Mysteries of the east

Three books that look into the mysteries of the complex nation of China

Shenzhen: a travelogue from China
Guy Delisle Jonathan Cape, 148pp, £14.99
ISBN 1894937791
China Candid: the people on the People's Republic
Sang Ye University of California Press, 363pp, £32.50
ISBN 0520245148
In China's Shadow: the crisis of American entrepreneurship
Reed Hundt Yale University Press, 224pp, £16
ISBN 0300108524

A favourite refrain about China is that the country is impossible to understand - especially for outsiders. For any foreigner baffled by the middle kingdom, the question is often where to start - from the top or the bottom?

Guy Delisle's autobiographical cartoon-story Shenzhen chronicles his own dislocation as he works in China's most economically miraculous, and hellish, city. Individual encounters are whimsical: the translator who loves Rembrandt; the employee who leaves her photos - some quite suggestive - for him to browse; the businessman whom he persuades to recount a Chinese joke. Such stories of individualised western bewilderment in the Far East have a long history - from Orwell's scathing Burmese Days and Conrad's transcendent Lord Jim to more accessible, anecdotal accounts such as the 2003 film Lost in Translation. Delisle's book lies at the anecdotal end of the spectrum. Yet his account never moves beyond the absurdities felt by a man thrust into a strange place. Shenzhen, after all, is China's busiest port and has enjoyed foreign investment totalling more than $30bn since the late 1970s. China's factory capital, it is soulless, crowded and powerful. A bottom-up approach needs to touch on broader themes.

The stories recounted in China Candid, by the ex-journalist Sang Ye, do just that. Ye profiles individuals from divergent social groups who relate in very different ways to the economic development of recent years. The migrant worker at the people's market in Beijing suffers from abuse of power - one male boss offered a promotion for sex - and hopes that a new Mao Zedong will rise to reassert the rights of ordinary people. Another victim is the old, sidelined Communist Party cadre who complains that the party has thrown in its lot with the capitalists to get rich: "You can't call this damned thing a Communist Party!" Elsewhere, a worker complains of being at the mercy of large conglomerates that can sack him or move him on in the twinkling of an eye. Moreover, the state-owned enterprises have become caught up in "a debt spiral, and going to court over it is a waste of time because everybody's broke anyway". Even those with positive experiences, such as the businessman who built his fortune from nothing, reflect the poverty of the system they enjoy - he pays off officials and has to pretend to be only moderately successful.

As the stories pile up, a theme seeps out. The revolution is over and money is the new watchword, but there is no system of redress for corruption and injustice. The recent rise in protests against illegal land confiscations, insufficient compensation, paltry social security and social services in rural areas, abusive power monopolies and pollution demonstrate just this.

Yet many writers remain upbeat about China, among them Reed Hundt, whose In China's Shadow takes a top-down approach. A senior adviser at McKinsey, Hundt sets America's 1990s economic high times against China's more recent double-digit growth. Following key Clinton reforms (the lowering of interest rates, the balancing of government debt, increased R&D spending and the spread of competition across sectors), an entrepreneurial boom was unleashed in the US. Its most impressive result was the internet's monumental rise. Unfortunately, says Hundt, as the US culture of entrepreneurship declines, American poverty and corporate profits are both on the rise, whereas the 1990s saw increased prosperity across the class spectrum.

Today, China has taken the lead in entrepreneurship, and it has inbuilt (but government-fostered) advantages - intense domestic business competition in particular. Technical subjects are emphasised in the schools' standard curriculum and the government invests in improving the skills of low-paid workers as it seeks to increase the value of its output. If current trends continue, China and its neighbours will make almost everything within a few decades. Hundt believes that, as with Japan in the 1970s and 1980s, the US can rise to the challenge, but must change its laws, improve its pursuit of new technology and find the right kind of leadership.

Hundt's road into China addresses the broad economic patterns that come to define eras and nations. His is a useful look at China's position in the world but, inevitably, it cannot serve as more than background reading for understanding what life is like in China today. For this, Ye's account provides an invaluable glimpse into a baffling world.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics