Six books on China
Reviews of some things I've been reading
I don’t consider myself an expert on China, by any stretch of the imagination. If you want true expertise on that country’s economy, I suggest checking out Dan Wang, Damien Ma, Shuli Ren, Liqian Ren, Victor Shih, George Magnus, and of course, Barry Naughton. But China is an incredibly important topic, both in terms of its economic impact and its general importance to the world, and so I try to write about it when there’s something useful to say. In the meantime, I try to read a lot on the topic. So I thought I’d write some reviews of the most recent books I’ve read.
Mostly, these books deal with two things: China’s hyper-capitalist economy and its pseudo-communist political system. They are not particularly up-to-date — some of them were written over a decade ago, and none of them is recent enough to cover the economic disruptions and international tensions that have confronted China over the past two years. But they’re useful nonetheless, because they provide helpful background to understand why those disruptions and tensions arose when they did.
1. Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, by Leslie T. Chang
This book is really the standout of the bunch, and the reason is the quality of the writing. Both the factory city of Dongguan and the people who live in it come alive and leap off the page. Here’s an excerpt from near the beginning:
The bus is packed, and it smells of sweat and of clothing that is worn every day and slept in at night—the smell of migrants. The bus races down the elevated highway and the factories emerge below: printing factories, paint and plastic factories, mobile phone and screw and sofa factories. The buildings, faced in white tile, resemble giant public bathrooms; worker dormitories rise beside them, their balconies blooming with laundry…Two decades after the first factories were built, development still feels new. The innards of a mountain spill out, red-earthed and raw, where its face was blasted away; exit ramps off the highway disappear in fields of marshy weeds. A brand-new corporate headquarters looks out on rice paddies, fishponds, and duck farms; miraculously, people are still farming here.
The best way to understand the city of Dongguan is to walk it. Bank headquarters of mirrored glass tower over street-side shops selling motorcycle parts and plastic pipes and dental services. Roads are ten lanes wide, high-speed highways in place of city streets. Migrants walk along the shoulders carrying suitcases or bedding, while buses and trucks bear down from behind. Everywhere is construction and motion, jackhammers and motorcycles, drills and dust; at street level the noise is deafening. The roads are wide and well paved but there are no pedestrian lights or crosswalks. This is a city built for machines, not people.
The characters come alive in the same way. Chang mainly follows the stories of two women who come from poor families in hardscrabble farming towns looking for money, adventure, and love in the big city. The protagonists begin in similar places, but their fortunes diverge radically — one finds a nice boyfriend and moves up in the factory world, while the other gets involved in dodgy kickback arrangements and Amway-like multi-level marketing schemes while dating quite a lot of unsatisfactory men.
Then there’s the cast of colorful and peculiar (and often deeply corrupt) supporting characters, some of whom might strain the suspension of disbelief if they appeared in the pages of a fiction novel — prostitutes, politicians, gangsters, farmers, and frauds. My personal favorite is the self-help author who makes it all up, lifting bare-bones insights from American bestsellers and slapping on a layer of cartoonish cynicism. This is capitalism in its raw, primal form; you can’t escape the eerie feeling that you’re peering into America’s own distant past, to the Cleveland or the Chicago of a hundred years ago. I kept thinking of my grandmother, who worked in a sweatshop in St. Louis making shirts as a teenager in the 1930s, and wondered how much she had in common with Chang’s factory girls.
Because this is how the sausage is made. Economic development never takes poor farmers and transforms them overnight into middle-class accountants with kitchen islands and two-car garages. This grubby intermediate stage, with all its hideous inequality and desperate exploitation — a stage that consumes whole lifetimes even in the fastest-growing countries — seems to be a necessary step in the transformation.
But by the end of Chang’s book, you can feel things changing already; just in the couple of decades she spends there, the factory girls are transitioning from heart-rending penury to something approaching modest material comfort and even personal fulfillment. This is the reward of hypergrowth, and a testament to the success of China’s development model. But Chang never lets you forget the costs.
2. China in Ten Words, by Yu Hua
I’m going to spoil this book for you, by revealing the trick. In the final chapter, the narrator reveals himself to be an unreliable one, forcing you to call into question the veracity of everything he wrote in the preceding pages. It’s a pretty masterful literary device, because even the realization that Yu Hua’s “memoir” might be partially cobbled together from other people’s experiences does nothing to reduce its power.
China in Ten Words is about the Cultural Revolution. It takes a strangely detached tone toward those terrible events, a little like Kurt Vonnegut does in Slaughterhouse Five. You can sense the lake of fear and pain and rage lurking just below the glib anecdotes — PTSD as a writing style. This is a book about a society gone mad — a world where for ten years, both social status and mere survival are based on denouncing people before they can denounce you. A world where junior-high students compete to overthrow their teachers, where families have to interrogate each other in order to save each other’s lives, where childish arguments between grade schoolers carry the risk of death, where street fights are so commonplace they aren’t even remarked on.
That episode is crucial for understanding the China of the 1990s and 2000s. We hear all the time that Chinese people were generally willing to trade freedom for growth and stability during those decades, and that memory of the Cultural Revolution is a big reason why they were willing to make that trade. This book adds flesh to the bones of that simple story.
And yet, Yu finds himself strangely ambivalent about the stable, growing world that was created in the wake of all that chaos. Witnessing its empty materialism, he finds himself almost wishing that he had Mao back again. This idea should have been explored a little more deeply, but in that moment of ambivalence we might perceive a glimmer of what animates Xi Jinping.
3. The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, by Richard McGregor
If you took the book 1984 and turned it into a detailed how-to manual, it would be The Party. This is a methodical, piece-by-piece account of how the Communist Party apparatus works in modern China, from the red phones that let the party members call each other directly to the Organization Department that makes sure everyone in the party is loyal and committed.
At its heart, the CCP is just a mafia — a group of people who know each other (at least at the top levels), have goals that are generally aligned, and use any means necessary to constantly crush, subvert, or suborn any alternative center of power. But it’s a mafia that has grown to an absolutely stupendous size — seeing a gang like this keeping tight control on 1.4 billion people and skillfully managing the world’s largest economy without any real need for checks and balances or the rule of law is a bit like finding an invertebrate the size of a blue whale. You just didn’t realize they could get that big.
In addition to laying out the basics of how the Party works, McGregor goes through some of the challenges the Party faces. There are two in particular — managing the transition to a developed economy, and maintaining the military as an effective fighting force without allowing it to grow professional enough to challenge the Party for dominance. But interestingly, he misses the two failure modes that the CCP may now be experiencing — a tendency toward autocracy and a clumsiness at foreign policy.
Power transferred so smoothly and seamlessly between highly competent leaders for so long — Deng to Jiang to Hu — that it seemed like the CCP had evolved a better method of power transitions. Now, with Xi declaring himself supreme-leader-for-life and possibly bungling a lot of things at the same time, it looks like China’s good run might have simply been the legacy of Deng himself, combined with the momentum of catch-up hypergrowth. Meanwhile, the CCP’s most important rivals may prove not to be internal but external.
4. Red Flags: Why China’s Xi is in Jeopardy, by George Magnus
This is a book of prophecies that have now largely come to pass. George Magnus has been following China’s economy for decades, and for a very long time he’s been sounding the alarm over things like over-investment, lack of rule of law, slowing productivity growth, and an unsustainable real estate boom. Red Flags, published in 2018, essentially just goes over all of these looming problems.
Now, in 2022, we are seeing all of these chickens come home to roost. China’s real estate is crashing, its all-powerful leader is sowing fear and chaos by smashing industries right and left, and its slow productivity growth means there’s little room to simply grow out of the problem as in decades past. Magnus, in other words, was right. But it’s still worth reading this book, just to see how obvious these weaknesses of China’s model were for so long in advance.
5. The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World, by Dexter Roberts
This book is about the same thing that Factory Girls was about — the ruthless realities of Chinese capitalism during China’s “gilded age” (which, by the way, is the title of a book that’s on my next 6 to read). The Myth of Chinese Capitalism is mis-titled, as it is about how completely and utterly capitalist China became during the decade of the 2000s. Every single caricature of capitalism is here — the greedy, union-busting bosses, the downtrodden migrant laborers working themselves to the bone for a pittance, the graft and corruption and inequality and environmental devastation. Like Factory Girls, this is a book about the cost of development.
But, surprisingly, Roberts also highlights a number of helpful moves the Chinese government made during the gilded age — in particular, rural development initiatives. The Hu Jintao administration realized the inequities that the country’s hyper-capitalist system was creating and tried to rectify them by directing state money to outlying regions. And this did work, somewhat; Roberts notes that the Chinese countryside has become a much less brutal place to live. So just as Factory Girls shows how economic growth eventually turns the exploited proletariat into an urban middle class, The Myth of Chinese Capitalism shows how concerted government action can improve the lot of those who stay on the farm.
6. The Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, by Michael Pillsbury
I found this book to be the least helpful of the bunch, for three reasons. First, its main thesis — that the Chinese Communist Party sees the U.S. as a rival rather than an ally — is by now universal common knowledge. We have long passed the point where we need to be warned.
Second, The Hundred-Year Marathon is shot through with an annoying cultural essentialism. Pillsbury tries to relate every Chinese plan or tactic or worldview to some concept from the Warring States period — thus, a hegemon is actually a “ba”, asymmetric warfare is the “assassin’s mace”, and so on. This is an unhelpful tic. It conveys the impression that China’s current hostility to the U.S. is born from some sort of deep-rooted cultural mindset, rather than a combination of recent and contingent factors. And that essentialism in turn implies that China will always be a U.S. enemy as long as both countries are rich and powerful — that a desire to overthrow and dominate all other great powers is inherent to the Chinese mindset.
This does not seem like a constructive way of thinking. Perhaps Pillsbury thought the urgency of his warning required him to use language that he thought would resonate with U.S. military leaders. But now that the warning is no longer necessary, the sort of dire, clash-of-civilizations message that Pillsbury employs seems highly likely to be counterproductive to our efforts to work out a modus vivendi with the world’s most populous country.
The Next Six
So there you have it: Five books about China. I’ve already got four of the next five lined up:
China's Gilded Age: The Paradox of Economic Boom and Vast Corruption, by Yuen Yuen Ang
China's Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Arthur Kroeber
One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment, by Mei Fong
Leftover Women, by Leta Hong
If you have any suggestions for what the fifth should be, please let me know! It would be nice to read something very recent, that deals with the changes being wrought under Xi Jinping…