This is my review of Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How it Got There and Where it is Heading by Jonathan Fenby.
Having made his name with the popular "A Penguin History of China: the Rise and Fall of a Great Power", Fenby's study of China today focuses on recent social, economic and political events.
Much of the information provided will no doubt be familiar from newspapers and television documentaries: the astonishing speed of urbanisation, with all the attendant problems of pollution and scope for corruption and substandard construction; the, to a westerner, odd blend of nominal communism and capitalism, as displayed in the coastal Special Economic Zones like Shenzhen; the harsh crackdown on any kind of rival belief system, as in the case of the Falun Gong; the current rejection of democracy or free speech as likely to destabilise society, thus hindering economic progress. Fenby uses extensive firsthand obsevation to combine all this into a single book with many often chilling examples e.g. the artist Weiwei probably fell foul of the authorities by daring to suggest in his blog that the death toll of 80,000 in a Sichuan earthquake was due to corruption in building contracts.
Fenby reminds us how the Confucian tradition of keeping "a tight grip", the control freakery of past emperors are perpetuated into the current "top down rule" which is seen as the necessary framework for economic development.
Fenby has also added to my awareness of issues. For instance, I had not considered how the one child policy has created a "time bomb" familiar to the West, in which the labour force will become inadequate to care for all those too old to work. I had not realised how Deng Xiaoping used foreign technology and capital in the 1990's to enable China to avoid a Soviet-style collapse of communism. Yet by 2001, Premier Zhu Rongji had adopted the slogan "reduce the workforce, increase efficiency" with the kind of cuts and unemployment we might associate with a post financial collapse right wing western government.
The book will date quickly, since it makes a point of discussing the candidates just prior to the 2012 election to replace State President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in the ten yearly leadership transition. Ironically, Fenby refers frequently to Bo Xilai, the "princeling in his fiefdom of Chongqing", whom we now know to have been disgraced in 2012, perhaps as a way of halting the progress of an influential figure who hankered after a return to some aspects of Maoism.
Although the facts provided are all relevant, I sometimes found them hard to digest, making the book a little dry. It seems to me to lack a clear structure, and as a result at times rambling, even confusing and often repetitive. When I felt bogged down it proved possible to read the chapters in the "wrong" order in an attempt to rekindle my interest. I suspect it may have been "thrown together" in a hurry, which is a pity.
A map of the key cities and states continually mentioned would have been useful. I resorted to printing a map off the internet to help be locate places and areas.
Although this has increased my understanding of a country likely to affect all our future lives, I wish it had been better constructed, and perhaps more reflective.