Post Cards From Tomorrow Square; Reports From China.

James Fallows, 2009

Reviewed by Graham Mulligan

Fallows is the Atlantic Monthly correspondent for China. In his introduction to the book he categorizes some of the collection of essays as ‘policy’ oriented explorations of the tremendous variety of cultural developments that so frequently lead Western observers to take positions about ‘China’ as though it were one, indivisible reality. His portraits of individuals constitute another category and they show us a more complicated China, one that cannot be reduced to simple statements about size, speed of growth, or institutional rigidity.

‘The China opportunity’ or ‘The China threat’

A good deal of Fallows’ writing is by comparison with Japan and Malaysia, where he spent four years prior to moving to China. The image of clean and orderly factories thus is out of place in chaotic China but the essay on Mr. Zhang, the businessman-tycoon owner of Broad Air Conditioning, shows such fastidiousness can exist in China.

In an interesting observation Fallows says China has a Dream (Five Thousand Years of Civilization), like America has a Dream (Liberty, Democracy, the End of Tyranny), whereas Canada, Holland and Finland do not. This idea plays out in a number of his essays, particularly when he compares the experience of China and America at the stages of development as nations and as economic giants. ‘China Makes, the World Takes’ is an essay on economic power. From the journalists perspective: “China’s success in manufacturing is what has determined its place in the world” may seem appropriate but what of this: “Someday China may matter internationally mainly for the nature of its political system or for its strategic ambitions”? Fallows hints at the possibility of examining China from a different frame although he doesn’t pursue the idea in any of these essays.

In comparing China’s development as an economic power to the American hegemony Fallows cites numerous American strengths. I particularly liked Fallows unrestrained enthusiasm for a wide-open immigration policy for America (and for Canada, in my opinion):

The easier America makes it for talented foreigners to work and study here, the richer, more powerful, and more respected America will be. America’s ability to absorb the world’s talent is the crucial advantage no other culture can match – as long as America doesn’t forfeit this advantage with visa rules written mainly out of fear.

The obvious power and wealth created through manufacturing success is a common thread throughout the essays but in a nice retelling of an economics metaphor called the Smiley Curve Fallows portrays how Chinese success is really America’s success. The Smiley Curve begins with an American company and a strong brand name, next comes the good idea for a product, then the design of that product, engineering, manufacturing and assembly follow, then shipping and distribution to the retail outlets and lots of sales, followed up by service contracts and accessories. This is a familiar story and for the business owners the big money is in the beginning and the end of the Smiley Curve: brand name and retail. What gets shipped to China is what costs very little to do leaving the big profit in the big company’s hands.

China’s goal is to bring the high-value ends of the Smiley Curve to China. One challenge is the limited pool of executive-level talent and specifically the lack of foreign language (primarily English) skills and the experience of working abroad.

In ‘The View From There’ Fallows writes about America in the context of three other powerful nations Great Britain, Japan and China. Each is somewhat lesser than the ‘rough and ready’ USA. He catalogs China’s internal challenges (rural poverty, the high costs of urban living, the looming retirement uncertainties, China’s brand-image disasters, resource scarcity, corruption and so on) and calls it a ‘whack-a-mole’ challenge that keeps everyone off balance and a little bit humble. “It would be perverse for China to be distracted by any but practical concerns, since it has so much work to do”.

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