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Unwrapping the Enigmatic Chinese Riddle

By John Pomfret, Washington Post
March 31, 2009


Reports From China

By James Fallows

Vintage. 262 pp. $14.95, paperback

People who write about China fall into two categories: the ones who like it simple -- China's going to take over the world, it's going to collapse, China is Bad!, China is Good! -- and the ones who revel in the mind-boggling variety of the place. For the most part, the conversation on China in this country is dominated by the simplifiers. Whether enthusiasts or bashers, they traffic in the same sound bytes -- that China, as opportunity or threat, is bigger than life.

Veteran journalist and former U.S. News & World Report editor James Fallows moved to China in 2006 fully aware of the dangers of writing on China and fully committed to unpacking the complexity of the most populous nation on Earth. The result, "Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China," a collection of 13 essays, 12 of which were previously published in the Atlantic, is an attempt to wrest the American conversation about China away from the simplifiers.

Underlying Fallows's work in China is a belief that if we don't get China right, we're in for serious problems. The U.S.-China relationship arguably could determine the future of the world. Our two countries stand Nos. 1 and 2 in CO2 production. Before the economic downturn, the United States and the People's Republic of China accounted for more than half the world's economic growth. After the crash, we're the only countries with truly huge stimulus packages.

Although no apologist for China, Fallows is convinced that it's "a better country than its leaders and spokesmen make it seem, and those same leaders look more impressive on their home territory." His tone -- smooth, assiduously polite -- softens his contrarian bent. But from the start, he takes aim at some of the shibboleths that Western writers have advanced in recent years about China.

First up is the notion that China's model of development -- an authoritarian political system combined with a semi-free economy -- will pose a challenge to Western liberal democracy. It's just not happening. China doesn't have a fixed model at all; the place is in almost constant flux.

Second, and more timely, is the idea that China somehow could use the $1.4 trillion it holds in U.S. Treasury securities to blackmail Washington into doing its bidding. Fallows disagrees. Yes, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao recently announced he wanted Washington to guarantee China's return on its Treasuries. But that statement was directed more at China's domestic audience, worried about another bad Chinese investment. Fallows makes the point that the more China invests in the United States, the more it has a vested interest in U.S. prosperity.

How about that $265 billion trade imbalance? Not such a bad thing either, Fallows says, arguing that the economic relationship has been very beneficial for the United States (cheaper stuff!) and definitely better than the one we have with our supposed ally, Japan, which for decades blocked U.S. products from its market and continues to make it difficult for foreigners to invest in its economy.

China: just a source for cheap goods? No longer, Fallows says. It's China's speed -- in generating designs and figuring out efficient ways to produce -- that has turned it into a world-class economy. "People think China is cheap, but really, it's fast," he quotes one Western businessman as saying.

Fallows doesn't confine his de-myth-ification to economics. Human rights? China's economic miracle doesn't justify everything the regime has done, especially its crushing of any challenge to one-party rule, he says, but yanking an estimated 200 million people out of poverty is no mean feat. For all the billions of dollars in aid doled out by the World Bank, Fallows writes, "the greatest good for the greatest number of the world's previously impoverished people in at least the last half century has been achieved in China."

The environment? In a chapter that he gutsily titles "China's Silver Lining," Fallows challenges the generally accepted idea that China is a continent-size Superfund site. That piece follows the fortunes of a Chinese engineer who has built a better cement plant, one that pollutes less and generates electricity, to boot. "The world will have more time to work toward a solution," Fallows writes, "if it recognizes that its most populous nation is doing some things right."

Fallows also delves into murky questions about China's collective psyche. He employs the story of an environmentally conscious air-conditioning magnate to challenge the notion that China's entrepreneurial class is fixated solely on making money. However, when he seeks to dispose of the idea that the Chinese have lost their way morally and spiritually, the do-gooders he profiles turn out to be Taiwanese, not mainlanders. There's a big difference between the two. And Fallows's argument is weakened in the process.

Fallows does criticize China, especially for its ham-handed propaganda. It's an active participant in creating a false image for itself in the West, he says. Take, for example, the stunning Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in which thousands of performers danced, pounded drums and performed tai-chi in lockstep precision. That, Fallows argues, only "increased the impression that the country is one big supercoordinated hive." The reality, he said, "is much the reverse."

When Fallows arrived in China, I'd recently left after six years as The Post's bureau chief in Beijing. The country he describes, however, feels fresh to me; comforting in some ways, worrying in others. That's partly because of Fallows's sharp eye, but it's also because China is changing so fast.

Pomfret is the editor of The Post's Outlook section and author of "Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China."

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