Never the Twain Shall Meet – Conversations with Pankaj Mishra and Niall Ferguson

When Pankaj Mishra picked holes in historian Niall Ferguson’s ode to imperialism, the Indian author kicked off a feud that has seen both antagonists call Hong Kong to the witness stand. Joanna Chiu steps into the fray. 

This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine on January 6, 2012. 

Pankaj Mishra, Indian author and essayist, poses reluctantly for the photographer in a restored prison cell. Here, in Hullett House, on Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, pirates and vagrants were detained in British colonial times. Now, the former marine police headquarters houses a boutique hotel and serves as the base of a gleaming office tower, surrounded by stores selling luxury brands.

Mishra was in the city to discuss his book From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival in October. The Economist named the book one of the best of 2012 – describing Mishra as “the heir to Edward Said” and having a “surprising new perspective”.

From the Ruins of Empire tells the stories of Asian intellectuals – including Chinese revolutionaries – who were humiliated by Western imperialism at the turn of the 20th century and struggled to find ways to break their societies free from the “white plague”. Despite differences in approach, they created ideas that lie behind some of the most powerful Asian nations today, Mishra argues, in the process contradicting to some degree the views of another historian who has visited our city in recent months: Niall Ferguson.

Focusing on Chinese reformist Liang Qichao and Muslim activist and pan-Islamist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Mishra makes the case that Asian intellectuals paved the way for the development of institutions such as the Chinese Communist Party and the Muslim Brotherhood – although he does not celebrate many of these consequences as triumphs.

“Many of them adapted ideas from the West, such as Marxism, but some Western ideas proved entirely unsuitable for Asian societies, leading to disastrous outcomes,” says Mishra, who also considers unchecked capitalism as an example of a destructive Western import as it has led to environmental destruction and widening wealth gaps.

Over dinner at a restaurant in Causeway Bay – an erstwhile fishing village now with the most expensive rents in the world – Mishra says that when he was growing up he idealised the West, even though he was surrounded by relatives praising the glory of the Indian independence movement.

“I used to be obsessed with Western philosophers, such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, when I went through a lot of anxiety as a young adult,” he says. “I think it happens to everyone – that you reject your own culture at first.

“But I realised that the West doesn’t have all the answers.”

Mishra has since become known for his rejection of the idea that Western ways of thinking are inherently superior – a stance that has ruffled more than a few feathers.

Mishra was born in north India to a high-caste Brahmin family that had become impoverished by the country’s 1951 land reform. He graduated from university in Delhi with a degree in commerce but instead of going into business he moved to the Himalayan village of Mashobra in order to live cheaply and support himself as a writer.

Freelance travel articles soon turned into book contracts and invitations to write about literature and politics for some of the most renowned publications in the English-speaking world. The 43-year-old now divides his time between Mashobra, where he does much of his writing, and London, where he lives with his wife, book editor Mary Mount, and their young daughter.

“There’s a lot of pressure for people to move to big cities to get viable opportunities,” he says. “But I think if you make life viable where people are, and develop strong local economies, that’s a lot more sustainable.”

In person there is only a hint of the caustic, mischievous wit he expresses with full force in his writing. He has a knack for taking people down a notch.

In 1999, when fellow Indian novelist Salman Rushdie was already an established member of the global literary elite, Mishra wrote a review describing the former’s novel The Ground Beneath her Feet as “an alarming new kind of anti-literature”. More recently, Mishra criticised Rushdie for calling Nobel laureate Mo Yan a “patsy” for refusing to sign a petition calling for the release of writer/human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. In an article for The Guardian newspaper, he accused Rushdie of being guilty of accepting the “unexamined assumption lurking in the Western scorn for Mo Yan’s proximity to the Chinese regime: that Anglo-American writers, naturally possessed of loftier virtue, stand along with their governments on the right side of history”.

Rushdie angrily dismissed what he called Mishra’s “latest garbage”.

Mishra’s most widely publicised feud, however, has been with Ferguson – one of the most well-known historians in the West.

In 2004, when the Briton was 40 years old, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. During the George W. Bush administration, he was invited to Washington several times to meet with American policymakers, including former secretary of state Colin Powell, and contributed to the government’s justification for the Iraq war. He is best known for his books and television series, aimed at mainstream audiences, on economics and Western imperialism. He also teaches history at Harvard University, in the United States, and is a research fellow at Britain’s Oxford University.

In his latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, Ferguson argues that six concepts developed in the West – property rights, competition, science, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic – were spread by imperialism, greatly improving the quality of life of the people touched by them.

During his brief visit to Hong Kong in November, Ferguson delivered the keynote speech at the Asia Society’s annual gala dinner, to hundreds of the city’s top business executives, lawyers, media moguls and diplomats. Whereas many of his recent talks seem to have targeted panicky Western investors, this one offered a triumphant view of Chinese development made possible in part through the “downloading” of the six “killer apps” developed in the West. (The edition of his book available in Hong Kong is titled: Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power).

“I used the analogy to try to explain [my book] to my teenage daughter,” Ferguson told the audience. “Apps on a smartphone are simple to look at, but are actually quite complicated. They’re also open source, so anyone can download them.

“When I was young, America was 22 times richer than China. Now, it is only less than five times richer … because China has downloaded some of the ideas that had made the West successful.”

“He’s a genius!” a man in the audience exclaimed. “Isn’t he a genius?”

In his review of Civilization for the London Review of Books, Mishra starts by comparing Ferguson to the character Tom Brady in The Great Gatsby, a stuffy millionaire distressed about the end of Western domination over other races. Mishra describes Ferguson’s “wistful” works on empire as “loyal to his neoimperialist vision”, by which Ferguson does not ignore negative aspects altogether but strains to argue that imperialism had humanitarian benefits – largely ignoring the fact that “many of his apps, imposed on societies historically unprepared for them, could turn literally into killers”.

Mishra cites examples: “Though essential to the growth of Western capitalist economies, notions of absolute property rights turned millions of communitarian peasants in Asia into cheaply hired hands. Modern medicine in the rising West may have been a boon but it could only be darkly ambiguous in Asia as populations expanded without corresponding economic growth, pushing many into destitution.”

He also mocks Ferguson’s computer analogies and accuses him of ignoring the fact that the benefits have not applied to people equally: “Gratified by the fact that ‘more and more human beings eat a Western diet’ and ‘wear Western clothes’, Ferguson is hardly likely to bemoan the cultural homogeneity, or the other Trojan viruses – uneven development, environmental degradation – built into the West’s operating software.”

The ensuing feud has been extensively covered by the British press. The London Review of Books published letters the two exchanged, wherein Ferguson called the review “a crude attempt at character assassination” that “misrepresents my work but also strongly implies that I am a racist” and threatened to sue Mishra for libel.

When From the Ruins of Empire was published, reviewers described it as a fuller response to Ferguson’s version of history. But Mishra says he had barely read a few sentences of Ferguson’s work before completing his manuscript.

“There were two incidents that led me to write the book,” he says. “The first was my trip to Kashmir in 2000. In Kashmir, it became clear that Asian governments can be even more violent than the European colonialists they replaced.

“From there, 9/11 happened, and I was astonished at the depth of historical ignorance existing among those who thought that Iraqis and Afghanis would welcome American invasion. Americans were totally ignorant of the power of nationalism in Asia.”

Mishra says his book was “partly a response to the rise in popularity of neo-colonialists after 9/11” – a group advocating that Western nations re-embrace empire building and invade dysfunctional nations to bring about order and justice. In that sense, the book is a direct critique of Ferguson’s views on imperialism, since, as Mishra has pointed out, Ferguson admitted in 2003 to being a “fully paid-up member of the neoimperialist gang”.

In the same New York Times article, Ferguson wrote that he approved of American author and military historian Max Boot’s idea that the US should impose upon Afghanistan and other troubled countries “the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets”.

In an article for The Daily Beast last year, Ferguson argued that the US and Israel should bomb Iran to start a new conflict, writing that “it feels like the eve of some creative destruction”.

For all of this, Ferguson tells Post Magazine that he has been unfairly pigeonholed as a “right-wing bogeyman”.

“Some people like to represent me as a reactionary apologist for empire. I have nothing but contempt for people who misrepresent books,” he says, draining his second espresso of the afternoon. “In Civilization, I did not defend imperialism. My point was that everybody did imperialism. By the time the British, French, Dutch and others started their colonies, the world was already full of empires. Imperialism was the least original thing the West did.

“I was more interested in understanding how Western institutions such as science, the rule of law and the rise of consumer societies led to dramatic improvements in living standards around the world … and all because a small minority was able to control the vast majority.

“I don’t write about empire because it is good. I write about it because it’s amazing.”

In contrast to Mishra’s subdued speaking style, Ferguson’s public persona is replete with one-liners, analogies and PowerPoint slideshows with attractive charts and diagrams. His fans, and most likely his students, admire his ability to make complex ideas accessible, although some critics find his style superficial, with one international magazine editor describing it as “Niall’s odious spell”, warning me not to be taken in by his charming demeanour.

Nonetheless, in private, Ferguson comes across as personable, friendly and willing to discuss criticisms of his work. He is also blunt about his lack of patience for political correctness.

He was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1964. A stellar student all his life, during his studies at Oxford University he thumbed his nose at the student body by becoming a supporter of controversial British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

In the introduction to Civilization, Ferguson writes about how he left a likely career at Oxford or Cambridge to move to New York because, as someone interested in the history of money and power, that was “where the money and power actually were”.

“If people are offended by the histories I focus on, too bad,” he says. “There is more than just the bad sides of imperialism. Let’s have a debate about them. It’s not that political.

“Was [Western colonial history] characterised by inequality and racism? Yes, but guilt distorts the picture, letting the wickedness of empire dominate. That kind of simplification is absurd.”

Mishra and Ferguson must be fed up with hearing about one another, but even if they hadn’t had a publicised feud, their work may have still drawn comparisons.

A trained historian, Ferguson tries to reach the masses, often stating that he attempts to write in a way high school students can understand. Mishra is an amateur historian who hopes his non-academic perspective can encourage mainstream readers to learn more. Both are relatively new to writing about East Asia, with the rise of countries in the region playing an important part in their arguments. The reading public’s interest in learning about China, in particular, is certainly a factor in their commercial success and the critical attention given to both authors’ works.

Furthermore, while Mishra and Ferguson discuss past and present tensions between the East and the West at length, they both acknowledge that the line between East and West is blurred, and that societies borrow ideas from one another in complex ways.

“You can’t just re-run the history of the Industrial Revolution in China,” says Ferguson, acknowledging the limits of his “downloading” theory. “Its development can’t be identical to the development of Western countries.

“I am interested in how Asian nations have selectively taken ideas from the West.”

Mishra says it’s hard to avoid speaking about East and West in simplistic terms, but he wants to challenge “the conflation of the West with modernity … [where] people ignore the contributions of Asians to developments in fields such as science and medicine.”

Both writers are looking to developments in China for indications of what the future may hold, and have made efforts to travel in the country in recent years.

After a 2008 visit to Chongqing, before the city became associated with the fall of Bo Xilai, Ferguson proclaimed that, “Nowhere better embodies the breakneck economic expansion of China than the city of Chongqing. There was something truly awe-inspiring about the countless tower blocks under construction, the innumerable cranes perched on the city’s hills, the gleaming new highways. I felt I was witnessing an industrial revolution several orders of magnitude larger than the Industrial Revolution that once filled the cities of the West.”

Mishra is much less excited about the prospect of China mimick-ing Western development. In the conclusion to From the Ruins of Empire, he writes: “As India and China rise with their consumer-ist middle classes in a world of finite energy resources, it is easy to imagine that this century will be ravaged by the kind of economic rivalries and military conflicts that made the last century so violent. The hope that fuels the pursuit of endless economic growth – that billions of consumers in India and China will one day enjoy the life-styles of Europeans and Americans – is as absurd and dangerous a fantasy as anything dreamt up by al-Qaeda. It condemns the global environment to early destruction, and looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots.”

Whereas Mishra has weighed the costs of Western-style development in places such as Chongqing, and is making an urgent call for an alternative approach, Ferguson writes in Civilisation that “the Western package still seems to offer human societies the best available set of economic, social and political institutions – the ones most likely to unleash the individual human creativity capable of solving the problems the 21st century world faces.”

For more than a century, Hong Kong symbolised China’s defeat at the hands of Western powers, which battered its shores, raided and burned the Summer Palace in Beijing and imposed a series of unequal treaties that opened ports to foreign trade. Today, it is a Chinese city in which protesters wave colonial-era flags, incensed about the encroachment of Beijing into the civil liberties Hongkongers enjoyed under the British.

Both Mishra and Ferguson see in Hong Kong proof that their world views are correct.

“As a British historian, when I came to Hong Kong and read in the newspaper that people were flying colonial flags at protests, it made me happy,” says Ferguson. “That means we weren’t all bad. The British influence helped make Hong Kong as economically competitive as it is today. While institutions like the rule of law are declining in the West, it is still strong in Hong Kong, and even without democracy it is a reason why Hong Kong beats cities in the US in every aspect of [economic] competitiveness,” he says.

Mishra, on the other hand, is more interested in the increasingly urgent calls for democracy and a halt to interference from the central government, saying that Hong Kong residents don’t want to go back to British rule but, instead, want greater freedoms.

“Hong Kong’s situation reflects how Western ideas can be unsuitable for Asian societies,” he says. “Taking the Western idea of the nation-state system, China insists on controlling places like Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. I think this has led to overall dysfunction.

“What we need to do is to make clear that the nation-state system leads to a lot of needless suffering.”

Their differences may seem irreconcilable – with Mishra warning that disaster will come from reliance on Western models of governance and development, while Ferguson asks for more faith in Western institutions – but their work offers useful points for debate as people in Hong Kong and other places with confused identities struggle to come to terms with powerful external forces.


The Ballad of East and West is a poem by Rudyard Kipling.

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

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