Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How It Got There and Where It is Heading

This survey is as big as the country it covers, but it pulls its punches, David Bachman finds

July 5, 2012

Jonathan Fenby's Tiger Head, Snake Tails is a very current survey of what its subtitle says it will do: describe China today, explain how it got where it has, and consider where it will go. Fenby intends the primary title to mean that the big story of China's rise and its global consequences (the tiger's head) is actually determined by "a host of down-to-earth factors which actually determine how the country functions and where it is going". His purpose "is to provide a one-stop account of where the fastest-growing major nation stands and what it will mean for both China and the world in which it looms so large". He partially succeeds in those aims.

Although he does not explicitly say so, the book is roughly divided into the three parts signalled in the subtitle. The transition from section to section could be clearer and stronger, and it may take the reader a while to grasp how each section fits with the others. Fenby provides an overview of what rising China means for global markets, a breakdown of the constituent elements of the Chinese economy, a snapshot of geographic and ethnic issues, and a quick run-through of Chinese history, politics and international relations. Informed general readers are likely to find the sections that focus on the economy and contemporary political and international issues (chapters 1 to 5 and 14 to 18) the most relevant, and all but the most dedicated analyst of China will learn something from this book. However, most aspects of the overall story of the country's rise, global impact and problems at home and abroad, as told here, will not be news to anyone. Although Fenby probably wins the prize for the highest average number of facts per page for any book on China I've read, his marshalling of data comes at the expense (or in lieu) of more sustained analysis, as if the sheer adumbration of facts substitutes for more in-depth probing. And reading a specific example of something for the 10th time gets a little tiresome.

Two issues seem particularly problematic to me. First, for a book that aspires to suggest where China is heading, there are remarkably few discussions of how the Chinese people themselves see their country's future, or where they have been and how they got there. There are short snippets from interviews with business and political figures, but the non-elite do not have much of a voice in this work. Given Fenby's very large canvas, this may not be too surprising, but some in-depth interviews of workers, migrants, peasants, teachers and so on would enrich our understanding of how stable and (un)popular the regime is.

Fenby tries to address the issue of the relationship between the regime and the people in the final four chapters. In "Lack of trust", he highlights corruption, lack of rule of law, protests, abuses of power and the punishment of whistleblowers. "Cracks in the mirror" looks at problems caused by the lack of accountability and the effects of the Communist Party's monopoly of power.

He offers the reasonable observation that the regime needs to make the rule of law real, to open itself up more to popular inputs and, somewhat more implicitly, to move gradually towards sharing power. Certainly large numbers of observers in China and the West would agree. The problem comes when he discusses the new leadership line-up that will begin to emerge this autumn. Like most analysts, Fenby notes that there is no obvious champion of the kind of functionalist reforms most think are necessary for China's rise to continue. Historically, "functional imperatives" are not always (or often?) grasped by national leaderships. China's leadership has made it clear that it does not accept the logic of power sharing or constraints on its power. As this book strongly argues, vested interests and narrow self-interested behaviour are thoroughly entrenched and dominate the country's political economy. Where, then, will the next generation of reforms and reformers come from? It is extraordinarily difficult for analysts to imagine realistic political processes or mechanisms by which the identified necessary adaptive reforms can become policy and be implemented honestly.

One of Fenby's last sentences is: "China will not implode." Yet if the history lessons he includes in the middle part of the book are of any relevance, it seems that Chinese regimes always implode (or explode). What is different this time? The logic of Fenby's analysis contradicts his conclusion.

Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How It Got There and Where It is Heading

By Jonathan Fenby

Simon & Schuster

432pp, £20.00 and £9.99

ISBN 9781847373939 and 9780857200884 (e-book)

Published 29 March 2012

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