Tuesday, November 20, 2012

China Wakes: The Struggle For The Soul Of A Rising Power

by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

The authors, married Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalists, write about the emergence of capitalist China in the mid-1990s.  Alternating authorship of the chapters, they analyze China in terms of its progress in the areas of civil rights and business in the face of government repression. The authors argue that the communist government is remarkably similar to those of past dynasties but that, given their entrepreneurial energy, Chinese people are living better now than ever before. At the time of the writing, the authors seemed unsure whether the communist government would last much longer, but their observations lead them to conclude that rotten as the whole system is, with its routine bribery and brutality, the slow change of Chinese culture indicates that the “dynasty” was not yet moribund.  On a positive note, they see China as a nation that is beginning to appreciate the benefits of law, as well as material wealth, over imperial rule.

A well written, perspicacious, trenchant series of observations, the book is an easy, accessible read that covers several issues of major interest to Western observers (human rights, pollution, energy production, women’s rights, modernization), relying heavily on "human interest" type stories; in this case, these are vignettes such as a retarded man who is beaten to death by police to clean up the streets of Beijing before the Olympics, a girl who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, a journalist friend who is jailed for criticizing the government, a political refugee turned smuggler, and so on. Their emphasis on the rotten aspects of the communist dynasty has drawn criticism from other reviewers, who say that a particular brand of corruption and specific scandals are hardly representative of any country, especially one as large and heterogeneous as China.  However, the authors themselves note the limitations of their “human interest” approach; in one memorable passage they imagine that the tables are turned, and a Chinese journalist who covered an American beat strictly in terms of its horrifyingly violent street crime would be scandalized that despite the high murder rate, most Americans simply go about their everyday lives not thinking much about it, and the journalist would go away with a very skewed understanding of America.  The book is also, inevitably, outdated, but remains a fascinating time capsule of the state of China watching post-Tiananmen Square. 

four stars

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