A Winner: Don't Judge This Book by Its Cover
Postcards From Tomorrow Square: Reports from China
By James Fallows
Vintage Books, 2009, $14.95
If the adage about a book's cover is ever true, it came into play on "Postcards From Tomorrow Square", a book about modern China and the economic and social forces that are shaping the Asian giant.
The title is a little obscure at first glance, and the cover is designed around a photo graphic of a car interior. It was hard to get excited about this one.
But the author, James Fallows, has put together a splendid look at the new economic lion, and in the process made the status of China and our relation to it much clearer. Fallows, a veteran writer, spent a couple of years living and traveling extensively through much of the country, writing for The Atlantic Monthly. Most of the content for the book came from articles that originally appeared in the magazine.
Once inside the pages of "Postcards," the reader is treated to a straightforward observation about what Fallows saw and heard, and what he came to understand over time. What impresses a reader is the complexity of a country with 1.2 billion people ruled by a one-party political system trying to balancing the freedoms needed for free market capitalism with the need to maintain significant controls over what people can see, hear and speak. The reader comes away appreciating the enormity of the task at the macro level, and the highly local nature of what actually happens in the government.
Each chapter takes a slice of life and uses it as a way of trying to explore China's complexity. Fallows discusses manufacturing by looking at a few businesses and business people and how they fit into the larger scheme of the manufacturing and export system. He talks about China's relation with the U.S. in terms of "The $1.4 Trillion Question," i.e. that the relationship has worked to both countries' advantage so far, but wondering out loud how long China will be willing to keep people artificially poor while financing America's gargantuan consumption party on credit. He talks about the relatively primitive and impoverished life of millions of Chinese people in the north and western parts of China by giving examples of a few.
This is an engaging read. Each page reveals something new about the country that's expected to dominate much of the 21st century. Fallows shares insights in a way that both alarms and calms. It's a must-read for Americans, most of whom are in serious need of insight about the country that's financing our future. Pick it up and read it, despite the cover.
Pat Taylor may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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