China Road(kill?)

Last Updated Oct 21, 2008 11:59 PM EDT

Readers have started sending me suggestions for books I should review. Since there are more books than seconds on the clock, I typically respond by asking for their thoughts on the book instead. One of you took me up on this, on the book "China Road: A Journey Into the Future of a Rising Power," by Rob Gifford.
This is from Ed Newman, who regularly comments on posts. I've written on at least two books that look at China from the inside, Silicon Dragon and Billions of Entrepreneurs. Both of those sound more business-focused than "China Road," but perhaps less interesting as stories.

Here is Ed's review ('ve not touched his writing, not even to fix typos):

In a variety of ways over the past decade we have been told that China is either economically eating our lunch or going to. It's said that they are smarter and that they are more motivated. They're growth rate is fast and their appetite for being fully modern is insatiable.

Who are these people? What are they all about? And how much does it really matter to me?

Today there are nearly 1.3 billion Chinese, and four hundred million who have newly moved into the ranks of the middle class with all this entails, from a desire for creature comforts to the typical Western menagerie of success symbols. Are these people a real threat to America and the American way of life, or is it just something that is happening in another part of this third rock from the sun?

The best way to find out is to live there. You won't learn much by passing through, but after a measure of years, if you can talk to enough people and go to enough places, you'll start to develop some conclusions about what is going on.

Naturally there are not too many who can really follow through on that plan. But there are some who have lived in China and made it a point pay attention, ask a lot of questions and to listen with care. One of these is National Public Radio's Beijing correspondent Rob Gifford who has written a first rate book about what is really happening in China today. After six years traveling throughout China as a reporter for NPR's Morning Edition, you can be sure he has seen a lot more that any tourist would ever see.

Gifford's China Road is without peer in terms of insight and understanding of what is happening in China today, its history and potential as a world power. He's also an excellent writer, so it's a darn good read.

At the core of Gifford's book is a single question. What does China's future hold? Global influence or national implosion? With more than twenty years of intimacy with the world's largest nation, Gifford has seen much that sketchy news headlines fail to convey. Despite the country's achievements, the nation carries a lot of baggage, along with various forms of cultural cancer.

Throughout the book Gifford shares with readers what the Chinese people are saying about their own country. Here is a typically telling statement from a man named Liu. "In the past, everyone was poor, but everyone was honest. Now, everyone is more free, but there is chaos. Money has made everyone go bad." And to underscore this, "It's man eat man now."

After recently finishing the unabridged audio version of this book, and being wholly impressed with its contents, I obtained a hard copy, which includes sixteen pages of color photos showing many highlights of Gifford's journey along Highway 312, the world's longest highway stretching from Shanghai to the Gobi Desert and China's upper northwest. From China's first Hooters to rural peasant karaoke bars to factories, and from Shanghai's thoroughfare's to border crossings, we see China today in its unblinking attempt to be wholly part of the modern world. In the U.S. our traveling salesmen may get free internet and free in-room movies, in Northwest China, the hotels also offer free women.

We also see the seamier consequences of all this modernism and wealth, from the growing drug and sex trades to the rise of AIDS, government cover ups, and the heavy toll on the environment as well as to the peoples whose aching backs are carrying this nation into the future. With "progress" the highest priority, people have become a commodity. Unsafe work conditions result in many deaths and much suffering, but no one fights to fix it because everyone wants the wealth progress is creating and they want it as fast as possible.

Gifford's magnificent book is one that I would call important because it is a true summing up of everything in China that has gone on before, which all taken together sheds critical light on the present. The sufferings borne by these people under Mao and at the hands of the Japanese are still open wounds. The problems created by Colonialism are not far behind.

Chinese destiny as a world superpower is not a forgone conclusion, but there are reasons not to keep our heads in the sand.

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.