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Check It Out

Courier Article by Pam Locker
Sunday, June 22, 2008

Contemporary China

With China on the verge of being the world's next great nation, interest in the People's Republic is high. However, due to the extremely effective censorship that hamstrings foreign reporters, most of us have a very dated and incomplete picture of contemporary China. Media exposure during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing should help. But in the meantime, here are some brand new books that made me feel that, like Rip Van Winkle, I had slept through some huge changes.


China's Great Train: Beijing's Drive West and the Campaign to Remake Tibet by Abrahm Lustgarten (Times Books, 2008). In 2000, Chinese leaders decided to proceed with the long-dreamed-of plan of building a 700-mile railroad through the Tibetan mountains and unstable permafrost plateau to the holy city of Lhasa. Not only would the railroad bring the rebellious Tibetan-occupied areas, which constitute one quarter of China's total area, into the fold, but it would also lead to vastly improved security along the Indian-Chinese border and access to the region's vast mineral and oil deposits. And, ostensibly, it would extend the country's booming prosperity to the Tibetans.


Veteran free-lancer and "Fortune" magazine contributor Lustgarten, posing as an innocent backpacker during numerous forays inside Tibet, has provided a wealth of intriguing detail about the people, both large and small, involved in and affected by this astounding engineering feat. He also reports on the harsh treatment of Buddhist practitioners and deflates whatever dreams we might have had of visiting pristine Tibet, because it no longer exists. The Lhasa Express made its maiden voyage in June 2006.


Socialism is Great: a Worker's Memoir of the New China by Lijia Zhang (Atlas & Co., 2008). Zhang, a good student growing up in Nanjing, dreamed of becoming a college-educated journalist. Instead, at age 16, she began a ten-year stint at the Liming Machinery Factory, making intercontinental missiles, when her mother took an early retirement and deeded Zhang her job.


In this funny and revealing coming of age memoir set in the 1980s, long after the terrors of the Cultural Revolution, boredom and restlessness are far greater problems than political reprisals. Zhang learns English by listening to the Carpenters and frequenting English language get-togethers at a local café. After marrying an Englishman and studying in England, she currently lives in Beijing with her two daughters and works as a journalist.
"The China Price: the True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage" by Alexandra Harney (Penguin Press, 2008). Harney, an editor for "The Financial Times," delves into how China manages to make products so cheaply. Moving from a cradle-to-grave public welfare philosophy to one of every man for himself, the new Chinese state no longer provides free basic education or health benefits. Under free enterprise, millions of workers slave away in substandard and dangerous conditions in humongous factory complexes. There are 400,000 factories in Guangdong province alone, where a single electronics plant employs 270,000 workers. Harney predicts that unrest among the workers, competition between factories, and revaluation of the Chinese currency will lead to more rational pricing.


The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu (Pantheon Books, 2008). Esteemed Chinese poet Liao Yiwu was arrested, tortured, and imprisoned for four years for making a video of the Tiananmen Square uprising.


After his release, he was denied a work permit and closely watched by authorities. In this fascinating collection, banned in China, he interviews twenty-seven citizens also "stuck at the bottom" - including a public restroom manager, a leper, and a Falun Gong follower - about their lives.