Saturday, January 29, 2011

What Christians Should Think of China

China Road
Rob Gifford
Random House, 2007


I have been flying in and out of China now for a year and a half. Maybe a 15 total visits to four different locales: Guangzhou and Shanghai in China proper, and Hong Kong and Taipei just offshore. I do not speak the language(s), and I have not interviewed anyone nor even had much of a personal conversation with any resident. Despite these limitations, I'm continuously fascinated by China. My airplane naturally flies in and out of the big hubs of commerce, and the explosion of manufacturing and selling--and the upward social mobility it affords the masses--is surely the big news story of modern China. But I know there is much more to this vast country of 1.3 billion people than this.

And so for lots of reasons I'm about the least qualified person to tell the story of modern China. A better choice might be, say, the Beijing correspondent for National Public Radio. THAT person might be expected to have a much more in-depth and holistic view of the phenomenon that is China. Rob Gifford spent six years in China for NPR before taking up the post of London Bureau Chief in 2007. In his book from the same year China Road: A Journey Into the Future of a Rising Power Gifford tells of his last hurrah in China: an epic road trip 3000 miles across the country along Route 312 from Shanghai in the crowded, industrial East to the border with Kazakhstan in the remote and unpopulated West (incidentally following a similar path to the one we fly from Shanghai to Almaty). That journey is used as the backbone for his larger tale of China's modern transformation.

Depending on how tightly one wants to focus, this effort could yield a hundred different books or more. From the overview of a rural, agricultural culture turning rapidly towards industrialization and manufacturing, one can zoom in on millions of different strands, each of which is part of a story almost too big and diverse to tell. The aggregate story is immense, historic; but even the individual stories can be compelling. And then there is China's long history and how it informs the present. It's an impossible amount of material.

Like Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones, Gifford alternates between China as a country and culture and the individuals whose stories make up the whole. As he travels cross-country, he meets with many noteworthy people in arranged interviews--often clandestinely, since the government seeks to control the flow of information in and out of the country. And he mixes the stories of these movers and shakers with those of the common people with whom he shares a bus seat or who wait on him in a restaurant. He is forever stopping his taxi to jump out and chat with highway workers or someone holding a sign or a farmer plowing a field with an ox. These conversations are especially interesting to me, since they tell stories which I can glimpse in my wanderings in China but cannot access. (As an aside, I was thrilled to read the opening chapters where he describes many things in Shanghai which I happen to have experienced myself: the maglev train from Shanghai airport to downtown; the building explosion in Pudong; the old colonial architecture of The Bund; the frenzy of Nanjing Road; the contrast between the rich and poor areas of town. When I have seen so little of the country, it's thrilling to learn that what I HAVE seen is significant to China's modern story.) These interpersonal episodes from his journey are also mingled with extensive passages about Chinese history, and Gifford brilliantly connects the things we see today with China's past, especially the last two centuries or so.

I give him credit for trying to make sense of the larger picture, for trying to do more than just describe what he sees (which is all I can manage). But at times his book is a reminder that "making sense" is a very subjective process. His straight reportage is excellent; he's perceptive and writes with clarity and vibrancy and he has a knack for organizing complex stories. And, as I say, he seems to have the salient facts of China's long history well in hand. But he spends some time in a kind of philosophical vein connecting the personal stories and the historical facts and explaining what it all means, and this seems a more mixed effort (as perhaps it must necessarily be). He often explains that the Chinese are THIS way because of X in their distant past, or the absence of X in their governmental legacy results in THIS contemporary behavior or phenomenon (my apologies for not having illustrative quotes; I listened to the audiobook). I'm quite unable to say that he doesn't reason accurately, but these summaries don't always ring true and at times seem politicized and pulled out of thin air.

More objectionable to me was Gifford's need to filter every experience though his Christian faith. By the fourth or fifth mention (just in the book's first half) I began to wonder if the book had been a commission from his church congregation and should be called What Christians Should Think of China. Doubtless some readers will find this a useful orientation point, but I can't help thinking he could have chosen a more universal perspective and made the same points. At the very least I would have preferred a single chapter devoted to religion rather than each subject getting the journalist's just-the-facts treatment followed by the Jebus treatment.

Worse, his references often had a condescending undertone that implied (when he didn't just state it openly) that so many of China's difficulties and failings stem from their not being Christians. He rather ludicrously, it seems to me, credits Christianity for all manner of the West's accomplishments--and blames China's woes on their failure to see this light--without supporting the thesis or acknowledging any of the tyranny and pain and misery that form the legacy of the faith-based power structure. This is like praising Hitler because he made Germans feel good about themselves again. At one point he asks an interviewee whether China's problem isn't the absence of "revealed truth" in which the West basks. This was almost a deal-breaker for me: how naive and brainwashed do you have to be to believe a thing is true (and "revealed") because an ancient mythology says it is? Sorry, but you'll need a much longer book to effectively make that case. And each of these silly flights of fantasy made me question anew whether Gifford's whole take on China was reliable and valid.

In one telling scene Gifford interviews a rural doctor whose job it is to enforce the country's one-child policy, a conversation that is about 30% reporter and 70% ideologue. It's interesting that Gifford spends time in his book talking about the issues arising from a country the size of the US having nearly four times its population--from pollution to food issues to water shortages and so on--but then he openly rails in this conversation against the imperative of a rigid population control policy. For him the only salient point appears to be that abortion is part and parcel of the policy, and he chooses (naturally) the most brutal and marginal cases to inform his argument about the whole. Or rather, he doesn't even bother to argue the whole; he just rails against the offense against his own sensitivities. I appreciate this is what he feels; but I'm not interested in being preached to about one of our culture's hot-button topics, much less in listening to him mouth off to citizens of a culture that does not share his qualms. (How would he feel to be riding a bus in the UK while a visiting Muslim man berates English women for not covering their heads?)

I suppose I have to grant that the book is a memoir and a travelog and not an act of strict reportage. And as such he has every right to tell his personal story. But it seems to me very Fox News to interweave reportage with opinion in such equal measure with no demarcation between them--something I would not expect from a serious reporter. Perhaps I only chafe because I do not share his opinions. The lives and deaths of China's worst-off, particularly the disasters to come without some kind of population control, seem a looming and unimaginably vast cauldron of pain and misery and suffering against which the brutality of the country's population control methods must be weighed. (Even with the population controls in place Gifford himself acknowledges that the country's collapse from its own excess population is a very real possibility.)

In the end, Gifford's editorializing was not enough to ruin the book for me. The story of China, the fact of the upheaval currently under way, is simply too big to be overrun by any one person's take on it. Gifford's tone alternates between surprise and admiration on the one hand, and scorn and dismay--sometimes bordering on ridicule--on the other. But whatever the flaws, his book gives us a vibrant look at the inner lives of a people undergoing a massive transition. This is surely not the best book on modern China, but I feel better off for having read it. More and more I feel immensely privileged to have been plunked down by circumstance in the midst of what may be this century's big story.

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