Redefining Asia with China – a great political clamour in eastern geography

India- Books/Foreign Affairs 

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Madhusree Chatterjee 
New Delhi

The idea of Asia has acquired a different connotation today — what connects geographically, disparate experiences — of migration in Jakarta, factory workers in Maneswar, tribals of Chhattisgarh, nomads in Tibet as well as gated communication patrons of Hermes and Jimmy Choo in Hangzhou and Gurgaon — is the late arrival of capitalism , says writer Pankaj Mishra, who has cast his pen this time with a new look-east account.

Mishra, who released his new book , “The Great Clamour: Encounters With China and Its Neighbours” this week (Jan 7, 2014 in New Delhi) says, “extraordinary transformation has taken place in Asia in the last five decades — the sheer scale of which was unprecedented”. “What is happening now is a newer form of post-colonial cosmopolitanism. So many of these popular cultures are being exported from east Asia — Japan, Taiwan and South Korea — new economies that have opened up. We will see new cross-border cultural flows – new region coming into being and we have yet to define its new features. But we won’t go back to those kinds of solidarities because there are new exciting events taking place now,” Mishra points out. The great “shifts that convulsed 19th century Europe — can now be witnessed across Asia : The commodification of life and land, their valuation by supply and demand, the disintegration of community into aggregates of self seeking individuals , the scramble for personal wealth and status — the desperation and anxiety of the also-rans and the resistance of those left behind”.

What gives Asia is provisional unity provisional unity today — cutting across boundaries and cultures — is a bitterly paradoxical modernity, Mishra says. “The delayed impact of the global system is traumas— so many traumas have been repressed like the Partition of 1947 and the Sikh Massacre of 1984 in India. In Indonesia, nearly half a million Communists were killed (in a anti-Communist campaign in 1965-66 leading to Sukarno’s downfall) , the great famine in China, the purges  — now they are being talked about,” Mishra says.

“I think in China— there is a certain trauma associated with its fragile link with the past— the whole experience of being in Communism. Both Capitalism and Communism have a material world view (effective delivery of goods). It has created a spiritual vacuum in which acquisition of violence has been accompanied by long decades of oppression,” Mishra says.

In such an environment — the process of self-transformation and growth that is frequently reached by through the destruction of familiar landmarks — an atmosphere of agitation and  contradiction in which betrayal and disintegration of old bonds goes necessarily together with renewal, the writer suggests. By turning away from these changes, societies deal with traumas in the road to transformation. “You have to join the market place, sell your skills and you are supposed to develop portfolios at 12 often leading to depressed societies.

In this milieu of turbulence, the idea of the dignity as a human being is determined by transactional exchanges is becoming a challenge, Mishra says. The writer observes that “we are not yet a fully capitalist society — we still live in a communistic society (not individualistic)  and thus the arrival of market capital — a trifle delayed — is creating invisible suffering that cannot be qualified,” Mishra says.

The writer, in his book, takes a “deeper look east – moving beyond the superficial mosaics of an intrepid travel writer of the 19th century to understand traditional societies in Asia, the transitions and the inter-linkages. “What is now needed  is a much more complex understanding of the society – the old style of reportage where you go out and meet people and report encounters  – that approach is antiquated.  Advertising your presence is not enough – who are the people mediating your experiences in the society is not enough – when you start doing that you have to engage much more deeply with intellectual debates. Travel writers are now being called upon to do that  because most newspaper reportage is extremely shallow. Writers have to say something more interesting about the society,” Mishra says. Contexting historical analysis in the perspective of the interlinks between diverse societies is an imperative because of the “paradoxical fact of the contemporary moment in which globalization has made economies more inter-dependent — several of the domestic political issues that occupy us are similar, but for historical reasons, we (Indians) remain more west-oriented,” the writer observes.      

 Mishra’s curiosity about what lies of Asia beyond the Himalayas  begins with his “interrogation about Tibbat”— a vague paradise that stretches across Himachal Pradesh in India.

“One afternoon, in the summer of 1992, I was talking to my landlord and found myself asking him what lay beyond the snow-capped mountain, I could see from my verandah,” Mishra recalled. His landlord said, “Tibbat”. “Now, in my imagination, the vast territory stretching from Lhasa to Hokkaido and Durabaya —an Asia then being imprinted by the politics and economy of China, suddenly reared up as an oppressive blank- another remainder of my ignorance of the world,” Mishra said. In late 1995, Mishra went to Indonesia on his first trip abroad.

Indonesia – then ruled by Suharto, “business-friendly despot with stalwart American and European allies” was his first glimpse of the landmass beyond the Himalayas. “Suharto’s crony capitalism had generated a small but loyal middle class and a complaint media. Did this axis pre-figure the appeal of an authoritarian capitalism in our own time? Did it look ahead through the era of Deng Xiaopang’s China and Thailand’s Thaksin Sinawatra – to the age of Narendra Modi,” Mishra asks.

He says much “experience and re-orientation” of perspectives were needed to see the pointers to the Asian future through the Indonesian stories before he returned to the country in 2011. During this long interregnum, he made several “intellectual journeys” to China to understand how history had tempered China “to emerge from decades of economic autarky had quickly become the Asia’s pre-eminent country — shadowing Taiwan, reviving Hong Kong and enriching Mongolia and forcing Japan into an atavistic nationalism”.

Mishra divides his research of the east into three sections — “Drum roll to Modernity”, “A Din of Questions” and “Echoes from the Mainland”.  

The account begins and ends with China — the core of Mishra’s analysis of the Asian tale that finds its way through the turbulent imperial history of the 1920s, the famine, Mao Zedong’s “Stalinistic administration” to the Tiananmen uprising and onward — chronicling the nation’s rise as an economic giant with a curious combination of Communist policies and capitalist growth model that reduced people “to a mass force” deployed to contribute to national wealth and “prosperity meters”.

He breaks the serious tone of his narrative with “humour” — excerpts from literary works by Chinese writers who captured the popular mood of the country at the crossroads of Communism in the 1940s to1950s — from  Chang Kai-Shek’s “New Life Movement” to Mao’s “regeneration of China”. He quotes extensively from the controversial book, “The Fortress Besieged” by Qian Zhongshu. Literature becomes an important source of knowledge for Mishra.

The account of China and its context in eastern Asia as an economic benchmark — finds a pitfall in Tibet where Mishra’s “pro-Buddhist” spiritual sensitivities take over his objective eye for Asian political reality.  He dons the mantle of liberator who sees “young people asserting traditional role of life against change imposed by Beijing”. China, in Mishra’s analysis, comes across to readers as “big demolition machine bent on having its own sway in the Asian geopolitical canvas. It gives the average Indian patriot “grist” to worry about the country’s future in a world of all-pervasive China.                      

 

                          

 

     

 

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