Rob Gifford, China Road

Rob Gifford, China Road. One Man’s Journey into the Heart of Modern China, London, Bloomsbury, 2008. [Originally published by Random House, USA and Bloomsbury in 2007]

This is a very impressive portrait of China as it is with comparative reflections of how it was. The writer, a UK graduate in Chinese studies in the 1980s, has spent many years reporting from different parts of Asia and from 1999-2005 was resident China correspondent for the US National Public Radio (NPR). Before leaving China for his next assignment as NPR correspondent in London, he undertook this final 3,000 mile trek in August 2004, hitch-hiking and travelling by taxis and buses from Shanghai in the East, to Route 312 which leads North and West to Xinjiang (the home of the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities), the Gobi Desert and China’s border with Kazakhstan. The first fruit of the experience was a series of NPR radio broadcasts in late 2004. The 2007 book was a later expanded version of these documentaries. The new 2008 edition coincides with the Olympic Games media extravaganza.

Gifford has neatly combined the experience of his years of in-depth reporting (greatly aided and enhanced by his fluent command of Chinese) with this considerable travel exploit. The very detailed results enable the reader to benefit from his very close contact and persistent conversations with ordinary Chinese people in less familiar regions (including the valuable testimony and opinions of truckdrivers, taxi-drivers, shopkeepers and others). We are given authentic glimpses of people caught up in the prodigious Chinese government drive to develop the whole country and especially to open up the (controversial) North-West provinces. The writer and his informants add a lot of valuable evidence to the description of this most important contemporary world phenomenon, including a significant amount of criticism by those who have gained less from the upheaval of development instigated and rammed through by a determined government. In addition to the general documentary value of Gifford’s book, the openness of the Chinese oral evidence so painstakingly gathered highlights many questions and uncertainties about China’s turbulent present and its future.

In short, Gifford’s book is a fascinating and rewarding complement to the current hype surrounding the Olympic Games.

Two short samples of Gifford’s documentary work:

1. From a conversation with a young English-speaking Uighur man in remote Xinjiang:

“‘You see that”’? Murat shouts angrily back to me against the wind that rushes in through the wide-open [car] windows. He is pointing at dozens of nodding oil pumps beside the road, in the shadow of the Flaming Mountains. ‘These oil wells are nearly two miles deep. They pump ten tons of oil a day. Where does it all go? I’ll tell you where. East, for the Han Chinese to use. How much do we get to use of our own oil? None. How many Uighurs do the oil companies employ? Not a single one. This is our land they are exploiting, but it doesn’t make us a penny.’” (page 268)

2. From the long final summing up and speculations:

“Attitudes towards the family have been revolutionised too. The family used to be the state in miniature, with the father-son bond mirroring the ruler-subject relationship. Now, though, the vertical relationship in the family is coming second to the horizontal conjugal relationship between man and wife. Youth is triumphing over age in the cities, the individual is becoming more important than the group. Again, the change is imperfect and the fallout is huge, straining the fabric of society to the limit. But compared to many developing countries, China has become a fount of modern, scientific thinking and go-getting individualism. Chinese people can now dream dreams like they never have before, and have more power in their hands to fulfil them.

“So all in all, it seems to me that China is in a different situation now than in most of the other transition periods in its history. The question is, are the Chinese leaders approaching this completely different situation in the completely different way that it requires? And I have to say, the answer to that is no. What we have in China is a mobile twenty-first-century society shackled to a sclerotic 1950s Leninist-style political system. The economy is changing, the society is changing, but the politics are not, and that is starting to cause sufficient problems in governance, and even in the economy, to call China’s rise to potential greatness into question. China is more fragile and brittle than it appears.” (p. 295)

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