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Reviews - Books
Written by David A. Dayton
This is a fantastic book. Honestly, I only have two minor issues with Jasper’s Becker’s book, The Chinese. First, it is ten years old and I really want an update. If you think that ten years could not be nearly long enough to date a book on populations within a country than you haven not been to China recently. I would really like to see an update that included some specifics on the various population groups within the major cities of Shezhen, Shanghai and Beijing.

For example of how fast China changes, consider this: I first came to China in ’95.  I taught English at a university on the outskirts of Chongqing for a year.  That year was physically the most difficult of my life.  I lost 45lbs—there was nothing to eat.  Even the parents of my Chinese students told their children not to eat out on the streets because it was so dirty.  The teachers told me not to go to the campus health clinic because the university was saving money and buying fake medicines.  

My parents cried when I came home saying that I looked like I was just released from a concentration camp.   But life here is completely different now—and it’s only been 14 years.  Shezhen, where I’ve been since ’03, has made me fat.  I’ve gained back the 45 and another 10 just for good measure.  We have the choice of imported or fake med’s now.  Really, I have almost every convenience that I could want from back home.  So I’d love to see Becker do an update specifically on the first and second tier cities.

Second, other than comments about their visiting presence, there is no mention of the Taiwanese, Hong Kongese or any other Chinese from any overseas community.  These populations, which are arguable part of “one China” in anyone’s book, are a major factor in the development of Mainland China over the last couple of decades.  But more than that, I wanted a look at them from Becker’s eyes and in the context of the book about other Chinese peoples.  I know that Becker is a mainland guy by experience, but these groups aren’t just minor characters in the story of the Chinese people.  A discussion of their difference and similarities is very necessary to understand both their participation in China and their resistance to being controlled by China.  More than the update, this was the piece of the book that I kept waiting to get to, but it never came.

Becker’s book is fantastic though, in what it does do.   Becker is able to describe in very personal detail the many different facets of China.  Regardless of how long one has been here value of this level of analysis is immeasurable in trying to understand China for doing business or one’s personal life.  From the book it’s clear that despite the political rhetoric there is not just “one China;” not even within the continent.  In fact, as I sit in a factory outside of Shenzhen and talk about the economy with a manager today, he reminds me that even “inside the fence” and “outside the fence” of Shenzhen are very different places and the countryside is a “whole other world.”

While the personal details are great and I was sucked into the individual stories, the ability to then expand those stories into generalities without being to simplistic is what makes this book a useful tool.  He takes the exceptional and integrates it into a larger context and historical pattern.  Indeed, Becker not only takes individual stories and puts them into a larger modern social context but also fits the lives of real people into the detailed political and cultural histories of each region.

Becker knows the Chinese situation—and he knows that there is not just “one China” even on the mainland.  Life in Shezhen is completely different than life in the countryside.  Life in China when you agree with the political, social and economic systems is also much different than if you disagree; for whatever reason.  Education, money, political connections, even ancestors make a difference in the “China” that is described—sure this is true everywhere, but there are few places on earth the inequalities affect so many people.  Becker exposes this variety in great detail through his extensive research and captivating writing style.

The Chinese is not a beginner’s guide to China.  It’s more of a dissertation.  At more than 450 pages it’s long too.  But like I said above, my only issues with it are that I wanted more.

David A. Dayton is the CEO of Silk Road International (SRI), an U.S.-owned and managed international procurement agency based in China. Click here to visit SRI's Website.

Our valuable Editor David A. Dayton has been with us since Monday, 02 November 2009.

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+2 #1 tdk 2010-02-17 19:24
Excellent review,David. I am gonna buy this book on amazon right now! i am very curious to read it
regards, herold

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