MODERN CHINA A Companion to a Rising Power
Monday, February 12, 2001
By Graham Hutchings. 530 pages. 20. Penguin Books.
 
Arguably, there have been too many recent books in English about China, at least compared with what has appeared on other major nations. That has tended to leave the average nonexpert bemused by the heap of material good, bad and just plain boring. Who can best explain the past, feel the present and predict the future? Who can dovetail neo Confucian thinking with graft, stock-market fever, karaoke and the Falun Gong? Who can say whether China will go to war over Taiwan, or ever allow foreigners to make huge profits from investments on the Mainland? Who can best balance an oft-ignored rural China with the high-rise dynamics of the coastal cities?
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The merit of Graham Hutchings's book is that it attempts none of these things. It doesn't even ask that you read it all. This "Companion" is a dictionary of modern Chinese history and political economy to be kept handy so that each time you hear news from China you have easy access to background material to explain who the actors are and the recent history of the issues. Want to know the career of Wu Bangguo, possible successor to Zhu Rongji? Here are not only the salient facts but also an informed commentary. Forgotten which of the Soong sisters was which? The answer is here along with succinct appraisal of their roles. You know about Tibet, but what about the significance of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region? Here you are.
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All this is very necessary because so few contemporary journalists are both able and willing to place news stories in a context. Things are quite likely to get worse. One weekly publication once known for its expertise on Asia recently did away with its library in the bizarre belief that everything was available on the Internet!
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Hutchings is a journalist, 10 years a China correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph, with stints in Beijing and Hong Kong under his belt. He not only knows his subject but knows what others need to know, and the importance of identifying key issues, not just spraying random facts at the reader.
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Entries cover issues and organizations as well and people and places, and include foreign countries and international organizations important to China. There is a useful chronology and excellent but relatively brief bibliography. For once, the maps are adequate too.
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The book's major weakness is the paucity of economic information. Neither banking nor stock markets get separate listings from a very broad entry on "finance." The special economic zones rate barely more space than the item that follows - General Joseph (Vinegar Joe) Stilwell.
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Any work of this nature faces problems of what to include and discard. This may already be close to the upper limit of length for a handy companion. Nonetheless, more coverage of economic issues would have added much to its utility to today's money-driven readers about a money-driven China.
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International Herald Tribune

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