What I liked about Pallavi Aiyar’s Smokes and Mirrors is that Aiyar’s book is about China but she constantly and consistently kept India in the background and ended up contrasting the two countries. (I know I’m making this sound super fascinating to you right now, but bear with me.)
Aiyar’s journey to China started off as an English teacher and subsequently as a journalist and she put her impressions about China into a book. Her look at China strikes you as honest and while she has talked about the positive side, she hasn’t neglected to mention the negatives as well.
One of the positives are that China has a much more efficient governing system in place, as compared to india, and that its officials are held accountable precisely because of the lack of democracy. Aiyar’s (brilliant) contention is that in India the voting process seems to be the place where politicians are held accountable but that in China, because there’s no voting process, the accountability has to come from the way the officials do their jobs. This makes a lot of sense if you think about how we, especially India’s poor, tend to kick governments out basically for non-performance (anti-incumbency). Another positive is that Indians’ general lack of respect for manual labour is not something that you see in China. (I could go on about what’s better but these are the two things that I thought were worth highlighting.)
What is scary about China is the lack of freedom to dissent and the way that the people seem to believe the government’s propoganda. It’s all very 1984ish. Though I want India to get to the kind of effectiveness that China has, I cannot imagine not having the freedom to dissent, to express my opinion, to be free to make a lot of choices, which we take for granted me thinks, and to live life relatively free without interference from the State. I’m willing to go through the growing pains but I would not want to give up these freedoms for anything.
Smokes and Mirrors is a delightful book to read and if you have any interest in China (or even India), you should read the book. Through a series of essays and stories, Aiyar a pieced together an extremely enjoyable book that is worth reading.