Monday, March 21, 2011

Nonfiction 7: Country Driving by Peter Hessler

I visited Beijing for a few days in August 2003. That was my one and only trip to China (not counting Hong Kong and Macau -- they may be ruled from Beijing, but they seem too different, too separate). Yet China has lurked as a great barely-known entity at the edge of my consciousness. Living in Taiwan, one can hardly help thinking about the PRC fairly often.

I acknowledge my opinion of China is skewed. My wife lived in Guizhou for a year -- to read her highly negative opinion of the Chinese government, see here. I know plenty of Westerners who have lived in China, but I acknowledge that living in Taiwan, there is a selection bias. Taiwan tends to attract Westerners who want to live in a Chinese-speaking place infused with Chinese culture where people write in Chinese characters, but who don't want to live in China. It's easy to find Westerners here who have lived in China and didn't like it much.

As a result, with less than a week's lifetime experience spent in China, I tend to associate the People's Republic with:

- gray, polluted skies;
- a government that abuses the dignity of its own people;
- police who intrude into your daily life for reasons that make no apparent sense;
- and a massive bureaucracy that makes the common person's life a pain.

Yes, you can find any of the above all over the world, but China is the great big country right next to Taiwan, so it's China upon which my negative judgement lands.

Besides, China-Taiwan comparisons are inevitable for anyone who lives in Taiwan, and at least on the latter three negatives above, Taiwan just seems the better place hands-down.

Make no mistake, I don't see China as a great big Mordor-like cesspit of evil. There's some exciting stuff happening in China, and if they figure out how to encourage more innovation and true creativity, it could become one of the great engines of development in the 21st century. I wouldn't mind returning to the PRC to visit, just to update my years-old impression. I'm a big fan of Sichuan, Guizhou, and Hunan food, and I could see myself going on a culinary tour of those provinces. But I'm very cautious about living in China as an expat.

That's why I gravitate towards writings about China. Peter Hessler is a journalist with several years' experience in the country, and his latest book, Country Driving, was a fascinating read. The book is divided into three discrete sections. The first third, the one that inspires the book's title, is about Hessler's road trips across northern China in a rental car (which he technically wasn't supposed to take out of Beijing, but the laid-back folks he rented from are amazingly forgiving).

This section is bleak and depressing at times, as Hessler transverses a part of the country that the recent economic growth has left behind. I can't forget Hessler's account of the villagers in one parched area who dig holes all day, so that when people from the World Bank drive by in their fancy cars, they see the re-forestation campaign that is well underway. The villagers are paid entirely in halal instant noodles. (Why halal? Because it's cheaper.) The holes are purely for show; there will never be any trees.

The second section deals with the village of Sancha, where Hessler spent much of his time to escape the bustle of Beijing. He got to know the locals, and stayed long enough see substantial development as prosperity began to accumulate. He provides a fascinating glimpse of what is probably typical small-town Chinese politics.

(The isolated rural village of Sancha is, astonishingly, located within Beijing city limits. Chinese special municipalities can extend over amazing amounts of territory, the most extreme being Chongqing, which is larger than Taiwan, and three times as large as Massachusetts. It's not that China is vast; it's that the bureaucrats draw the borders of the largest cities to include massive hinterlands.)

The final third of the book takes place in one of China's richest provinces, Zhejiang. A manufacturing center full of ambitious startups, Zhejiang is an amazing contrast to the sleepy desert towns Hessler visited in the book's first third. Hessler has a gift for character portraits, and he vividly describes both migrant workers and ambitious businesspeople (the former often become the latter). This is the modern China that outsiders generally think of. Yet for all the entrepreneurial energy on display, you can't help but feel that something is holding the people back. It's not just the bureaucracy, although that's certainly part of it. (When the factory whose fortunes Hessler chronicles gets a visit from representatives of the tax office, you feel like they're members of the local Mafia come to shake the factory down for money.) It's also that you get no sense of innovation. If there's a Chinese Silicon Valley, Hessler doesn't take us there.

Zhejiang Makes; The World Takes. No doubt about it. My apartment is probably full of little gadgets and doodads that were made in Zhejiang; your home probably is too. But how many were invented or designed in Zhejiang? My iPod was physically put together in Guangdong province by ambitious young Chinese workers, but they were working for a Taiwanese company to build a product that was designed in California.

When a real spirit of invention and innovation takes hold in China, it will not only be good for China as a country; it will be good for the entire world.

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