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Books to Change the Way You Think About China

recommended by Anne Stevenson-Yang

Wild Ride: A Short History of the Opening and Closing of the Chinese Economy by Anne Stevenson-Yang

Wild Ride: A Short History of the Opening and Closing of the Chinese Economy
by Anne Stevenson-Yang


It's important to understand what goes on beneath the surface in China, and how people feel and react, says Anne Stevenson-Yang, who spent many decades living and working there. She recommends books to better understand the country, from its imperial history to the economic take-off of the last four decades.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Wild Ride: A Short History of the Opening and Closing of the Chinese Economy by Anne Stevenson-Yang

Wild Ride: A Short History of the Opening and Closing of the Chinese Economy
by Anne Stevenson-Yang

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Tell me a bit about how you chose these books.

I decided that, for better or worse, these are the books that I think about the most. They have shaped the way I think, and the way other people ought to think about China, because they provide historical perspective, bits of neglected or suppressed history and culture, a view of rural life, and context on economic change. They are essential to a start on understanding what goes on beneath the surface in China and how people feel and react. If you just read the press and visit China’s major cities, you see only a sliver of the Chinese experience.

Let’s look at your first book, The Search for Modern China.

This book is by Jonathan Spence, who was a great historian of China out of Yale. He wrote many, many books, but his Search for Modern China was one of the first things that I read when I arrived in China. It gives you a really great understanding of how political and social developments in the Qing Dynasty and the Republican period to 1949 shaped the way China works. The book covers the reform efforts in the late Qing, the contending schools of thought during the Republic, through to the Communist period up to 1989. It gives you a sense of the way China thinks, and also the way there have been so many hopes raised and dashed within China, by people who believe that they can partake in opening and new opportunity, and then everything closes down again. So that’s a really good one to read.

Which in a way is what you track in your book, Wild Ride—the opening up and then the disappointment?

Yes. The Search for Modern China also shows the internal logic of the system, which is one thing that the international world has really missed about China. Because with a lot of economists and political scientists, internationally, you get this narrative, of ‘Why doesn’t China just allow more consumption?’ ‘Why doesn’t China open up in this way or that way?’ And ‘Why don’t the local governments just make their own budgets and become independent?’ Well, you have to understand the fundamental logic of Chinese society and the government. Those things are impossible under the governance system. And I feel that people need some historical context in order to understand that.

China has intentionally weak institutions. The country is structurally adapted to a winner-take-all system of governance that changes only under the influence of earth-shaking, millenarist movements that permit one autocratic ruler to be toppled and another to take its place. Balance of power and incremental change are simply not in the Chinese DNA. China’s verticality is both its strength and its weakness: rulers capture and deploy all the wealth of the nation and so can create great leaps forward – as in the reform and opening – and great tragedies, like the Great Famine.

Let’s turn to your next choice, which is also about that famine. This is Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine by Yang Jisheng.

This book is really important and valuable. Yang Jisheng was a Xinhua reporter for most of his life. The book was written originally in Chinese, and it’s been translated into English. It’s a compendium of documents and analysis on the Great Famine, which happened between 1958 and 1962. It’s largely based on documents that remained internal and that the Party has not disclosed.

I remember giving the Chinese language version of the book to a friend of mine, who is Chinese and very well-informed. He has lived internationally. His grandfather was actually eaten by cannibals. And yet he didn’t know that this famine was a national event. He thought it might have just been a crazy person, a one-off that happened in his own province. That’s the level of knowledge that you have in China about this famine!

The Party caused the deaths of millions and millions of people, it’s still undetermined exactly how many. There’s the number that directly died, and many failed to be born as a result, and so on and so forth. But it was easily 30 million people and yet the average Chinese person doesn’t even know about it. I found it a very compelling narrative and interesting exploration.

I suppose the broader issue is the way that the Communist Party deals with its history: a lot of it gets brushed under the carpet and is left unexamined. That’s part of the way the country is run.

That’s right. My husband was a Hindi expert and served in China’s 1962 border war against India. He wrote what was temporarily a very popular blogpost in China, about that war. It was only up for maybe two days and gathered a million followers (or something like that). I was in the car with him when he got a telephone call from the Propaganda Bureau. They said, ‘We haven’t reached a decision on what we think about this war. So you can’t talk about it.’ The blogpost was taken down. It was about something that happened in 1962!  But, 50 years later, they couldn’t decide what they thought about it. It was too small an event for the Party to need to have a view and so they decided nobody could talk about it.

The next book you’ve chosen is about China’s economy which, unlike the Great Famine, is not a taboo subject but also perhaps not as well understood as it should be by outsiders. This is Red Capitalism by Carl Walter and Fraser Howie, who both worked in the country’s financial markets for a long time.

This book really showed the way that the capitalist system began in China and developed through the 1990s. It uses entertaining anecdotes to show how the apparently capitalist system that grew out of the old socialist economy was in many ways an illusion created by eager foreign investment banks. Contrary to what many observers think, ‘capitalism’ grew within the cage of the existing system and adapted to its parameters, creating something that is neither socialist nor capitalist. The government likes to call it ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’—which really means ‘whatever we decide to do.’ It’s a great book.

What does that mean in the context of the state-owned enterprises they’re writing about?

Firstly, you have to realize that the constituents for the Communist Party are not individuals. It’s not individual people that the party hears from and deals with every day: it’s entities—and those entities are state-owned enterprises. The government’s principal concern is the macroeconomy. It’s not the needs of individuals, which is more what preoccupies the governments of democratic countries.

The second thing is the primacy of the Party and the importance to the Party that it remains in charge. The Party’s structure really is more—and I say this in the best possible way—like an occupying force than something that’s chosen by the people. If you go to cities and towns throughout China, you’ll find that the Party representatives are often annoying people who are parachuted in from the central government. Local people don’t necessarily like to deal with them, but they have to. They’re there to monitor and report. That’s the way the Party acts within China.

Your next book, Invisible China, is about rural China, where most of the country’s population lives.

Invisible China is a great book by Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell. It was published in 2020 and is based on surveys across many villages. The book points out many things about China that the average person doesn’t know, because the whole investment community and most journalists have only visited the more developed areas, the coastal cities, and maybe the second-tier cities, and really don’t go to rural China.

Rural China is really far behind urban China and behind most of the developing world. It has the educational attainment of Algeria, for example, and a whole lot of health problems that are not prevalent elsewhere and could easily have been fixed. For example, a big portion of Chinese rural youth are myopic. This could be fixed by just getting eyeglasses to them, which are really not very expensive and yet that hasn’t been done. So there are kids out there who just can’t see the blackboards (or the whiteboards) and so can’t complete school. There are also problems with worms and vitamin deficiencies. These can be easily fixed by giving a supplement every day to children, or by giving them a de-worming medicine, but these things are not done.

So you have a rural population in China—about 60% of the total population—which is very, very significantly behind the rest of the country and behind other developing nations. It’s particularly sad given the amount of money that was poured into physical development since 2009. In China you have hundreds of looming, dark, empty cities, and yet you have hundreds of millions of people who lack in very basic nutrition and education.

Traditionally I thought China did quite well in terms of basic literacy and health.

In the major cities, the educational opportunities and the nutrition and so forth, tend to be very good. But rural China tends to be forgotten, and the hukou or residential permit system has allowed that to persist while the rest of the country is developing.

There’s another book called Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics (2008) that I’d also like to recommend. It’s by Yasheng Huang. He’s written a lot of books since then but this one really stuck in my mind. He perhaps over-celebrates the developments of the 1980s and the blossoming of the town and village enterprises—in a Gandhian rural revolution sense. But he does point out a lot of things that other people haven’t noticed: like the fact that that since the tightening of central government control in the early 1990s, after Tiananmen, the improvements in health and welfare actually went backwards, not forwards.

There are other great books: The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu and Factory Girls by Leslie Chang. Liao tells stories about the lives of Chinese people at the very bottom of society—prisoners, beggars, guys hired to “walk” corpses back to their native soil in order to trick the gods into thinking they died there. Leslie Chang’s book focuses on interviews of women who moved out of their native villages to work temporarily at export bases. And it talks about how they feel and what they encountered. And those are issues that are really underrepresented.

I feel that the lives of average Chinese people are generally underrepresented in literature—and that’s what I’m most curious about. This is why I wrote a book of short stories, Hello, Kitty. I’m really interested in what all of this modernization, this tumultuous change, has done to the psychology of ordinary people. There are people who leave their children behind in their native villages with the grandparents and go back only once a year. Now, there’s this huge development of so-called cities: people are moved to apartment complexes out of their original villages. They leave their communities, they go to different schools. It’s probably leading to a lot of social problems in China and it’s very much underrepresented.

You also liked Ai Weiwei’s memoir, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows. He’s an artist and activist, but this is also about his father, who was a prominent poet.

I thought it was great. It was very interesting. There was a lot in it about his father, Ai Qing, and the time the Party suppressed his poetry and didn’t allow him to keep writing. There were a lot of scenes from struggle sessions (or ‘education sessions’, as they would have called them) in the places where they were exiled. There was a lot about just the general toughness of life. If you had gone from a city where you had water coming out of the tap, and you could cook fairly easily, and then you were sent to a cabin where you couldn’t—that would be a big hardship.

Finally, tell me about your book Wild Ride, which is about the decades since 1978. You lived in China for many of those years—what’s been the basic trajectory, in your view?

In the 1980s China was a very exciting place. There was the opening up in the economy and also in the arts which was very heady, especially for those of us who were living in Beijing.

In business, you had this explosion of entities from just a few dozen in a particular industry to thousands. One of the effects of that was that the regulators couldn’t keep up. So they had to restructure the way businesses were regulated, because you could no longer have one person per entity, to micromanage its operations. So things got a lot freer.

Also, people had been very tied to the place where they were born. They still are in many ways. But prior to 1995 (technically) and 1980 (in reality), people could not leave their place of residence or their jobs without permission. But after that, as China built all these exporting hubs on the coast, they needed people to work there. So people started to move for work to the coast, and you eventually got 300 million people traveling around the country. That, of course, changed a lot of the way the place is governed.

In the arts there was this explosion of music and poetry and novels and the visual arts. It was also very tentative and experimental. For example, you had to have art exhibits in a park, or I hosted one in my apartment at the Friendship Hotel. The concerts were held at embassies, the art exhibitions might be in a restaurant or another private space. It was all very cautious, and only available to certain portions of the public, but there was all this new stuff.

So that was very interesting, and one felt that it might increase. What happened, of course, was the Tiananmen protests and the suppression of dissent. The government restructured and exerted a whole lot more control—and a lot of those new outcroppings of the arts disappeared and were suppressed.

In the early 2000s, that was brushed under the rug, in a way, because the government was pouring so much money into the economy, and everybody had all of these opportunities. They thought, ‘Well, okay, so we may not be able to listen to this new music or see these new paintings, but our salaries are rising, there’s so many more opportunities. It’s great.’ And the West really bought into the idea that everything was changing and evolving. But, by the time of the Olympics in 2008, it became pretty clear that that wasn’t going to happen.

What made you write the book?

I guess it was a sense of exile because there is an awful lot about China that I really love. I lived there a really long time and I really miss China—but I can’t go back now, because of the politics. There was a sense when I first arrived in 1985, that everything was changing and opening, and it was exciting. You could talk to people and get what they really thought and there were protests and marches past the Friendship Hotel that I used to join. There were salons that I could go to. There was a bookstore that had performances of music, there were poets who would wander the country and come and give readings. It was very exciting. That’s all gone. I just feel that it’s a little bit sad. I just wanted to describe what that trajectory was like.

There must be a lot of Chinese people who are unhappy with the trajectory as well, even if they can’t say so publicly. What do you think will happen?

It’s very hard to know. As has been demonstrated amply in the United States, I do think that propaganda works. A lot of people are very supportive of the Party and of Xi Jinping. A lot of people have left their original communities, a lot of people are living among people they don’t know. There is a lot of dissatisfaction around—over falling income, over crime, over the various restrictions on life. But has that been sewn together into a general narrative about the Party? I don’t know. I doubt it.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

June 14, 2024

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Anne Stevenson-Yang

Anne Stevenson-Yang

Anne Stevenson-Yang spent over 25 years in China. She co-founded J Capital Research in late 2007, was co-founder of Blue Bamboo Ventures and Clarity Data Systems, as well as a publishing company whose flagship magazine is City Weekend. She has also worked as an industry analyst and trade advocate, heading the U.S. Information Technology Office and, from 1993 to 1997, the China operations of the U.S.-China Business Council.

Anne Stevenson-Yang

Anne Stevenson-Yang

Anne Stevenson-Yang spent over 25 years in China. She co-founded J Capital Research in late 2007, was co-founder of Blue Bamboo Ventures and Clarity Data Systems, as well as a publishing company whose flagship magazine is City Weekend. She has also worked as an industry analyst and trade advocate, heading the U.S. Information Technology Office and, from 1993 to 1997, the China operations of the U.S.-China Business Council.