Bridge into the heart of China

Governance and Politics of China
February 1, 2002

Tony Saich, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, is unusually qualified to write what must be the best university-level survey of how China is governed, from the politburo to the remotest mountain village. After teaching Chinese politics at Leiden, his five years running the Ford Foundation in Beijing gave him the opportunity to see China as it is, discern its natural and self-inflicted difficulties and provide practical advice for its future.

This book succeeds in making coherent and interesting a mass of detail about China's governance, a subject of which most of Saich's intended readers will be ignorant. This governance "moves us beyond the functioning of government institutions and administrative departments to the broader issues of how individual citizens, groups and communities relate to the state".

Saich's travels in China allow him to tell personal stories - unusual in this sort of book - that illustrate big themes better than most monographs. In rural China, he came upon the opening of a new bridge, where a man in colourful robes was leading a ceremony to drive off evil spirits. The man was an official of the Communist Party, which regularly denounces "superstitious practices". Saich mulled over whether the party secretary was "importing the power of the party into the village community or bringing heterodox beliefs into the party, or both?" What was certain was that the bridge "would integrate the local community to the world outside".

The book is studded with such illuminating experiences. But mostly it distils quantities of scholarly research, cited directly in the text. After a comprehensive geographical survey and post-1949 historical narrative, Saich examines the background and organisation of the party, how it links to the government apparatus, and how it reaches more or less effectively into the smallest rural communities. He outlines the workings of government away from the centre and shows the interplay between the provinces, big cities and Beijing, together with the often-overpowering influence of a few individuals.

Economic reform has made life better for many Chinese, Saich observes, while widening the gap between rich and poor. The chapter on foreign affairs bends over backwards to understand Beijing's concerns on arms sales and proliferation, human rights and Taiwan.

Unlike some basic studies, this one tackles most of China's basic problems: corruption, poverty, the environment, dissent, health and family planning. The low position of women is a constant preoccupation.

Fairness and balance are vital in such books, but as part of his conclusion Saich suggests that "confronted by the potential for social unrest, the Chinese senior leadership has preferred to slow down the pace of reform once it bites and perpetuate a system of authoritarian political control".

Governance and Politics of China has a well-chosen and orderly series of recommendations for further readings on its main subjects. Acquiring all the books and articles would make a creditable collection for any college or university library, although in these days of internet access Saich could have cited more newspaper articles. The best source on the Falun Gong, the much-persecuted religious sect, is Ian Johnson's series of articles for the Wall Street Journal , for which he won last year's Pulitzer prize.

The book's index is flawed, and although Saich devotes considerable space to dissent and women, neither is mentioned.

I recommend this book to teachers of undergraduate and graduate courses on Chinese politics and international relations - for their students and for themselves, when they realise there is much they do not know.

Jonathan Mirsky is a journalist specialising in China. This year, he is a visiting fellow, Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley, United States.

Governance and Politics of China

Author - Tony Saich
ISBN - 0 333 59486 X and 59487 8
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £49.50 and £17.50
Pages - 349

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