A remarkably thorough and up-to-date portrait of the Chinese state—“probably the oldest functioning organization in the world”—and the 1.3 billion people inhabiting it.
British journalist Becker (Hungry Ghosts, 1997) begins with a brief historical sketch that underscores China’s 2,000-year tendency to embrace highly centralized, authoritarian forms of government, thus revealing the cultural roots of Chinese Communism. The author examines the fate the Chinese people, from the poorest of the poor (and the tax collectors and local party leaders who abuse and oppress them) to the emerging class of quasi-entrepreneurs (who benefit from a fundamentally corrupt system of “public” asset management) to the tiny elite of Communist Party officials (who struggle to maintain strict control over their society, even while hoping to prosper from the dynamism of global capitalism). Becker’s restrained prose only heightens the absurdity and horror of many of the situations he describes—the recent development of the sex industry in Hainan, for example, or the 1970 earthquake in Yunnan province that killed 15,000 but was kept a secret by the provincial bureaucrats for months. “When news reached the [national] authorities . . . the People’s Liberation Army was dispatched to the area, and there it distributed not relief supplies but copies of The Thoughts of Chairman Mao.” In the epilogue, Becker allows himself some well-earned summary judgments about the nation’s prospects, concluding that China’s incipient movements toward democracy and capitalism are threatened, not just by its long history of autocratic rule but also by its deep debts, emerging environmental crises, and age-old reliance on secrecy, lies, and propaganda at all levels of the bureaucracy.
An authoritative, detailed, and nonintimidating treatment of a fascinating and often misunderstood subject. (maps and illustrations, not seen)