Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How it Got There and Where it is Heading

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am

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Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How it Got There and Where it is Heading
by Jonathan Fenby
Simon & Schuster

China enthusiasts today are generally divided into two groups: those who gush about China's coming self-implosion and those who can't wait for it to become the new superpower. Tiger Head, Snake Tails falls somewhere in the middle of this raging debate.

Jonathan Fenby, former editor of the South China Morning Post, offers heaps of statistics that could serve as ammunition for either side of the argument. While Fenby doesn't lean strongly in either direction, one senses his pessimism.

Fenby argues that the party has held on to power by delivering the economic goods, but worries that growth is becoming difficult to maintain. He says China 'is far from the finely ordered society imagined by some admirers in the West'.

Readers who follow China may be disappointed. Although well-written and full of interesting analyses, quotes and anecdotes, one does not get the feeling that Fenby ever visited China while researching the book. While he occasionally mentions being in China, it's usually just an aside, with few details. He mentions visiting the Labrang Monastery in Gansu province, but fails to describe the rich colour of the monastery town crowded with crimson-robed lamas. Likewise with his visit to Kashgar, the centre of Uygur culture in Xinjiang. As a result, much of the book reads asif it's come out of newspapers or web pages.

The most interesting chapters come towards the end where Fenby talks about growing protests, police abuses, land grabs, food scandals, environmental problems, and more. He says that China is a 'lopsided society' where even if people are actually getting richer, 'many feel they are losing out'.

In the final chapter, he argues that the economy was the easy part, and that new problems will be more difficult to deal with in a country 'ruled by a hermetically enclosed caste with no competing dynasty in sight'.

Fenby says that while China may not collapse, neither will it rule the world.

The lesson of the book is that with reforms just half-accomplished, the country's march forward will be hobbled, the consequences of which will be felt around the world.