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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.
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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!
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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.
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on 3 October 2016
Explodes, sweeps up and then neatly rearranges so much of what one thought one knew about China. Essential reading for anyone engage in studies on China, intending to live there for an extended period of time or just very interested by the country's current affairs. One warning note (though it shouldn't dissuade the curious): economics often escapes me, and so some explanations here I found quite heavenly and boring - my own fault really, should read up. Just be warned for those similarly lacking that knowledge.
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on 22 April 2015
This is a great book. I read it a few months ago as part of some research, and I am rereading my notes now blown away by the clarity of the writing, breadth of the coverage and succinctness. It's an easy way to get into thinking more about China and understanding how fascinating it is.
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on 19 December 2013
An engrossing read, balanced, thoughtful and erudite. As one might expect from the man who edited one of the major newspapers in the region!
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