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How to Understand China: Summer Reading

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Last month, I finished Richard McGregor's excellent book The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers. One of his best chapters focuses on the Central Organization Department of the Communist Party, the "human resource" arm of the Chinese state. This department controls hiring and firing as well as promotions and demotions within the government. Since the government in China is involved to some extent in every aspect of life, this is no small task. McGregor writes the following eye-opening comparison:

The best way to get a sense of the dimensions of the department's job is to conjure up an imaginary parallel body in Washington. A similar department in the US would oversee the appointment of the entire US cabinet, state governors and their deputies, the mayors of major cities, the heads of all federal regulatory agencies, the chief executives of GE, Exxon-Mobile, Wal-Mart and about fifty of the remaining largest US companies, the justices on the Supreme Court, the editors of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, the bosses of the TV networks and cable stations, the presidents of Yale and Harvard and other big universities, and the heads of the think-tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation. Not only that, the vetting process would take place behind closed doors, and the appointments announced without any accompanying explanation why they had been made.

I thought of this passage as I listened to Republicans and Democrats try to out-flank each other in anti-Chinese rhetoric in their never-too-early gear up for the 2012 Presidential election. John Huntsman got things kicked off as he condemned China's human rights record in his farewell address as Ambassador of China. His words -- part goodbye, part stump speech for the Republican nomination -- included the following:

[Americans] will continue to speak up in defense of social activists like Liu Xiaobo, Chen Guangcheng, and now Ai Weiwei, who challenge the Chinese government to serve the public in all cases at all times. The United States will never stop supporting human rights, because we believe in the fundamental struggle for human dignity wherever it may occur.

Hillary Clinton quickly one-upped Huntsman, sounding positively Reaganesque as she called the Communist Party's response to the Jasmine Revolution "deplorable" while predicting that history will sweep China's government into the dust bin.

Do these words matter to China's leaders? Not at all. (Or at least no more than China's response matters to American leaders. China's state council shot back that the U.S. is the "world's worst country for violent crimes," and that "racial discrimination is deeply rooted in the United States, permeating every aspect of social life." They issued a report that detailed U.S. "violence, racism, and torture." I doubt these words are keeping President Obama up at night.)

Instead, what matters to Beijing is ... China. As shocking as it may seem to Americans, Chinese President Hu Jintao isn't worried about Washington; he's worried about Chengdu, Guiyang, Hangzhou, Wuhan, and other places most Americans have never heard of.

If we want to understand where China is headed (indeed, where the world is headed), we need to stop listening to our diplomats and politicians; in fact, it's likely that the more we listen to Hillary Clinton or John Huntsman, the less we will understand what matters in China. To get beyond our headlines and into the life of the billion people that control China's future, it's best to avoid America's talking heads entirely.

Thus, my advice for those who want to "understand China": skip Henry Kissinger's new tome and pick up books by writers (whether journalists or novelists) who are in touch with the average Zhou. Want to know what it's like to have your fate determined by the Central Organization Department? Want to know what Chinese are talking about over dinner (and it aint Ai Weiwei or the Jasmine Revolution)? Put Country Driving and Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth on your summer reading lists.

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