Tuesday, September 14, 2010

China Shakes the World

"Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world." - Napoleon

There is a ton of valuable information in China Shakes the World: A Titan's Rise and Troubled Future - and the Challenge for America by James Kynge. Kynge is the former Beijing bureau chief for The Financial Times. He knows his stuff.

The first half of China Shakes the World largely focuses on how China's has affected and is affecting other nations around the world with its rise. Kynge profiles a steel factory from Dortmund, Germany that was dismantled and then reassembled in China, the "China town" of Prato, Italy (which just happened to be featured in the New York Times a couple days ago), and the, now, dreary rust belt town of Rockford, Illinois. These stories are somewhat dated - they are from the first half of this decade - but are still very relevant and insightful.

The second half of the book focuses on China and its domestic issues. Pollution, the social problems arising from the transition from a planned to open economy, and issues regarding China's lack of political reform are all explored. There is a lot to take in from these chapters. I took a lot of notes.

I always try to highlight something that caught my eye in these book review on this blog. It took me a while to decide what to feature in this review. There is so much in this book. I eventually decided to go with a passage from the chapter, "The Collapse of Social Trust," on page 169:
The horrific nature of such cases (the contamination of blood supplies with the HIV virus in Henan Province and the authorities knowledge of such events) provides a bleak commentary on contemporary society. It also detracts from the national image. To some people, that may seem a mere inconvenience. But the reputation of a country, like that of an individual, is of inestimable value. China has much going for it in this regard: an ancient culture, sparkling traditions in literature and the arts, the accumulated wisdom of thinkers over thousands of years, the size of its potential power, the taste of its cuisine, king fu and other martial arts, the diligence and intelligence of its people, the gleaming skyscrapers in cool new cities such as Shanghai, and of course the cuddly giant panda. But against these positive associations are a raft of less alluring images: shabby products, counterfeit goods, ripoffs of intellectual property, exploited labor, human rights abuses, the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, official nepotism and corruption, the persecution of religion and other forms of spirituality, a sick environment, outbursts of angry nationalism, and opposition to the exiled Dalai Lama. All or any of these impressions, plus others too numerous to mention, can coalesce to shape the attitudes of people in the West when they read the label "Made in China" on products. The resulting image, or brand, is often far from positive, and Chinese companies pay handsomely every year for the poor perceptions held in the west.
I really like this paragraph. It sums up China's "brand" issue so well.

China just has so much going for it in so many different ways. The mystery and romanticism surrounding some its most ancient and traditional customs are one-of-a-kind. There is not another culture on earth that can compare to what China's has to offer.

Yet at the same time, China has just so much going against it in the eyes of the international community. Kynge's exhaustive list in the paragraph above only scratches the surface. The many positives China's culture brings to the table are tarnished on a daily basis.

Such is the dilemma of being a country with many remnants of its fascinating past developing at an unprecedented pace often at the expense of the rest of the world. Kynge doesn't have the answers to China's "branding" problem. But he does do a wonderful job of laying it out.

China Shakes the World is both meaty and accessible. That is a very difficult thing to achieve. I was reminded a lot of China Road by Rob Gifford as I read this book. I mean that as a great compliment. China Shakes the World makes a great economic-leaning companion to Gifford's book. Being a largely economics-focused book written more than five years ago, it is dated. But that shouldn't keep someone interested in China from reading it. There is more than enough timeless material in this book.

1 comment:

americansifu said...


Nice review. I agree, this is one of the best books on China, albeit a bit dark.


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