Fallows reports on a number of people or incidents that he believes to be fairly representative of the new China: entrepreneur-tycoons in Changsha, factories in Shenzen, reality TV shows in Beijing, gambling in Macau, censorship on the Internet, and above all the sense of dynamism and change all over the place in what is still in some ways a very rigid country. Last year I read a number of books about the 19th century United States, and I frequently found myself mentally comparing some of the places and people in this book to the more familiar denizens of New York and Chicago, though of course on a much larger scale - Guangdong province alone has more factory workers than all of America. The fact that the Chinese people are going through their Bridge of Sighs and Hell's Kitchen phase in the age of YouTube and netbooks is extremely interesting to me, and when I was done with this book I gained a valuable new perspective on all of the articles about currency manipulation and newly-minted billionaires cluttering up my inbox every day.
This book is a collation of essays written by Fallows for The Atlantic Monthly from summer 2006 to summer 2008, when he and his wife moved to China. I guess because they are written for a magazine which Wikipedia tells me prints articles on "foreign affairs, politics and the economy" they are more focused on those topics, whereas my interest in China is more on social issues and the human side of things. I will cut him some slack in that he had only just arrived when he began writing the articles at the beginning of the book, but I think it is incredibly difficult to get a true picture of China without speaking the language and having to rely on interpreters.
If they said the Great Famine starting in 1958, it meant they were country people who had seen many of their neighbors starve" (237). Fallows also comments that the date "5/12" when it appears in China carries the same punch and shocked recognition as "9/11" in the US. In other words, while evading the GFW may require technical skills that many Chinese have, most people don't bother because of "nontechnical factors." The only downside I felt in reading this series of articles, and this is not a criticism, was that developments in China and between China and the rest of the world are moving so quickly that even articles from 2007 or 2008 felt out of date.
Monolithic China, Tiananmen Square and The Great Firewall of China (internet censorship) are some of the images Fallows seeks to balance in this collection of extended essays about the people of China. Introducing a theme of nascent energy, Fallows compares Japan's internalization of orderliness with China: ... Completing his analysis, Fallows breaks down the per cent of sale price allocated to each of these functions in order to illustrate the mutual benefit to both the US and China. That is the reality of today, and what does that mean for the future is the question Fallows asks with thoughtful logic. Unlike many compilations of articles, however, this book maintains a sense of continuity thanks to the broad themes it explores and thoughtful treatment.
Fallows is a good thinker and writer, whose analysis would benefit from more time in China, better Chinese, and a deeper understanding of economics. The economic explanations (particularly on China's currency reserves) gave the impression that Fallows himself was struggling with the material. I'll keep reading Fallows though, because asking good questions is half the battle and I expect that his answers will only improve with more time in China.
After finishing this book, I am much more optimistic about the future of China and its people as they face growing issues and concerns both global and national.