Review: China Road, One Man’s Journey into the Heart of Modern China by Rob Gifford

Rob Gifford is an British journalist and radio correspondent. He first went to China in 1987 to study language. He has visited, studied, and worked in China for two decades, for the BBC world serviceNational Public Radio (NPR), and other news sources. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, and he clearly loves the country. In 2005 he and his family decided to move back to Britain, but before doing so he wanted to do one big final trip: Route 312 from Shanghai on the east coast to the border with Kazakhstan in the north-west, a distance of over 4000 kilometers. He used buses, taxi’s, and often he simply hitchhiked, usually with a truck. This book is a record of that trip.

Moreover, Gifford also had a larger reason to write the book. He is fascinated by the political situation in China, but he is also worried. China is not a stable country. It is currently mostly quiet, and it is developing at a furious pace, but Gifford is afraid that this will not last, and this book is his way of telling the world about his worries.

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I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with this kind of road-trip book. It is a great way to see by proxy some parts of the world that you will never see in person, and meet people you could never talk with on your own, and that’s what I love about this kind of book. But of course you only see what the author is interested in, and you’re missing a lot of impressions and sensations, which makes it a bit bland unless the author is really good.

The author is a trained journalist in what I consider the BBC school of journalism, which means that he tries very much to be objective or at least be clear when something is an opinion. But of course his choice of subject to report on is also a subjective choice. What is a bit grating (and that’s also in line with the BBC school) is that the author is so obviously also trying to be entertaining. There are some comical dialogs in the book that are only there because the author wants to to meet his quota in this area.

As I said, the author loves China, but he is also well aware of its social problems, and he  has a lot of experience reporting things that the Chinese authorities do not want to be reported, from corruption to the effects of the one-child policy, Tibet, and other minority issues. Consequently he also has a lot of experience evading the authorities, and in in this book this skill results in some very interesting insights in behind-the-scenes China.

Nevertheless, this book is a bit of a mixed bag. A lot of the dialog and local colour look a bit like contractual obligation. The author has a message that needs to be told urgently, and this whole road-trip framework is just a way to lure in the reader. As he puts it:

After the killing of the students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Communist Party leaders made an unwritten, unspoken deal with the people of China: stay out of politics, and you can do anything you want. During the 1990s, for the first time in more than forty years (or perhaps four thousand), the Chinese government began to retreat from people’s everyday lives.

This was a very clever move by the Party. The tiny bird cage in which Chinese people had previously lived became an aviary. You cannot yet fly up to the clear blue sky, and they can still catch you if they want to, but there is plenty of room to fly around. After more than forty years of being forced to participate in politics, the majority of the Chinese were only too happy to disengage from it completely and get on with the business of making money.

The main thesis of the book is that the current situation cannot last. True, the governments after Mao have been very effective. They have elevated  half a continent to at least some form of economic prosperity. However, Gifford thinks that despite the developments, the one-party system is too corrupt and too ossified to bring real change. Many people in China still live in very marginal conditions, and the only reason that there hasn’t been any serious unrest is that the economy is growing at a furious pace. However, this growth cannot last forever, because unavoidably one day there will be a hiccup of some form, and once that growth stops all the bottled-up social unrest will erupt. The only way for the government to avoid this is to make sure that as many people as possible will have at least some vested interest in the system, but the author is not at all sure that the government will be able to pull this off.

And there are some big inherent conflicts in China’s current system: free flow of information is essential for an effective high-tech economy, but dissenting voices will also use that freedom. Similarly, a highly educated populace is essential but causes dissent. The pollution at some places is now at such a level that some serious investment must be done to clean up, but that would disrupt the economic growth.  (And a much less corrupt local government is also required.)

To this outsider the book sounds like a plausible an nuanced evaluation of China, and his fear for instability sounds very reasonable to me. The only thing I can argue against it is that the system has now lasted for more than two decades, so the Chinese government must be doing something right. And of course, this westerner is worried about the rather uncertain justice in China, the routine violations of human rights, the corruption, and the large environmental problems that China still has to solve.

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