Crystal Balls: China Into the Future

Jingshun Road, Bound for Town
Rain + Smog = Smain or Rog?

1046 hrs.

Good books about China – by “good,” I mean those that are worth reading for the insight they deliver, rather than those written to settle scores or for personal aggrandizement – generally fall into one of four categories. They are either histories (like the works of Jonathan Spence or the late Iris Chang), the occasional memoir (Reginald Johnston’s Twilight in the Forbidden City, or Sidney Rittenberg’s The Man Who Stayed Behind), a deep-dive look at a certain aspect of China (Joe Studwell’s The China Dream, or Andrew Nathan and Robert Ross’ Great Wall and the Empty Fortress), or what I think of as a high-resolution snapshot of China as it is at a given moment.

The latter type of book actually live two lives. The first is when they are current, which in China time gives them about 18-24 months of shelf life before China completely passes them by. The second is when they become history, which usually happens 10-15 years after publication. My favorites among this category are Theodore White’s superb Thunder Out of China, Edgar Snow’s writings, and the more contemporary works of Orville Schell.

To that list I am adding China into the Future. The book serves well as an excellent overview of the issues facing China and in providing some new takes on the issues facing companies doing business here. It steps beyond those expectations when it concludes with a detailed scenario exercise projecting 16 routes China may take into the future.

The contributors are a group of experienced China watchers, and the book reads like the extended proceedings of a CEO-level conference on China – and I mean that in a good way. Reading this book gives one the feeling that one is sitting in the back of the room of the conference. I found the book is best read in sessions, sitting down and concentrating on a single chapter at a time and appreciating it for its fullness, thinking through the authors’ assertions as you go.

Those of us living and working in China will inevitably have quibbles with the book in different places. Throughout the book, and particularly in early chapters, one is occasionally touched with a suspicion that this is a work created by people whose primary view of China is from the window seat of the Dragonair flight from Hong Kong to Beijing and back. There is a palpable detachment, a distinct feeling that street-level insight is lacking throughout. Little wonder: all contributors except the estimable Ken DeWoskin were based outside of mainland China as of the book’s writing.

There were other little things as well. The references in the preface to the contributors as China “experts” only served to remind me of a conversation I had with Professor Fan Gang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences eight years ago, when he noted that he would hardly call himself a “China expert,” and he was suspicious of those who did. “There are only China specialists. There are no China experts.”

As I said, quibbles. None of that serves to make to book less valuable – indeed, the sooner you accept that this is the archetypal fifty thousand-foot view of China, the more quickly you will appreciate its value. No book about China can possibly be all things to all people, especially to we self-designated China hands who pride ourselves on the kind of knowledge and insight that can come only from immersion.

But all of us need the benefit of a wider view from time to time, and China into the Future delivers it in a way that is bound to be valuable to anyone with an interest in China.

At the very least, China into the Future is a sanity check, a reminder that as as always in China the threat of chaos lies sufficiently close to the placid surface as the world’s largest nation hurtles sans historic model into the murk that lies ahead.