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Holiday books

Looking for some summer reading about China? Here are the WiC picks…

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

By Ezra F. Vogel

Admittedly it may be a little cerebral for poolside reading, but for those keen to improve their grasp of Chinese political history WiC’s advice is to pack Ezra Vogel’s biography of Deng Xiaoping.

It says much that the first 65 years of Deng’s life (into which most people’s achievements would usually be crammed) are condensed into just 30 pages. This is Vogel’s recognition that Deng’s greatest impact was in his latter years when following Mao’s death he became paramount leader.

The material dealing with Deng’s remaining 27 years takes up 645 pages.

Vogel reckons December 13, 1978 was one of history’s turning points. That was when Deng gave an 800 word speech to the Central Party Work Conference that effectively launched his ‘reform and opening’ initiative. This would set China’s on a new and dynamic course, becoming the world’s second largest economy just over three decades later. When Deng made the speech, China’s trade with the rest of the world amounted to less than $10 billion, points out Vogel.

The diminutive Sichuanese politician broke a lot of new ground. For example, Deng was the first Chinese leader to visit Japan. Yes, the first in over 2,000 years. And when he visited Japan in 1978, Deng displayed a typically Chinese sense of history’s long sweep, telling his hosts he came like Xu Fu to find a “magic drug”. This was a reference to an explorer sent by the Qin emperor 2,200 years earlier to find an elixir that could bring eternal life. In Deng’s case he was referring to his own goal of modernising China. As he told the Japanese: “We are very poor. We are very backward. We have to recognise that. We have a lot to do, a long way to go and a lot to learn.”

This sense of realism made Deng somewhat unique. Many of the leaders that preceded him would have choked on giving such a bald assessment of their homeland. Not Deng, who preferred straight talk. Possibly that’s because, at heart, he considered himself a “soldier”, as he told Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former American National Security Adviser. Indeed, it’s often forgotten that Deng was involved in one of the biggest military actions in history, the Huai Hai campaign in China’s civil war. He described this period – where half a million troops were under his command – as the happiest time of his life.

There’s lot in this book that casts new light on more recent Chinese history. As we pointed out in WiC136, the section on Deng’s 1992 Southern Tour contains a revelation about how he manoeuvred his successor Jiang Zemin into backing further market reform. Vogel also points out some common errors, such as the mistranslation of one of Deng’s most famous foreign policy maxims as ‘avoid the limelight, don’t take the lead, bide your time’.

Vogel points out that it should read ‘avoid the limelight, never take the lead, and try to accomplish something’.

The sheer weight of Vogel’s material offers a comprehensive analysis of Deng’s every policy. For anyone interested in modern China it is essential reading.

Mind you, the inner man can remain elusive. Vogel’s biographical style is markedly different from an author like Robert Caro, who has published four volumes on the life of former US president Lyndon B Johnson. Caro brings to life a personality of almost Shakespearean contradiction and complexity. Vogel’s style is less dramatic and less fly-on-the-wall. Understandable, perhaps: it would have been a near impossible task, for example, to find a source able to recount Deng’s table talk or answer the tantalising question of what he really thought of Mao – the man who repeatedly purged him and caused such hardship for Deng’s family. All we have instead is the verdict sanctioned by Deng and his Party colleagues that Mao was 70% good and 30% bad.

Appropriately enough, the book reveals Vogel to be a bit of a Deng himself. He began this great tome late in his career, at 70, and it took him over a decade to research and write it.

Northern Girls: Life Goes On

By Sheng Keyi

In a previous Summer Reading List, we included Factory Girls, Leslie Chang’s investigation of the world of the young women who migrate from the countryside to work in Shenzhen’s sweatshops. And Penguin has now published an excellent companion work – Northern Girls: Life Goes On. This time it is fiction, but no less likely to shock.

The novel is penned by 39 year-old Sheng Keyi and follows a strong-spirited protagonist from her village in Hunan to a factory in the city. But trouble beckons for Qian Xiaohong, a gutsy 16 year-old girl who retains a strong sense of morality and a charming innocence.

“My focus in the novel is to examine how women from the lowest rungs of the social ladder make their way to the city and fight for their dignity,” Sheng told the China Daily.

The pitfalls are many. One is that Sheng gives her heroine unusually large breasts, thus guaranteeing her excessive male attention.

In one scene, an official offers Qian Rmb50 ($7.84) for sex. She first appears to accept the offer but then runs away, throwing back the money, saying: “I’m a virgin, uncle. I was just curious about your body. I’m giving you 50 yuan to put your clothes back on.”

The novel touches on much wider social and economic issues, yet it reads easily. The reader senses the author’s identification with her heroine – Sheng moved from Hunan to Shenzhen too. As such she achieves an intimacy that’s rare in contemporary Chinese fiction, where overly-flowery language and psychologically unconvincing characterisations are still too common.

In short – a fun book about serious issues.

China in Ten Words

By Yu Hua

There aren’t many people who make the switch from dentistry to literature successfully. But Yu Hua is one: he swapped pulling teeth for authordom, publishing To Live (a novel subsequently made into a film by Zhang Yimou).

But Yu’s latest book is a work of non-fiction. Arranged as a series of chapters about words (such as ‘revolution’, ‘disparity’ and ‘copycat’), it is both a memoir and a social commentary on contemporary China.

In the case of his personal recollections, Yu draws heavily on his time growing up during the Cultural Revolution. At times it is a confessional. He recalls writing posters criticising his teachers and being part of a gang that bullied peasants who came to the town to sell their cooking oil rations (considered by the Maoists as a form of speculation).

Yu recalls how he and his pals beat up a young farmer who was selling coupons to pay for his wedding, and made him bleed. Their victim did not fight back, and Yu shouted remarks to humiliate him in front of the watching townsfolk. “It is with a heavy heart and a feeling of shame that I recall this episode now,” he writes.

The turning point in Yu’s career came when one of his short story manuscripts was accepted by the magazine Beijing Literature in the early eighties. He describes how the long distance call with the editor took half a day to get routed from his small town to the capital. In the days before smartphones and 3G that meant patiently waiting by the phone booth for hours. It also meant preventing others from making calls in the interim (rather improbably he said he was expecting a call from the Politburo; a bold lie that ensured only he could use the phone). After that call his career in dentistry was over and he emerged as a writer.

There are many eye-opening tales in this memoir. Among the more endearing is Yu’s description of the commotion when the town’s bookshop began stocking translations of Dickens, Tolstoy and Balzac after the Cultural Revolution came to an end. People queued overnight to be one of the 50 able to buy the rationed stock. “This caused as much sensation as if today a pop star were sighted in some celebrity-deprived suburb,” Yu comments. It was a measure of how intellectually starved the Chinese had become during Mao’s final years.

Through his memories Yu masterfully brings alive the sheer madness of the Cultural Revolution. But he also uses the past to critique modern China. Unsurpisingly, he picks growing inequality and corruption as major themes.

Telling comparisons are drawn too between past and present. “Why, when discussing China today, do I always return to the Cultural Revolution? That’s because the two eras are so interrelated.”

To understand why, read this book.

Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai

By Qiu Xiaolong

Qiu Xialong is perhaps best known for his Inspector Chen detective stories, as well as his translations of poetry from the Song and Tang Dynasty. Years of Red Dust is a collection of short stories that were first published in the French newspaper, Le Monde. All are set in the same Shanghai street, Red Dust Lane.

The stories – 23 in all – catalogue a changing China, beginning in 1949 and finishing in the modern era of rapacious capitalism. The style of writing is evocative, conjuring up images of the rich local cuisine that the lane’s residents seem to be constantly boiling and wok-frying.

The early tales deal with how the lane’s residents adjust to the conformity of the Communist regime. But the latter stories show how the more individualist personalities thrive in the reform period. Qiu nicely demonstrates how the pariah from the first era becomes the billionaire of the next.

Though fictional, Years of Red Dust is a good potted history of the wrenching social change that China has undergone over the past six decades. For example, if you aren’t familiar with the ‘Iron Rice Bowl’, there’s a chapter titled as such that’ll explain. And one of the most memorable stories is ‘Housing Assignment’, which portrays the country’s public housing problems in the 1980s. Many Chinese complain about the property market today, but Qiu reminds us just how bad it was before when almost all housing was cramped and assigned by the state (via the individual’s work unit). Qiu’s morality tale depicts the unfortunate consequences when a young man tries to game the government’s quota system to get a room of his own.

Each of Qiu’s tales is bittersweet. But taken as a whole they help us to understand why the Chinese find it so tough to come to terms with their recent history. Those who lived through those turbulent times prefer not to discuss the collective wrongs of the past, or remember the hysteria that hurt so many.

American Wheels, Chinese Roads

By Michael J Dunne

American Wheels tells the story of the rise of General Motors in China, primarily through the experience of some of the key executives charged with building a China business for the Michigan firm.

Dunne, who heads an advisory firm on Asia’s automotive industry, also provides insights on how foreign automakers sought to establish themselves in China.

But the book is at its best in chronicling GM’s tie-up with Shanghai Auto (SAIC) in what was to become Shanghai GM, one of the industry’s most successful joint ventures.

Here the story is often of confusion as much as collaboration. There’s culture shock right from the start, when the Chinese partner pushes for Buick rather than Chevrolet as its launch brand. This left GM executives nonplussed, as the average Buick buyer in the US was sixty. But in China the brand had cachet, dating back to Shanghai’s 1920s heyday when it was a favourite of foreign residents.

Throughout the book there is a persistent battle of wills between the business partners. With the exception of one early Chrysler appointee, who refused to leave negotiations until prices had been agreed (he ground down his Chinese counterparts by bargaining for 36 hours without a break) GM’s China partners often seem to have got the upper hand. Early on, for instance, GM executives were under the impression that their joint venture would have exclusive rights to produce large cars in China. So they were dumbfounded when they found out that Volkswagen, with whom Shanghai Auto had a separate joint venture, was also going to produce the Passat in the same segment.

“It’s like this,” their Chinese partner told them, “Imagine you have two sons. You can’t just give something to one son without also allowing the same for the second one.”

In 2003 the Americans got another shock when they discovered that Shanghai Auto was also a shareholder in Chery, a newcomer which had just started producing the QQ, an almost identical twin to the Chevrolet Spark, which Shanghai GM was just about to release in the China market.

Ultimately, of course, the story is one of success. At a time when it has been downsizing miserably at home, GM has gone on a hyper-growth spurt in China, selling hundreds of thousands of Buicks, Chevrolets and Cadillacs. Last year alone it sold a total of 1.23 million vehicles.

One moral of the story? If you can bite your tongue and bend to the Chinese way of doing things, the rewards can be fantastic.

The Death of Mao

By James Palmer

This is really two books. One is a history of the tragic Tangshan earthquake of 1976. The other is a political tale, describing how after Mao’s death (also in 1976), the Gang of Four were deposed (the group was led by Mao’s wife and plunged China into the 10-year Cultural Revolution). Both are absorbing narratives, with the symbolism appropriate: a natural disaster bringing an end to a disastrous era.

Some of the statistics in the book will be a revelation to readers. “The 23 seconds of the earthquake were probably the most concentrated instant of destruction humanity has ever known,” writes author James Palmer. “In Tangshan alone it did more damage than either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, more damage than the firebombings of Dresden or Hamburg or Tokyo, more damage than the explosion at Krakatoa.” In the centre of Tangshan less than 3% of the buildings survived. For a more extensive review of this book see WiC138.

Red Capitalism

By Carl E. Walter and Fraser J.T. Howie

This is not a new book but it has been recently updated. It remains perhaps the best insight into the fortress that is China’s financial system and how it is used by policymakers to manage the economy.

Written by Carl Walter and Fraser Howie – two bankers who have spent much of their careers in China – Red Capitalism is a forensic work that also explains why financial reforms will be so hard to push through. Why so? If successful, such reform would go against the interests of state-owned firms and undermine the Party’s control of the system. For these reasons, the two authors doubt that much genuine reform will ever occur.

China Airborne

By James Fallows

Veteran China-watcher and private pilot James Fallows offers a very readable history of China’s aviation sector. He explains how Boeing quietly helped the Chinese authorities to overhaul one of the world’s worst air safety records with such success that it is barely an issue today. And he speaks to the local visionaries and entrepreneurs who want to build China’s own aerospace industry. Will they succeed? For Fallows, this is a pressing question. To build an aerospace sector capable of competing with the US, the author believes China’s economic, legal and educational system needs a dramatic overhaul (for a full account of his arguments, see our review in WiC153).

All Eyes East

By Mary Bergstrom

Many businesspeople will want a book that they can start and finish on a flight to China, and this makes Mary Bergstrom’s All Eyes East a great choice. The book is subtitled, “Lessons from the front lines of marketing to China’s youth,” and that is its focus.

Only 203 pages, it offers a rapid education on what appeals to China’s youthful consumers (defined as those under 30), and new ways to think about segmenting this huge group. Bergstrom also goes to great lengths to explain why some brands are successful (for example, KFC) while others are not. Even for those who feel that they know China well enough already, All Eyes East is still well worth a read.


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