Lost On Planet China: One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation
By J. Maartin Troost
Lost On Planet China by J. Maartin Troost is one Westerner’s take on the riddle of modern China. The country that Troost explores is not all that appealing. It is obviously crowded, 1.3 billion people have to go somewhere, but it is also incredibly polluted. Wherever Troost ventures he describes the air as some variation of “dismal haze”, “hideous pollution”, “vile” or this nugget, “wheezing as if I’d just chain smoked three packs of Marlboro Reds.” Not to mention the quaint Chinese custom of spitting everywhere in public.
I’ve read many travel memoirs. The first part of the book is usually devoted to witty observations about the differences between country X and the author’s native land. Then there is some transcendent moment where the author “gets it.” Maybe it’s a delicious meal or a wonderful interaction with the locals. All of a sudden they have a newfound love for the country they are visiting and all is right with the world.
I kept waiting for that moment to occur in Lost In Planet China. At page 100, I noticed I still hadn’t heard much that was positive. By page 200 I was becoming a bit alarmed that Troost just wasn’t going to like China, although I did appreciate his glaring honesty. He did like Hong Kong a little but mostly because it wasn’t like China. He also liked Tibet. But since Tibet has been under the authoritarian thumb of China for 50 years it’s sort of politically correct to like Tibet. To not like it would be like pointing out that Girl Scout cookies really aren’t that tasty.
By the end of the book I realized, “Holy cow, he really didn’t like this place.” Based on his descriptions I can’t really blame him. That said, the book is an entertaining read. Those who enjoy the travelogues of Bill Bryson will appreciate Troost’s wry look at the sights and events unfolding around him.
If the last century was the American Century it looks more and more like the next one will be the Chinese Century. They are already America’s largest lender and continue to build up their military and manned space program. As American consumers demand ever cheaper “Made in China” consumer goods at the likes of Walmart we are actually hastening our own demise. Sorry to be such a downer but it’s actually quite depressing.
Despite reading this book we’ve been planning to spend a month in China for our upcoming around-the-world trip. I’m hoping that maybe Troost was exaggerating just a bit. God I really hope so.
Gifford is uniquely qualified to provide a Westerner’s view of the future of China. He traveled to China in 1987 as a language student, became fluent in Mandarin and has spent twenty years reporting on, and from, the country. For six of those years he was the Beijing correspondent for National Public Radio. His language skills have enabled him to break away from the bubble of Beijing and interview ordinary people in the heartland, far away from government eavesdroppers.
For China Road he traveled 3,000 miles from Shanghai to the far western border with Kazakhstan. He followed the mass exodus taking place along Route 312, the Chinese equivalent of America’s legendary Route 66.
Witnessing the largest migration in human history, as tens of millions of people leave their homes for opportunities in the cities and factory towns, Gifford was able to meet with everyday people. His goal was to determine if China is the next great superpower or a paper dragon, one that will inevitably be consumed by a system of government that does not allow full freedom for its people.
Gifford has a love/hate relationship with this complicated country. He loves many aspects of the people, but experiences frustration doing his job under a repressive regime where he needs to use unregistered phones in order to meet unimpeded with his interview subjects.
Before reading this book I thought the recent rise of China on the world stage was a new phenomenon. Not so. China was a technologically advanced world power during a time when Europeans were still living in caves. When you consider that one out of every five humans is Chinese, it seems that their eventual rise as a superpower, perhaps the only one, is inevitable.
But Gifford peeks behind the curtain of the “China miracle” and sees a few potential fissures. For a country to succeed in the global economy it must facilitate a free flow of information, both between its people and with the outside world. Yet the Communist party severely limits freedom of speech and blocks a free exchange of ideas.
As Gifford states, “The Party needs to promote knowledge in order to compete, but knowledge is dangerous. It needs empowered people in order to become strong, but it can’t let the people be too empowered.”
Even though this thinking limits technological and other beneficial breakthroughs, the government is more concerned that people can organize to overthrow them. The 1989 uprisings in Tiananmen Square took place well before the advent of social media. Imagine what a few disgruntled Chinese could achieve now? Egypt provides just one such example.
What does this mean for the West? Some factions see China as a huge threat and from an economic basis they may be right; particularly when looking at the loss of manufacturing jobs to Chinese factories. But Gifford points out that if “the China threat” idea is pushed too far it could define our whole relationship with them.
The rise of the Chinese economy is also beneficial to the West. Chinese goods allow Western consumers to buy cheap products and help tamp down inflation. And the Chinese government’s investment in U.S. government debt has kept interest rates, and therefore mortgage rates, low. (Though I would argue that the availability of cheap mortgages got the US into the problems it is currently experiencing in the first place.)
Gifford concludes that while we must stand up to China in certain areas, we cannot demonize them so much that we end up hurting our own interests. We need to back off of thinking of China as “friend or foe” but as a combination of the two. The West needs a nuanced foreign policy that doesn’t descend into “emotional demagoguery.”
When Gifford finally left China he reflected that most of all he would miss the people. They have suffered for too long under Communist rule and are finally getting a taste of progress like those in the West. But if the system doesn’t change in the next ten years, he fears for the future of the people.
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