For a very good review of a very good book, see Chris (Lord) Patton's remarks on James Kynge's China Shakes the World (Houghton Mifflin | Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006).
Both of these Englshmen know what they are talking about. The reviewer, Patton, was the last British Governor of Hong Kong. Author, Kynge, spent several decades' in education and as China Bureau Chief of the Financial Times. Here are two Westerners who had come to adore China -- not an uncommon occurrence -- and who can offer intelligent perspectives on this great and unusual phenomenon of China's issuance from late-primitivism into a modern political-economy with a growing "middle-class".
I was introduced to the book when it won the 2006 FT Business Book of the Year Award back in December, beating out Chris Anderson's The Long Tail. No mean feat. (Here are my notes from that quite fun dinner which I was able to attend here in New York.)
Shakes is what Tim Lagden would call "a thumping good read". I am among those who are faintly aware that China, and its progress, is going to be very important to us in our lifetimes and even more to our children in theirs.
It wasn't until Shakes that I felt a resolution about China. I mean, the question was persistently asserting itself (perhaps sub-consciously), 'When are we going to feel China?' The answer is, 'She's already doing that.' Kynge, overall, provides the explanation: our strong Western economies, our low interest rates, our thriving real estate markets and our surprisingly consistent corporate profits have a great deal to be owed not just the endemic low prices associated with Chinese manufacturing capacity but also the advancements in productivity: China, with its thirst for know-how and its (un)canny ways of absorbing it, has compacted the 150-odd years we took for industrial revolution into the last 15. The Profit & Loss Statements of the Fortune 1000 (or Global 2000) are already so tightly interleaved with China that it is difficult to separate out the value add. (The story of how investment in China went from the tentative manufacturing joint-ventures of the private equity pioneers to the direct investments by the multinationals throughout the second half of the 1990's is fascinatingly and humorously told by Tim Clissold in his book, Mr. China (Harper Collins, 2005). Tim's China -- lacking almost totally in the legal, business & cultural apparatus for doing business on a large scale with outsiders -- is a thing of what seems like the long past.)
Shakes caught me with little enough knowledge of China to be dangerous. Due to Kynge's authoritative breadth, I was able to synthesize something quite large & deep from my limited sense of this world. To obtain this result from a page-turner is an unexpected delight.
Lord Patton is succinct because he knows Kynge's subject well, too. But, risking an overlong post, I must share one of the stretches near the middle of the book that I found the most fascinating. Starting on page 144 (Houghton Mifflin), Kynge recalls an organized tour during his student days to the city of Jinan and the great, great Yellow River:
"It was known both as "China's pride" for the fertility it bestowed on the land around it and as "China's sorrow" for the floods that destroyed what it nurtured. The reason why Jinan had not been built along its banks, in the manner of many cities that line the Yangtze and Pearl rivers, he said, was that the Yellow River was too tempestuous."
Records of carnage from flood dating back before 2297 B.C. had colored our tourist's expectations:
"When we got off the bus, I ran to the railing on one side of the bridge and leaned over to get a better view of the mother of Chinese civilization. What I saw was very disappointing. Instead of the angry, churning waterway of my imagination, there was a dark brown, narrow channel resembling nothing so much as a mudslide in flow. My fellow students and I found it hard to believe that this was the fearsome watercourse that over the millennia had probably caused more deaths than any other geographical feature in the world."
The environment is a blind spot for China and the country's political capacity to cope with the imminent challenges posed by its deterioration remains one of the big questions China Shakes the World importantly and rightly leaves dangling.
Kynge views the Taoist and Confucian philosophies' emergence as contrasting approaches to the problems of water management: Taoists (laissez-faire) were for not building dykes and for living above the flood-plains; while Confucians sought to control nature through construction, regimentation and strict social hierarchies. The link, Kynge explains, between hydraulic control and political power is ancient.
"The challenge for over four thousand years and more to control the floods became the story of Chinese history. China was one of the great hydraulic societies, such as those that grew up along the banks of the Sumer, the Nile, and the Indus. The connection in all of these places between civilization and rivers flowing through arid but fertile areas is irrigation. The political structure needed to organized people to dig canals and to allocate fairly the use of water resources also lent itself to other types of construction, to city planning, state religion, education, and to a class with the leisure to pursue mathematics, science, and philosophy. It is not a matter of chance, therefore, that some of the earliest scientists also blossomed in those areas."
Kynge seems to lament,
"Conservation in general appears to be a blind spot. Perhaps it is the case that after thousands of years of political organization to control the consequences of too much water, the machinery of the state has not had enough time to readjust to the reality of too little. This might explain why the officials in charge of the Yellow River Conservancy in Jinan were, as late as 2004, still using the first twenty minutes of their briefings to journalists to explain the measures they were taking to control flooding from a river that was by then little more than a trickle."
James Kynge is a journalist, so this is not always an artful, delicious read. But the author's authority and his wide scope of knowledge met this thirsty reader at the right part of the journey. And Shakes is yet another indication of why so much attention in so many sectors is turning to the environment.