Saturday, May 15, 2010

Jeffrey Wasserstrom's "China in the 21st Century"

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His books include Global Shanghai, China's Brave New World, and Twentieth-Century China.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, and reported the following:
Page 99 is a typical part of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know in that it is devoted to answering a question. This is because, like nearly all the contributions to Oxford’s new “What Everyone Needs to Know” series, mine is structured in a brisk Q & A format. Here’s the question addressed on page 99: “What does China have in common with other countries?” This query is a direct follow-up to the previous one (posed on page 96): “Is contemporary China utterly unique?”

My aim in responding to these two questions is simple. I want to show that, while there are certainly specific ways in which China’s recent trajectory has been unlike that of any other country (e.g., never before have so many cities swelled so rapidly in a nation), we shouldn’t treat the PRC as being in every way a nation that is in a class by itself—or assume that, if it does have things in common with other countries, these will only be places ruled by Communist Party regimes or shaped by “Confucian” traditions.

Toward the end of the book, I argue that China and the United States share many traits, something that goes against the grain of much commentary in both countries that highlights only the contrasts between them. On page 99, though, my concern is with the similarities between China and India. These are also two countries that are more often contrasted with one another, due to the former’s authoritarian and the latter’s democratic political system, than placed in the same category.

I set up my discussion of China-India comparisons on page 98. I emphasize that, while we shouldn’t forget the degree to which Asia’s two largest countries are dissimilar, we should note that each is a political entity that “took its modern form as a nation-state in the 1940s” and each is a place where “in the 1950s economic five-year plans were the order of the day.” I also note that by “the 1960s, Cold War visions of a clear Communist/Free World binary notwithstanding, Chinese and Indian leaders were each trying to find a place for their country that kept it out of both the shadow of the United States and the shadow of the Soviet Union,” and all of them were eager “to discover a developmental path that was unique,” something that led them to become “fascinated by the Singapore model.”

The first paragraph on page 99, building on this groundwork, begins as follows:
Once China and India are thought of as sharing important characteristics, in addition to having many distinctive features, developments in one country can be used to illuminate those in another. The Chinese interest in using mega-events to show that the PRC is now a “modern” rather than a “backward” country, for example, has an Indian parallel. New Delhi is making the most of its hosting the 2010 Commonwealth Games, an Olympic-like spectacle, with an ambitious urban redevelopment drive that, while not as costly and over-the- top as that which preceded the Beijing Games, brings to mind the lead-up to 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremonies. There was a great deal of hand-wringing in the Indian press at the time of China’s Olympic success because Indians feared it would be difficult for India to put on as polished a show. But this only underlines the similar ambitions within each country to use dramatic acts to shed the sense of backwardness they have carried from a time when Western empires dominated the world.
Another thing that page 99 shares with many others in the book is that it doesn’t have a single footnote. I do, however, stress in my treatment of China-India similarities that I am not alone in this divergence from the conventional wisdom. A look at my “further readings” section reveals this. So, too, does the last part of page 99 and first part of page 100 where, after moving from international spectacles to patterns of communal violence, I quote at length from the writings of Pallavi Aiyar, the former Beijing bureau chief of the Hindu newspaper, who is now based in Brussels but continues periodically to shed light on things that, in my mind, “everyone needs to know” about how the two most populous countries on earth resemble as well as differ from one other.
Read an excerpt from China in the 21st Century, and learn more about the book at the Oxford University Press website.

Wasserstrom is the co-founder and consulting editor of The China Beat.

The Page 69 Test: Jeffrey Wasserstrom's China's Brave New World.

The Page 99 Test: Jeffrey Wasserstrom's Global Shanghai, 1850–2010.

--Marshal Zeringue