THE WORD “FASCISM” has been doing the rounds in India and China.
The first time I heard it, I was at a small, polite dinner in Shanghai a few years ago. At least I thought it was polite; I should have known that behind closed doors, Chinese intellectuals let opinions buzz, as fast as flies over summer watermelon. China’s President Xi Jinping was newly in power.
“I’m reading Mein Kampf,” said a frail woman with tidy, grey hair sitting opposite me.
I sat a little straighter; I’d never actually heard anyone say that.
“I’m recognizing that the Chinese Communist party uses the same tactics. They unite people with hate; love is not a uniting factor. They give the people slogans.”
Her declaration seemed to loosen lips in the room, and others chimed in, with reports of how anyone writing a thesis now had to submit an abstract to the Party chief stationed at whatever institution.
“I never really like Wen Jiabao, but at least we could speak then,” a man said. “Now, under Xi, this kind of tightening, I don’t know …”
The next time I encountered the word — or more accurately the allusion — was in relation to my homeland, when Indian Prime Minister Modi stormed to a landslide victory in the country’s elections in May 2014, and a magazine called Open put Modi on the cover with the title, “Triumph of the Will,” a nod to a 1935 Nazi propaganda film. I wasn’t paying attention at the time, busy packing up house, saying goodbye to Shanghai after eight years of living there. I had to find a place to live in our new home, Hong Kong, and settle our little girl into a new school routine.
A year later, when Modi was due to visit China in May 2015, I accepted an invitation to come to Shanghai to hear him speak. The Indian Association based in Shanghai, loosely affiliated with the Indian Consulate, had contacted Indians living in cities across China and in Hong Kong too..
On reaching Shanghai, I learnt that Indian business families based in Shanghai had been asked, nicely but firmly, to contribute money to fund Modi’s show. This was hardly a spontaneous gathering of people rushing to meet a beloved leader — it was a carefully crafted play, directed by the Prime Minister’s Office.
The day before Modi was to address an Indian gathering, I met some old friends for lunch. It was a rowdy gathering in a sandwich-and-coffee shop in the city’s former French Concession. I was just happy to be in Shanghai, although the streets were wet with spring rain; I traced the familiar roads with their whispers of a tormented, mesmerizing history.
At lunch, the ugly word raised its head again.
Two good friends — Indian citizens resident in Shanghai — had nearly fallen out, defending their opposing personal decisions to attend or boycott the Modi gathering.
“When Hitler came to power, people didn’t realize at first what he was. It happened slowly,” said the first friend, explaining why she wasn’t going. Later, in a hurriedly-typed WhatsApp message, she elaborated: “I was told this is how Naziism start[ed] spreading and people like us ignored it[…] Mentioning PM in every speech as our savior […] I was told these are signs, do not ignore […] Lot of Modi speeches to me are high on him and low on real content. And how I wish these are unfounded fears, but given his handling on Godhra […]”
She left it hanging.
Godhra referred to a small town in Gujarat, where a train filled with Hindus returning from a pilgrimage burned on February 27, 2002. Several dozen Muslims were convicted, although the cause of the fire was unclear. Horrific anti-Muslim communal riots erupted in response, with hundreds, maybe thousands of Muslims killed. Modi was accused of aiding and abetting what many said was a coordinated attack on a minority community. The Senior Indian Police Officer Rahul Sharma, a dissenting voice, helped save hundreds of Muslim children from massacre. He later passed along phone records to an investigating commission that showed links between the rioters and high-ranking government officials. Sharma was charged on four counts under India’s Official Secrets Act, and has since retired to become a lawyer.
The threats to anyone in Modi’s way are subterranean.
The next day, my friend and I took a taxi to a capacious hall at the Shanghai World Expo Exhibition and Convention Center, across the Huangpu river that bisects the city. The crowds were already gathering fast; the atmosphere was festive. Amongst the Indians in Shanghai, there was a mix of awe and resentment at the massive tamasha. “India has never put on such a show overseas,” somebody said. Which was not quite accurate, for Modi had thrown a similar spectacle in New York at Madison Square Garden, in September 2014.
We fell in line with a group of Indian medical students studying in China. It turns out that India is filled with agencies that recruit young Indians to earn a five-year MBBS in China. It’s cheaper than studying in India, and easier to get a place. There are 13,000 Indian medical students in China. The Medical Council of India recognizes their degrees, one youngster told us.
“There’s no racism in China. There’s too much in Russia, my brother told me,” one young student said. She wore a red square sticker on her upper arm, with the number two on it.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“The number of the bus we came on,” she said — from Nantong city, two hours away. The bus had been organized and paid for; she wasn’t quite sure by whom, but I could hazard a guess.
The venue was draped in bunting and music wafted from speakers. Thousands of people had gathered — I counted about 3,000, the Indian Association said 5,000. Either way, it was the largest such gathering on Chinese soil, Indian Association officials said. A wedding? I thought. An election?
Crew from all the main Indian TV channels cased the halls, exhorting a good-humored audience to perform so that when the cameramen slid by, youngsters jumped up and down, shouting Modi, Modi.
It was only when Modi began speaking that I suddenly appreciated the date. He had carefully timed it so that on this, the first anniversary of his election, he would be in front of an Indian audience, on Chinese soil, speaking in Hind — the speech beamed live to millions of viewers in India. Canny politics.
Modi speaks in a graceful cadence. He’s a powerful demagogue who drops his voice, pauses. He is humble, self-deprecating. He annihilates any distance between his high office and the man on the street. One might sit and have a cup of tea with him and talk about his mother (which he did).
“The world has changed, times have changed,” he said.
Modi had no notes. He spoke charismatically. Somewhere along the way I had the feeling that he needed to be in front of an adoring audience. It was a drug.
“We are the blessed ones if we remember what our ancient history is, the world will respect us, we will play a new role, a role the world can respect,” Modi said. “If we don’t take pride in our cultural heritage, nobody else will. The world will respect us when we take pride in our own nation.”
This is a powerful message for ordinary Indians who struggle with indignities at every step of the way — from getting the gas connection installed, to corrosively polluted air, corruption, bribery, bureaucratic inefficiency, police brutality, laws waived for the powerful, violence and chaos at home, and racism overseas. After 68 years of independence from British rule, I’m loathe to allow India to point fingers at colonialism — at some point, nations need to take responsibility for their own destinies. But I can’t deny that although the colonial hardware has withdrawn, the software throws sly echoes into the future. The message of inferiority drummed into Indian minds and hearts over centuries will take longer to eradicate.
In Shanghai, listening to Modi, I found myself wanting to believe him. I wanted to believe him when he said he worked tirelessly for the nation, when he said that change was possible. Certainly, at that moment, I understood why so many Indians had voted him in.
In that famous, controversial issue of Open magazine, editor S. Prasannarajan wrote, “Enraged by the accumulated humiliations of a decade, the lost years, India has listened to a lone man on a mission, and now that he is where he has struggled to be, it is no longer politics as usual.”
He should have gone further back in history, but I realized that the word “fascism” usually follows on the heels of the word “humiliation.”
Here’s George Orwell, in 1940, reviewing Hurst and Blackett’s unexpurgated edition of Mein Kampf, published the previous year:
Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags, and loyalty-parades.
Xi Jinping and Modi both understand that desire for drums and loyalty-parades, buried in the hearts of their people.
Being in India the previous year seemed to strip Xi Jinping of his stiff official air, and that funny close-lipped, off-center smile. In India, where his image isn’t controlled by the Communist Party, there is an astonishing photo of him bending his head to look at a bangle dangling from the wrist of his wife, Peng Liyuan. Both are smiling, and look like movie stars, in love.
I had a disturbing vision of Xi and Modi together. They lean in to talk, recognition alights. They see in each other the same dark ruthlessness; two thugs eyeballing each other, playing the same game. Each man’s aim is to gather swags of power, wrap himself in it – they might throw a few crumbs to the institutions of their country.
The China Xi has inherited (some settle for the moniker China Inc.) is in part the product of Deng Xiaoping’s famous Southern Tour of China in 1992. Deng went to Guangdong and declared it was okay to get rich. His words boomed across China, but so did the things Deng didn’t say, i.e. who, particularly, would get rich. As it turned out, since the party controlled everything, anyone who wanted to also get rich had to pay the party.
Bao Tong, the advisor to former Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang wrote elegantly in The New York Times last month, “A waterfront pavilion gets the moonlight first.” He pointed out that “if you don’t pay for the right to do business, then you are likely to encounter interference from party officials…Chinese officials have a real talent for giving people a hard time.” His piece was published on June 4, 2015, the 26th anniversary of the popular movement in 1989 on Tiananmen Square and across Chinese cities, a movement the government brutally suppressed. The message that Deng delivered with his fist was this, Bao Tong wrote: “The party would protect corruption, and anyone who opposed party-supported corruption was a deadly foe of both the party and army.”
Xi Jinping must surely have Bao Tong’s unfortunate boss Zhao Ziyang in mind, these days.
Zhao Ziyang after all once was — like Xi — general secretary of the Communist Party of China. He had Deng Xiaoping’s full support. But Zhao had the temerity to oppose the 1989 crackdown. He went to Tiananmen Square, mingled with the students. He urged them to leave. He wept. He could not, would not do this awful thing. Zhao wrote in his memoir Prisoner of the State that he “refused to become the General Secretary who mobilized the military to crack down on students.”
Deng’s retribution for Zhao’s refusal was comprehensive. The Communist Party stripped Zhao Ziyang of his posts; they subjected him to a Kafkaesque drama of refusing to tell him he was under house arrest. Only, he could not leave, and no one was able to visit. He wrote letters that were never answered. His demands for explanations were never acknowledged. Zhao Ziyang must have thought he was going mad. He faded from the public eye. In the end, his heart gave out.
Soon after the 18th Party Plenum three years ago installed the new generation of leaders at China’s helm, President Xi Jinping embarked on a nationwide campaign to “’slay tigers and swat flies’ — a metaphor for targeting all kinds of corruption, big and small.” We still lived in Shanghai then.
Xi Jinping’s anecdotal rating amongst ordinary Shanghainese was high, even from the start (at the end of last year, a survey confirmed this).
But eagle-eyed China-watchers, my husband included, suspected that a thicker plan was afoot, hidden from the public eye. “Remember Mao,” said my canny spouse. “He started all these political movements, but it was to ultimately purge his opponents.”
China’s official Xinhua News Agency in June announced (through means of a commentary in the party mouthpiece People’s Daily) that the ex-security chief Zhou Yongkang was sentenced to life imprisonment for accepting bribes, abusing his power, and deliberately disclosing state secrets — it was the sound of China’s largest “tiger” crashing to the ground. I wondered if I should read it as code for “Zhou Yangkang seriously got in Xi Jinping’s way.”
Here is what former Beijing-based Financial Times correspondent Richard McGregor, in his 2010 book The Party, says about arrests for corruption in China:
The Chinese officials who do get arrested for graft generally fall into two categories, or sometimes both. They are the losers in political power struggles, or their corruption has become so outrageous that it embarrasses the system, and thereby jeopardizes the game for everyone else.
Xi Jinping’s tiger-slaying-fly-swatting campaign may well be making sure that no inconvenient Zhao Ziyangs lurk in his own entourage.
The morning after Modi’s talk in Shanghai was cloudy; rain first drizzled, then fizzled out. Had I checked my flight timings, I would have noted the delays and not hurried to the airport.
“The Chinese respect power,” said a friend who had dropped into my hosts’ house for an impromptu breakfast of spicy omelets, papaya, and dragon fruit smoothies. He is a long-term China resident, with strong ties to the country. “[China recognizes] that Modi’s star is rising and the quest for power that he’s engaged in is what they can closely relate to.”
He too had attended Modi’s speech in Shanghai the previous day.
“Modi and Xi Jinping are consolidating power on either side of the border. They are two of a kind.”
As he often does, my friend then said exactly what I had been thinking: “There is a fine line between [being] a good orator and rabble-rousing.”
Another Chinese friend, who had also stopped by for breakfast, said she thought Modi was the right choice for India. I’ll call her Y.
“In a year the way people see India has dramatically improved.” Do you know, she said, surprising me, “the first time I saw Modi was when he visited China as the Chief Minister of Gujarat?”
It was at a convention in Shanghai. He was speaking in Hindi and she couldn’t understand a word. But she could see this much:
He was a strong leader, a statesman. I thought, why don’t you elect him? People said he’s got a controversial past. India needs a strong person like him, it’s a good balance. This culture maybe doesn’t produce that many people who are strong, it’s a blessing. It’s his body language [when he speaks], he touches you. All of a sudden, it’s your life he’s talking about.
My friend added, “Either he’s the greatest actor ever or he’s really genuine.” A pause. “I think he’s two-thirds genuine and one-third political. He has to do politics.”
“He reminded me of Martin Luther King making his speech ‘I Have a Dream,’” said Y.
The Chinese are often pragmatic, but this woman had been moved. She said, “If I were Indian, I’d support him.”
My host is laconic, deadpan. He noted that the cause of the border dispute was the border. Take away the border and bingo, no more dispute.
The table erupted in laughter, but he was somewhat serious. He said that vested bureaucrats in Delhi were cemented to a suspicious view of China that still stemmed from the 1962 border war that India lost. “That is the thing of the past. Indian bureaucrats keep it alive,” he said.
“There are a hundred people employed to solve the border dispute. If it’s solved, they’ll lose their jobs!”
More laughter. More smoothies passed around.
“Thousands of army troops tied up guarding the border will be freed up. They will work on infrastructure.”
His expression never changes; it makes me do a double take, even as I’m smiling.
His wife had sautéed fresh button mushrooms in the spicy, tomato-y sauce leftover from the omelets and passed them around.
Living in Shanghai and in Hong Kong, as I do, the physical — and mental — detritus of British colonialism litters the landscape.
The other day, on a sunny spring day in Hong Kong’s central business district, I stood at the foot of Jardine House, a tall building that sits almost on the waterfront. It sports a steely curtain wall punched through with rows and columns of round windows. In the ebullient early 1990s, when Hong Kong was still a British colony, promising young Brits walked off the plane from Britain — no visa required — and snagged plum banking jobs in this building. Partly because of that, and partly due to the windows, Jardine House was dubbed “the building of a thousand arseholes.”
Traders William Jardine and James Matheson — who in 1832 founded Jardine, Matheson & Co. and built a commercial empire buoyed by a thriving opium trade — chafed at how China restricted foreign traders to “factories” (warehouses-cum-living facilities) on a narrow strip of land in Canton. Still, the opium trade flourished. An angry Emperor Daoguang ordered a scholar-official called Lin Zexu to Canton to stop the opium trade. Lin arrived in early March 1839, and launched massive confiscations of opium stocks and opium pipes. On March 24, 1839, he ordered the arrest of Lancelot Dent, a leading opium trader, but the foreign community refused to give Dent up for trial. Furious, Commissioner Lin had all 350 foreigners living in Canton blockaded inside the factories, including British official Superintendent Charles Elliott.
In a state of great agitation, Charles Elliott wrote a secret letter to Britain’s Lord Palmerston. Since India was a British colony then, a copy of the letter eventually landed in the National Archives of India, where I reproduced it by hand, since photocopying the yellowed paper, with its spidery handwriting in faded ink was not permitted.
Letters like this one from Elliott, (reproduced here in full; the tone of high dudgeon and moral superiority is enlightening), combined with William Jardine’s persuasive efforts, catalyzed the Opium War of 1839–1842 — a war that China lost, a war that for the Chinese is the start of 100 years of national humiliation:
Canton April 3 1839
In my position, and with my thoughts intensely fixed upon the difficulties that have befallen this great trade, I may spare your Lordship the language of excuse for the forthcoming matter.
It is my first duty to express the conviction that no effort of negociation purely, or of negociation supported by arms, could recover for trade to be carried on at Canton such a degree of confidence as would restore its late important extent. All sense of security has been broken to pieces.
In fact, My Lord, the first truth deducible from the actual proceedings of this Government is strikingly momentous; namely that a separation from the ships of one Country on the main land of China, is wholly unsafe. The movement of a few hours has placed the lives, liberty and property of the foreign Community, with all the vast interests commercial and financial contingent upon our Security, at the mercy of this Government And if this fearful intelligence reach England and India before the news of our liberation, and before that of the reassuring measures which I felt myself called upon to take, I am greatly afraid that the shock will be incalculably heavy and widely felt.
Indeed before I leave this part of the subject I would presume to express the anxious hope that Her Majesty’s Government will see fit, as soon as these despatches come to hand, to make such a declaration concerning its general interactions as will have the effect of upholding confidence.
I will now, My Lord, turn at once to the submission of the course fully justified beyond all manner of doubt by the Shameful provocation offered; best calculated in my humble opinion, to carry His Majesty’s Government to the prompt redress of the injuries heaped upon It, and affording the most hopeful chance of placing our future commercial connexion with this Empire on a sure and extending basis.
It appears to me, My Lord, that the response to all these unjust violences should be made in the form of a swift, secret, and heavy blow, unprefaced by one word of written communication. [My note: This Paragraph was missing in this letter, but extant in another copy, of a slightly later date.]
The Chinese Government has committed an act of sudden and cruel war upon the persons of His Majesty’s Officers and Subjects; And the forced surrender of British Property under the late circumstances is an aggression so dangerous in principle, and is so intolerable in practice as to render the full indemnity of every loss sustained a high duty to the cause of civilization.
Incapable of violating the principles of just dealing amongst the nations of the Earth in the respect of the most insignificant power on its surface, Her Gracious Majesty is the fit arbiter of this defiance of every obligation of truth and right toward the whole Christian World.
The Chinese, My Lord, have not done these things in ignorance that they were evil; but in ignorance of the Power of Her Majesty’s Government to resent them:
And in both respects it is fit and needful that they should be set right.
I would most respectfully submit that Her Majesty’s Government will find its easiest relief in the immediate forcible and permanent occupation of the Tchusan Islands: And that object being effected in the simultaneous close blockade of the Ports of Canton, Ningpo, and the Yang Tse Kiang river from the entrance to its junction with the Imperial Canal.
I would then suggest that a declaration should be despatched, but not before /to the Court from the mouth of the Pei Ho; demanding the disgrace and punishment of Lin and Tang, ample apology for the indignities heaped upon the Queen, the payment of a fixed sum of money in satisfaction of the heavy losses incurred by these outrageous proceedings, the formal cession of the Tchusan Islands to the British Crown, and His Imperial Edict in full and unreserved language permitting the people of His nation to trade with us at the Tchusan Islands. The blockade of the ports to be raised when the whole indemnity was paid, and all the other terms faithfully fulfilled.
I cannot think that an indemnity of five million sterling will do more than cover the great losses sustained, but I am of [the] opinion that His Majesty’s Government may find it practicable to make a favorable commutation of part of that sum for the free entrance of British goods into the Ports of Canton, Ningpo, Amoy, and Nanking for 10 years.
I would anxiously yet respectfully suggest that there should be no failure of sufficient force and most vigorous proceeding in this first measure of the kind directed against this Empire; A swift and heavy blow will prevent the recurrance of such disastrous alternatives for many years to come, and the time has arrived when the Government of China must be made to understand its obligations to the rest of the world.
It has always been my humble opinion that the forbearance of the Western nations towards this Empire should be with Chinese confinement within the limits of natural justice: But I am equally convinced that the toleration of aggressive measures would mislead the Chinese Government from rapid step to step in their career of injustices and violence; like they reached a [illegible] when such proceedings would be necessary, as would probably break up the fabric of society in this portion of the globe.
I am writing this despatch, my lord in a moment of great anxiety and I close it abruptly to save the opportunity of M Johnston who is leaving us in our confinement as your Lordship will observe by the narrative despatch, in a sudden manner. I shall return to this important subject as soon as I can.
Charles Elliot Chief Superintendent
The Chinese language is a rich, highly-coded construct, studded with colorful phrases like woxin changdan, or “sleeping on brushwood and tasted gall.”
Only people who have grown up in a Chinese culture fully appreciate the phrase. It comes from the 2,500 story of King Goujian, who “slept on brushwood and tasted gall,” — an intricate tale of the Kingdom of Yue and its rash young ruler, Goujian, who suffers defeat at the hands of a neighboring kingdom. Cornered, ready to fight to the end, Goujian instead takes the advice of his high officials and surrenders to the Kingdom of Wu for the sake of a peaceful resolution. He and his wife live in servitude, but after long years of humiliation — exemplified in the “sleeping on brushwood and tasting gall,” he stages a comeback and ultimately wins.
The phrase embodies the idea of renru fuzhong: to endure humiliation in order to carry out an important task. It could be that for the Chinese psyche — and the Indian one — that important task of rebuilding dignity is now at hand and both leaders recognize it.
It’s no accident that economic growth, coupled with renewed nationalism, are the calling cards of Modi and Xi Jinping. Both claim they are showing their nations — and the world — a new way forward.
Modi said as much in Shanghai: “India has a responsibility to help the world. There is a lot we can give the world.”
It remains to be seen if Asia’s two increasingly strong men can pull their countries into the future, without crushing their people’s minds and lives.
It’s never been done before. Just look at Hitler.
Mishi Saran’s articles have appeared in a variety of international publications including the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, the South China Morning Post, and The Asian Wall Street Journal.
 See Paul Cohen’s fine book on this subject. Speaking to History, The Story of King Goujian in Twentieth-Century China.