From our free-book-fixated sister blog The Peking Review, here is a list from among the January reviews that Silicon Hutong readers might find interesting:
Managing a Changing Relationship (China and Japan)
Articles from the original incarnation of The Peking Review, merged with this blog in 2009.
From our free-book-fixated sister blog The Peking Review, here is a list from among the January reviews that Silicon Hutong readers might find interesting:
Managing a Changing Relationship (China and Japan)
Enjoying the Pineapple Express
As I do each year at this time, I review the rather short list of publications I receive (and pay for) and decide which ones will get my money in the coming annual cycle.
I do not take this exercise lightly. While I think much of the garment-rending over how the Internet is bringing about The Death of Journalism and The End of Good Writing is hyperbolic melodrama, I intend to hedge my bets by writing checks to a small but growing number of periodicals.
My Subscribe list for 2011 will be:
The Wall Street Journal (Online Edition) – Despite growing signs that News Corporation is trying to turn the WSJ into The New York Times, the Journal remains one of the two papers of record for global business. What is more, The WSJ’s Beijing Bureau Chief Andy Browne maintains a nonpareil bullpen of superb journalists which, paired with the staff of the Dow Jones Newswire down the hall, offers the best coverage of business and economic issues available in China.
The Financial Times (Online Edition) – The other, equally essential newspaper of record for global business and economics. As good as the WSJ is, I could never imagine not having a subscription to The Financial Times. The FT‘s coverage compliments the Journal’s, both through its more Euro-centric (and delightfully Murdoch-free) point-of-view and through the scope of stories that it covers. Besides, any paper that has Richard McGregor on its staff deserves support.
The Economist (Online Edition) – If any publication proves that there is still a value to a weekly publication covering world events, The Economist is it. Wading through each issue demands discipline, but it is always time well spent. I understand why their writers contribute without a byline, but I continue to believe The Economist does itself a disservice by not recognizing and celebrating the superb people who make the world’s best news weeekly possible.
The Atlantic – There are few articles in The Atlantic from which I do not learn something of value, and find myself entertained in the process. And little wonder: with a lineup of writers that includes James Fallows, Robert Kaplan, Marc Ambinder, Megan McArdle, Ben Schwarz, B.R. Myers (who helped me understand why I couldn’t get through Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom) and Christopher Hitchens (whom I respect as deeply as I loathe), there is no non-fiction monthly in the English-speaking world that can come close.
Harper’s – I am anything but the target demographic of this unabashedly left-liberal publication (George McGovern is on the board, Naomi Klein is a contributing editor, but the virtue of Harper’s is that, for the most part, it manages to be passionate without being shrill in its coverage of a wide range of issues. I like reading that challenges my thinking, and Harper’s does that each month.
Foreign Affairs – As the journal of record of the international relations establishment in the United States, Foreign Affairs is the platform in which U.S. policy and its alternatives are publicly debated, in many cases by the people making that policy.
Thunderbird International Business Review – Leave aside for a moment that I am a Thunderbird alumnus and would have an automatic bias in favor of TIBR. I am a past subscriber to both The Harvard Business Review and The Sloan Management Review, and where both of those outstanding publications fail me is on relevance. In any given issue, well over two-thirds of the articles have little or nothing to do with my work, my interests, or my aspirations. I suppose it would be different if I was leading a division of General Electric, running a global supply chain, or trying to make my company more innovative. But I’m not: I am helping companies figure out how to succeed in places far from home. TIBR wins, even at $100 a year.
The Wilson Quarterly – This is a new one this year. I have found myself reading its online articles with growing frequency, and I’m impressed with its deep-dives on key topics, as well as its attempt to bridge journalism and academic writing.
Those are the magic eight that I am buying and reading in 2011, but they were not the entire field. There are a handful of publications I considered getting this year, but something stopped me for each one.
Bloomberg BusinessWeek – I have always enjoyed the coverage from Tiff Roberts and the BusinessWeek team in Beijing, and I’ve been a subscriber off-and-on over the last ten years. I still feel like the dust from the merger of these two news powerhouses is still settling, and once it does, I expect I’ll subscribe again.
Commentary – As both a thinking Jew and a Bull-Moose conservative, Commentary should be the first journal I pick up each month. Indeed, I subscribed for several years. Alas, the magazine’s Judaic fervor comes largely from a no-questions-asked AIPAC Zionism, and its conservative chops remain decidedly Neocon. As soon as Commentary evolves beyond those, I’ll start paying for it again.
Esquire (iPad) – Technically my subscription runs until May, but I will not be renewing. Writers like Tom Junod and Thomas P.M. Barnett originally influenced my to give Esquire a try, but far too much of the magazine is devoted to telling me what clothes to wear, what Scotch to drink, and what music to listen to. I’m old enough to keep my own sartorial, dipsomaniacal, and terpsichorean counsel, and I trust the advice of friends and family more than some stranger with a word processor and an expense account.
Foreign Policy – An excellent magazine. As soon as I get over FP Editor Moises Naim’s near-hysterical December 2007 editorial predicting disruptive demonstrations and unrest in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics, I will probably subscribe.
Vanity Fair – Every month there are at least three articles in each edition of VF that are simply outstanding. Unfortunately, there are also far too many articles about the parties, affairs and scandals of the decadent elite of the declining Atlantic civilization (i.e., the Main Line – Manhattan – Hamptons – Cape Cod – London – Paris – Gstaad crowd). I am sure these are very nice people, but I’d rather not kill the trees for 150 pages of articles about people I don’t care about and ads for products I’ll never buy just to read 15 pages of articles I want.
Wired – After it was purchased by Conde Nast and moved from San Francisco to New York, Wired lost its edge, and for a long time hovered on the cusp of becoming, well, Esquire for geeks. I can see improvements, though, so I’ll wait another year to see if S.I. Newhouse has the cojones to let Wired be less tired.
I have been engaged in the study of the Second World War on an off-and-on basis since I was about eleven. As a part of that ongoing effort, I have just finished my most recent sojourn into the China-Burma-India theater, having read Donovan Webster’s The Burma Road, Jack Samson’s The Flying Tiger,” Carl Molesworth’s Sharks over China“, White and Jacoby’s Thunder Out of China, Barbara Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China, Maochun Yu’s OSS in China, and a skim through The Stilwell Papers. I’ll be back to dive into The Dixie Mission and the region’s logistics, but I’ve got to get through my stacks on The Russian Front, the German generals, and a couple of other topics first.
So I thought it would be a good time for a wrap-up, and to address the issue that has been bothering me the most: the conflict between two American generals in the theater, General Joseph Stilwell, Chiang Kai-Shek’s chief of staff and China-Burma-India theater commander, and General Claire Chennault, the retired Army captain who was Chiang’s air advisor and the organizer of the American Volunteer Group (Flying Tigers,) and, after Pearl Harbor, commander of the U.S. Fourteenth Air Force.
Whenever I get into a discussion with someone who has read a bit on World War II in China, I usually find that person has developed a preference for one or the other: Stilwell, the crotchety old China hand, admired by those who like him saw Chiang and/or the Nationalist administration as the greatest barrier to China’s success in the war; and Chennault, the leather-faced air pirate who saw airpower as the solution to Chiang’s desire to fight the Japanese into a holding action.
Over the years, I have tended to sympathize with Stilwell because I saw the failings of the Nationalist government. Having just read a series of books on both sides of the question (and a remarkably contrasting series on the European theater,) however, I now see the issue very differently.
War makes strange trench mates, but the differences between these two were such that a clash was almost inevitable. Stilwell’s background was privilege, Yankee, West Point, Infantry, and a soldier’s general who was an army lifer with connections to Chief of Staff George Marshall. Chennault was hardscrabble, Southern, Air Corps, a tactical rebel (he wrote the book on pursuit aviation when the Army Air Corps thought in terms of heavy bombers) who had been medically retired as a captain before being hired to help rebuild China’s Nationalist Air Force.
Stilwell was – nominally at least – Chiang’s military Chief of Staff, but the two clashed constantly. Chennault was an expert hired to do a specific job, but curried favor with the Generalissimo and Madame Chiang through his Southern charm, his (relatively) cheap aerial victories, and his advocacy of Chiang’s low-cost approach to fighting the Japanese.
There is much in the two men to suggest that together they could have made a superb theatre commander. But a closer examination suggests that this oversimplifies the command problems in the theatre.
Stilwell was a fighting general, so much so that he was nearly appointed by Army Chief of Staff George Marshall to lead Operation TORCH, the American landings in North Africa. Somebody then remembered that Ol’ Joe had spent several years living in China as a military attache and could speak the local tongue, so at FDR’s personal request Stilwell was sent to China. Georgie Patton went off to North Africa.
Even the eventual outcome of the war in the European theater do not automatically endorse that choice. For one line on his resume, the U.S. Army sent a fighting general to a theater that demanded a soldier diplomat. Not only was CBI a theater short on fighting forces and long on politics, for all of Stilwell’s area specialization he either never understood the finer points of playing Chinese politics, or didn’t care.
To put it charitably, Chiang was trapped between three forces: the Japanese, the Communists, and the byzantine politics of Nationalist China, while Stilwell saw only the Japanese. The General was left with a choice: try and change Chiang’s thinking, forcing him to set aside his domestic rivals and focus on the invader, or find a way to wage war within the limits of Chiang’s worldview. Stilwell chose the former – not a bad choice, but one that demanded patience and diplomatic skills beyond Stilwell’s ken.
And while correct in doubting Chennault for his almost religious belief in the decisive role of air power, Stilwell was no less parochial in his incomplete appreciation of what air power could accomplish on the battlefield.
(Pentagon wags described Stilwell as the best four-star battalion commander in the Army. The jest was accurate with regards to Stilwell’s acumen, but its implied criticism of Stilwell’s command style ignores the importance of leading a Chinese army from the front.)
Had Stilwell been a corporate executive in 2009, I would have categorized him as the China Hand Curmudgeon, someone who would never let the Chinese slip one past him, but whose distrust would create permanent barriers between him and local partners and subordinates that would preclude success.
In the end, perhaps, the fault lay with Stilwell’s assignment. No one in Washington truly understood what his role demanded, and as a result sent the wrong man to do the job.
Chennault was in the right place at the right time, in a region nobody else wanted to be in, with the support of the local head of state. A thoughtful if not visionary aerial tactician, he not only lacked an appreciation for ground war and what we now call “combined arms” battle, he was drunk on the War Can Be Won From The Air Kool-Aid that was and is the chosen nectar of birdmen everywhere.
These failings were unique to neither to Chennault nor to World War II: indeed, the U.S. military has spent much of the past six decades trying to stamp out parochialism in both attitude and thinking. But in a theatre so thin in leadership and strategy, his failings were magnified. Chennault ignored the ground war to such an extent that he found himself evacuating forward airbases because he had laid no plans to defend them against Japanese infantry.
While Chennault’s strengths were in tactical aviation – stopping the other guy’s bombers and providing close air support – his focus shifted to trying to win the war through strategic destruction of the enemy’s backfield, nearly to the point of forsaking the troops on the ground. In the early part of the war, when ground action was light and his resources few, this may have been the better choice. But his persistence in this strategic focus when the need for tactical support was greater and in view of the limited resources at hand suggest a hunger for glory rather than military calculation drove Chennault’s thinking.
And while Chennault got along with Chiang far better than the more expert Stilwell, one is left with the impression that the mutual good-feelings were driven either by Chennault’s political naivete, lick-spittle kow-towing to Chiang as his patron, or a willingness to play ball with the Generalissimo as a means of furthering his own interests. (Chennault’s lucrative postwar role in Chinese civil aviation does little to dispel such cynicism.)
Chennault, in a word, went local, and regardless of his reasons for doing so it weakened him as a commander and, I would argue, undermined American unity in China and limited Allied bargaining power with Chiang. The consequences of the latter can only be imagined.
The Leaders We Have
In a much-criticized rejoinder to troops in Iraq complaining about America’s lack of material readiness for the 2003 invasion, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told a group of assembled soldiers that “you go to war with the Army you have.”
Source and circumstances notwithstanding, the remark is an historical truism, in particular when it comes to leadership. In World War II the shortcomings of leadership in the US armed forces were most evident in the China-Burma-India theater because not only did we have to work with the leaders we had, we had so few leaders there.
As I read Rick Atkinson’s magisterial “Day of Battle” about the Italian campaign in World War II, I was struck by how the imperfections of one American army commander were somehow compensated by other officers around him. Lucien Truscott balanced Mark Clark, Omar Bradley balanced George Patton, and somehow Eisenhower, thrust into the role of Chief Military Politician, held it all together amidst competing national agendas and egos.
China and “Deep” Leadership
The CBI theater lacked the depth of leadership that would have compensated for the weaknesses of Stilwell and Chennault, allowing them to play their roles but ensuring that their failings never stood in the way of success.
But perhaps of greatest relevance, a study of Stilwell and Chennault underscores that in war, as in all human endeavors, “great” leaders are usually just the most visible element a larger team of leaders working in obscurity. The best leader, without others to compliment or offset his shortcomings, will struggle to reach his full potential.
Too readily linking the lessons of war to the conduct of business is a suspect practice. But my own experience makes clear that the enterprises that succeed in China – foreign or Chinese – are those with the strongest bench of leaders, and top men who are not afraid to be second-guessed and corrected by their juniors.
You go to war – or market – with the leaders you have. Better to have more leaders, in this case, than less.
What I was hoping for was a dramatic and detailed retelling of what it took to construct this feat of combat engineering and human endeavor, so initially I was disappointed. (Lesson one: pay more attention to subtitles.) Using the construction of the road as a backdrop, Webster chose instead to cover the entire China-Burma-India (CBI) theater in World War II, with an emphasis on Burma and India, and some of the more colorful personalities who drove the progress of the war in this part of the world.
CBI for the Rest of Us
As a campaign history the book suffers, perhaps unfairly, because the standard for World War II historians has risen drastically in recent years. Just when you thought everything about the conflict was that could be known or written has already seen the light of day, we have had a cascade of superb books that have, in many cases, redefined how we relate to and understand the war. Three examples among many:
Burma Road does not approach the insightful yet accessible scholarship of those accounts. What Webster does instead is to consolidate the works of others with his own on-the-ground research to fill a gaping hole in the popular history of this “tertiary” but locally critical theater in World War II.
Most works about CBI have focused on either personalities (Stilwell, Merrill, Wingate, Chennault) or units (the Flying Tigers, the OSS, the Marauders, the Chindits). Webster pulls these disparate threads together into a single tapestry that gives a good feel for the region’s “War-on-a-Shoestring” as the world focused on Europe, Africa, the Atlantic, and the vast Pacific.
I have a list of minor quibbles with the book, most of them rooted in Webster’s background as a journalist rather than a military hitorian, that are illustrative of the issues that might keep The Burma Road from taking its deserved place among popular World War II histories:
Despite these quibbles, I enjoyed Burma Road and at a well-written 335 pages, I found it a worthy read, if for no other reason than it gave me a new point from which to re-commence my own studies on the CBI theater. For anyone largely unaware of the progress of the war on China’s southern border, I highly recommend it.
In the Hutong
Breathing deep the rain-fresh’d air
As I was reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s superb book The Black Swan when I came across a passage that captured with precision the way I think about personal libraries:
“The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with ‘Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of those books have you read?’ and the others – a very small minority – who get the point that a private library is not an ego boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there.”
That quote did much to soothe my mind about the fact that my library is growing faster than I am reading, and for that Professor Taleb has my lasting gratitude.
But it did little to help me figure out how ebooks fit into all of this.
The Stone Age of the Electronic Library
I have been reading electronic books since Barnes & Noble’s eReader eBook store was called PalmBooks, selling recent releases in a proprietary format for reading on Palm devices. PalmBooks was a life saver for a China-based bibliophile, giving me instant access to books that I could not wait for Amazon to get to me. Even better, I could read them in bed with the lights out while my wife was sleeping.
I had managed to get through over 100 books in the eReader format and had even managed to make a few of my own by the time I sidelined my last Treo three years ago. While I’d had a good nine-year run with Palm, I couldn’t see myself just buying the Palm devices just to keep reading eBooks.
So over the last three years, I managed to get pretty worked up about those books, sitting there locked on my hard drive when they should be on my bookshelf, ready for me to access and refer to in my work. So when Amazon first introduced the Kindle, I pretty much dismissed it. Call me when they offer the eBook and the hard copy for a package price, I thought.
The Return of the eBook
Then a few things happened.
First, I picked up an iPod Touch, which has become a great PDA, game device, and entertainment center. Then I discovered eReader’s app for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Suddenly, all of those books that I feared had been relegated to a laptop reading experience were now available on my iPod Touch, and I was able to buy and read books on a mobile device again from eReader and Fictionwise. Still proprietary, still electronic, but at least readable.
Then Amazon released the Kindle app for the iPod Touch, and a penny dropped. For all of the virtues of eReader and Fictionwise, Amazon has managed to put together a much better overall eBook experience on the same device. Browse Amazon. Find interesting book. Send free sample to iPod via Amazon’s WhisperNet and a WiFi network. Read sample. Click on link at the end. Automatically buy and download full version. Done.
Brilliant. But still not quite good enough. Because while I was getting an $18-plus-shipping book for $9.99, I still didn’t have any way to put those books on my shelves. So I continued to ponder.
There Are Books, and then there are BOOKS
Then last week, after reading two marketing books whose authors I will not embarrass by naming, I realized that all books are not created equal. Some are classics you want and will pass on to your kids. Some are worthy reads that hold value long after they are published. Other books are timely when published, but lose their relevance after a short time. And still others are a disappointment long before you finish them.
In short, not every book I read was worth killing a tree, spending the carbon to get it to me, and taking up the copious (but still finite) shelf space in my library. Some were just as well left in electronic format. And sometimes you don’t now which is which until you’re done reading them.
A Better Way to Build my Library
With that, my new system fell into place, one that works for me, the retailer, the author, the publisher, and the environment, all while limiting the pressure on my wife to find more places in the house to put books. Rather than talk you through it, I’ve diagrammed it below:
Jingmi Road, Inbound
In the pre-CNY slowdown
As many readers of Silicon Hutong know, I am an avid collector of books, and not just of the pulp-paper-fabric-leather variety.
As of this writing, I have something like 2,160 electronic books in my library, 95% or more of which are in .pdf format. What is even better, most of these were legitimately downloaded and were available free of charge, and on an average week I add around 10 books to that total.
I’ve decided it’s time to start sharing the wealth, so I’m going to be posting links to each of those books – and the new ones I find – on twitter under the @pekingreview account.
If you have Twitter, you can go to http://twitter.com/pekingreview and add this feed. I’ll keep it to a maximum of 10 posts a day to keep from overwhelming anyone, and that will probably moderate over time as I list all of the books I have and only add new works.
For those of you who don’t have Twitter (or have no interest in following a constant stream of links), every couple of weeks I will post a “Peking Review Picks” list of the five best titles of the past fortnight here on Silicon Hutong under the Peking Review category. I will give priority listing to those titles that deal with China or with issues that are important to China (international relations, intellectual property, defense, etc), business, and fiction, but I will list everything.
Why am I doing this?
There are a lot of interesting, insightful, quirky, fun, and/or strange works out there that have been created at great cost by talented people. The fact that we are not seeing them is the result of a traditional book publishing system that is broken. These books need promoters and that’s part of what we are going to do.
Let me know your thoughts.
And Happy New Year of the Ox.
The Parking Lot of the Heqiao Building
Smog smog blow away, go light on Tianjin today
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.)
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.
From the Lanai in the Treetops, Honolulu
Watching the submarines dive and surface
Thumbing through the pile of used books I picked up in LA last week, I am reminded of an old saying.
“Books are like wine: the good ones age well, the bad ones are vinegar.”
One book that remains excellent is Robert Mason’s Chickenhawk, which was arguably the first book to give a helicopter-pilot’s eye view of the Vietnam war. I had lost my old copy so I picked up a used edition to slide into the library. I’ve read probably a half-dozen memoirs by pilots from Vietnam, and Mason’s remains the best so far.