Monday, 21 July 2014

China, my China

Our regular Asian/Australian correspondent Suzuki Samurai has more book recommendations for you…

The twenty-first century, it is said, is going to be China's century. The story is a fascinating one, and will be more so as it unfolds. Alas, the masses of information that most people use to form this story they get from China's propaganda apparatchiks through an often gooey-eyed and incurious western media – bushels more chaff than wheat. There is little doubt however, that China is a far better place than it was just a few decades ago. How it navigates the stormy waters of their gargantuan debt, culturally embedded corruption, nationalistic fervour of it's territorial claims, and, albeit slow, demands for political emancipation* will show us what has changed at root.
    Is this a new China? Or is it going to be new, with Chinese characteristics? There are many hundreds of books written about China. Below I mention just a few I commend to your attention which I think gives something of an insight into the story of China's complicated, sad, and truly bizarre recent history.

Lets start with two on Mao:

Mao: The Unknown Story
Book by Jon Halliday and Jung Chang.

This book has already been reviewed on this blog (actually, I think the editor has my copy) [true story – Ed.].
     I'd like to add that while Mao was but a blip in the Chinese timeline, this maniac's impact was so destructive and obscene it's worth another look to get an idea of what a shambles the place was in when he died an unfortunately painless death in September 1976. This book has of course been criticised for embellishments and spurious claims. However, if these criticisms have any validity, they can't take away the fact that if just one chapter in this book of 992 pages were true it would still put Mao at the top of the “Complete Evil Bastard” leader board. Which is a very bg board.
    Which brings me to another book on Mao and more importantly, his court...

The Private Life of Chairman Mao
A Memoir by Zhisui Li.

Li was Mao's personal physician for nigh on two decades, an unenviable job for anyone averse to tending to a stinking, sexually predatory, disease-spreading ball of puss whose indifference to suffering in others would combine to form an addled mind with immeasurable power over life and death; including of course, the Doctor's.
    What Sinophiles will find instructive in this book is how Mao's court functioned (if by “function” you means chaos), which of the main players in this game of chaos went on to be part of the current China, and, to my mind most importantly, how culture and politics overlap in China.

How China Became Capitalist
by Ronald Coase & Ning Wang

This book is more scholarly than the previous two mentioned. Centenarian & Nobel Laureate in Economics, Ronald Coase, (with Ning Wang) has written a very detailed political and economic look at how China got to where it is now from the miserable leftovers of Mao's regime.
    In short, China became capitalist hap-haphazardly, accidentally, and at times it looked like not happening at all. With some well intentioned, but ignorant, pragmatists having to outmanoeuvre old guard communist hard-liners at every juncture, they still managed to not-so-much put in place policies to enable capitalism to flourish, but were able to 'test' ideas by allowing small-scale trials that the population at large were engaging in themselves.
    Once news of these trials got through to the power brokers, they'd allow it elsewhere, and so on and so forth. This spontaneous flourishing of enterprise became unstoppable and, they knew, very necessary if China was ever going to become a rich and powerful country – this last being especially important to Chinese.

Which rounds off nicely to a  book which should be of interest to anyone that wants to have a crack at doing business in China...

Poorly Made in China
An insiders account of the tactics behind China's production game.
by Paul Midler

The name of this book would suggest you might want to avoid doing business in China. Actually Midler is all for it. In simple language, real example, and anecdote he shows what to look out for - and there is a lot to look out for, that's for sure.
    When not writing, Midler is an expert in the hold-your-hand kind of way; that is, for the right fee he'll show you how to get the deals done in China. He speaks the language, and has heard it all. The book itself is at once hilarious and astonishing. Chapter after chapter of real examples of the shenanigans and rip-offs that inexperienced wide-boys will weather should they go in head first and ill-prepared. This book is good fun, but essential to anyone who wants to dive in and get their widgets made in China.

Here’s Brian Eno:


*Commentator Gordon Chang reports that there are many hundreds of thousands of protests of more than five hundred people in China per year. This data he often uses to suggest that there is growing disillusionment with the government. Actually, the protests I've seen, heard, and read about are usually ones attacking some local bureaucrat, maybe a mayor, and sometimes property developers. When mentioning the government, the protesters invariably say they respect or even love the government and that they call on the government to do more to help them fight the targets of their aggression. As for demanding democracy: nonsense.

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