Pankaj Mishra

The Diplomat’s Justin McDonnell speaks with essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra about his latest book A Great Clamour: Encounters with China and Its Neighbors, Chinese and Indian mutual distrust, perceptions of Tibet, and Chinese-style capitalism.

Pankaj Mishra
Pankaj MishraCredit: Flickr (On Being)

For our readers at The Diplomat, could you tell us a little bit about the origins of A Great Clamour and how you became intrigued to explore and write about China?

I was driven purely by ignorance and shame, that as an Indian national I knew next to nothing about China. For countries that have been neighbors for such a long time, and have shared so many cultural and historical links, we remain in the dark about each other. Or we read about China in books written by Western writers who have their own particular perspective on China as a rising power and rival to the West. So I set out in the first instance to remove my own ignorance, and to see if there was another way to write about China, which stresses the challenges and dilemmas common to both countries in the process of modernization, and looks at cultural artifacts, books, cinema, ideas for clues to how a society looks at itself and makes sense of the larger world.

The world is trying to grapple with China’s relentless change and ever-growing economic power. What factors shape perceptions in the West of this rapidly changing country and how can it reach a more accurate understanding of modern-day China? Is the West too obsessed with prioritizing political rights?

Unfortunately, the most common perception of China in the West is defined by the intellectual simplicities of the Cold War. The country is largely seen through strategic, military and economic viewpoints, colored by much fear and distrust. This hardly adds up to an adequate understanding of a complex country with a tormented recent history. We need to see more closely how modern China was formed, what were the imperatives before it. It’s only the silliest kind of self-delusion to see the Chinese as aspiring Americans, who will one day embrace the political and economic institutions that Americans prefer. And since this goes with an amoral business embrace of China, the talk about prioritizing political rights looks even more an instance of hypocrisy.

How do India and China perceive one another?

With great distrust, largely caused by the border clashes of 1962, which had a traumatic impact on India. Of course, economic ties between the countries are now hugely important. But the distrust remains, and the lack of people-to-people contact doesn’t help. For some years, India thought of China as a rival and competitor, but I think the envy was misplaced. It had its source in China’s shiny cities and airports and roads. China has actually done much better than India in education and public health and this is what we in India should have envied and tried to catch up with rather than sighing over the skyscrapers of Pudong.

While India regards Tibet as an integral part of China, India is home to many Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. Having travelled to Tibet and spoken with the Tibetan poetess Woeser, what are your impressions of the status of Tibet?

I see Tibet the way I see Kashmir and the Northeastern states in India: extremely unhappy constituents of large over-centralized nation-states that can only be appeased with genuine autonomy as well as a greater ability to protect their cultures, lifestyles, and economies, and to possess dignity before the majority community. Otherwise, we’ll continue to face a high degree of disaffection and throwing arms and money at the problem will not make it go away. All the hectic modernization of Tibet, the very high growth rates, have not made the Tibetans happy. Quite the contrary. We need to understand the sources of their discontent.

Your observations have often been critical of China’s development and rush toward industrialization. In the New York Review of Books, you write: “…How numerous and unwanted are those left behind—and destined never to catch up—in the Asian race to Western-style abundance and glamour. Though largely mute in these dramas of Asian capitalism, the future really belongs to this invisible majority of the ‘filthy poor’—people who can’t even try to enlarge their limits of possibility, but retain the silent potential of weeds that can overrun the world’s most zealously maintained gardens.” Is capitalism a fraught endeavor? And if so, what does the country need to do differently in order to move forward and include what you call the invisible majority?

Capitalism of the kind we have seen in Asia over the previous two decades is certainly a fraught endeavor. Its patterns of uneven growth and inherent pro-urban bias imposes new inequalities on largely rural countries that are already very poor, damages the environment, and top-down governance on behalf of big business alienates many people – farmers, indigenous communities – who not only feel left behind but actually pushed back. And of course extractive forms of capitalism create few jobs in countries with huge labor forces, and concentrate wealth at the very top. So we have to find ways of eradicating crony capitalism, making growth more inclusive, offering more opportunities to small and medium business enterprises, investing more in agriculture, making urban centers more inhabitable for rural migrants.

In the final part of your book, you survey China’s neighbors, including Japan, Mongolia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Indonesia.  What do you think these countries can learn from China as they struggle with these notions of modernity?

Mainly, that one size does not fit all – the illusion that contemporary capitalism promotes as it seeks markets and resources around the world. These neighbors are at different stages in the process of modernization, with Japan now facing a post-growth future, and Mongolia just entering a period of hectic growth, Malaysia still struggling to emerge out of the middle income category. All of these countries need to find their own way of being modern, one that takes into account the resources available to them, their peculiar demographics, and the political and environmental conditions that exist in these countries. We can’t all hope to follow the example of Japan or Europe or Hong Kong. Its absurd to hope, as many Indians do, that India should look like Singapore. It can’t and it shouldn’t.