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Over the years I have found that the best China books are written by those who have lived in China for many years, and not those who are just “passing through” for a year or two on some journalistic or other endeavor. Only when you “go native” can you understand China. And a long-term resident of Beijing who speaks fluent Chinese, James Kynge, has most certainly gone native. Consequently, China Shakes the World is a very good book.
The book begins oddly enough in a small, economically depressed city in Germany, where a large steel mill is being dismantled for transfer to China. The Chinese buyer paid $ 26 million for the mill, another $ 12 million to move it to China and then another $1.2 billion to reassemble it in China. Initially the Germans looked at the project and said it would take three years. It took less than one. The most interesting thing about the story, however, is that the Chinese investor, Shen Wenrong, was at one time a peasant who had transformed himself into one of the richest men in China with no formal education. In fact there are many individuals in China like Shen Wenrong and Kynge introduces us to some of them. Each rags to riches story in modern China is fascinating and echoes the adversity laden paths to riches of some of America’s great capitalists in the early 20th Century.
Through Kynge’s eyes you can see how special China’s transformation over the last 30 years is and understand how it has been able to happen. According to Kynge, many provincial and local officials simply ignored many of Deng’s reforms because they thought they were not far-reaching enough. They just let local market forces be. Laissez fair with Chinese characteristics. And this explains the breakneck speed of China’s development over the past 30 years. Deng is given credit but the real credit goes to those who ignored Deng.
At the same time Kynge is careful not to fall into adulation of his subject, Although he admires China’s growth Kynge cautions that China has been mired in poverty since the Tang Dynasty, and even today there are many areas of China which are untouched by development. There are requisite sections on China’s fake industry, official corruption and China’s polluting industries. Kynge also questions China’s technological achievements over the past 20 years many of which were only able to happen because western firms had transferred technical know-how to their Chinese partners in exchange for access to China’s markets. Kynge seems skeptical of China’s technological prowess but does not reconcile this with the homage he has paid earlier in the book to China’s significant technological achievements prior to the 17th Century, of which there are many. There are also very interesting chapters on the negative impact of China on the textile industry in Tuscany, Italy and the tooling industry in Rockford, Illinois, both of which places Kynge spent time in while researching his book.
In the end though the message of China Shakes the World is positive. In spite of the drain on global resources like lumber, and the loss of jobs in industrialized countries, China’s emergence as a global power has been mostly good for the world, from cost-conscious US consumers who shop at Wal-Mart to emerging economies in Africa. And although China can still seem very hostile and xenophobic at times it is far too intertwined with the global economy nowadays to, in Kynge’s words, “bite the hands that feed it.”
Here are some other book reviews: