Book Review: China Road

Last week I taught a course on Chinese culture, history, and contemporary society to new arrivals in the Middle Kingdom. In preparation for the course, I had them read "China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power", by Rob Gifford. I have spent the last 2 days reading their reviews of the book (all 75 of them!), and was reminded that I wrote a review of the book a few years back. Here it is in its entirety:

A Road Trip

I will admit it:  I’m a sucker for a road trip.  It probably has something to do with the fact that road trips were a part of my growing up years, which were spent in Pakistan. We lived in the southern port city of Karachi and every summer my family would pile into our old Volkswagen Bus and drive 1000 miles north to the hill station of Murree for an annual conference and to escape the blistering heat.  One summer, we started that annual trek north approximately 7 weeks early, and took the ‘scenic route’ through Afghanistan,  staying in Kabul for a month while my dad served as interim pastor at the international church.  From Kabul, we drove back into Pakistan via the fabled Khyber Pass, a route that Alexander the Great had taken (on chariot, most likely) several thousand years before.  Our road trips weren’t limited to Pakistan, either.  We drove across Europe one summer, and I have traveled by road to/through each of the fifty United States. 

 For the past few years I have been dreaming and scheming about doing a China road trip.  Some days the urge to take 3 months off, buy an SUV and drive from Beijing to Kashgar is overwhelming, so when I saw the title of Rob Gifford’s book China Road, I instinctively knew that this was a book that I was going to like.  When I finished it, I realized that it was the book I wanted to write!

 As he was nearing the end of his assignment as the Beijing Bureau Chief for National Public Radio, Gifford decided to hitch-hike across China from Shanghai to the Kazakhstan border, along Highway 312, the “Route 66” of China, if you will.  The highway winds its way from the glittering lights of Shanghai west through the manufacturing and high-tech corridors of Jiangsu, into the agricultural heartland of Anhui and Henan, up onto the arid plateaus and mountains of Shaanxi; across the deserts of Gansu and Xinjiang, finally ending at the border with Kazakhstan.

 Along the journey, Rob meets a colorful cast of characters and he introduces them to us in the book.  There are the Communist Party ‘babes’ in the Shanghai Starbucks who see nothing contradictory about using their party connections to get rich.  In Shaanxi he meets a Daoist hermit who lives in a cave high on the holy mountain of Huashan to escape the rat race, but then tells Rob to call his cell phone if he has any more questions.  As he travels across Ningxia by bus he meets a pair of traveling abortion ‘doctors’ who believe they are fulfilling their patriotic duty by aborting unborn babies in their eighth month. Somewhere between Xi’an and Lanzhou he finds himself in a village church, where he is eventually asked to give the morning sermon when the itinerant preacher they are waiting for never shows up. And as he journeys further west, into the regions that seem less and less like China, he meets professors and truck drivers who offer insights on what it means to be an ethnic minority in modern China.

 With a reporter’s knack for asking the right questions and getting people to talk, these characters give the reader a glimpse into the thinking of the ordinary people of China as they talk about what it means to be Chinese in a changing China, and what those changes are doing to the psyche and soul of the people.  Some of these observations force the reader to stop and ponder the implications.  A radio personality in Shanghai who hosts a popular call-in show offering advice on love and relationships to young people tells Gifford that “many people now believe that, if there’s no law against it, then it’s all right.  To many in the cities morality – a sense of what is right and wrong – doesn’t matter anymore…People, especially young people are mishi-le.  Lost. “(p. 20) A truck driver observes that “in the west, people have a moral standard that is inside them.  It is built into them.  Chinese people do not have that moral standard within them.  If there is nothing external stopping them, they just do whatever they want for themselves, regardless of right and wrong.” (p.54). After attending an Amway sales rally, the eager salesman tells him, “we want to live.  Right now we are just shengchun.  We are just surviving.  We want to shenghuo.  We want to live. You know? Really live!” (p. 192) And on a bus in western China he talks with a man about western perceptions of China: “What do most people in the west think about China?” the man asks.  Gifford responds that China confuses westerners because it is seems to be a capitalist country run by a Communist party.  The man on the bus replies, “We’re all confused about China.”  It’s a confusing time for many people.  There is so much change.” Finally, Rob asks the man what people in China most want from the west, and without hesitation he answers, “What we want most is respect.” (p. 200)

 More than anything, this book deftly portrays the contradictions of modern China and the resulting conflicted emotions that anyone who encounters China (whether as an insider or an outsider) must eventually deal with. The neon lights of the city announce that consumerism has arrived, China is at peace, and people can now have space to live without government interference into their personal affairs.  At the same time, however, the consumer boom is inaccessible to the majority of the people, the peace is an uneasy one, and since there are no checks on state power, there is no protection from the government. (p. 14-16) The communist experiment failed, but the Communist party is still in power. How can this be?

 Many of the people he meets are torn between a deep love for the country and anger at the people in power, (p.xvi), and Rob is honest about his struggle with this as well.  After his encounter with the abortion doctors and their cavalier attitude toward life, he comments, “The bus rattles on across the fringes of the desert, and I continue to fume, and to hate China.”  I doubt if anyone who has spent time in China has not shared that sentiment at one time or another, and his candor is refreshing.  Towards the end of the book, as he is trying to make sense of it all, he declares (and I agree) that “it’s impossible to be neutral about China.  Love it or hate it. For myself, I have always tried to retain my own unity of opposites, attempting to keep love and hate in balance.  …. And if you’re not confused, then you simply haven’t been paying attention.”

 And there-in lies the beauty and the helpfulness of the book. As westerners, we are too easily stuck in a “black-and-white,” “either-or” thought process when it comes to China, and this book challenges that. Is China about to become a super-power or implode?  Are the Chinese people more free or less free?  Is democracy possible or are they destined to live under authoritarian rule? This book helps us to see that the answer to those questions is the quintessential Chinese one, namely “perhaps.” The deeper questions about morality and relative vs. absolute truth that are raised in the course of his conversations are not so easily answered, but must be dealt with by those of us engaged in China.

 With his skillful weaving of historical and cultural insights into the stories of people, Rob makes this very complex and confusing society accessible, even to those who are just beginning their China journey. 

 Every three or four years a book comes along that I consider the current “must-read” book on China.  For now, China Road is it.  And if I ever get around to taking my road trip across China, this book will be my guide.