I’ve been spending a lot of time reading China Wakes by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It’s an easy read–lots of stories about how they got the job done as New York Times correspondents and stories about how people are living in China. All of those stories are used to illustrate the point that all is not well in China. Interspersed with the stories is speculation about the end of the Communist Party, because of corruption, peasant uprisings, various other disasters. The book was written around the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre, certainly reason to think about these kinds of things. But it hasn’t happened yet, and the Party is probably as strong as ever. To give Kristof credit, he says it could take a very long time.
It’s a scary book to read. He makes the point, and I know this from my study of Chinese history, that sometimes dynasties have fallen because of natural disasters, such as that earthquake. He was actually talking about a previous earthquake. The book was published in 1994. My inner voice of gloom is speculating about what might happen if the Olympics are not a huge success. I was left with lots of questions about China’s stability, and also about Kristof.
In his most recent column about China he is much more optimistic and tempers his criticism in ways he did not do in the book. Have things improved, or is Kristof older and wiser?
My biggest question is why the book is on the reading list I got from CCS. If their concern is that we might all be starry-eyed idealists then a better and more recent book with more narrative and less prognostication is Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China by Kang Zhengguo. His terrifying picture of life in Communist China comes from his own experiences and reads less like propaganda, although I had to wonder about his naivete. So I am not going to China because I think I will change anything. I am going because I had a Chinese pen pal, Laura, when I was 13 or 14, who had to stop writing because of the Communist take-over. I am going because my interest in Japan constantly leads back to China. And more than anything, I am going, as I used to tell my mother, because it is there.