China’s Megatrends: The 8 Pillars of a New Society by John and Doris Naisbitt;
Harper Collins 2010; US$27.99
Figuring out "the face of China" has become a fashionable pastime among a certain segment of the global (read Western) intelligentsia. We’re talking about those who set out to define, in 300 pages or less, an incredibly large country filled with people as complex as any other; a country that, to make matters more difficult, is bent on widespread but loosely defined change.
"China is creating an entirely new social and economic society," write Doris and John Naisbitt early on in China’s Megatrends: The 8 Pillars of a New Society. So much for the obvious.
The eight pillars the Naisbitts postulate are notable in their simplicity: more creative thinking ("emancipation of the mind"); a societal balance between top-down and a bottom-up communication; allowing independent projects to grow ("framing the forest and letting the trees grow"); constant learning ("crossing the river by feeling the stones"); a new artistic and intellectual ferment; taking a more active role in world affairs; more freedom and fairness including a more reliable legal system; and a push for honors like Olympic gold medals and Nobel prizes.
The book is based on research carried out by the 28-strong Naisbitt China Institute in Tianjin. Its approach is described as "literally analyzing the changing content in local Chinese newspapers … Uncounted articles about local events and activities – no opinions – were collected, translated into English, and incorporated into a database that was the foundation for this book."
The ultimate result is interesting and well thought out but feels somewhat superficial, more clever than terribly insightful. It works well as a compilation of indicators – which is probably the basic goal of identifying societal trends – and it is good at putting into words things most people are likely to intuitively know. Consequently, a lot of the book is more explanatory, stating things as they are rather than addressing where they might go. It steers clear of any controversial guesswork, happy just to give a summary of where China is.
John Naisbitt has more than enough credentials for this. He wrote the first Megatrends in 1982, looking at changes in the US. It was, and is, a hit. Megatrends quickly sold nine million copies in 59 countries, remained on the New York Times bestseller list for two years, and turned Naisbitt into something of a modern-day guru.
That book spawned Megatrends 2000, Megatrends for Women, Megatrends Asia and the latest China book, which focuses on large and mostly abstract subjects like "emancipation of the mind," "vertical democracy," artistic ferment and the Chinese people’s concept of freedom.
China’s Megatrends is refreshing in that it gives China and its government a lot of credit for knowing what they are doing to keep the country on a path of steady progress. There is very little (un)helpful lecturing for the Beijing leadership. "China has learned as it went along – learned what works and what doesn’t work. It has been experimenting: it has stumbled; it has failed. But it has kept moving and has always kept its focus on its goal: to get safely to the other side."
The prose is also simple and easily translatable, useful since China’s Megatrends was first published in German and Mandarin, although the frequent references to "John" and his generally adoring fans get somewhat irritating.
The core problem with this and just about every other generalist China book is that there are just too many holes left unexplored.
In focusing strictly on the period since 1978, and using clippings from just the last few years, the book glosses over much of what underpins Chinese values and beliefs. It also leaves aside much of the impact that the rest of the world is having on China – positive or negative – and how Western values are meshing with Chinese beliefs and attitudes, changing both irrevocably. In this respect, China’s Megatrends identifies the changes but not necessarily the root causes.
Ultimately there is plenty of contemporary research from across the country that feeds into a nice whole. The most interesting bit may be the various anecdotes pulled from around China. Chinese or people who have lived or spent much in China will be familiar with a lot of what is described: The stall in Shanghai that becomes a successful business, the spread of Chinese art or the elaborate banquets with Chinese officials.
But for them, China’s Megatrends may not hold as much use as for people with only a passing link to this changing country.