on 5 January 2013
Was required to read this book as part of a course and found it very difficult to keep reading as the book is very factual and not particularly entertaining. Was like reading a well written textbook. Good if you like lots of facts and figures but not great if you want a bit of a storyline along with the culture of China
There are supposed to be a book in three book in three parts: China as today, how it got there, and where it is going.
The book is far strongest on the first part - where it is today. It is a compelling and vivid snapshot of China after three decades of extraordinary social and economic change. One gets a sense of the immensity of the country's achievements in eye-popping statistics but also of the commensurate social, economic and environmental challenges. He also pours some cold water on some of the inflated claims of China's imminent and inevitable rise to global dominance. The fact China finances the US deficit for example does not give China the whip hand over the US: China needs US consumers to buy its goods. China is assuming greater equality of status vis-à-vis the United States but it does not hold all the cards. Moreover, the speed and scope of the transformation have produced immense strains and it is a moot point whether the Party can continue to manage these strains indefinitely with perpetual one party rule.
It is weaker on how it got where it is. I did not get a sense of why the CCP embarked on the process of reform three decades ago. After the excesses of Mao, the Party certainly craved stability, as the Soviet Communist Party did after the death of Stalin in 1953. But why did it decide to concoct the risky formula of one party rule and vigorous capitalist growth? Was this the only option available to the CCP at the time? I felt that more discussion of the origins of the reform process might have been made.
In addition, the author appears to hedge his bets as to where China is going. He seems reluctant (understandably so) to make any bold prognoses of where China is going. Most cocksure predictions of where China is going are likely to be wrong. This is an experiment without real precedent and it is impossible to judge where it will end up. And he fights shy of trying to shoehorn his portrait into any fancy sounding idea like China as a `civilisation state' and again he is probably wise to do this. In the end we get a few sweeping admonitions that China will find it harder to maintain one party rule as economic and social advances make the country more variegated, stratified and harder to control. We shall see.
So, overall, a good book about China today rather than how it go there or where it is going. But still a very good portrayal of where it is. The ground the author does cover is covered very well. Four stars.
on 23 April 2012
This is the best book on China I have come across, a wonderfully detailed but also immensely readable "one-stop shop" for anyone interested in China, past, present and future. Sometimes shocking, sometimes funny, always awesome - like its subject - it's hard to put down. If you are going to China for work, on vacation, or you're just interested in trying to make sense of this huge and complex country (which feels like a continent) and its people, this is the book for you.
on 24 January 2013
We already had one masterwork from Jonathan Fenby in his Penguin History of Modern China. With such a hard work to follow, questions were abound, at least with this reader, as to whether this volume could live up to the standard of a previous masterwork. Jonathan Fenby certainly has lived up to his reputation.
Tiger Head Snake Tails is a metaphorical title referring to the all powerful head of China, it's fast paced economic growth and potential for world dominance, the Tiger's head, contrasting with the Snake tails, the underlying faults and cracks in the mirror.
The book opens with an examination of China's startling re-emergence and all the underlying details that astonish more than the simple GDP figures, how maps in Shanghai need constantly updating, how China produces enough toxic ash every two minutes to fill an Olympic size swimming pool, how Mainland Chinese make up the bulk of foreign students in the US and UK, and how luxury goods shops in Paris are forced to limit the amount of goods Chinese shoppers can buy.
However, the more masterful part of Fenby's work is to examine the underlying faults of the Chinese system, which appear in regular western parlance as little more than phrases like social inequality, or human rights violations. Fenby puts flesh on the bones and provides the stories behind the headlines. These range from the high level of people suffering from depression, the cases of human rights lawyers who have been arrested and arbitrarily tortured without trial or charges, to cases such as the 2011 Wenzhou Rail Disaster and the attempted cover up.
Examinations of history are given, but without digressing too much into the details of the Maoist past. Rather, the chapter on history, rather appropriately entitled "Owning History" is an expose on how the Communist Party have the final say on history, at least in the Mainland.
A major theme in the book, and again, one of those words which is often circulated but without providing much details, is corruption. Here we are given the extent of China's corruption, leading from embezzlement and bribes of local officials, incorrect and dangerous product safety, and the extent that nearly everyone is implicated and exposure of corruption, in the case of Bo Xilai, has more to do with falling out with the party consensus rather than the actual crimes themselves.
Corruption and environmental degradation are presented as the major obstacles that could derail China's ascent.
The other aspect, often circulated in the news, is China's impending property bubble. Fenby takes neither a bullish nor a bearish line, and takes into account the severity of this bubble, but also accounts for the state controls and nature of the Chinese system, a system which could, conceivably, see off a major market disruption and avoid a Japanese style lost decade.
Toward the end of the book, Fenby offers a fairly clear and revealing picture of China's outgoing and incoming leaders, with more information provided on Xi Jinping than previous news accounts have provided, making him less of the dark horse this reader previously viewed him as.
The only discernible fault with the work, and it's no real fault of the author's, is the difficulty of writing an up to date work on politics, no matter how fast the turnover time from printing to publication. By the time of this books publication in June 2012, a major character within the book, Bo Xilai, was already removed from the political scene. No need to recount the very familiar circumstances of his removal.
This book is a recommended read for both China newcomers and bonafide Sinologists. Having read over 12 books on China in recent years, and having lived in China for 3 years, this still informs this leader of new things, and consolidates previously acquired knowledge.
This is a book that should be read by all, regardless of how tepid, or strong, one's interest in China is.
on 27 November 2013
This was a very informative read - I went from a person that was interested but had limited knowledge on China, to a well informed person comfortable to engage in conversations.
The writer, Jonathan Fenby, clearly has deep knowledge about the country from a historical, political, macro and micro-economical stand point, with floods of facts and data points that are very useful.
But my main problem is the writing, it is not organized, not by a linear timeframe or topic, it was rather a train of thought that was jumping from person to person, from 2000BC to 1400AD, etc. I had to read it with wikipedia on my side to close the loops on some of these floating trains of thought. This style i find it to be extremely distracting and exhausting to read. but I kept on reading because I was very interested in the knowledge Jonathan had to offer. If it was any other book, I would have stopped reading it immediately
In summary, it is an informative book, that delivers on making you well rounded about China in a short period, but a badly written book for my taste. could be my impression because I am a left-brain-bulletpoint-business-person!
Having made his name with the popular "A Penguin History of China: the Rise and Fall of a Great Power", Fenby's study of China today focuses on recent social, economic and political events.
Much of the information provided will no doubt be familiar from newspapers and television documentaries: the astonishing speed of urbanisation, with all the attendant problems of pollution and scope for corruption and substandard construction; the, to a westerner, odd blend of nominal communism and capitalism, as displayed in the coastal Special Economic Zones like Shenzhen; the harsh crackdown on any kind of rival belief system, as in the case of the Falun Gong; the current rejection of democracy or free speech as likely to destabilise society, thus hindering economic progress. Fenby uses extensive firsthand obsevation to combine all this into a single book with many often chilling examples e.g. the artist Weiwei probably fell foul of the authorities by daring to suggest in his blog that the death toll of 80,000 in a Sichuan earthquake was due to corruption in building contracts.
Fenby reminds us how the Confucian tradition of keeping "a tight grip", the control freakery of past emperors are perpetuated into the current "top down rule" which is seen as the necessary framework for economic development.
Fenby has also added to my awareness of issues. For instance, I had not considered how the one child policy has created a "time bomb" familiar to the West, in which the labour force will become inadequate to care for all those too old to work. I had not realised how Deng Xiaoping used foreign technology and capital in the 1990's to enable China to avoid a Soviet-style collapse of communism. Yet by 2001, Premier Zhu Rongji had adopted the slogan "reduce the workforce, increase efficiency" with the kind of cuts and unemployment we might associate with a post financial collapse right wing western government.
The book will date quickly, since it makes a point of discussing the candidates just prior to the 2012 election to replace State President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in the ten yearly leadership transition. Ironically, Fenby refers frequently to Bo Xilai, the "princeling in his fiefdom of Chongqing", whom we now know to have been disgraced in 2012, perhaps as a way of halting the progress of an influential figure who hankered after a return to some aspects of Maoism.
Although the facts provided are all relevant, I sometimes found them hard to digest, making the book a little dry. It seems to me to lack a clear structure, and as a result at times rambling, even confusing and often repetitive. When I felt bogged down it proved possible to read the chapters in the "wrong" order in an attempt to rekindle my interest. I suspect it may have been "thrown together" in a hurry, which is a pity.
A map of the key cities and states continually mentioned would have been useful. I resorted to printing a map off the internet to help be locate places and areas.
Although this has increased my understanding of a country likely to affect all our future lives, I wish it had been better constructed, and perhaps more reflective.
on 27 April 2012
I have just started to read this book. As someone living in China it is the first book about the Middle Kingdom that I have read that resonates with my own experience. The first part of the book alone is masterful in it's sweep of the current issues that are emerging. I would recommend this highly to anyone who wants to know what is really happening in China and because of it's potential influence on the lives of everyone on this planet, that should include everyone
This book is, as the author says he intended, a one stop shop to learn about the historical and political factors which have shaped the China of today and its relationship with the rest of the world, along with considerations of where China is heading and how that will affect us.
it is clear that what China does in the future will have a major impact on us in the West. The growth figures ( and there are lots of figures in this book) are, as you know, are spectacular. The sheer size of China, its industries and population are almost bewildering. For example in 2009 China contributed 40% of the whole world's economic growth. This growth has raised living standards for many, creating a significantly sized urban middle class. In the 1960s 18 percent of the population lived in cities - that has risen already to over 50% and is climbing fast. Average annual income per capita has risen from 528 yuan ( about £50) in the early eighties to 19100 yuan ( about £1900) in the cities today. The impact of Chinese direction on the rest of us is clear. for example, China contributes nearly two-thirds of the toys made in the world , as well as nearly half of all the clothing worn in the west, and directly effects commodity prices by the manipulation of Chinese, and therefore global demand. China has sufficient foreign currency reserves to pay off all the sovereign debt of Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain combined, as well as buying all the of world's leading IT companies and all the real estate in Manhattan, and much more besides.
But of course there are real problems too: corruption, pollution, a legal system which is not geared to human rights, and overweening party control are, amongst others, major issues to be faced
The author, Jonathan Fenby, has 17 years experience of China including as a resident newspaper editor, and has used this knowledge, combined with excellent research, to give the general reader a highly informative, entertaining and often fascinating account of the world's second largest economy , and where it is heading as its leadership changes in 2012.
A really interesting book - I enjoyed it and learned a great deal
on 27 March 2016
Jonathan Fenby’s book is a comprehensive overview of the China of today and the history that has got it there. And make no mistake this is a big subject, huge, colossal.
The task he has taken on, however, does run the risk of drowning the reader in statistics and anecdotes explaining China’s progression to world power status.
The book opens with a chronicling of the recent explosive growth that China has experienced and the way that it has been seen by the outside world. It sets the reader up for the next 388 pages which run us through the reasons why China is the way it is today. All the widely held beliefs and many of the misconceptions are explored in depth and it is interesting to see the truths behinds many of these turn out to be far more complex than you would think (a case in point is why the Chinese Communist Party will not allow local and regional party officials to collect taxes locally as this would take away a level of central control which is held in Beijing by the fact they can dole out funds to underfunded regions, thereby keeping everybody in line.)
As the book goes on it becomes clear that the wellbeing of the party trumps everything and, whilst the party officials might make noises otherwise, this is something that will never change. It also means that there is an ever widening gap between those that have the contacts to succeed and those that don’t and this is turning in to a problem.
The issue of corruption is shown to be far more complex than someone just passing over a brown paper envelope in exchange for a favourable planning decision. It comes in many guises from money (rarely used as it is easily traceable) to fine wine or controlling interests in companies that have preferential contracts with the state to patronage over many years that ultimately influences the decision as to who makes the standing committee and who runs China. To give you some idea how pervasive corruption is, we find out that every major city has a store in it where CCP officials can go and exchange their gifts for cash!
What becomes clear over the course of the book is that the story behind modern China is far more complex than is at first thought and that the inevitable rise of the country is not nearly as steady as at seems. This is a country that has a lot of pitfalls which it will have to avoid if it is to sustain its current position as the pre-eminent economy on the planet (it has just passed the US as the number one economy in the world as I write this).
It is clear that, whilst China does not have an expansionist policy (if you ignore the south China seas that is) it is impossible for a country of this size to not influence the countries in its region and the wider world. To get all this across to the reader is a major achievement and it is to Jonathan Fenby’s credit that he manages to hold the readers interest in this excellent study of modern china.
on 3 September 2012
This is not a history of China but records what China was, what China is, and most importantly what it may become by discussing political,economic,social and regional elements that make up China.
Very well written and researched by an ex editor of The South China Morning Post who demonstrably has a feeling and understanding of how China works which for many less well versed authors is a complete mystery.
Ther is a good section on notes and a elect bibliography.