A correspondent offers an intimate, engaging look at what breakneck industrialization has meant for China’s citizens
China Road: A Journey Into the Future of a Rising Power
by Rob Gifford,
Doubleday Random House 2007,
As his title indicates, Rob Gifford’s book is a road trip, traversing the length of a vast Chinese highway known as Route 312. Spanning some 3,000 miles, Route 312 begins at China’s far western border with Kazakhstan, crossing the Gobi desert and hundreds of small villages, towns, industrial hubs and cities, before concluding at glittering, modern Shanghai on the eastern coast.
For Gifford, who spent six years as NPR’s China correspondent, Route 312 is a metaphor for a nation on the move. Today an estimated 150 million Chinese are traveling this and similar highways to reach the cities, abandoning their traditional livelihoods for the promise of urban prosperity. It is, he writes, “the largest migration in human history.”
Like others, the author sees tremendous promise in China’s ascent as a global superpower. Yet he warns that the country is not as stable as it seems and suggests that a journey along Route 312 “is a journey into China’s frailties.” Gifford’s trip allows him to witness firsthand the environmental devastation in the countryside, as well as the increasing burden of entrenched political corruption. No less significant, however, is the impact of dramatic industrialization upon the populace. As China hurtles into the 21st century, producing manufacturing plants, factories, and increased opportunities for development, Gifford wants to know how people are surviving, and what it means today to be Chinese. In addressing these concerns, China Road provides a compelling glimpse into the lives of the “Old Hundred Names,” the ordinary Chinese people. This well-written and engaging book, with extended meditations on Chinese history, literature, philosophy and religion, is suitable for anyone seeking an intimate contemporary portrait of the Middle Kingdom.
In the style of intrepid travel writers like Paul Theroux, Gifford makes his journey aboard buses, trucks, and long-distance taxis, filling his narrative with a cast of lively characters. From Shanghai talk-show hosts and Communist Party yuppies to dissident AIDS workers, prostitutes, farmers, and teachers, each has an opinion about the new China. For some, like “Tintin,” a 27-year old advertising executive, life is good. He makes a hefty salary, owns an apartment, and spends his weekends racing through the countryside in his shiny off-road jeep. Others, like the philosophical truck driver who ferries Gifford across the Gobi, worry about modern dislocations. “Money has made everyone go bad,” he says, “It’s man eat man now.” Ye Sha, the radio host, agrees, noting that “people, especially young people, are mishi le. They are lost.” Yet even the Daoist hermit—who meditates in a cave just beyond the belching smoke stacks of a massive power station—sees benefits in progress. And Muslim and Tibetan minorities are pragmatic about educating their children in Mandarin, so they can attend good schools in the urban centers. “That inevitably leads to a dilution of our culture,” says Murat, in far-flung Xinjiang, “but we can use it to our own benefit, as much as possible.”
Throughout the book, Gifford tacks between despair over seemingly insurmountable problems within China and admiration for the ways people are coping. In one chapter, he is repulsed by a family planning official who forces women into abortions; in the next, he marvels as two prim cosmetic saleswomen board a rickety bus and chide dark-skinned Tibetans to use whitening products. At the conclusion of his trip, Gifford admits, “If I seem a little confused about China, it’s because I am.” Ultimately, he remains hopeful, suggesting that, while many of the new jobs are difficult and dangerous, located in Dickensian factories, the Old Hundred Names enjoy much greater personal freedom than ever before. If today the Chinese people “are starting in a very small way to be in charge of their own destiny,” for Gifford, this is the fundamental change that will pave the road to China’s future greatness.
Robin Tatu is a senior editor of Prism.