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China: Fragile Superpower ()

Beyond Beijing: China's Past, Present And Future

by Anne-Marie Slaughter
Aug 25, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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"Three Books ..." is a series in which we invite writers to recommend three great reads on a single theme.

China's scale is so vast, its variety so great and its rising power so apparent, it acts as an enormous magnet fixing our attention. One result is a torrent of books — political analyses, memoirs, histories, novels and short stories. Each promises a key to China, but how on earth to choose?

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'China: Fragile Superpower'

China: Fragile Superpower, by Susan Shirk, hardcover, 336 pages

Start with Susan Shirk's China: Fragile Superpower. Shirk, a lifelong China expert, is a terrific guide. The China she describes is strong on the outside, but led by men who are chronically afraid of losing power. Anxious and paranoid, they have watched the collapse of communist and authoritarian regimes around them. Unless our own leaders understand China's underlying fragility, Shirk worries, we will respond to their crises with the kind of hard-line pressure that will trigger a dangerous Chinese response. The historical odds, she notes, favor war, not peace, so we'd better get this right.

'The China Price'

The China Price, by Alexandra Harney, hardcover, 352 pages

If you want to understand China's economic fault lines, pick up The China Price by Alexandra Harney. Harney shows us the real cost of China's surging economy. Hundreds of thousands of workers are dying of work-related lung disease — an asbestos crisis on steroids. Factory managers explain that the only way to reconcile the conflicting demands of corporate responsibility and competitive pricing is to falsify work records. And we meet the girls of Room 817, a factory dorm room. One girl makes it from peasant village to real estate agent in just a few years — but only one. The others are stuck, moving from one low-paying job to another. For every business book goggling at the rate and scale of China's growth, The China Price is a powerfully needed antidote.

'Snow Flower And The Secret Fan'

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See, hardcover, 288 pages

For my money, though, one of the best ways to understand China's present is by turning to its past. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a novel by Lisa See, takes us back 200 years to the Qing Dynasty, to the world of Lily and her soulmate, Snow Flower. After her feet have been broken and bound for two years, Lily emerges with "golden lilies" — the beauty ideal of seven centimeter feet, and her ticket to upward mobility through a better marriage. A lifetime of letters between Lily and Snow Flower tell of "bed business," the quest for sons and the destruction of a family through opium. But what they ultimately reveal is Lily's determination to do whatever it takes to make it out of her village and to achieve a better life for herself and her family.

The story of Lily and Snow Flower, like the girls of Room 817 today, portrays a people with a fierce determination to succeed and a mighty capacity for suffering along the way. The collision of those forces has produced revolution in China's history; China's rulers continually worry that it will again. That tension — when China has hosted the Olympics and is making its world debut as a rising superpower — is why these three books should be on your reading list.

Three Books ... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.

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