Sunday, October 28, 2012

Chinese check

If you don’t think China is the biggest story of the 21st century, I’ll have what you are having. My cheekiness stems from plain, cold facts: the rest of the world is retreating from economic expansion, but China is investing, building, acquiring as if there’s no tomorrow. Some experts reckon it will overtake the US as the global superpower by the end of this decade. I am told that one glimpse at Shanghai skyline, and New York suddenly looks provincial. The Communist nation has the largest monetary reserves, cheap labour, cheap capital and voracious appetite for the world’s resources. China’s three big state-owned oil companies have become the largest investors in Africa, taking stakes in energy and infrastructure ventures. In his recent Newsweek column, historian Niall Ferguson said China should get proactive and seek an end to the bloodshed in Syria because it has more at stake than the US does.

However, circumspection is the need of the hour, says Jonathan Fenby in his new book, Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How it Got There and Where it is Heading. The tenebrous aspects of Chinese prosperity – blatant human right violations, Internet censorship, rampant corruption – cannot be hidden even behind the Great Wall of China. And we are not even getting deep into recent specifics like train crashes, shoddily built schools crumbling during an earthquake, Bo Xilai and his family, Chen Guangcheng, Liu Xiaobo, Tibetan repression, Foxconn, etc.

Mr Fenby, a journalist for the last four decades, who also had a five-year editorial stint at South China Morning Post, draws his assiduous compilation of facts and figures from experience and farraginous journalistic sources. Mr Fenby starts with a quick assessment of Chinese economic expansion and what it augurs for the country and the rest of the world. In a terrific chapter titled “Mega-China”, Mr Fenby explains the malevolent nexus between First World companies and Chinese sweatshops. In 24 pages, Mr Fenby masterfully reveals how the Chinese boondocks are emerging as bottomless pits of misery and stress disorders. And there seems to be no end to these hideous practices.

A couple of days before the launch of Apple’s blockbusting iPhone 5, there were newspaper reports of how college students masquerading as interns were made to work long hours in order to expedite deliveries. Earlier this year, Steve Jobs’ successor Tim Cook paid a visit to China to pacify the nuts and bolts of the Apple wheel. Mr Fenby exposes how China’s heroic claims of financial inclusion are part true and part illusory. The fruits of the progress appear to be reaped by the 300-strong Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and their lackeys. Those living in cities are well off, but villagers are bearing the brunt. The Chinese are prodigious savers because the country’s health system is one of the most expensive in the world. The demographics are slated to fall exponentially, thanks to the Party’s myopic one-child policy. This is being called the 1:2:4 syndrome: one child will have to take care of two parents and four grandparents.

Mr Fenby dedicates the middle part of the book to China’s history over the last two centuries and how things came to such a pass. Right from the First Opium War to the Tiananmen massacre, Mr Fenby crams in too much for the reader. Oxygen is really at a premium in a chapter titled “Shadows of the Past”. Whether he is talking about the trials and tribulations of Chiang Kai-shek, the rival in the mid-20th century to Mao Zedong, or the Rape of Nanjing or the Great Famine perpetrated by Mao, Mr Fenby shows a journalistic brilliance few can match.

In the last one-third of the book, Mr Fenby discusses where China is heading. The facts are so chilling that you might want to have a hot shower after reading them. Chinese double standards on the global stage are charted out well and are a lesson in realpolitik to whoever wants to deal with this largely opaque nation.

With a transition due later this year, China’s presumptive next leader, Xi Jinping, will have his task cut out. The post-Deng Xiaoping consensus of devising policies on which everyone can agree will only harbour more torpor in the nine-person Standing Committee.

That said, Tiger Head, Snake Tails is not unimpeachable. Mr Fenby hardly touches on how foreign companies are treated to Chinese paranoia. And this is where he falters because that continues to be a blind spot in Western journalism. Also, the Google fiasco doesn’t attract Mr Fenby’s attention that much. “Reading the economic pronouncements of the Chinese government is like kremlinology,” lamented one UK-based hedge fund trader in the Financial Times. Yes, China sidestepped the 2008 crisis pretty well, but a massive housing bubble is waiting to burst. In the past decade, China has invested $4 trillion in housing, but 65 million homes remain vacant.

Mr Fenby offers wishy-washy remedies at best. More than lifting the draconian hukou system, which Mr Fenby advocates, what Mr Xi would have to do is raise energy taxes and cut military spending, instead of playing to the gallery — as the current fracas with Japan over South China Sea amply displays. Still, do read this book. It isn’t every day that you get to read something that would help you to cheat your way through a degree.

China Today, How it Got There and Where it is Heading
Jonathan Fenby
Simon & Schuster; 418 pages; Rs 599


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