A Clear-Eyed Look Ahead

The Parking Lot of the Heqiao Building

Smog smog blow away, go light on Tianjin today

1007 hrs.


The shelf life of a good China book, especially one that covers business, is short. The pace of change in China is so brutal as to render the best tomes obsolete all to quickly, and often before they even reach the bookshelf.

So when finally sat down to read James Kynge’s China Shakes the World last week, I was concerned that I had waited past the book’s prime to imbibe its insights.

I needn’t have worried.

A clear-eyed look forward

James has been in China for 27 years, but the tone of the book is one of humility. He approaches his subject – the economic rise of China and what it means for Chinese and for the rest of us – as a student, and he takes us along on his journey of discovery.

Thus unlike most books about China, China Shakes the World looks forward rather than back, using the past and an acute understanding of what drives China and its people to attempt to draw some faint lines into the future. The picture he paints is not always comfortable, but he resists the temptation of weaker writers to lapse into alarmism or make sweeping generalizations. His head remains calm throughout, and this makes his conclusions all the more disturbing because they cannot be dismissed.

When the going gets tough

What I treasured most about the book was the distilled insights that he gently placed throughout. My favorite – and, given the times, the most relevant – was his observation that reform moves forward in China at a brisk pace when the nation faces severe challenges, and when times are good the pace of reform slows, stops, and sometimes reverses.

Generalizations are always suspect in China, and it it has been my experience that when dislocations are severe regulation on media actually increases. That said, a review of the historical record bears James out, and if the Hu/Wen administration remains true to form, the next major policy initiative to address the current economic crisis (after the current round of Keynesian pump-priming) may be a liberalization in foreign investment policy.

(As such, this is a very good time for companies operating in highly-regulated industries and the associations that represent them to begin crafting the economic case for greater liberalization, because the opportunity to drive change will come quickly.)

A must-read

Once again, I have yet to read the single book that provides the key to understanding China, despite a quarter-century of looking. When China Shakes the World, however, should be at the top of your reading list of books that offer precious insight into where China is going and how we should prepare for it.