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From Barnes & NobleOur Review
How much do you really know about China? Most of us have a few stereotypes built around Mao; excavated clay horsemen; porcelain, pagodas, and pandas; and cheap goods made by teeming masses of people. There are nearly 1.3 billion people living in China -- almost one-quarter of the world's population. There are 55 ethnic minorities who, for the most part, live outside the mainstream of Chinese life and do not speak Chinese. The one-child rule is not consistently enforced, and by mid-century there will be 1.6 billion people living in China. Although officially socialist, China's free markets are developing rapidly. As long-suppressed peasants and corrupt Communist politicians scurry to get rich quick, the less savvy are practically imprisoned by long workdays, crowded firetrap dormitories, and militaristic discipline. The central government turns the other way as the factories of the new entrepreneurs spew and bellow noxious chemical waste into the air and water. Why should you care? Well, if your better humanitarian impulses have not kicked in by now, then think about what that burgeoning population and all that industrial waste portend for the planet you share with the Chinese. You cannot afford to ignore what is happening on the other side of the world.
Jasper Becker, a Western correspondent who has spent much of his professional life among the Chinese, paints a brilliant picture of China's contemporary economy and society in all of its geographic diversity. Becker weaves history into the present, without overburdening the reader with dynastic details. Built on centuries of imperial absolutism, Mao's 1949 communist revolution and its failed policies set the stage for the current regime's middle path of socialist planning and capitalist incentives. The older industrial zones in China's rust belt can no longer compete with the new Special Economic Zones, and much of the labor force sits idle and hopeless in the face of plundered pension funds. Becker predicts that the government will have to absorb the bad debt of the state-owned enterprises, and any remaining assets will be privatized.
Although the future may be in the private sector, the road there is full of potholes. Political leaders come and go, and the new economic movers and shakers cannot predict what tack the Party will next take. Business chiefs do all they can to appease influential Party members. Founder Zhang Hongwei of the Orient Group, the first private company allowed to list shares of stock, offered this truth to the author, "In China doing business is different from doing business in other places: you only spend thirty percent of your effort in business. The other seventy percent is spent on dealing with all kinds of interpersonal relationships."
For most of the Chinese, the bare necessities of life are hard to come by, but for an elite 20 percent, Western consumerism rules. The Party's censorship is breaking down, as the affluent gain access to the Internet, telephones, fax machines, and video players. Today's young adults grew up on foreign children's books, and they watch foreign films at home on pirated videos. Becker believes that this "free flow of information may well undermine China's highly centralized political system."
For the privileged few China is changing rapidly, but these changes are occurring at the expense of the impoverished majority and the natural environment. Oh, the West has its own poverty, population, and pollution problems, you say. Well, yes, but that's all the more reason to be concerned about China.
William T. Wells lives in Winston-Salem, NC.