China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power by Rob Gifford Bloomsbury/ Random House, HK$208 Route 312, China's 'Mother Road', stretches 4,800km from Shanghai in the east right across the country to Korgaz, on the Kazakhstan border. Radio journalist Rob Gifford takes us along this road on a remarkable journey of exploration. This is more than just a guide to exotic mainland locales. On this adventure we see 'ordinary Chinese people caught up in an extraordinary moment in time'. Whether they're revelling in the moment, like proud Amway representative Li Caijin in a Gobi Desert town, or merely enduring, such as disgusted cafe-owner Lao Zhang, they're in the midst of a tumultuous makeover of their nation and continent. The Chinese, as Gifford notes, have not had time to catch their breath. The west had more than 100 years between the industrial and technological revolutions. In China, however, both are occurring simultaneously. Just as new highways and railways are stitching the country together, the resulting dislocation, physical and psychological, is tearing it apart. The Chinese are moving 'from the kowtow to the air kiss in less than a century'. Once they were taught morality, rituals, and ethics. Now they're on their own. As Ye Sha, a Shanghai radio call-in show host, says: 'No one knows how to be a person any more.' And few of them seem to know how to be Chinese. The people of China are not quite sure about what to do with their 5,000-year history, Gifford notes, and they appear to have surprisingly little sense of shared destiny for tomorrow. Judging from the individuals he encounters on his journey - actually several journeys knitted together to form a coherent narrative - we get the sense that the people living within the borders of China exist in a present that is, in many ways, disconnected from either the past or the future. 'We believe only in ourselves,' says Emily, a Shanghai resident in her 20s. That statement would be unremarkable, except that she's also a member of the Communist Party, which means she's supposed to be selflessly devoting her life to the attainment of the perfect classless society. But with Marxism seemingly consigned to the past, it's now 'man-eat-man capitalism' in China, a country being consumed by a 'bonfire of nihilism and cash.' It's a nation where Emily now sips Starbucks coffee in Shanghai and shops for shoes. 'If you visited only Shanghai, you would leave thinking that China is undoubtedly bound for greatness,' Gifford writes. Fortunately, he leaves behind the Emilys of the coast and gives us a glimpse of the rest of society. 'It's always dangerous crossing into another province,' one of his drivers tells him. Before he reaches dusty Korgaz, Gifford crosses provincial boundaries 10 times to get the stories of dirt farmers tied to small plots along Route 312 and long-haul drivers travelling it. On a long-distance bus he talks to a family planning nurse who performs late-term abortions and, when foetuses are somehow born alive, allows them to die outside the womb. There are also Tibetans and Uygur in the central and western portions of the country. China is a multicultural empire, and he talks to many who don't consider themselves Chinese. Gifford ties all of this together with perceptive commentaries on ethnicity, religion, and politics. He ends with an essay on China's future. The future is what China Road is all about. Will the Chinese find greatness this time or will they tear their country apart as they have done so often in the past? Gifford, who spent six years in China for National Public Radio, rightly tells us that 'the longer you stay, the less inclined you are to make predictions'. His approach - to try to show us who the Chinese people are today - may leave outsiders a little confused about the nation's tomorrow, but that's perhaps unavoidable. 'We're all confused about China,' Mr Zhou, a seed salesman, tells Gifford. Gifford, however, finds one important clue in his journey along Route 312. The Chinese, freer than they have been in a long time, are travelling along this road - and others like it. As they do so, they're looking outside their home towns, some for the first time. The roads give people choice, and where there is choice there is change. There is now hope along China's Mother Road.