Billed as Dick Wilson's last word on China (which it surely cannot be: how can he bear to leave this particular story, at this particular moment?), this is a book which commands attention from specialists as well as those with a more general interest in China and its place in the contemporary world.
The first section of the book was for obvious reasons always going to be problematic. Having to condense more than 2,000 years of history into one short chapter, one is almost bound to end up saying something silly, and Wilson is unable to avoid this completely. Analogies between ancient and contemporary China may well be necessary for the orientation of the general reader, and they are sometimes enlightening; the comparison of Mao with the first emperor of China, Qinshi Huangdi, is a well-worn one with some substance to it. But here the historical parallels are on occasion risibly overstretched, as in the comment that "After Huangdi's death, the (Qin) dynasty collapsed, there being no Deng Xiaoping figure capable of continuing it with a fine-tuning of ideology." Wilson also associates Mao with Huangdi's general contempt for human life, noting Mao's public praise for the emperor. There is in fact ample evidence of Mao's attitude in this respect; one only has to read Jasper Becker's recent Hungry Ghosts on the Great Leap famine. Yet the comment to which Wilson refers was made during a specific political campaign in the early 1970s in which figures from the ancient past were used as proxies for contemporary members of the party elite, and in this context the comment had a specific and quite narrow meaning. This sort of skating over of detail can easily be justified in a book such as this, but specialists, in which category I would include most academic students of China, are likely to be irritated by the resort to broad and necessarily inaccurate sweeps of the historical brush.
But there are many worse 20-page summaries of Chinese history from 600bc to 1949 than Wilson's. And the following section on Mao's China is much better, the author's years of experience evident in an assured account with an eye for the telling detail. One final carp about accuracy: Wilson refers to the aftermath of the 1986-87 demonstrations which led to the dismissal of Hu Yaobang as head of the Communist party, stating that subsequently: "The economic reforms were to some extent reined in, but the next wave of student demonstrations in 1989 led to the tragedy of the Tiananmen killings." The reform programme in fact proceeded with further measures on price decontrol, housing and other matters which greatly affected the everyday lives of the urban population. 1988 is therefore often regarded as a crucial turning-point in citizens' attitudes towards the reforms, one which contributed greatly to the urban citizenry's massive support for the student-initiated movement of 1989. The 1989 events must be a major point of interest for any reader of this book, and a chance to deepen popular Western understanding of the broad processes at work in China at that time has been missed.
When it turns to economics, the book generally goes along with conventional wisdom, one which focuses on overall growth rates and the devil take the hindmost. Some reference is made to serious problems such as welfare, population growth, and China's looming environmental crisis; there is a particularly good account of the debate over the Three Gorges dam project, highly relevant in the light of the recent severe flooding in much of central and eastern China. The economic analysis is far more optimistic than pessimistic. And in this Wilson is in line with the majority of informed opinion on the topic, which, however, does not mean that he is right.
Some of the politics sections are more contentious. Writing on the 1978-81 democracy movement, James Seymour noted that while "it is one thing to say that it will be difficult to realise democracy (in China), it is quite another matter to say that the Chinese people have no interest in it". Wilson goes a step further, arguing that the traditional Confucian "culture of compliance" means that "many specific aspects of the democratic system and procedures in the West simply do not fit the national character" of the Chinese. No one who has taught East Asian students would be so foolish as to deny the difficulties which traditional deference to authority can pose in situations where questions need to be asked and errors pointed out. Yet this seems to me to be doing what the author elsewhere (discussing the one-child policy) identifies as offering ready excuses to those in power who prefer authoritarianism for its own sake. If Wei Jingsheng emerges from another long bout of incarceration with his sense of humour intact, he might have fun with a point-by point refutation of this in that razor-sharp polemical style which makes his Democracy Wall writings, even 17 years after the event, still exhilarating to read.
I would hesitate to recommend this book to undergraduates as a primer on contemporary China and how it got to this point, and not only because of its length. However, it does offer a great deal to general readers in the way of insight, telling quotations and anecdotes to which they would not otherwise have access. And any book which lists toilet-paper in its index instantly endears itself to me; the reference is to the great Beijing toilet paper shortage of 1986, which most people solved by using pages from the cheap and widely available party mouthpiece, the People's Daily. At least since the demise of Mao, "the people's emperor", this can be done with impunity, no matter whose photograph is on the front page.
Jackie Sheehan is lecturer in international history, Keele University.
China The Big Tiger: A Nation Awakes
Author - Dick Wilson
ISBN - 0 316 90714 6
Publisher - Little, Brown
Price - £20.00
Pages - 547