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Review: ‘From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia’ by Pankaj Mishra

by Joshua Kurlantzick
October 22, 2012

(L-R) Brazil's president Dilma Rousseff, Russia's president Vladimir Putin, India's prime minister Manmohan Singh, China's president Hu Jintao and South African president Jacob Zuma pose for a picture after a BRICS leaders' meeting in Los Cabos June 18, 2012. (L-R) Brazil's president Dilma Rousseff, Russia's president Vladimir Putin, India's prime minister Manmohan Singh, China's president Hu Jintao and South African president Jacob Zuma pose for a picture after a BRICS leaders' meeting in Los Cabos June 18, 2012 (Victor Ruiz Garcia/Courtesy Reuters).

As Western economies continue to struggle, while China and many other large developing nations are now being looked to as potential saviors of indebted European nations, the idea that the twenty-first century will be dominated by the “rise of the rest” —i.e., non-Western nations, most of them in Asia —has only become more powerful. Indeed, from Goldman Sachs’ first landmark report predicting the emergence of the so-called “BRICs” (Brazil, Russia, India and China) to, more recently, the originator of the famous term “Washington Consensus” publicly wondering whether the Washington Consensus had been replaced by a Beijing Consensus, the “rest” already seem to have risen quite far, while the West has nowhere to go but down.

Yet in all the discussion of these dramatic global shifts, few people have examined the roots of Asia’s resurgence. Few have looked any farther back than the changes of the past twenty years, during which the Cold War ended and many developing nations democratized, new communications and shipping technologies allowed Asian nations to dominate manufacturing and build global companies, and the spread of free trade agreements has leveled the economic playing field.

In his ambitious new book From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, Pankaj Mishra, a globally renowned Indian writer known for his work in the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine, reveals how the intellectual roots of the “rise of the rest,” including China, actually go far deeper. To Mishra, the roots go back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and to a small group of reformist thinkers in China, Japan, India, Turkey, and other countries, who, confronted with Western nations’ domination of Asia, struggled to find a coherent alternative.

Mishra’s book is novel in its attempts to link the tumultuous early twentieth century to today’s “rise of the rest.” He weaves his themes around the life stories of three key intellectuals, several of whom had interactions with each other, presaging the globalization of today —Chinese reformist writer Liang Qichao, Nobel-winning Indian poet Rabindrath Tagore, and political activist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who operated throughout South Asia and much of the former Ottoman Empire. He also examines two critical years. First, 1919, when at the post-World War I peace conference the Western powers, led by the supposedly forward-thinking Woodrow Wilson, could have brokered a more globalized and equitable international system, but instead chose to retain their empires and not even seat China at the table of great powers. The sour nationalism and quick aggrievedness apparent in today’s China, even as China becomes a dominant power again, stems directly, he argues, from the snub of 1919. At the time, even some Western politicians realized that snubbing China was a major mistake: the 1919 refusal to listen to the Chinese delegation would “dishonor and degrade any people,” said American senator William Booth, according to Mishra. (A young activist named Mao Zedong paid close attention to the 1919 snub, and he and others formed the Chinese Communist Party two years after the 1919 disgrace.) Second, 1942, when Japan’s forces rapidly took over much of East Asia and the Pacific. Mishra suggests, somewhat controversially, that though they are loath to admit it, because of Japan’s wartime abuses, Asia’s post-war leaders and people owed a debt to Japan for forever puncturing the idea of Western invincibility.

Though the anecdote-driven style of the writing can be circuitous, Mishra tells the story with authority and rich color, and weaves a staggering amount of historical information to create coherent narratives. Mishra identifies several key themes that his early reformers shared —themes that Mishra says will be central to the world today, as Asia becomes economically dominant. All the reformers struggled to find a way to economically and politically modernize without completely Westernizing, with some admiring Japan’s Meiji Restoration, since Japan had been the only non-Western nation to industrialize before World War II. For al-Afghani, the challenge was to envision an Islam that would be compatible with economic and political openness, an antecedent to today’s Turkey or Malaysia. But he ultimately turned to a different path, deciding instead, like many Muslims today alienated from the West and from highly materialistic societies, that the only way to prevent total assimilation was to embrace a more radical, all-consuming faith, one which echoed Islamist movements today. For Liang, Mishra writes, the challenge was to maintain China’s traditional strengths —social cohesion in a massive country, emphasis on education, centralized rule— while also opening up to outside ideas, not easy to do in a nation that had long enjoyed a higher standard of living than the West and had considered itself the center of the world for millennia.

All of the reformers also questioned the economic values central to globalization in that era, and today as well. Though Britain and the United States promoted free trade in international forums, Asian activists argued that this was not truly free trade, since the rules were created by Western-led institutions, and allowed Western nations to protect certain industries of their own. Instead, they believed, Asian nations should protect their most important nascent industries, invest in domestic handicrafts, and only agree to freer trade when they were on more equal political and military terms with the West. This was an argument that can be fast forwarded to today’s state capitalism, the dominant new economic force in the post-Cold War world —not a return to communism but rather a blending of state control and acceptance of market forces that has come to dominate government thinking not only in Beijing but also in other emerging market capitals like Brasilia, Bangkok, and even Delhi.

Finally, all of Mishra’s reformers questioned how Asia could catch up to the United States and Europe without sparking a confrontation with Western states wary of giving up their predominance. In the past two years, China seems to have abandoned its strategy of restraining its strategic ambitions, at least in Asia, and has loudly claimed nearly all of the South China Sea, a body of water shared by China and several Southeast Asian nations. Though Beijing’s claims are aggressive, and have led to angry responses from its neighbors and the United States, how different is China’s stance from the Monroe Doctrine of the young United States, an earlier emerging power that also gravely offended established states?

But while analyzing the roots of Asia’s reforms, Mishra too easily overlooks or purposely ignores the changes many emerging Asian giants —most notably, China—have not made, changes that his reformers often also bypassed. Several of them, like generations of Asian autocrats who would follow them, came to believe that Asian societies, more organized around community than in the West, and needing a central hand to guide rapid modernization, are somehow not suited for democracy. “Autocracy was a necessity,” Liang decided, a decision Mishra does not seem to contradict; he questions whether the economic and political development in Asia over the past thirty years has even been a net positive, because of its impact on the region’s environment, resources, and income inequality. Mishra only grudgingly admits that “China and India’s new middle classes have done very well out of two decades of capitalism” —a drastic understatement of the fact that, in China alone, three decades of post-Mao development has lifted over 300 million people out of poverty.

Yet even as Mishra draws too sharp a distinction between communal Asia and the individualistic West —surely, there are Western societies, as in Scandinavia, that would muddle such comparisons— he also overlooks the fact that today, some of the parties, organizations, and movements founded by these reformers look strikingly like the archaic and inflexible rulers who, in the early twentieth century, proved easy prey for outside powers and domestic revolutionaries. Writing of the last Chinese imperial court, Mishra notes that the “smallest move” to change the system provoked a backlash, that the imperial rulers “worried about the loss of their judicial and moral authority over citizens.” Sounds quite like a group of entrenched, paranoid (mostly) late-middle-aged men in Beijing today.

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