Friday, May 02, 2008

Books on China

China is so often either a blank in people’s minds or shaped by simplistic, western images. This is why the place surprises everyone who visits. The reality is so very different from the prevalent view. This is a personal list of 13 books that I found useful prior to and while travelling to China.

History
All Under Heaven by Rayne Kruger

The Changing Face of China by John Gittings

The Great Wall by John Mann

1421 by Gavin Menzies

Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer

Philosophy

The Analects by Confucuis

I Ching by Lao Tsu

Politics and people

What does China think? by Mark Leonard

China an the West in the 21st Century by Will Hutton

Behind the Wall by Colin Thurbon

Business

China Inc by Ted Fishman

Mr China by Tim Clissold

China Shakes the World by James Kynge

History
Give that China has such a long and continuous 4000 year history as a single political and cultural entity, one overarching history book is worth reading, as one will inevitably want to date the things you see, such as the The Forbidden City, temple of Heave, Summer Garden, Great Wall, Terracotta Army and so on.

All Under Heaven by Rayne Kruger
All Under Heaven by Rayne Kruger does this well, written chronologically it tells the full tale right into the 20th century, from Confucian age and earlier through the main dynasties, namely Ha, Tang, Sung, Yuan (Mongol), Ming and Chin, although it stops with the Communist taking power in 1949.

The Changing Face of China by John Gittings
Gittings, a journalist, has been reporting on China from 1049, and this book is a history from 1949 to the present and this book completes the picture with a detailed account of 20th century Chinese history.

The Great Wall by John Man
It ain’t a wall, can’t be seen from space and some sections are more reconstruction than original. Nevertheless, I won’t agree with the Watford Football team’s famous assessment when on tour ‘If you’ve seen one wall, you’ve seen them all”.

1421 by Gavin Menzies
1421 by Gavin Menzies tells the tale of the eunuch Zhu Di’s epic voyage, speculating that he circumnavigated the entire globe. He’s an ex-navy submariner and brings lots of practical experience, along with 15 years of research to the table. However, the evidence gets very sparse the further he goes from the accepted route of the voyage. It does provide a great introduction to the world of the court and eunuchs at the time.

Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer
Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer is written by a German POW, who escaped from a British POW camp in Northern India and walked to Tibet. The escape makes great reading but his earthy descriptions of a Tibet trapped in a mystical, feudal but reactionary, Buddhist bubble, where one the one hand, people shit in the street where they stand and medical care barely exists, and on the other celebrates a nomadic life that is now being crushed by a dominant Chinese culture. It is a land wholly dominated by the Living Buddha and the brutish and backward behaviour of the monks meant the life expectancy of the people is around 30. Interestingly, it is the British who have a foreign presence here up until the Chinese invasion in 1951. We saw it as a barrier and bulwark for the Empire, no different from modern China. Indeed, China has a much longer and more compelling case than any other power for its, albeit crude, dominance. If you want to rise above the hippy fondness for Tibet or the Chinese Party line to understand the real Tibet, this is a great start.

Philosophy
Chinese though was shaped, historically, by three things: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. There are, of course, many other schools of though, including legalism but one has to start with the main rivers of though before exploring the backwaters. Chinese personal, public and political behaviour and patterns of thought often seem opaque to outsiders, but these texts explain much about their modern manners.

The Analects by Confucius
The Analects by Confucius has 20 short chapters and is, at heart, a code of personal conduct, with a focus on personal learn, reciprocity in action, caution in speech, loyalty to one’s ancestors and family, subservience to the state and political advice. Confucianism is still taught in Chinese schools and reading this short, but at times difficult and alien text, gives real insights into modern Chinese thinking. Confucius is to China, what Jess is to the West, someone who teaches by parable and leads by example.

I Chin by Lao Tzu
Taoism promotes the key concept of the Way (Tao). Manichean concepts of Ying and yang underlie this philosophy and have come to shape medicine, architecture and even ways of thought in China. On one level, it promotes a sense of balance and moderation, on the other it is irrational nonsense. You find both in modern China. There is a balance in personal behaviour and traditional architecture, with its horizontal, symmetrical and north-south grids. Yet the obsession with lucky odd (as opposed to even) numbers leads to crazy prices for car licence plates. In medicine there’s a lots of simplistic ying and yang thought which relies on analogy (horns and erections). The I Chin by Lao Tzu is the key text a wonderful play of opposed concepts that shows both the subtlety and complexity of this way of thinking.

Politics

What does China think? by Mark Leonard
What does China think? by Mark Leonard is a fascinating insight into the political and economic landscape described through the eyes of China’s intellectuals and think-tanks.

Maoism has been replaced with the cult of the US. Some see this as self-hatred or ‘reverse racism’. The danger is that China simply adopts foreign models, Maoism then Consumerism, rather than forging their own future and idea of modernity. This ‘grope for stones as you cross the river’ has meant a series of pragmatic and incremental changes and innovations. Double-track pricing – state prices and market prices but gradually moving more towards market prices, allowed for transition. The release of market forces through smallholdings, tow enterprises and economic zones. There are some experiments around ‘deliberative polling’ where spending decisions are decided by the people.

They have rejected the sharp Gorbachov reforms and fear the break up of China as happened in the USSR. The Western liberal democratic model is also feared. The Cultural revolution has shaped attitudes away from democracy. They see democracy as weak, with diminishing interest in political parties, idiosyncratic candidates and low faith in political leaders. Singapore and Hong Kong have show commercial success, national identity and little corruption, without democracy.

Democracy is not a given. Local consultation with an incremental cascade from local level upwards has been tried. The Communist Party has 70 million members and is still firmly in control. There has been a swing towards the left with promise of 20% increases in education, welfare, unemployment benefit and health.

China wants to be a superpower, as it has been several times before. They measure CNP (Comprehensive National Power) with 64 indicators. It is careful about a balanced power-profile, hide brightness, nourish obscurity. This means an invisible foreign policy, neutrality on others. Aid without strings and on tariffs for poor countries. The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation with 5 central Asian countries – they are a force for Asian unity. Sudan, Zambia, Tanzania, Mauritius as a stepping stone or ‘hub’. Iran is also being wooed as are Venezuela and Canada War is a failure of strategy. As the USA remains bellicose, China quietly turns up. Their rise is seen as a new phenomenon, a win-win phenomenon. Soft power techniques – Confucius Institutes, Mandarin language and foreign students all in the mix.

But the neo-comms are also at work to preserve a Walled World. Asymmetric warfare, shooting down satellites, negates the US obsession with military hardware. Trade war, resources war, financial war, media war, economic aid war etc.

It is still a Walled world within a Flat world. We hear little of the demos on unpaid wages, pensions, corruption and lay-offs. Saudi Arabia controls internet traffic by having one ISP. It screens out un-Islamic sites. Chinese traffic is too large to police but it has four levels of filters and keyword identification Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen, Falun Gong. The Great Firewall is full of leaks and much traffic takes place between mobiles and using flash drives.

China and the West in the 21st Century by Will Hutton
Hutton takes on the big themes in politics, economics, foreign policy, environment but it is a tale of two Chinas.

Exponential growth has led to huge numbers of people being lifted out of deep poverty and a massive trade surplus that now means China is a major global player, in the WTO and on the economic and military landscape.

However, there are few great companies and problems with productivity, rampant counterfeiting, corruption, white elephant projects, risky bank loans and inflation. China was not a signatory of the Kyoto agreement and many of its huge cities sit beneath smog that blots out the sun for days on end. Desertification is eating away at productive agricultural land, water is polluted or in short supply and air quality is appalling. As there are no independent checks on pollution, separate from the state, there is no real incentive to solve the problems through law or protective agencies, it remains cost free. This remains a problem for both China and the world.

Economically, this is rampant capitalism, with few of the slowly evolved checks and balances of the West. Companies keep three sets of accounts, one for the bank, one for tax, one for management. Load and bad debts may yet rebound if there’s a downturn or recession and the credit crunch in China could be mother of all crunches. The raining of expectations may also lead to political problems as there are huge funding issues around health, education and social security. China is 144th in the world on public health supply.

Business
China Inc by Ted Fishman

China Inc by Ted Fishman is the voice of some one who lived in China for fifteen years and his fusion of anecdote, description and analysis in absorbing. Unlike Hutton he sees China as a much more important powerhouse claiming that we underestimate the size of its economy and influence. Its success has come at the expense of other poor economies and its effects are being felt in the US and Europe. Some see China as being the dominant world economy, and power by 2050 or much earlier.

The danger is the willingness to suspend reason and see only a bright future, as happened during the Cultural revolution. Its neocons are the neocomms who see a utopian socialist/capitalist future and chase it at all costs, environmental and otherwise.

There’s an interesting commentary on Chinese chauvinism and xenophobia, explained I Peter Hayes Gries book China’s new nationalism. Visitors are routinely called ‘foreigners’ or ‘long noses’ and the Japanese ‘devils’.

Its cities are its economic dynamos and the Chinese salt away up to 40% of their income for their old age, education and support, exacerbated by the one child per family policy (apart from minorities). These savings fuel the economy. Shanghai is their crow jewel but there are many other huge metropolises.

Mao is examined as a creator, influence and now ironic marketing device in modern China. There were the attempts to alter nature by destroying all birds, mosquitos, rats and flies, leading to ecological crises. Even pets were banned. His steel surge led to the abandonment of reasonable agricultural policies and starvation. But Mao is now hated but marketable.

It was the farmers who created capitalism with their personal surge of productivity and surpluses, creating businesses and restaurants. But there are dark sides to the surge. Exploited migrant workers, corrupt business people and officials, rampant prostitution (your room phone will ring in every hotel), the abandonment of health and education for all.

The war on girls, with draconian one child policies, infanticide, male ancestor lines, patriarchal rural traditions, massive foreign adoption of girls and imbalances in gender, possibly up to the population of the UK in the next decade. He speculates that this may lead to a rise in male violence.

He takes a look at manufacturing through the car industry. The success of Volkswagen (3/10 new cars) is visible in every city but so too is the rise of Chery and other home grown brands. They have a massive pool of cheap labour to build cars. The US has bee slow to respond but now have some brand presence and the Japanese are there in force. Honda and Volkswagen now make cars for export in China. Quality mobile phones and coactivity are everywhere. This is a country in love with manufacturing and making things.

Pirate nation is a look at China’s long history of imitation, borrowing and copying. The scale of software pirating is immense, even at the corporate level and punishment is rare and irrelevant. Local officials are often involved in counterfeiting businesses and tourists lap it up. This creates an unfair commercial playing field. It also puts a break on ideas led innovation and entrepreneurialism as everyone knows that their ideas can be pinched and copied. This is a nation that broke all the rules to get here, they see this as a virtue. It is, in fact, a massive global subsidy.

China has climbed inside the US and world economy with its buying of US bonds (lending to Us, acting, in effect as its bank), currency controls and economic activity. The US may find itself high and dry if China decides to get growth from sales elsewhere and abandon support for the US. The US is a dependent child and may become an abandoned child if it continues to live on blind consumerism and debt.

There are nearly as many people learning English in China, as speak English in the US, Canada and the UK combined. Learning Mandarin is pointless, better to learn other skills, while Chinese kids learn English.

Mr China by Tim Clissold
This is an entertaining and largely anecdotal book by someone who studied mandarin in Beijing then was hired to head up a wall street charge with 400 million dollars into manufacturing in China. It joy is in the descriptions of culture clashes between brash US financiers and Chinese chancers. Capitalism and culture clashes at their worst.

China Shakes the World by James Kynge
On the World Bank’s list of the 20 most polluted cities, 16 are in China. Oil gushed out to wells to be wasted and water conservation is rare. 44% of the felled timber imported is illegally felled. China buys, copies or insists on IP transfer but it is perspiration rather that inspiration that drives their economy, a mammoth pool of cheap labour.

Business is not what one might think. Key sectors are largely state owned (banks, oil & gas, telecoms, railways, power, ports and petrochemicals). Companies only float one third of their share capital, faked results, share manipulation and the banks may need to make costly readjustments. Then there’s the breakdown of trust, bribes, even fake policemen. But it is corruption that remains rampant.

The final chapter on foreign affairs reveals the, at times artificial, attempt to woo foreigners, has a manipulative side. It refers to Making the Foreign Serve China by Anne-Marie Brady, who obtained instruction manuals on how to woo foreigners. It’s all very utilitarian, especially around the Olympics. Foreign policy is truly global and Kynge looks as the tripling of trade to Africa, the courting of Venezuela, Sudan, Burma and central Asian states. Pakistan and Bangladesh are also in its sights. Much of this is about protecting its oil routes but also to increase trade.

2 Comments:

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