Sunday, September 24, 2017

Five books that will help you understand modern China

Reading books about China can become quite addictive once you get started. There are lots of them, and many are just run of the mill. There are some however that can really give you fresh insight into how this confusing country works. Below are five I would recommend to anyone interested in modern Chinese politics and society.

China Alone: the Emergence from and Potential Return to Isolation by Anne-Stevenson Yang

Anne-Stevenson Yang is an American lady who has spent most of her life in China since the mid-eighties, working as a journalist, executive and researcher. She writes about China perceptively and knowledgeably, giving an overview of the political-economy's current woes, from real estate to government debt. She also provides an insightful description of how the country is run, explaining for instance about the networks of "red princelings" that act as intermediaries between the different government departments, in spite of their lack of formal positions in the bureaucracy. Finally she takes a broader view to look at where China is headed. The old model of development has outlived its usefulness, she argues, and China may well be heading back into isolation and insularity. Only real systemic change can break the cycle of opening up to the outside world and then closing down again.

China's Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know by Arthur R. Kroeber

This book provides an excellent overview of all of the salient facts about the Chinese economy in every sector, from agriculture and industry to finance and real estate. Without getting excessively technical or falling into too much detail, it gives the reader a realistic picture of the economy's strengths and weakness, and how they link to the political system. It avoids being too catastrophic, for instance it gives little credit to the idea that China is set for some kind of terrible financial crash due to the real-estate bubble popping or a credit default. At the same time it also avoids the silly triumphalism of certain works about China, arguing that the talk about China becoming a hub of creative innovation is basically hot air, and will remain so as long as the political system doesn't loosen up.

Gao Village: Rural Life in Modern China by Gao Mobo

This book by Gao Mobo is an unusual one, but definitely deserves to be read by anyone interested in China's recent history. It is an account of the history of the author's birthplace, Gao Village in Jiangxi province, since the Communist Party took power in 1949. Gao Mobo was only the second person from this village to gain a higher education in its 200 year history, and ended up becoming a university professor in Australia. His views are controversial, as he is a "leftist" (in Chinese terms) with a tendency to minimise the impact of the disasters of the Mao Era, claiming that they mainly affected the elite, while the peasantry that constituted the overwhelming majority of the population actually benefitted from the era's radical policies, and even from the Cultural Revolution. At the same time, he is disparaging about most current Chinese policies, claiming that they do not really benefit the poor.

While his defence of Mao's rule, which he lays out in his other book "the Battle for China's Past", might seem to be based on a certain selective blindness, this book does a good job of explaining where he is coming from. Enriched with personal memories and anecdotes, but by no means a memoir, the book gives you a vivid picture of this little village and its recent history. He claims that the Great Leap Forward's craziest polices were mitigated by the common sense of the villagers, while the only local culture that was actually lost during the Cultural Revolution was the original copy of the local genealogical tree, which was burnt. He later describes the return of clan-based local struggles, the unjust taxation, the increase in general amorality and insecurity, and the continuing poverty of the villagers during the market reforms of the eighties. He claims that the first real material improvements for the villagers only came in the nineties when the young started to go out and work in the nearby cities, where they were often horribly exploited.

Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics by Huang Yasheng

This book by Huang Yasheng, a Beijinger who teaches at Harvard, offers a different set of insights into how modern China works. Huang is also motivated by concern for the poor and underprivileged, but he sees things very differently from the aforementioned Mobo Gao. Huang is a great fan of the policies followed under Deng Xiaoping in the eighties, which in his view were able to free up the great reservoir of enterpreneurial potential of the Chinese countryside. Peasants were enabled and encouraged to start their own businesses, which they often did quite successfully. After the sad events of 89, however, China changed course. The new model of growth favoured the urban areas, the state-owned enterprises and foreign invested companies, while it was inimical to small indigenous entrepreneurs, and the countryside became nothing but a reserve of cheap labour. While the GDP continued to grow impressively, this form of growth was less beneficial for the well-being of the ordinary Chinese. He calls China's current system "crony capitalism", and calls for genuine protection of property rights to be ensured as a way of checking the system's inherent corruption and cronyism.

You Don't Know China: 22 Enduring Myths by John Ross

China is a country that lends itself uniquely well to myth-making and urban legends. This book is a really good take down of some of the most widespread myths about China, from the mundane (cats and dogs as an everyday dish) to the more consequential (the supposed Dickensian conditions in Chinese factories, China as the new "place to be"). The book does a great job of disposing of some of the new myths about China created by the international media, for instance the huge ghost cities sitting in the desert that on further inspection are not quite as deserted as they seem. Not everyone might agree with some of the authors' points, for instance his complete rubbishing of traditional Chinese medicine, or his contention that China was never really that isolated from foreign influences throughout its history. The inclusion of the Tiananmen Square massacre as a myth, purely because the killings didn't take place within the square itself, strikes me as rather unconvincing. But all in all the book is still a compelling read, and it finishes with a convincing take down of one of the most consequential modern myths about Chinese history, the occurrence of a "century of humiliation".


E.C. Hendriks said...

Actually I have read none of them, so I should get to work!

Gilman Grundy said...

I'm assuming that's the OTHER John Ross, not the former Ken Livingstone associate who writes the most preposterous trash about China.

Ji Xiang said...

@Gilman Grundy

Quite right, this is John Grant Ross, the chap behind