks supported by the corporate and technocratic classes who prefer top-down solutions and rapid decision-making, and have contempt for anything that doesn’t directly advance their interests. So the rise of the middle class in Asia has assisted the growth of authoritarian populism rather than democracy.
Fortunately, India is too diverse a place for any Modi to flourish. A truly authoritarian leader like Suharto won’t be able to flourish for long in India. Sixty five years of deeply flawed democratic processes have nevertheless created an India where someone like Mr. Modi can enjoy only limited successes.
And he still seems to be struggling after one year in power and too many trips abroad. In China, he looked as he has looked on his other foreign jaunts — a man still savouring his new power, enjoying its trappings, and getting too addicted to fawning NRIs. The Chinese cannot but be wary of Mr. Modi and his over-the-top bonding with Shinzo Abe, the most aggressively nationalist leader Japan has known in years. And India itself will not become a major player in China’s neighbourhood simply because Mr. Modi has visited it and played the Mongolian fiddle. China’s neighbours are economically dependent on it, and India can’t change that reality. Nor should India try while it is itself knocking on China’s doors for some cash. The one thing Mr. Modi and his fans really should learn from the Chinese is their deliberate rejection of self-promotion and posturing. The Chinese in their 30 years of uninterrupted self-strengthening refrained from making any great claims for their power and influence. On the contrary, Chinese leaders played down their strength and emphasised the problems before them. They certainly did not seek affirmation from overseas Chinese. In any case, we know that for India to become an attractive option for China’s neighbours we need Mr. Modi to set aside his fiddle, get away from insecure NRIs, do ghar vapsi and then stay at home for a while and attend to its myriad challenges.