Monday, 21 May 2012


I will be posting a new article tomorrow, but in the meantime I thought I would share a relevant book review I wrote recently.

Since this blog is intended to be a collection of interesting perspectives on features of modern China for a non-specialist audience, it makes sense for me to recommend a new book that aims to provide a "one-stop account" of contemporary China - and largely succeeds in doing so.

Jonathan Fenby is a seasoned China-watcher, as a journalist for various outlets, through business dealings, and as the author of 'The Penguin History of Modern China (1850-2009' and 'Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the China He Lost'.

His latest book - 'Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How It Got There, And Where It Is Heading' - is comparable to the swathe of other generic 'airport books' about China that have made the bestseller lists in recent years, but it is actually a far more thoughtful and panoramic book than might be expected.

Here is an extract from the review:

"As he explains, China’s export-and investment-driven growth model is coming under increasing strain. The nature of the challenge confronting the CPC is that a set of fundamental policy changes need to be enacted to sustain the momentum of recent decades. And herein lies its dilemma - the sway of entrenched sectional interest groups, a legacy of China's current growth model, creates an environment in which cautious consensus-builders rise to the top of the CPC. These leaders, "operating atop a complex web of interest groups" (p.143), do not envisage comprehensive, sweeping plans for reform, but instead concentrate on shoring-up their alliances, which channels any energy for reform into an incremental, piecemeal and partial policy agenda. But the essential nature of China's one-party system is precisely that big-but-piecemeal reform will only exacerbate weaknesses elsewhere in the system - everything is connected.

He gives many examples of these interlinkages: "If farmers gain ownership rights, local authorities would have to be given greater powers to raise revenue...Greater regulation applied objectively would reduce the power and rent-seeking opportunities for officials...In each case, the power of the Party and central state would be weakened" (p.386). The fear that stalks China's leaders is that, if they can't engineer visionary and far-reaching change, they may also be unable to fix the system bit-by-bit, rushing from industry to industry, region to region, putting out new fires - and if they can't, and growth slows dramatically, whether from passivity or badly-sequenced intervention, then all bets are off."

And here is the full review on the Open Democracy site.

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