Matthew's Reviews > China Shakes the World: A Titan's Rise and Troubled Future -- and the Challenge for America

China Shakes the World by James Kynge
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's review
Mar 05, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: business-history, economics, essaysjournalism
Read from February 08 to March 05, 2010

This review will probably say more about the reviewer (me) than about the book (most reviews probably do, if less blatantly). I felt compelled, disgusted, proud, in turn, yet in ways that are interesting if perhaps not quite unexpected -- rather, I feel like Kynge's writing so neatly synthesizes and brings to life a lot of what I already subsconsciously gleaned about China from years of living in Singapore (that red dot some mistake as part of China), that I find myself reacting in vaguely familiar yet never quite so cleanly recognised ways. It makes me wonder a lot about myself -- Chinese by race, yet not by nationality and certainly not at all by cultural identity.

I find the reports of piracy awful, and extremely disturbing. I don't worry so much about the fact that GE or Siemens or Honda had their top end technology, developed after spending billions and decades, stolen in China. I guess I find it hard to sympathise with a corporation that has ways and means to protect itself and anyhow can benefit from China's human resource base and market. I felt most for, rather, the Italian family owned silk tie maker whose designs -- one mystical elliptical design that took years to refine for example -- were bought for practically nothing by Chinese tie makers who'd bankrupted the Italians with the low cost silk. In this sense I think China really had an advantage that few -- even those who recognise it -- give it full credit for, the fact that they got cheap access to so much technology, so much know-how, so many industrial and aesthetic designs and best practices, that it took centuries and decades for other societies to master. I find that incredibly tragic. Which strikes me as weird, because in that way I identify far more with the proud Europeans/Americans than with the thieving Chinese. Of the former, I respect their aesthetic, their intelligence, their morality, their social graces, their attitude to life, and I am on the whole more comfortable with such and wish that more of my countrymen had the imaginative capacity to live so.

Certainly, I respect how hard the Chinese entrepreneurs suffered and how hungry and resourceful (and lucky) they must be. But while I find their individual stories immensely worthy of respect, I don't see that as a unique characteristic of Chinese in particular -- every race/country/society has its hungry, long-suffering, resourceful, lucky success stories, if not in our time, then at some point in history.

On the other hand I am genuinely glad that China is throwing off the shackles of Western colonialism: I have no love for your occasional obnoxious clumsy self-unaware wealthy fatcat expat -- and that surely is a very Asian view.

And unlike your average Westerner, I'm not particularly disgusted by all the encroachments of human rights, nor of the corruption or melamine or blood transfusion scandals. Maybe it's because I am, after all, from Southeast Asia, and this sort of thing is, well not really standard stuff, but still not that surprising. Or maybe it is an extension of the above -- every race has its master criminals, it's not as if the Chinese are uniquely heartless here (sure, poisoning babies sounds bad, but how about financing wars? or causing widespread financial collapse?). I'm actually quite impressed by the scale, boldness, ruthlessness and creativity of the scams. Possibly it's also because I feel the disregard for human life -- other people's lives, I mean -- is part of Chinese history. One of the four Chinese classics, Water Margin or All Men Are Brothers, has parts where a hero is eating meat dumplings and discovers it is (delicious) human flesh, or, less benignly, is himself captured by a rogue innkeeper and about to be slaughtered for meat, when the butcher recognises and saves him. (This implies that if he had been someone less well-regarded he'd have been butchered with nary a thought. In fact, when the butcher joins the hero's side, he becomes, within the narrative, a minor hero too.) Water Margin was one of my favourite books when I was growing up; I've probably imbibed lot of the values.

But what's behind all this? Here I think Kynge hesitates to pass judgment. He describes the symptoms but as a journalist, prefers to allow readers to draw their own conclusions. So we must. I think Barry Naughton captures it best -- China just has too many people, and has had too many people for too long. I'm not saying other things don't matter -- like forward looking leaders at the top, economic liberalisation, gradual institutionalisation, etc. But I think these merely facilitate a power that wells up from a source, and that source -- of both successes and failures -- can be traced back to demographics; from enormous market size, leading to firms jostling to enter, the immense amount of talent, the cheap human resources with an extremely hungry labor force willing to work for peanuts, the willingness to cheat to get ahead, etc.

Naughton quotes a European visitor to China in the 1800s -- the Chinese peasant is like a man standing in deep water, on his tiptoes, with only his nose above water for breath. He quotes statistics noting that China's growth from the Middle Ages onwards was entirely due to population growth, and that the average incomes remained stuck at medieval levels even as Europe grew by leaps and bounds; yet the population continued to increase, which means that the burden on the land was extremely heavy. Thus, the above phrase -- disregard for human life is endemic -- can be turned around, to the equal statement: in China, human life, far from being priceless, is cheap.

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message 1: by AC (new) - rated it 5 stars

AC Fascinating review. Thanks. My only comment is that one should be careful not to read history as a morality play. Most of history is one unrelieved tragedy. There are moments when man surpasses himself..., in one way or another... Athens after the Persian Wars, il Quarttocento..., Europe from 1848-1914.... but they do not last long -- maybe 100 or 150 years.... We have been living in such a golden age since 1945 (relatively speaking -- in the economic sphere, at least) - and we can see that that too is starting to fray, at least in the West. It is the human condition.

One final point is that Braudel shows that there have been population pulses that have also lasted about 200 or 250 years. I forget the exact dates, but 1100-1350, 1450-1650, and 1750 to the present.... are close enough. Again -- if these were Bollinger bands, we'd be positioning for mean-reversion....

Western culture nowadays -- because of our poor education, an extensive (and unearned) level of comfort, and by having minds that have been soaked and saturated for decades in television - tend to sentimentalize existence. And so we (in the West, at least) moralize history in naive ways. It is a sign of decay, of course. If it produced great art -- more Klimts, more Glenn Goulds, and so on.... then we might celebrate our decadence. But it is, instead, a one-way street at this point. Instead of Ravels..., we get Glenn Becks.

Well..., at least we have books to console us...!

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