Like many Americans, I find myself with a complex set of feelings towards China. At once, I am fascinated by the country, at once admiring of and apprehensive about its rise to power and its impact on the economic well-being of the United States, and slightly befuddled by its future.
Since Asia barely figured on the academic curriculums of the schools I attended, my knowledge of the country is piece meal, sort of a curious loam formed by an adolescent reading of "The Good Earth" by Pearl Buck and, more recently, "Peony in Love" (the novel based on famous Chinese opera ‘The Peony Pavilion’) by Lisa See, mixed with a steady churn of articles from the New York Times, the Economist and other erudite sources. I’ve visited the country only once, on an amazing trip that took me to Hong Kong, Xian, Shanghai and Beijing, which left me with more questions and a deeper curiosity about it than I had before I’d actually been.
This is why I devoured Rob Gifford’s wonderful new book "China Road" (Random House, $17). Gifford, an amiable Englishman who lived in China for twenty years and was previously the NPR correspondent in Beijing, decided to write a book that summarized all he’d learned about the country before he moved on to a new job as the NPR bureau chief in London.
Rather brilliantly, he avoided the pitfalls of such a vast and complex subject — too many books about China are written by old Asia hands for other old Asia hands — by styling it as a road read, since he travels the breadth of the country from Shanghai to its border with Kazakhstan on its most important road, route 312. What emerges from the journey is an absolutely fascinating portrait of a country in a quietly turbulent transition from decades of humiliation at the hands of the major western powers and Japan, and then the paroxysms of Maoism, into one of the most unexpectedly free-thinking, long-term planning and pragmatic countries in the world.
As I read this book, in fact, I couldn’t help but musing that many of the Chinese people Gifford meets during his travels espouse exactly the same values that originally made the United States a great power. The Chinese deeply believe in public investment, education and technology, and their time-frame isn’t the insane Bush-era shell game of quarterly profit reports but fifty years, a hundred years, two years.
To be sure, Gifford unflinchingly examines China’s many deeply serious problems, bravely avoiding police surveillance, for example, to visit a corner of the country that’s been ravaged by AIDS and cruelly neglected by Beijing. He also anxiously speculates on the truly catastrophic environmental problems of a country that is industrializing at breakneck speed and wonders doubtfully about the ability of the ossified Communist party to continue creating enough trickle-down prosperity to keep the rural masses docile.
His most interesting encounters as he travels by bus, taxi and train are cameos of meetings with a wonderfully eclectic group of people, who range from an Amway salesman in a remote Chinese city to two make-up saleswomen flogging the wares of a big Shanghai-based manufacturer in western China.
If Gifford’s book has any failings, they stem from his occasional timidity and the fact that he doesn’t spend very much time in China’s booming coastal cities. Looking out the window of his hotel room one morning in Zhangye, a city on the edge of the Gobi desert, he describes seeing a "western woman with bright orange nail polish on her fingers" doing tai chi in a courtyard. Unfortunately, we never find out who she is and what she was doing in this far-flung place.
And though urban China is not his primary interest in this book, he’s really traveling into the heart of China to take the country’s pulse beyond its frenetic cities. One of my most enduring impressions of the country came from being in a succession of cities where they still make things. In fact, it hadn’t been since I’d looked through the windows of the factories that used to line the elevated Connecticut Turnpike as it passed through the factory town of Bridgeport, Connecticut as a little boy that I’d had the same thrilling sensation of industriousness and productivity that you feel everywhere in urban China. In Shanghai, for example, I was astonished to see that the building sites are lit at night so that work never stops. I can only imagine that this same animal energy once invigorated such once great and now faded western industrial cities as Chicago or Manchester in England. Rather tellingly, General Electric, which once made toasters and irons in Bridgeport, Connecticut, recently announced that it’s putting its appliance and lighting divisions up for sale. Even re-selling GE-branded but Chinese-made products doesn’t seem profitable enough for Wall Street’s avaricious "analysts" these days, and this leads to another one of Gifford’s only partially developed but most interesting conclusions, which is that China is a fascinating mirror in which for America to look at itself at the beginning of the 21st century.
Anyone looking for a good read about the next great power couldn’t do better than "China Road," which is also better than any imaginable guidebook as a book to peruse during any impending trip to the country.
China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power, Rob Gifford, Random House, 2008.