Book Review: The Chinese

Cover of "The Chinese"

Cover not from Oxford publishing

The Chinese, Jasper Becker, Copyright 2000 Oxford University Press, First Published by Free Press, NY

In the fast-paced world in which we live, where one day the cold war rages and the next the Berlin wall is gone, one would hardly expect to be able to put ones finger on the pulse of a nation by reading a twelve year old book.   However, Becker has solidly made the case that, as far as Chinese is concerned, while on the surface things appear to change, at the core very little changes.  As a student of Chinese language, and, consequently, of Chinese culture and history for the past eight years, I have had the chance to devour many tomes.  The story that comes out is always the same: the Chinese people are used to being oppressed.

The language of China is truly on the opposite end from the English language, especially the American flavor.  And, as language is a reflection of culture, China and America are culturally on opposite ends of the world as well.  In fact, although American culture has been under attack for two centuries, it still defies change or imitation.  That very culture of freedom and innovation makes it all the more difficult to crawl into the mindset of the average Chinese person.  But, to even begin to understand how the Chinese psyche has influenced its long history, it is essential.  Mr. Becker has illuminated this difficulty and necessity as well as or better than anyone I have previously read on the subject.

As a foreign correspondent, Becker was assigned to China from 1995 until 2000.  His extensive travel and access in a country which holds its secrets close to the vest is quite remarkable, especially during the period of regression from openness to westerners following the suppression of  the Tienanmen Square democracy demonstrations in 1989.  Unlike many histories from a foreign perspective, he is able to let the Chinese tell us about their point of view in their own words, as they reveal to him in those rare moments when their guard is down or their desire to “tell it like it is” momentarily overcomes their fear of reprisal from the State for “spilling the beans.”

Although Becker’s goal is an understanding of the Chinese situation as it is (was) at the end of the millennium, and not a history book per se, he does manage to weave a lot of historical context into his story.  Each of the fifteen chapters explores an aspect of the the current living situation that speaks to the overall psyche of the people.  As such, we have vignettes of the lives of people in the various regions of the vast and diverse empire that is China.  Into each of these Becker weaves the history that has brought them to the point at which they are today.  For the uninitiated, there is enough to grasp in broad stokes the march of Chinese history and begin to understand its connection to modern China.  For those of us who are quite familiar with its history, Becker gives of a marvelous book of applications for our historical texts.  His method of weaving in history makes history come alive, but doesn’t make one feel like one is reading a history book.

What one takes away from Becker’s book, more than anything else, is the sense that China has a consistency of thought that transcends all of the upheavals of the millenia that she has weathered, including the most turbulent changes of the last century.  During that time, China has gone from rule of the emperor to a republic, to rule by the Japanese, to civil war, to a closed, strictly communist society, and finally to a more open socialist market economy.  To the outsider, it may seem difficult to see a continuity in thought through all of these changes.  But Becker points our that, for the average Chinese, the envelope of government has never really changed the methods of life on the ground.

Chinese thought revolves around collectivism.  In America, while patriotic thought waxes and wanes on the idea of the Union, there is an underlying feeling of independence of each state from its neighbor, and of the governed from their governors.  In China, this is not the case.  What is important to the Chinese is being a good cog in the wheel that is China.  Consequently, over the centuries, except for the brief period of democracy, rulers have been venerated as gods, as having the mandate of heaven.  So it is that Mao becomes nothing more than the latest in a long line of emperors to be worshiped and honored without question.

One of the begging questions that Becker asks is whether China will every really become an equal to the western world powers.  At times, there seem to be glimpses the the Chinese people will gain a measure of freedom and prosperity, and that the nation will come out from under the shadow of peasantry that has been the rule for 2000 years.  Becker seems to be saying that appearances are very deceiving.  Although reforms open the door to a new feeling of entrepreneurship, those reforms are a little like a yo-yo.  Freedoms are constantly being modified and removed altogether as the politburo attempts to keep the tiger of Chinese economic expansion by the tail.  Also, much apparent freedom of the individual is, under closer examination, only a freedom of a small network of insiders to exploit the system for personal gain.

China also has to grapple with the extensive amount of destruction to her environment and infrastructure under Mao.  As a consequence of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1862), China denuded much of her forests that were responsible in large part for preservation of ground moisture and consequent protection of the fragile river ecosystems on which her vast peasant populations were so dependent.  As a consequence of the cold war Third Line policies, vast sums of capital created extensive cold war structures in the Interior that struggle to find any usefulness in the new market economy.  The suppression of intellectuals for so long, and the elevation of peasantry to ruling ranks, has produced decades of mismanagement that will defy rapid reversal.

Finally, one has to ponder the questions of foreign investment and influence in China.  While there is a strong optimism that China can become a safe and lucrative investment location, indications still exist that the Chinese are ruthless opportunists more than loyal business partners.  Foreign input may only go so far as foreign technology and innovation allows.  As such, the tenuous footholds into China may be here today, when she needs our know how, and gone tomorrow, after she has milked us for all the technology we can offer.

As of the writing of this book, China had yet to put into place the educational mechanisms to inculcate a spirit of innovation and invention among its people who, for centuries, have been accustomed to waiting for word from the top as to how they should think and feel.  Until China can learn to advance on its own in this regard, there will always be a disconnect of Chinese thought from western thought.

As my arsenal of books on China stands today, I would rank this book at the top.  I feel Becker has done a superb job of capturing the Chinese essence.  Having read this book, I certainly can view current political and economic movements in China and see the undercurrent of Chinese thinking as Becker has described.  I give it five stars.

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