While I have never visited China, it has always mystified me. So I decided to read a book to get a deep dive into the nation that is a world in itself. I picked this book based on recommendations on Amazon and it turned out to be quite educative.
I had taken a course at MIT on China which focused mostly on all the success stories of its rapidly growing economy. But this book viewed China from a different angle, from the east going to west.
The author goes through a soul searching trip from Shanghai on the east coast to all the way Urumqi on the western end where it ends into Kazakhstan. He spends most of his time on Route 312 traveling by cabs, buses and other local commute options. And in true journalistic fashion interviews random people he meets on his road trip, with the simple purpose to learn from the stories of common Chinese people. It is brilliantly crafted and has a very personable reading style.
The book touches on various topics in the context of modern day China. Some of these are:
History: Rob gives a snapshot of the various dynasties from Qing, Ming, Tang and many others that ruled for several years followed by the modern era which ended the imperial rule. While the Republic of China tried to drive industrialization and modernization, there were several internal disputes that resisted significant change. Finally it culminated with the Sino Japanese war and the formation of a separate, smaller ROC, now Taiwan. This resulted in the formation of PRC under Mao Zedong who drove the socialistic transformation of PRC. 1979 was the inflection point when Deng Xiaoping embarked China on the road to economic reforms and a decent balance with Communism was achieved.
Communism: Rob seems like a die-hard believer of democracy. So while he still loves China for various reasons including its history, culture and people, he is unable to give in to the ideological differences he has with the country. There are numerous examples from the lives of common Chinese that support his standpoint. He goes further to explain why Chinese people have never been able to develop checks and balances on state power which he attributes to political, ideological and social reasons.
Rural China: Across rural China, there are millions of stories about lack of water (due to dried up or polluted rivers), lack of women (due to the one-child policy that made couples favor a son) and lack of opportunities. The road to the east is the only hope to a better future for most of them.
Chinese dilemma: The nation needs to empower its people to become strong but its Communistic roots can’t let the people be too empowered. The government wants advanced education without encouraging people to think. The tension is between the need to enforce orthodoxy in order to retain unity and the need to allow freedom in order to encourage creativity.
Tibet and Islamic China: He also makes a stop in Tibet and Islamic China. The Buddhist monks are afraid to lose their identity. Beijing is encouraging hordes of Han Chinese to migrate to these areas to keep communal tensions at Bay. For many Tibetans, sticking to the rules of the Chinese government is their best hope for their future generations so they put up with it. Similarly, while Uighars and other indigenous Islamic people are clinging onto their identity, the great wall in the minds of Muslim Chinese and the Han Chinese stands very firm. Beijing is trying to buy off the Muslim peoples with economic opportunities, education and transportation to the West.
China is a complex country with many socio-political tensions at various levels. There is a lot of subliminal unrest in people. But the rapidly growing economic opportunities are keeping any revolutionary tendencies at bay. Beijing is therefore frantically working hard to keep the economic pace as brisk as possible.