Satyajit Das: Chinese Contradictions

By Satyajit Das, a risk consultant and author of Traders, Guns & Money: Knowns and Unknowns in the Dazzling World of Derivatives – Revised Edition (2010, FT-Prentice Hall).

Peter Hessler (2010) “Country Driving: Three Journeys Across A Changing China”; Text Publishing

Richard McGregor (2010) “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers”; Allen Lane

Richard Baum (2010) “China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom”; University of Washington Press

Winston Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Churchill’s epigram captures the difficulty of understanding Russia or placing it into an accepted framework of reference and experience. It also betrays a particular foreign view of Russia, relying on traditional Western models of economics, politics and culture which the rest of the world is expected to conform with. In a similar vein, China may be an “internally consistent contradiction” for foreigners.

The rising economic importance of China has led to an increase in “sino-phila” or “sino-phobia”, depending on political persuasion and the issue. The rise in books and “experts” seeking the “explain” China attest to this interest.

In “Country Driving“, Peter Hessler, a staff writer for the New Yorker, applies a distinctly American form – “the road movie” – to China. The book contains three episodes – a journey along the Great Wall, life in a “weekender” in a semi-rural setting outside Beijing and time spent around the industrial zones of Wenzhou. Curiously, the “driving” of the title features heavily only in the first story but makes “guest” appearances in the remainder of the book.

Well written as befits a professional journalist, Mr. Hessler tries hard to capture the ambiguities of the emerging China. For the most part, the book focuses on the strains and pressures of a people transiting from an older centrally controlled feudal society into a newer centrally controlled feudal society. The fact that this change is taking place at breakneck pace adds to the strain and stress.

Country Driving” is an interesting foreigner’s view of China. Gracious and sympathetic towards his hosts, the author creates a series of carefully constructed portraits of the people he meets and the workings of Chinese society.

The record of his life in Sancha and his friendship with the child Wei Jia are especially good and sometimes touching. His description of the business culture in Lishui, a small city developing into a manufacturing centre, and a newly established company specialising in manufacturing a small ring used in making bras, provide useful insights into Chinese industry.

Country Driving” is, however, pitched as entertainment and tries hard at being amusing. It also caters to its readers’ biases. Lengthy descriptions of the wacky world of Chinese driving (appalling and dangerous) and driving schools (bizarre training practices) reinforce favoured foreign stereotypes. In an effort at self-conscious neutrality and being non-judgemental, Mr. Hessler casts himself as mostly a passive and sometimes incurious spectator to events. Impressionistic in style, there is little detail and analysis of the forces and concerns that shape the events the author describes.

Country Driving” is a pleasant, readable foreign perspective on China. The contrast with dissident Ma Jian’s 2001 “Red Dust: A Path Through China” is striking. The 30-year old Jian’s journey escaping a clampdown against “spiritual pollution” provided a far more powerful view of life in and the internal contradictions of China. Jian, as an insider who was also an outsider, provided insights into his country which Hessler, an outsider, can not.

Richard Macgregor’s “The Party” is a fascinating portrait of the internal workings of the Chinese Communist Party. Head of the Beijing bureau of the Financial Times, Mr. McGregor illustrates how the Party controls every aspect of Chinese life in considerable detail.

The Party” examines the relationships between the Party, the state, business and military. It examines how the Party runs the country through its control of personnel (through the Orwellian titled “Central Organisation Department”) and Party Cells implanted in every business and government department.

Mr. McGregor deals with issues of corruption – permitted within unwritten bounds as long as it contributes to the Party’s objectives and does not become too visible. He outline difficulties of controlling regional administrations – in the words of a vice-minister “the central government’s control does not extend beyond the walls of Zhongnanhai [the Government’s central office in Beijing]”.

Written with admirable restraint and clarity, the author’s treatment is journalistic relying on his personal knowledge gained through sources and interviews. It does not offer explicit analysis, although considerable insights are evident. Perhaps the most important insight is just how non-ideological the Chinese Communist Party is. The Chinese rulers have adapted the Soviet apparatus of Lenin and Stalin as a highly effective form of social and economic control.

Party membership is largely driven by potential access to power and status, often to gain immunity and protection that allows engaging in activity including business transactions, unavailable to non-Party members. The inherent conflicts of interest in the parallel mechanism of Party and Business are captured by the ill-fated Zhang Ruimin, the CEO of China’s largest whitegoods maker Haier: “I appointed myself party secretary of Haier. So I can’t have any conflicts with myself, can I?” He could and did with predictable consequences.

The Party” exposes a system focused on only one objective, its own survival and power, which is taken to be automatically synonymous with the success and destiny of China. The Party itself emerges as an infinitely adaptable and highly complex organism that dominates life in China.

In the wonderfully titled “China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom“, Richard Baum, a respected and long-time China scholar, provides an at times irreverent and always personal perspective on forty years of dealing with China.

A scholar who admits he stumbled into Sino-study, Baum’s book is chronological and autobiographical. He traces the emergence of China from its post War centrally controlled, socialist isolationism into a more market oriented world power. The journey takes in key events: the 1970’s Xidan Democracy Wall, the move to a more oriented market economy under Deng after the death of Mao and the removal of the Gang of Four, the set back of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the return to market reforms following Deng’s famous 1992 Southern Tour.

Baum’s deep connections with China and key players as well as his own insights are evident throughout. He does not try to hide the bitter academic rivalries that his work and renown created. A fascinating aspect of “China Watcher” is the length of time covered, allowing the reader to gain an appreciation of the changes in the country. It also provides acute insights into the various policy debates and disputes that have shaped this progress. Baum’s book will appeal to the Zhongguotong (old China Hand) and layman alike.

The rise of China fascinates politicians, policymakers, businessmen and interested foreigners. Each is looking to “understand” China from its own perspective and for its own benefit, usually monetary, political or economic. Some of the fascinating anecdotes in “China Watcher” are where Baum is called upon together with other prominent Sinologists to brief politicians, such as the first President Bush. The different points of view of advisers and the lack of knowledge of political and business leaders are revealing.

In the main, the West views China as its “salvation” – a source of vast savings to finance the West and a large domestic market for its goods and services. The alternative view, which frequently co-exists with the first, is a “threat”, at an economic, political and military level.

The picture of China that emerges from these three books, representative of the growing non-technical literature on the subject, is of a complex, unexpected and alien place. For a foreigner, China is, on the whole, impenetrable. The Party’s internal machinations make Machiavelli’s The Prince appear facile.

The complexity of business dealings is equally confusing. Concepts of intellectual property, rule of law and accepted business practice are entirely absent. The chances of finding yourself in competition with your partner or a firm owned by the Party or the People’s Liberation Army are high. The only thing that probably is certain is that you are going to be fleeced. Recent mutterings by Western business leaders testifies to some of these problems.

A common theme is the fierce and defensive internal focus of China at both government and individual levels. The primary concern is the internal stability of the Middle Kingdom, at all cost. This will create problems in a world where a cooperative approach to some issues, such as global capital imbalances and the environment, are unavoidable. Whatever the future holds, it will not be dull where China is concerned.

Baum captures the essential contradictions of China in the closing paragraphs of “China Watcher“: “…China has been my passion, my calling, my own personal Shangri-la and Chimera rolled into one. Although three decades of economic reform and global engagement have made China’s political and social reality far more accessible — and far less bizarre — then they were in Mao’s time, the People’s Republic remains for me a profound puzzle. Ever changing, ever fascinating, and ever frustrating, it compels my attention even as it stubbornly defies comprehension. I cannot look away.”

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  1. Three Wickets

    The complexity of business dealings is equally confusing. Concepts of intellectual property, rule of law and accepted business practice are entirely absent… The only thing that probably is certain is that you are going to be fleeced.

    Having done a fair amount of business in China, I would say the above characterization is oversimplified…to be kind. Otherwise enjoyed the review.

  2. KP CHEN

    Many Chinese are still only a “ladybug”, emitting their small shade of light somewhere … tough to say, eventually, who are the more successful, they or The Elite?

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