China “scholarship” in India tends to be limited at the best of times. Usually, what is available is a secondary source regurgitation of western books and essays on the subject, tailored for Indian audiences. The consequent parallax error tends to be quite extreme. China: Behind the Miracle is not one of those books. This is an Indian bureaucrat who has lived and worked in China, narrating her first-hand experiences. Clearly her experiences are rich, floating as they do across a broad spectrum of China’s industry, financial sector, agriculture and innovation. Given the sheer volume of information one can find on the Chinese economy online, separating the grain from the chaff remains a formidable challenge for even the most seasoned China experts. This book, however, deftly navigates these problems, largely omitting irrelevancies and focussing on things of interest.
Given that the abysmally low number of primary researchers in China tend to be area specialists, they bring back information in silos. This book, however, benefits from a broad, multi-disciplinary approach. Every topic covered does get into some micro-details, but also summarises broader trends. The book, therefore, is quite unique, and presents an interesting counterpoint to western narratives. From a psychological perspective alone, it is interesting to contrast this with western authors. Looking at a similar situation, a western author would sneer, look down and immediately see the flaws in the Chinese game plan. Dawra’s takeaway, however, are usually a mixture of curiosity, amazement, appreciation and where deserved, criticism as well.
This is not a book for academics — it is a book for practitioners and policy wonks in that it is focussed on what is being done rather than mere theoretical aspects. The writing style is breezy, though once in a blue moon some jargon does creep up. On the other hand, Dawra has done away with the cumbersome format of referring to specific policies by their stylised Chinese names. The first person narrative is refreshing, primarily because it is a glimpse into the mind-set of an Indian bureaucrat — what are they looking for? What are the questions they ask? Are they vigorous enough to get the whole picture?
The book does, however, have its flaws. For starters, there is the lack of a macro narrative and contextualisation. The macro narrative at the beginning of each chapter would have been a useful addition, since one keeps wondering “where is this going?” while reading the individual subheadings. Given that this is a pioneering work by an Indian author, a bureaucrat no less, one would’ve also been interested in knowing her take on which of the lessons were applicable to India and why. Lastly, the author is probably not critical enough of the Chinese. There is some critical analysis, but mostly you have to read between the lines to get there. Finally, the lack of indexing means one cannot go to specific topics the reader may be interested in.
All up though, this is a good read. What is more valuable than the vignettes of the Chinese economic miracle the book presents is that it tells you much about what India’s establishment picks up from China’s growth story.
Book: China: Behind the Miracle
Author: Sumita Dawra
Publisher: Bloomsbury India