Postcards from Tomorrow Square by James Fallows; Vintage Books, US$14.95
The real test of success for a China book is whether those living in China find something interesting to read in it. James Fallows passes with flying colors with Postcards from Tomorrow Square, a collection of articles based on reports filed by the author for The Atlantic from Shanghai and Beijing since 2006.
Fallows’s coverage takes in the prerequisites about China, but he reports in such a way that new information is given while one does not tire of the old themes.
A profile of Zhang Yue, head of Zhengzhou-based Broad Air Conditioning, for example, is ostensibly a study of new money in China. Fallows doesn’t leave the portrait there, though. He seizes on the fact that Zhang’s air conditioners are environmentally friendly and launches into a discussion of China’s nascent environmental movement. Not only is this a study of new money; it also sheds light on new social concerns that have emerged alongside the wealth.
Interwoven themes are also a hallmark of the chapter "The Connection Has Been Reset," in which Fallows examines Beijing’s authoritarian behavior through its internet controls, notably the preference for making content inaccessible rather than going to the trouble of censoring it. The rationale speaks volumes for public attitudes toward government: Beijing knows only the most determined will try to navigate through the blockade. This approach also reflects one of Fallows’s main themes – though China is complex, it wants to cooperate with the wider world, albeit on its own terms. While the government is aware that foreign and domestic firms rely on being able to get around internet controls to do business, it is not prepared to make it easy for local people looking for news about incidents of social unrest.
Throughout the book, whether dealing with domestic issues or assessing the political and economic implications of China’s large trade surplus with the US, Fallows sticks to the middle ground, not taking sides for or against China.
Only in the last chapter does he step out of his observer role. In "Their Own Worst Enemy" the author ponders why, when China generally impresses those foreigners who live here, it manages to project a largely negative view to those on the outside. Fallows thinks believes it can be traced back to the "parochial" nature of China’s leaders, who don’t really grasp the way public opinion works beyond their borders.
Official claims are often not trusted by foreigners, and many of the positive developments brought about by China’s government do not receive coverage or are misinterpreted by those outside the country. Perhaps more damaging is that central government officials acting with the best of intentions may be undermined by local officials who are pursuing their own agendas.
Fallows’ solution for China is to work with the likes of the US to develop a more transparent framework that will allow it to be taken seriously. That is the real message behind Fallows’s Postcards: Don’t fear China, but don’t dismiss it outright; it will one day be a serious world power.
Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret, Holt Paperbacks, US$7.99
The memoir of a reporter who studied in China just after the Cultural Revolution. For those who want to see how the China Fallows writes about got started.
Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China by Ian Johnston, Vintage Books US$14.95
Johnston’s studies on rural land seizures, hutong preservation and the crackdown on Falun Gong are for those who feel Fallows isn’t critical enough of China.
Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now by Jan Wong, Anchor US$15.95
A memoir of one of the first foreign students at Peking University. Wong explains how she became critical of China’s changes after the Cultural Revolution.