Sunday, June 03, 2007
From boom to lust
Posted by David Smith at 08:58 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

Tarquin Hall reviews The Dragon and the Elephant, together with two other books on China.

THE DRAGON AND THE ELEPHANT: China, India and the New World Order by David Smith, Profile £15 pp266

CHINA: Fragile Superpower by Susan L Shirk, OUP £15.99 pp320

GETTING RICH FIRST: Life in a Changing China by Duncan Hewitt, Chatto £14.99 pp457

“Fear of China and India is widespread,” writes David Smith. The two countries “frighten us with their size, their teeming masses of people”. Permit these rousing economic giants unfettered access to our markets and nothing short of western pre-eminence is at stake – or so one argument goes.

Considering the staggering rate at which China and India are growing, such apprehension is perhaps unsurprising. Between 2001 and 2005, for example, China accounted for half of all global economic growth. By the end of the decade, the country will be graduating more science PhDs than America. Meanwhile, the Chinese government is building 42 new airports and a road network stretching from the Himalayas to the Gobi desert.

India’s statistics are equally mind-boggling. By 2050, its population is projected to exceed 1.6 billion. In the coming decades, hundreds of thousands more American and European jobs could be “outsourced” to mega metropolises such as Mumbai.

If these figures make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, then consider the words of Nye Bevan: “Why look in the crystal ball when you can read the book?” And there is no better book among the recent plethora published on China and India than The Dragon and the Elephant. Writing in layman’s terms but with the requisite acumen, David Smith cuts through the hype to put the rise of these two countries into perspective. Unfailingly objective, he doesn’t pretend there are no dangers ahead. Most Chinese enterprise is “supported and only able to compete as a result of loans from a bankrupt, state-backed banking system that is competing unfairly”, he writes. “In a worst-case scenario, China could end up destroying the global economy on which it thrives.” For its part, India could steal away more jobs during a global economic downturn, creating a political “backlash”.

But Smith, a strong advocate of globalisation, believes we’re not staring economic doomsday in the face. China and India are “just Japan, Taiwan and South Korea in another guise”. In other words, there’s enough room in the global market place for everyone. “There will be trade frictions and there will be protectionism, but to try and deny China and India their rightful place in the global economy . . . would be a huge betrayal,” he argues. Besides, China and India are lumbered with huge problems. It will require a probably unsustainable rate of growth to raise their populations out of poverty. Both are sitting on ticking demographic time bombs and fostering unequal societies. Not to mention the problems built into their respective governments.

India’s record on reducing poverty, illiteracy and corruption is shameful; it has proven equally inept at improving the country’s infrastructure. Smith illustrates just how bad things are when he describes a truck’s 2,000-mile journey from Calcutta to Mumbai. It takes eight days along traffic-choked roads, with 32 hours of delays at state crossings and tolls.

By contrast, the Chinese Communist party (CCP) is willing to bulldoze its way through anything – homes, human rights, you name it – to achieve its aims. Susan Shirk’s China: Fragile Superpower provides a disquieting portrait of a regime that controls every aspect of daily life, suffers from extreme paranoia and will do anything to keep its hold on power. Shirk, a former US Deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for China, understands its system inside out. “China’s leaders are obsessed with what they call ‘social responsibility’,” she writes. “They use the euphemism . . . to convince the Chinese public that communist party rule is essential for maintaining order.”

Having let the capitalist genie out of the bottle, the regime relies on nationalism to foster unity. Japan is its chief whipping boy, but, more worryingly, it continues to foster resentment towards Taiwan. Shirk makes it clear that while many Chinese want greater freedom for themselves, they will not tolerate the island’s independence. “The public cares intensely about Taiwan because the communist party has taught it to care,” she writes. “It is universally believed in China that the CCP would fall if it allowed Taiwan to become independent.”

In Getting Rich First, a brilliant insider’s account of life in the new China, Duncan Hewitt reveals how obsessed the Chinese have become with material gain. In the race to modernise, big cities are being transformed at a dizzying pace. “Houses, streets, entire neighbourhoods can disappear almost overnight to make way for the office towers, apartment blocks, shopping centres and highways of the new urban dream,” he writes.

A British journalist living in Shanghai, Hewitt seeks to understand why the Chinese can be so callous about their past. His tender and often shocking book is full of telling portraits of characters from all walks of life. He meets an old couple who return home one day to find a symbol daubed on the outside of their 17th-century family home, indicating that it has been marked for demolition. He interviews the Swedish manager of Shanghai’s IKEA, who often comes across entire families having picnics in his showrooms. And he befriends a construction worker who talks with pride about the skyscraper he helped construct, but adds, “Now they wouldn’t let me in there, of course.”

Hewitt concludes that the cultural revolution has rid Chinese society of sentimentality for the past. A multi-millionaire philanthropist who is determined to save some of China’s ancient architecture tells him: “People can’t really understand what this crazy man is doing spending so much money on these old houses. Even my wife doesn’t like all this old stuff!”

From The Sunday Times, June 3 2007