The false dawn of Eastern dominance
Updated: 2012-10-26 09:43
By Andrew Moody (China Daily)
Author and polemicist Pankaj Mishra says the economic relationship between China and India is growing very fast. Feng Yongbin / China Daily
Asian leaders such as Sun Yat-sen saw outcome of 1905 Russo-Japan war as an awakening, author says
Pankaj Mishra believes the East won a decisive battle against the West more than a century ago, but it has only proven to be a "Pyrrhic" victory today.
This is the somewhat depressing conclusion of his new book From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of China.
The battle in question was the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905, which he believes was the first instance of an Eastern nation striking back against colonial domination.
It was not just Japan turning into a marauding imperial power itself in the early 20th century that soured the story of the rise of the East but the fact that Asia itself has since become consumed by Western globalization with impossible consequences for the planet's resources.
Mishra, a leading left-wing polemicist known also for his essays in The New York Times and other leading publications, says that although countries like China and India have made major progress, it is not possible for all their 2.6 billion citizens to enjoy European-standard lifestyles.
"It is completely impossible. It is not just me who is saying that. Any number of environmentalists have been saying that for years and decades. This whole spirit of acquisition, competition and consumption is going to destroy us."
Mishra, 43 and who with his neatly sculpted beard has the slight air of a mystic, was speaking in a candlelit corner of the Capital M restaurant near Tian'anmen Square.
He had just given a talk about his new book on one of his usual twice-yearly visits to China.
"I think it (the book) describes a tragic arc of history. I certainly wanted to stay clear of simplistic notions of the rise of Asia and it owning the 21st century and all that kind of triumphalism.
"I find that quite distasteful because it fails to reckon with the sheer scale of problems which so many Asian countries are faced with at this point both politically and environmentally."
Mishra, whose previous books, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India and Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond have been popular successes, has been criticized for choosing the 1905 Russo-Japanese War as a tipping point in the East-West relationship since many in the West would not have been unhappy about Russia's defeat.
"Whatever we think now as to whether Russia was or was not part of Europe - the Russians themselves have very conflicting opinions about that - this event was seen as such because Asians regarded Russians as white and up until then they had been dominated, humiliated and had had their societies broken into by white people. Perceptions shape history," he says.
During research for the book he found evidence that emerging Asian leaders such as Sun Yat-sen in China and Gandhi and Nehru in India had seen the outcome of the war in that light.
"When I started reading about the subject I discovered in various autobiographies of Sun Yat-sen and others quite far apart geographically that this was a great moment of political awakening and a realization that we also can do the same and become as strong as Japan," he says.
Major sections to the book are devoted to now largely forgotten intellectual figures such as the Persian Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Liang Qichao, who he describes as China's "first iconic modern intellectual" and whose views he thinks are still relevant to China today.
"I think he was someone who diagnosed the peculiar nature of Western power very clearly and outlined ways in which China could begin to match that power. He experimented with a range of ideas including Confucianism, enlightened autocracy and state capitalism," he says.
Mishra, who had his university education in India, began his career as an author in the 1990s and lives a large part of the time in a remote Himalayan village of Mashobra, where among the 2,000 residents he is not unsurprisingly the only internationally renowned public intellectual.
He believes living with ordinary rural citizens gives him a unique viewpoint the urban chattering classes lack. "I like living there. It gives me a perspective on India I would not normally have. Writing and living in a village is a rare experience anywhere in the world today," he says.
He says it is also gives him an insight into the darker side of the scale of urbanization that countries like India and China are experiencing. "I see people attain a certain education level and move from a rural village to a city like Delhi for an enhanced but still inadequate salary. They live in a slum and have a horrible two-hour commute in polluted air and are completely dissatisfied with life to the point where they want to commit suicide because they are away from their family and loved ones," he says.
The author has been involved in a recent high-profile spat with the Harvard University historian Niall Ferguson who threatened to sue Mishra for allegedly implying in a review in the London Review of Books he was a racist.
Mishra remains critical of Ferguson, author of many best-selling histories, including Civilization: The West and the Rest.
"He is a symptom of an intellectual culture that has been dominant in the West in the past 10 years, particularly. An intellectual culture which believes in the supremacy of the Western way of being," he says.
Mishra dismisses the very notion there might be any positive side to colonialism and takes George Orwell's view that it is just a relationship between "master and slave".
"It is therefore completely irrelevant whether there were good or bad aspects. The British empire is entirely an economic entity. It was there purely in its own self-interest. It is not about bringing civilization to anyone and whatever positive benefits come from it are entirely incidental," he says.
He says he was inspired to write From The Ruins of Empire by what he believes was the neo-imperialist culture following 9/11 reflected in both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
"These projects were undertaken in terms of nation building and bringing democracy and humane governance and the rule of law. The discourse matches word for word the rhetoric of European imperialists of the 19th century," he says.
"If you look at the speeches of Tony Blair and George W. Bush at the time, they were all underpinned by these assumptions that the West had been the prime mover of history in the last 200 years."
Mishra says the relationship between India and China is intriguing, but finds the Chinese largely disinterested in the rival Asian emerging power whereas his countrymen seem obsessed with the world's second-largest economy.
"I don't know why this is so and why there is so much interest in India. In my travels through China I come across a very rudimentary awareness of India. Mind you, the economic relationship is growing very fast," he says.
Mishra says he enjoys his visits to China and taking advantage of the Indian cuisine available to him in its major cities. "I have to eat Indian food at least once a day. In Beijing, I can always find a restaurant," he says.
(China Daily 10/26/2012 page24)