Entertaining, very. Kynge is a journalist. A good journalist who thinks about his subject and tries to go beyond the surface, but he is not an academic or, at least upon the evidence of this book, a deep thinker. As a result I was left with the feeling that I often have after reading articles in the Economist or the Atlantic Monthly Interesting, definitely. As a result I was left with the feeling that I often have after reading articles in the Economist or the Atlantic Monthly or Vanity Fair i.
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Still, although foreigners may not have had the opportunity to roam the new China in its first years, the essential nature of its totalitarian system was well understood. After all, we had seen that same system, albeit with Russian characteristics, at work in the Soviet Union. Today, foreigners need no longer stand on the outside; they can go to China and even live there. Yet, whether from the inside or the outside, gazing at China in its present state of turbulent transition can cause a loss of perspective.
Can a guided tour from a distinguished journalist help? James Kynge visited every Chinese province during his two decades of reporting, most recently as Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times. In places like Rockford, Illinois and Dortmund, Germany, workers have lost their livelihoods, neighborhoods have shriveled, and established businesses have failed.
Indonesians, Burmese, Central Africans, and Russians are systematically cutting down rain forests and boreal woodlands to meet the insatiable Chinese demand for timber and pulp. Chinese industry airmails to us pollutants that hover over New England and mercury that settles into our soil. From some viewpoints, China thus seems unstoppable and invincible. When seen close-up, however, it appears subject to crippling vulnerabilities.
Kynge reports that Beijing needs to generate 24 million jobs annually for the impoverished peasants moving to its cities, the workers let go by ailing state enterprises, and the young entering the labor force. During the course of its rule, the Communist party has subverted traditional norms and destroyed trust among the Chinese people. So it was good news when, at age seventeen, she learned that she had passed her entrance exam for a technical college in a nearby city.
But then she was informed that there had been a mistake; in fact, she had failed to get into college. Having missed her only opportunity to better her life, Qi was consigned to menial labor in field and factory. Eventually, however, she found out that a branch director of the prestigious Bank of China in another city bore the same name as hers.
Curious, she visited the branch and on the bulletin board came upon a photo of the director: it was an old classmate, Chen Xiaoqi, identified as Qi Yuling.
Although Qi would eventually receive token compensation, she has remained poor and uneducated to this day. Kynge believes that a pattern of such arbitrary actions by local officials has contributed to the breakdown of stability across the country.
In , the Chinese government acknowledged a total of 74,, up from about 10, a decade earlier, and by the total had grown to 87, China may be shaking the world, but the Chinese people are simultaneously shaking China from within. Is it possible for us to get along with such an unstable behemoth? This is the critical question with which Kynge ends his book.
He gives more than one answer. A great show of outward friendliness hides longstanding Chinese feelings of both superiority and acute wariness. At home, as a result of the deliberate inculcation of anti-foreign views, the regime now runs the risk of becoming captive to the ugly nationalism of its young.
To be sure, there are moderating influences. Yet his ambitions are broader than that. But what do they add up to? After a banquet of images the reader is still left hungry. Is the modern Chinese state fundamentally strong, or fundamentally weak? Fair enough, but not only does he leave his two portraits unreconciled, he largely avoids distinguishing true signals from misleading ones.
Nor does he give us much of a hint about which of these two directions—mighty giant or sickly ward—he thinks the country is heading in. Treating many of the same topics covered by Kynge, it is the work of Minxin Pei, a scholar born in China and now affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment in Washington.
As a consequence, and despite much talk of public reform, the party has lost much of its vitality, becoming essentially incapable of reinvigorating itself.
As Pei sees it, big trouble looms. So long as the current political framework remains in place, then, China is effectively, and perhaps fatally, trapped in its state of transition. Kynge, too, is well aware of this aspect of things, as in its own way his story of Qi Yuling demonstrates. Just like a rising one, a debilitated state can cause the foundations of the world to tremble. The result is a more comprehensive and, I believe, compelling understanding of present-day China.
No nation—not even one as large and as resurgent as China—can exhibit so many afflictions without suffering severe political consequences. Central technocrats still craft their five-year plans, but the Chinese people are lunging into the future without so much as a roadmap or compass.
Eventually, their aspirations, unleashed by more than a quarter-century of centrally planned economic reform and social engineering, will overwhelm the weakening party that devised those programs in the first place. It is ironic and instructive that this should be clearer to a think-tank scholar in Washington than to a keenly perceptive journalist in Beijing.
China Shakes the World
China Shakes the World: A Titan's Rise and Troubled Future -- and the Challenge for America
China Shakes the World by James Kynge; China’s Trapped Transition by Minxin Pei