July 2008

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By Caroline Finlay

Foreigners travelling to Phnom Penh in the mid 19th century didn’t find a sleepy Khmer fishing town. Instead, they happened upon thousands of bustling Cantonese traders. Their legacy in the Sino-Khmer population continues as these long settled immigrants dominate the oil and tourism industries and own countless shop fronts in Cambodia’s cities, while newly arrived mainland Chinese invest in garment production and construction.

In the 1800s, French colonials allowed Chinese-run businesses to flourish. William Willmott, a mid-century expert on Chinese communities, claimed the ethnic Chinese controlled 92 percent of Cambodian commerce in the mid 1900s. They traded in urban areas and worked as shopkeepers, moneylenders and traditional healers in rural areas, while Chinese farmers controlled Cambodia’s lucrative Kampot pepper industry.

The golden Sino-Khmer era came to an abrupt end when the Khmer Rouge sent urbanites to the killing fields and the ensuing economic collapse destroyed the businesses of rural Chinese-Khmers. The Vietnamese, who were invaded by China in response to their ousting of the Khmer Rouge, were deeply suspicious of the Sino-Khmer population, and although ethnic Chinese Cambodians made up a tiny fraction of the population of Cambodia, they accounted for half of Cambodian refugees fleeing to the US in the 1980s.

The tides have turned, though, in the wake of Hun Sen’s bloody 1997 coup and the subsequent severing of diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Chinese investment has soared, with Chinese nationals opening up hundreds of garment factories, construction projects and mines, and are often seen by Cambodian businessmen as preferential to Western investors who tend to push human rights issues and transparency.

Ethnic Chinese-Khmers are making a comeback as well, establishing a council of “Oknha,” or Lords, a title purchased from the Cambodian Royal family and often bestowed on Chinese-Khmer businessmen. The two most influential Oknha are Sok Korn, the president of Sokimex, and Sorn Sokna, his vice chairman. Together they control at least 35 percent of Cambodia’s petroleum industry and ticket concessions at the Angkor Wat, among other huge tourism and development projects. New generation Oknha Kith Menh is challenging old attitudes on Westernization and has partnered with Australia’s ANZ bank. He also owns telecommunications company Mobitel and the only legal football gambling outfit in Cambodia, Cambo Six.

In an article published two years ago in The Cambodia Daily, Chinese Chamber of Commerce president in Cambodia, Jimmy Gao, said Chinese investment is “a question of what Cambodia needs now,” and that the Chinese “are suitable to a tough position, because we were so poor 20 years ago,” and acknowledged that Sino-Khmers can act as a bridge between the two communities.

The good has come with the bad, though, as the Chinese mafia is apparently investing in Cambodia, famous for providing foreign tourists with easy access to drugs and sex. In 2004 Pierre Legros, then director of the NGO Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances, said that the “Malaysian-Chinese mafia” are behind the sex trade in Cambodia, and that “organized crime is applying pressure on the Cambodian government.”

Good or bad, the Chinese are on the rise in Cambodia, and Chinese language study is increasing in Phnom Penh, with the subject recently added to the national curriculum at the university level. As reported in the Phnom Penh Post earlier this summer, the Duan Hoa Chinese School, for primary and secondary students, has 7,000 mostly ethnic Chinese pupils. Ethnic Khmers and Vietnamese also study there “to learn Chinese so they can join the family business or find work in a private company—especially working in factories or in the tourism industry as many Chinese investors are coming to Cambodia now,” school administrator Kim Hean told the paper.

“The Chinese New Year is the busiest time of the year in Phnom Penh because foreigners come to Cambodia from Korea, China and Vietnam to escape the holiday,” says Jim Heston, a long-time Phnom Penh resident and bar owner. How much longer they can flee by coming to Cambodia, no one can say.

Caroline Finlay is a writer for Southeastern Globe, an English-language publication in Cambodia, and has also written for Global Voices.

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By Susan Brownell

I have just returned from five days in the earthquake disaster zone in Sichuan province, where I was a member of the “People’s Olympic Education Promotion Team” that visited Deyang city to conduct “Youth Olympic Games Re-enactments” at six local primary and secondary schools. There I realized that for the people we encountered, The Torch is a sacred object. I call it The Torch because that is what they called it – 火炬 – as if there were only one, and no further adjectives were necessary.

The project expressed the mission of Donnie Pei, a professor at the Capital Institute of Physical Education and Zhou Chenguang, a primary school p.e. teacher, to take the Olympics to the grassroots (discussed in my previous posting). Pei could not come with us, so our team leader was Zhou. The member who attracted the most attention everywhere was Sun Yiyong, songwriter and a torchbearer during the Inner Mongolia torch relay, who was called simply The Torchbearer (火炬手)。 The other members, who paled next to his luminance, consisted of Wu Ji’an, China’s “King of Games,” who creates and collects games and teaches them to schoolchildren and teachers nationwide; Zhou’s son Bowen; myself; and three support staff. We came from Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Deyang and were self-funded but for the “soft implements” (discus, javelin, hammer, hurdles, and epees made out of flexible packing foam) funded by the Haidian District government in Beijing. Thus, we were a determined “people’s” (民间)group and not an “official” (官方)group. As Zhou put it to the local city officials, we were the three “have nots”: have no organization, no discipline, and no funding. Such a group had probably never been seen in the area before in this form, although the earthquake relief effort had accustomed the locals both to NGOs and to roaming foreigners.

We were received – initially, as we realized, with considerable skepticism – by the Education Bureau of the Deyang city government as part of its current work in “psychological intervention.” As the reality of post-disaster life is setting in, children are realizing that they have no parents for whom to study hard, parents whose lives revolved around their one child feel that have no reason to live, people who lost limbs are realizing that they are a burden on their families, and volunteers are suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome from what they saw. And so there are starting to be suicides. As a result, a major initiative in psychological intervention is being carried out in the schools and communities, utilizing Young Pioneers counselors, visiting expert psychologists (including foreign experts), and others.

Our assigned task was to bring the Olympic spirit into the schools in order to aid the recovery. When we arrived, we were received by the Chief of the Students Section, Mr. Zeng. He told us with intensity, “I hope that we can do our best to solve the conflicts as fast as possible. Of course we cannot solve all the conflicts. But let us do our best to solve the ones that we can solve.” As we concluded our dinner, he told us, “You cannot fail.”



The next day we drove to the disaster zone and saw the site of the collapsed school where 50 of 200 students had survived, pile after pile of brick rubble, acres of newly-created pre-fabricated communities, and the clocktower in Hanwang whose clock had stopped at 2:28. We spontaneously stopped at one of the schools that had been relocated into a pre-fab complex because their school building had collapsed, and there I first observed the power of The Torch.



Each torchbearer gets to keep the torch that he or she carried, minus its internal mechanism. Because it was a National Treasure, Sun Yiyong carried it with him everywhere he went, inside its special box cradled in a yellow silk case sewn by his mother, which he slung over his shoulder. As he told us, “When I got my own torch it was not at all like the others. It’s like your own child – you feel differently toward it compared to the others, it’s special.” When we introduced ourselves to some of the students standing in the concrete walkway between the pre-fab classrooms, they wanted to see The Torch. Sun Yiyong took it carefully out of its box and the students began to crowd around to touch it. They started streaming out of their pre-fab classrooms. To allow each student a chance, Zhou asked them to line up and pass it from hand to hand until each student had touched it. Because we were taking them away from their classes, we apologized to the teachers who came to see what was up, and left as they asked us to come back.

The next day at the sports field of the Oriental Power Primary School we conducted our first Youth Olympic Games re-enactment for 1,000 of the 3,000 students at the school, building on the model developed by Pei and Zhou at Yangfangdian Primary School in Beijing. We played our “meet song” – “Pass on the Flame’s Spark,” which Sun had written as a eulogy to the Olympic torchbearers, and conducted a little opening ceremony, following the protocol common in China. My role was to be the International Person. I delivered a short address in Chinese, in which I said that the Olympic spirit is a spirit of mutual respect, mutual understanding, fair play, and the pursuit of international friendship and world peace. As a member of big family of the global village, I sincerely wished them success in rebuilding their happy homes, and hoped that the Olympic spirit of “swifter, higher, stronger” would help them in their effort.


After the flagbearer entered the stadium bearing the Olympic education banner designed by Zhou and Pei, the Olympic Angel, Zhou’s son Bowen, entered in a white robe adorned with real feather wings and a green wreath on his head. The Olympic Angel was an inspiration of Donnie Pei, who wondered how to reduce the philosophy of Olympism to a level understandable by primary school students. He believed that Olympism should make you into a good person, and that an angel embodies goodness. Also, the white robe and wings recall the figures of Nike, winged god of victory, in the athletic scenes on ancient Greek amphora. For him, the angel symbolized ancient Greece and was not a Christian symbol. And so as our Olympic angel entered the stadium carrying a cardboard reproduction of the Olympic torch, it was announced that it was bringing the flame, symbolizing hope, from Mount Olympus in ancient Greece to China.

Finally, The Torchbearer entered the stadium, wearing his red-and-white official torchbearer’s shirt and shorts and carrying the real Lucky Clouds torch, images that were easily identified by the children because the real torch relay was being broadcast daily on Chinese TV as it passed through China. Deyang had originally been scheduled for a stop, but it had been eliminated after the earthquake, a source of great regret to local residents. Sichuan had been moved so that it was the last province on the relay before the torch returned to Beijing. As a result, ours was the first Torch to reach Sichuan. But the local education officials were looking forward to the fact that after the relay left Sichuan, Deyang would have its own Torches, since several locals had been designated to carry it.

What happened next took us all by surprise. A high-pitched cry of excitement rose into the air as the children recognized The Torch, and one thousand children began spontaneously streaming toward it. They surrounded Sun Yiyong as he rounded the field and for a while they were allowed to follow, but they began pressing so hard to get near and touch The Torch that it became difficult for him to move and he was afraid he was going to step on a child. The situation was rapidly becoming dangerous. The school’s p.e. teacher (p.e. teachers are the ones who keep order in Chinese schools, since they lead the recess exercises) grabbed the microphone and began shouting, “Children! Maintain order!”

Eventually order was restored, and Sun Yiyong walked the periphery of the crowd while the students looked without touching. But we had learned a lesson. At subsequent events, a group of four boys clothed in red and yellow T-shirts jogged with him and acted as bodyguards for The Torch, as had the Blue Men who were so maligned in the Western media during the international torch relay. For these boys it was an honor to protect The Torch. But in the following five events, each time The Torchbearer appeared at the entrance to the sports field, the high-pitched cry would go into the air and the children would start moving toward it like metal shavings being pulled toward a magnet. The idea of allowing large numbers of children to touch the torch was abandoned, and at subsequent events about 10 to 20 “outstanding students” were invited to stand at the front of the crowd. First they passed the reproduction torch down the line, and then they passed The Torch along. Finally the reproduction torch was used to “light” The Torch (neither was actually aflame, though the reproduction torch had red construction-paper flames coming from its top), and they exited the scene.

After a reading of Pierre de Coubertin’s Ode to Sport, Zhou conducted the activity called “We are all Torchbearers.” He asked, “Who is a Torchbearer?,” answering, “I am a Torchbearer! You are a Torchbearer! We are all Torchbearers!” Each child had been asked to bring a textbook and had been given a square of flame-red crepe paper. By rolling up the textbook and sticking the crepe paper into the top of the cone, each child had a little torch which she or he waved in the air. Zhou explained, “Take your knowledge and your strength and twist your book to make it into a torch, then put your torch into your heart.”

On our second night several members went to a school that had been cobbled together from students from several different schools and relocated into pre-fab buildings. Unfortunately I missed it – it turned out to be one of the most moving events of the trip. As they told me later, the curfew arrived and the electricity was cut off as they were in the midst of passing around The Torch. Zhou said to the students, “Are you afraid?” and they said, “Yes.” He said, “Don’t be afraid. Remember The Torch. The cinders are in your heart and will always be there, even when it is dark.” They concluded by signing autographs to the light of a flashlight, and then Zhou let them in shouting, “Go China! Go Sichuan! Go Deyang! Go School!” One of the children added, “I tell myself to go!” (我为我加油)which Zhou considered to be one of the most inspiring events of the trip, because it showed the child had taken the Olympic spirit inside himself, and made it his own.


At each stop, people wanted to touch The Torch, and the teachers and officials were more aggressive about it than the children. They wanted to take photos of themselves holding The Torch, or of groups of people each with one hand on The Torch. They seemed to feel, at least at some level, that touching the Lucky Clouds Torch would bring them good fortune. The undisputed star of our group was The Torch. After that, The Torchbearer. And after that, the International Person (me).



I also got mobbed for autographs and had to be rescued by a bodyguard.






I learned that in Chinese, a flame is a living thing with an anatomy like a plant. At its base are the “seeds of fire” (火种), or cinders, which represent hope, and are the thing that one holds in one’s inner heart. Out of the seeds come the “sprouts of fire” (火苗)or tendrils of flame. It grows into a full flame (火焰). It sends off “star fire” (星火),or sparks, which symbolize the passing of inspiration from one person to another. All of this was metaphorical – our torches did not have fires, because that would be too dangerous for children.

We organized Olympic re-enactments at two schools per day for three consecutive days, a total of six schools and over 3,000 children. Our status in Deyang increased each day. Local education officials held a meeting midway through our second day to assess our achievements. The head of the Deyang Education Bureau, Mr. Mao, observed, “The Olympic spirit is the spirit of conquering the disaster. Could we recover so quickly without the spirit of ‘swifter, higher, stronger’? This is also our spirit… Our students’ psychological wounds are serious. We will organize our students to get into motion. We humans cannot stop, our spirit cannot stop.” After three days and six schools, we were completely exhausted. At our farewell lunch, Section Chief Zeng observed that we had accomplished psychological intervention on a large scale. The standard psychological intervention reaches people one by one, so the experts who had been brought in could only reach about 1,000 people per week. We had reached over 3,000 students in three days. Zhou later explained, “Psychological intervention opens up a hole in your body and then sews it up again. It takes a long time to recover. We don’t open up a hole to do surgery. We let the sun shine on them and they absorb it into their bodies and keep it there. Chinese medicine is not in favor of doing operations, so this method is appealing.”

* * *

When I first began studying anthropology, I took part in the famous seminar of Victor Turner, one of the most influential anthropologists of his time. He was then experimenting with ritual re-enactments, which we conducted in the seminar. He believed that ritual action and the handling of symbolic objects function to channel human emotions like a laser beam. He believed that rituals could have this affect on humans even when the rituals were not their own and our re-enactments tested his theory. He was also interested in the use of rituals in healing processes. Like many of his former students, I have carried on this tradition in my own teaching. Every year my theory class repeats the experiment by re-enacting a ritual of their choice. Without further belaboring the complicated theory behind this, I will just note that I regularly see and feel the transformative power of ritual re-enactments, which seem to be able to exert at least some effect on some people no matter how impromptu they may be. It was in this spirit that I entered into our Youth Olympic Games Re-enactment. Did we “solve the conflicts that could be solved”? Hard to say, but I do think that we made a small difference. For the theoretical background, see Turner’s The Ritual Process, The Anthropology of Performance, and From Ritual to Theatre.

In my classroom re-enactments, I am often surprised at the effect on myself, and in Deyang I experienced the sudden insights into my own culture that Turner says are a potential of ritual (a product of “liminality”). Against the background of the furor over the international torch relay, observing the reverence and emotion for The Torch and The Torchbearer made me suddenly see how cynical we are, more often than not, in the West, as a product of our secularized, rationalized society in which there are only small spaces in which it is acceptable to express reverence for symbols. A picture appeared in my mind which is an exaggeration but perhaps with a kernel of truth: In China, the majority of public expressions take place in a vast field of rituals and symbols, while the protest zones that were recently announced for the Olympic Games are the small, circumscribed spaces where critical analytical thought is expressed. In the US, the majority of public expressions take place in a vast field of critical analytical thought, while ritual expression takes place in small, circumscribed places like churches and, arguably, sports events. I realized that at least part of the anger that many Chinese people felt at the disruptions of the international torch relay was the result of the (to them) appalling and uncivilized lack of respect for a nearly-sacred object.

In the West the Olympic Games have struggled with a loss of idealism due to challenges like commercialism and doping. The ChineseOlympic organizers and many Chinese people held an idealistic faith in the transformative power of the Olympic Games, believing that they could facilitate China’s integration with the world and benefit its future development. The West duly regarded this with skepticism. According to Turner, a balanced social process requires rituals. The global village needs its ritual and the Olympic Games are currently serving that function. But also according to Turner, ritual has the potential to either increase solidarity or initiate irreparable schisms.

In Deyang it was possible to foresee the closing of this cultural gap between China and the West. Everyone agreed that our final performance at the elite Foreign Languages Middle School in Deyang was the “most orderly” – and all but myself and the artist Sun Yiyong considered this a good thing. The children did not mob The Torch or me. They spoke very good English and they paid 40,000 yuan per year in tuition. Apparently for such privileged children The Torch and The International Person had already lost some of their lustre.

星火相传 (火炬手之歌)

星火相传在你我之间
看和平友爱的接力多么壮观
星火相传刘动着激情
愿和谐之旅永没有终点

神圣的火种被阳光点燃
升腾起无比光荣的火焰
全人类将记住这一瞬间
五大洲让空天闪耀着五环

燃烧的火炬把星光点亮
连接起无数圣洁的心愿
全世界传递着同一梦想
每个人都有精彩表现

作词作曲:孙义勇
演唱:单待 汤子星
2008青少年模拟奥运会会歌
民间奥林匹克教育执行团队对歌 北京奥运会火炬手之歌

Pass on the Flame’s Spark (The Torchbearer’s Song)

Pass the flame’s spark, from you on to me
Grand relay of peace and fraternity
Pass the flame’s spark, let passion flow on
Its unending journey of harmony

Sacred fire’s seeds, lit from the sun’s rays
In matchless glory, your flames leap up high
All will remember this twinkling day
Five lands below, five rings in the sky

Hot blazing torch will light up the stars
Linking countless hearts’ desires
The whole world is passing on one dream
All can see the great acts it inspires

Lyrics and melody: Sun Yiyong
English translation: Susan Brownell
Singer: solo Shang Zixing

Song for:
2008 Youth Olympic Games Re-enactment, People’s Olympic Education Promotion Team Beijing Olympic Torchbearers

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After reading a short excerpt from Pallavi Aiyar‘s new book, Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China, at Danwei.org, we wanted to ask her a few questions about her experience as a journalist and writer working in China (Danwei has also posted an interview with Aiyar, asking for her insights on the relationship of and comparisons between China and India; and additional reviews of the book have been posted at the WSJ China Blog and The International Herald Tribune). Here are her answers to our questions, followed by a short excerpt from the book. Smoke and Mirrors can be purchased at this website, and, according to Amazon, will be available in the US in September.

China Beat: Did you expect to end up spending as long a stretch of time in China as you have?

Pallavi Aiyar: Not at all. I came to China only reluctantly, following my then boyfriend who was a Sinophile. I was at the time, a typical middle-class Indian with an Anglophone education so that “abroad’ and “the UK/US” were almost synonymous for me. China might have been next door to India geographically but conceptually it was a black hole. I spent my first year in the country teaching something called “English journalism” (which turned out to be mostly English) to students at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute while learning Chinese myself. At the end of the year, I felt it would be a waste not to stay for at least another year and recoup the investment of that first year in China. And so it went, year-after-year. With hindsight, moving to China was the best decision of my life. Not only did the boyfriend become my husband, but the timing was right and ripe for an Indian in China. Bilaterally, relations began heating up and internationally as well the China story increasingly became the China-India story. An almost bottomless appetite for China news was to evolve south of the Himalayas and I was one of the very few people in a position to sate that hunger. Given that China and India together account for almost 2.5 billion people, the fact that when I first began writing from Beijing I was one of only two Indian correspondents in the country is a profound comment on how disconnected these two neighbors were. There are now four of us Indian correspondents in China (compared to some 125 American journalists), but I remain the only Mandarin-speaking one.

CB: What was the single thing that surprised you most about China during your time there–the thing that jarred most with the image of the country you had formed by reading about it ahead of time?

PA: To be honest I hadn’t done much purposeful advance reading about China. What I knew about it was primarily based on random articles I came across from time-to-time in Indian and foreign media. I had a vague understanding of the fact that after some two decades of reforms China was generally thought to have pulled well ahead of India economically but wasn’t quite able to visualize what this would mean in terms of the visceral difference in the physical experience of being in say New Delhi and in Beijing.

In my immediate impressions of the country I was very much the average Indian. What really “shocked and awed” was thus Chinese infrastructure. Beijing’s roads seemed impossibly smooth, its airport impossibly efficient, given that despite what I had read about China’s material progress it was still designated as a “developing” country.

Once I was able to look beyond the razzle and dazzle of China’s infrastructure, what jarred most was the homogeneity of the country. I had read much about the diversity of China, its foods, its fifty-plus minorities, its linguistic multiplicity, etc. But in fact I found it remarkably similar in architecture (from the “historic” pagoda-style buildings to the more modern bathroom-tiled atrocities), language (all the dialects shared the majority of written characters so that in fact the diversity really existed only in spoken form and the country was knit by hanzi) and most of all attitude. It was really strange how no matter whom I was speaking to—taxi driver, economics professor or the bicycle repairman round the corner—the moment I said I was Indian, the response consisted of how wonderful Hindi movies were, how Indian women had such large eyes, and how the dancing and singing was simply fantastic. The whole country seemed programmed to reproduce the same answers to the same questions.

I must stress that my reaction was conditioned by my Indian-ness. India was a country of 22 official languages and over 200 recorded mother tongues. Far from being bound by a common script many of the languages in India did not even belong to the same linguistic group. In my “Hindu” country, there were more Muslims than in all of Pakistan. India’s cultural inheritance included fire-worshiping Zorastrians, and Torah-reciting Jews. With no single language, ethnicity, religion or food India’s diversity was on a whole other plane to China’s.

CB: Do you see particular advantages or disadvantages you have working as a reporter in China due to being Indian? Or due to being female? And if the latter, do you feel this is dramatically different than the advantages or disadvantages a Chinese female reporter would have in India or, say, England, where I see from the web you studied for a couple of different graduate degrees?

PA: On the whole, being an Indian helped me gain access as a reporter because I did not automatically fit into the “foreign/western media = anti-China” equation. The fact is that as an Indian journalist my agenda was different than that of many Western colleagues. The audience in India was rarely interested in the usual human rights/corruption issues that the US media, for example, focus a lot on.

Given India’s own human rights problems and abysmal levels of corruption, the idea of having me write about China was not for me to serve as a watchdog on Beijing. It was rather to explain a changing China to an audience that knew very little about its neighbor, in addition to suggesting ways and means by which the Indian establishment might learn from China regarding economic policy, foreign policy power projection, poverty alleviation, etc.

Moreover, over the course of the time I spent in China, the Chinese authorities gradually began to take India a lot more seriously—especially after the likes of Goldman Sachs and McKinsey started to mention India in the same breath as China. They were as a result increasingly keen to reach an Indian audience.

Being a female reporter in China was a liberating experience. I felt free to travel and report in even relatively remote parts of the country without my gender being an issue. India is a far more difficult place for women in general. Even in big cities like New Delhi it’s hard for women to walk on the streets free of harassment or what Indian law rather quaintly calls “eve teasing.”

While I don’t think being female brought any particular advantages to reporting in China what struck me most was how it did not bring any disadvantages. I never felt patronized by male interviewees or sexually threatened in any way.

Regarding England—let me just say that I spent three months back at Oxford last year as a Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. At one of the very first seminars organized for the term, the presenter (an eminent German foreign correspondent) bemoaned the decline of “serious” journalism in the West, attributing this to “sensationalization, simplification and feminization”!

CB: If you could convince academics to do more work related to a topic in Chinese history or contemporary China, what might that be?

PA: The impact of model worker Shi Chuanxiang on the profession of manual scavenging. The difference in attitude and circumstance between toilet cleaners in China and India struck me strongly and is something I write about at length in the book.

CB: What do you feel is the most exciting part of covering China?

PA: Trying to penetrate and understand well enough to explain to others a society that is so perfectly self-contained that its language requires even proper nouns to be translated. China, I would hold, has been the least outward-oriented of all major cultures, in recent centuries. To be a link or bridge, however minor, in the new process of connecting this civilization outwards is exciting. It feels pioneering in a way that, say, reporting from Brussels or even Moscow wouldn’t.

CB: A lot has been written lately about comparisons and contrasts between China and India. Is there anything you’ve read lately that you found particularly insightful on that topic?

PA: My book!

Immodest humor aside the answer would be: not really. As you say there is so much out there at the moment that I’ve almost made it a rule not to read anything with “dragon” “elephant” or “chindia” in the title!

India and China are not only different in their modern political avatars, but have historically been very different cultures. India’s philosophical and cultural underpinnings were steeped in metaphysics, ontology and epistemology forming major intellectual planks of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc. Territorial integrity and notions of empire were much less central to India’s image of itself. As a result, the Indian civilization was more of a conceptual rather than geographic entity; less united territorially and politically than the Chinese empire. In contrast, China was always more coherent territorially. Its empire was moreover underpinned by philosophies like Confucianism that tended less to the metaphysical and more to the practical, legalistic and political.

The point to remember is that while the two countries share superficial similarities they are very, very different, often making comparisons unhelpful and on occasion even disingenuous.

***

From Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China, by Pallavi Aiyar, HaperCollins India, 2008.

Five years was a decent slice of time to spend in a country and I had used it relatively well: travelling and asking questions. But as I geared up to draw a curtain across my China-life, I was increasingly being called upon to answer a few questions as well.

“Where was China heading?” people would ask me when I travelled outside the country to Europe or the U.S. Was the CCP doomed or would it continue to be a formidable political force in the coming decades? Would China implode in the absence of a democratic revolution? Was its economic growth sustainable without fundamental institutional reform?

In India, the key question was different. From newspaper editors to the maid at home the most common query I encountered was a deceptively simple one: what could India learn from China? What should India be doing that China had already been doing? For China the U.S remained the ultimate benchmark when it came to its self-assessment of national power and achievement. But for India, it was China that had emerged as a commonly used yardstick to evaluate its own progress.

Back in China the question I faced with greatest frequency was again different, at once the crudest and perhaps most difficult of all to answer. “Which is better? India or China?” taxi drivers in Beijing had asked me with monotonous regularity. “Do you prefer India or China,” my students at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute had often queried. “Do you like living in Beijing? Or was it better in Delhi?” my hutong neighbours enquired whenever they got the opportunity.

This last question in its various forms was one that I spent much thought grappling with and my answers were as variable as the day the question was posed. Following conversations with Lou Ya and other toilet cleaners in my neighbourhood I would think back to the wretched jamadarnis back home and marvel at the relative dignity of labour that China’s lowliest enjoyed.

In my hutong the refuse collectors wore gloves when picking up the garbage on their daily rounds. This single, simple article of protective clothing and the barrier it created between bacteria and skin leant them at least a modicum of self-respect. Their children almost always went to school. They may not have been well educated themselves but could usually read and write enough to avoid the worst kind of exploitation.

These were modest gains and not everyone in China could claim even such moderate progress. But were I one of the millions-strong legions of cleaners, sweepers, janitors or night soil workers in India, I would probably prefer by some twist of karma to have been born Chinese.

But on other days I felt differently. These were days when I spent hours hunting for a Chinese source amongst the country’s think tanks, universities and research institutes for fresh insight or an alternative point of view on an issue for a story I’d be working on. It was always such dishearteningly hard work.

China’s was a pragmatic society and over the years I met any number of people blessed with more than usual amounts of a canny, street smart, intelligence. As evidenced by the Zhejiang entrepreneurs, ordinary Chinese were masters of locating the loophole, of finding escape routes, of greasing the right hands and bypassing stifling regulations. If need be they could sell contact lenses to a blind woman and chicken feet to a vegetarian.

But while it may have abounded with consummate salespeople and irrepressible entrepreneurs, Chinese society remained deeply anti-intellectual. More a product of a political and educational system that discouraged criticism and encouraged group-think, than any primordial characteristic, this was the aspect of China I personally found most wearying.

It was the absence of a passion for ideas, the lack of delight in argument for its own sake, and the dearth of reasoned but brazen dissent that most often gave me cause for homesickness. When the Foreign Ministry interpreter Xiao Yan claimed in Tibet that China was different from other countries in that all Chinese must think the same thing, she was consciously overstating her case in light of Jes’ comments. Nonetheless a nub of truth in what she said remained.

In China, those who disagreed with mainstream, officially sanctioned views outside of the parameters set by mainstream officially sanctioned debate, more often than not found themselves branded as dissidents – suspect, hunted, under threat.

Thus a professor who misspoke to a journalist could suddenly be demoted. An editor who pursued a corruption investigation too zealously might find herself fired. A lawyer, who simply tried to help his client to the best of his abilities, could were the client of the wrong sort, ironically land in jail himself.

In universities like BBI the idea was drilled into students’ heads that there were right answers and wrong answers. While ambiguity and nuances may have been both sensed and exploited in practice, on a purely intellectual plane there was little space for them.

For an argumentative Indian from a country where heterodoxy was the norm, this enforced homogeneity in Chinese thought and attitude scratched against my natural grain[1]. There were thus occasions when despite all of India’s painful shortcomings, I would assert with conviction that it was nonetheless better to be an Indian than endure the stifling monotony of what tended to pass as an intellectual life in China.

But then I would return to Delhi for a few days and almost immediately long to be back in Beijing where a woman could ride a bus or even drive a bus without having to tune out the constant staring and whispering of the dozens of sex-starved youth that swarmed around the Indian capital’s streets at almost any given time.

Later on the same day however, I might switch on the TV and catch an ongoing session of the Indian parliament, not always the most inspirational of bodies but when looked at with China-habituated eyes, more alluring than usual.

China’s economic achievement over the last 30 or so years may have been unparalleled historically, but so was India’s political feat. Its democracy was almost unique amongst post-colonial states not simply for its existence but its existence against all odds in a country held together not by geography, language or ethnicity but by an idea. This was an idea that asserted, even celebrated the possibility of multiple identities. In India you could and were expected to be both many things and one thing simultaneously.

I was thus a Delhite, an English speaker, half a Brahmin, half a Tamilian, a Hindu culturally, an atheist by choice, a Muslim by heritage. But the identity that threaded these multiplicities together was at once the most powerful and most amorphous: I was an Indian.

India’s great political achievement was thus in its having developed mechanisms for negotiating large-scale diversity along with the inescapable corollary of frequent and aggressive disagreement. The guiding and perhaps lone consensus that formed the bedrock of that mechanism was that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree – except on the ground rules of how you will disagree.[2]

All of which being true still did not help to definitively answer the question, “If I could choose, would I rather be born Indian or Chinese?”

Perhaps part of my problem was that unlike how students were educated in China into believing there were right and wrong answers I had been encouraged to do precisely the opposite. “Always problematise,” my earnest, khadi kurta clad professor, Sankaran, used to thunder at us during class back in my undergraduate days as a philosophy student in Delhi.

But if forced to reply in broad brush strokes I would assert the following: were I to be able to ensure being born even moderately well-off, I would probably plump for India over China.

In India, money allowed you to exist happily enough despite the constant failure of governments to deliver services. Thus most Delhi households that could afford it had private generators for when the electricity failed and private tube wells in their gardens to ensure the water supply that the municipality couldn’t. The police offered little protection from crime and so many households hired private security guards.

Having developed the necessary private channels with which to deal with the lack of public goods one was free in India to enjoy the intellectual pleasures of discussing the nature of “the idea of India” or to enjoy the heady adrenalin rush of winning a well-argued debate.

These were real pleasures and freedoms and their broader significance was not merely confined to the elite. A tradition of argumentation was fundamental to India’s secularism and democratic polity, with wide-ranging implications for all sections of society.

On the other hand, were I to be born poor, I would take my chances in authoritarian China, where despite lacking a vote, the likelihood of my being decently fed, clothed and housed were considerably higher. Most crucially, China would present me with relatively greater opportunities for upward socio-economic mobility. So that even though I may have been born impoverished, there was a better chance I wouldn’t die as wretched in China, as in India.

This was not to deny the importance of the vote for India’s poor, which undoubtedly endowed them with collective bargaining power. Dislocating large numbers of people to make way for big infrastructure projects for example was an uphill task for any Indian government. As a result, the kind of wanton destruction of large swathes of a historic city like Beijing justified by the hosting of a sporting event would be extremely unlikely to occur in India.

In China on the other hand, not only did the poor lack a vote,[3] but the CCP was also adept at disabling the capacity of disaffected peoples to organise, thus depriving them of the influence of numbers that could pressure government policy through other means.

However, it was also patently clear that in India the right to vote did not necessarily or even usually translate into better governance. Fear of alienating a vote-bank might persuade a local politician to turn a blind eye to illegal encroachment by migrants on city land. But the ensuing slum would lack even the most rudimentary facilities like sewage or water supplies.

Citizens threw out governments in India with predictable regularity. The country’s vast poor majority dismissed on average four out of five incumbents, so that what was called the anti-incumbency factor was possibly the most crucial in any Indian election.

Often celebrated as a sign of India’s robust democracy what this state of affairs in fact reflected was a track record of governance that was so abysmal that even in regions where incomes had improved and poverty reduced, people believed this was in spite and not because of the government.[4]

So ultimately despite political representation for the poor in India and the absence of political participation in China, the latter trumped India when it came to the delivery of basic public goods like roads, electricity, drains, water supplies and schools where teachers actually show up.
This counterintuitive state of affairs was linked to the fact that while in China the CCP derived its legitimacy from delivering growth, in India a government derived its legitimacy simply from its having been voted in. Delivering on its promises was thus less important than the fact of having been elected.

The legitimacy of democracy in many ways absolved Indian governments from the necessity of performing. The CCP could afford no such luxury.

Footnotes
[1] See Sen Amartya, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity, Penguin, 2005
[2] See Guha Ramachandra, India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, Macmillan, 2007
[3] 40 million peasants have been forced off their land to make way for roads, airports, dams, factories, and other public and private investments, according to China: the Balance Sheet, Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Institute of International Economics: Washington, DC, 2006
[4] Aiyar Swaminathan, A vote against misgovernance, The Times of India, 15 May 2004

1. Jeff Wasserstrom was recently interviewed about the Shanghai NIMBY protests for a Danish newspaper.

2. For visitors heading to the Olympics, Wasserstrom also recently published a few suggestions at Outlook India for a Beijing itinerary for “culturally-minded tourists.”

3. Contributor Richard Kraus was referenced recently in a New Yorker article on the classical music scene in China.

4. Pankaj Mishra (oft-referenced in these pages) published a short piece a few weeks ago in The Guardian on inter-war travel writing. Mishra mentions off-hand that, in contrast to the quickly seen and sketched travel writing of the 1930s, “the best non-fiction books about foreign countries today…are products of prolonged engagements”—and Mishra cites China Beat contributor Peter Hessler as a prime example of this.

5. If you are curious about Cantabs among the China watchers, take a peek at Harvard Magazine’s recent list of alums on the China beat. These include one writer actually on our China Beat, Leslie Chang as well as several regularly referenced here, like James Fallows and Evan Osnos

China Beat contributor Susan Brownell is showing up all over the web these days, as her special knowledge on Olympic and Chinese sports history is in high demand. Here is a list of some of her recent media appearances:

1. On PRI’s “The World,” Brownell talks about some of the differences between Western and Chinese notions of body and sports; the report also includes a short excerpt from Jonathan Spence’s Reith Lecture “The Body Beautiful,” which Xu Guoqi blogged about at China Beat earlier this month.

2. Brownell has also been cited in several NPR reports, including these two by Louisa Lim: “Sporting Fame Comes with Limits in China,” and “China Trains Cheerleader to Rally the Masses.”

3. In this AP report, Brownell comments on the Chinese allocation of protest zones, an idea she discussed earlier in her #4 and #5 Olympic FAQs, originally posted at China Beat.

4. Brownell has talked about the Chinese Olympic training program in several places recently, including The Christian Science Monitor, The Macau Daily Times, and The Los Angeles Times.

5. Brownell has also been quoted in a number of pieces abroad, including papers in France, Hungary, Spain, and Sweden.

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