Jeffrey Wasserstrom, “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know”

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is everywhere – at least in the world of China studies. Admirably prolific, technologically-aware and seemingly always right on top of the latest China-related trends and developments, he is the co-founder of the highly successful China Beat blog, has published four books on China, and his articles have appeared in a number of academic and current affair journals.

So when I read earlier this year that Wasserstrom’s latest book, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, was soon to appear in stores (or, more relevant for this particularly ardent lover of, online shopping sites), I got a little bit excited.

It arrived on my doorstep days before a trip to HK to visit my family, and was an engaging and easy read for the first couple of hours of the flight. It’s short – perhaps the width of my forefinger – with minimal footnotes and written in a simple, concise tone. Despite this, however, it covers an impressive range of issues, although does so in more of a ‘China for Beginners’ style than I had expected.

But this book surprised me. I couldn’t comfortably categorise it as an academic work, but perhaps, after all, that is the point. It would rest easily in the non-fiction aisle at Dymocks, and I would readily recommend it to a friend unknowledgeable but curious about China. Wasserstrom engages with all the most important developments, events and movements in China’s last two centuries, and does so in a way that actively seeks to dispel common (predominantly Western or specifically American) myths about China – its background and intentions.

Indeed, one of the greatest achievements of this book is that – perhaps for the first time – it offers a concise, easy read that could (hopefully) bring popular opinions and imaginings about China in alignment with those of governments and academic circles. It is written in a question-and-answer format, and anyone with a degree of specialized knowledge in China will find themselves reminded of times when they were similarly asked “Why were the 2008 Olympics such a big deal for China?,” or “Is China bent on world domination?” Wasserstrom’s answers not only provide overviews of these issues, but bring into play differences of opinion and interpretation. The result is a nuanced picture of China, an achievement starkly contrasted against the more common books intended as introductions to a society and culture that is presented as imposing, knowable and monolithic.

Consequently, as often as I found myself nodding at such familiar questions as “Is China likely to become a democracy?”, I was also reminded of how much I wished more people would ask these same questions. Most people I have spoken with don’t ask, as Wasserstrom’s book does, what the ‘One-Child Family’ policy is, because Western media has told them the answer. Similarly, few people fed information by Western media ask why the CCP has suppressed the Falun Gong movement – they only know that they have, and that it is undemocratic (and thus evil) to do so. The public will not ask why China’s diversity is overlooked, as such a question is precluded by the very fact that it is overlooked.

I must confess that I initially wrote-off Wasserstrom’s chosen question-and-answer format as a cop out and an oversimplification. While it allows a clear delineation of important events and changes, I expected that it would wash away many of the historic subtleties and complexities of the last century. However, in so structuring this book, Wasserstrom has hit upon a subtle way to incorporate common knowledge with often overlooked aspects of Chinese politics and history. It cannot be an accident that “How do U.S and Chinese views on Tibet differ?” follows “What is the biggest source of Chinese misunderstanding of the United States?”

So, my final judgement? Anyone who knows nothing about China should read this, and everyone who thinks they already know a fair bit about China should read this. You’ll be surprised.

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