Postcards from Tomorrow Square

James Fallows offers insightful reporting on the rise of China.

Postcards from Tomorrow Square By James Fallows Vintage 288 pp., $14.95

Veteran journalist James Fallows is at his best when explaining complicated international transactions in plain language. Fallows, who has been writing from China for The Atlantic magazine for the past two years, is not a China specialist.

But having studied economics at Oxford University, he appears to understand China’s economy and finances better than most of his journalistic peers. Postcards from Tomorrow Square, Fallows’s new book about the rise of modern China, is full of engaging examples.

To make a point about how the Chinese government imposes “an unbelievably high savings rate” on the Chinese people, Fallows follows a dollar as it travels to China from a customer in America buying a Chinese-made electric toothbrush.

The Chinese factory that made the toothbrush can’t use the dollars it earns. First it must take its dollars to a Chinese bank and change them into the local currency, the undervalued RMB.
Then, thanks to China’s currency controls, the dollars spent at an American drugstore end up in the Chinese equivalent of the Federal Reserve bank.

That bank then transfers the dollars on to Chinese foreign exchange administrators who move the great majority of China’s savings into “the boring safety of U.S. Treasury notes.”

In effect, the Communist Party has approved a policy that takes money from poor factory workers and invests it in the United States, where it benefits not ordinary Chinese but US homeowners and lenders.

Having written extensively over the years on technological advances in different parts of the world, Fallows is also comfortable writing about the Internet.

In one excellent chapter, Fallows clearly describes how China’s control over the Internet has grown more sophisticated: The censors create an atmosphere of unpredictability based on ever-changing lines that can’t be crossed. This serves to encourage highly effective self-censorship.

But Fallows’s book mostly emphasizes  positive developments in China.

He describes the country’s  new volunteerism, its success in manufacturing, and its attempts to cope with environmental pollution. He provides compelling portraits of several would-be Chinese entrepreneurs competing on a Chinese reality TV show modeled on Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice.”

He also profiles Chinese entrepreneurial heroes who aspire to do more than make money. One is a wealthy innovator who reveres Al Gore and promotes energy conservation. Two others, Taiwan-born business executives, have undertaken the seemingly impossible mission of reducing poverty in China’s remote western provinces.

Fallows accuses the “Western press” of generally conveying a “dim image” of China. Unfortunately, he fails to give specific examples of where the Western media go wrong. (He also blames the Chinese government for doing a lousy public relations job.)

My own view is that China-based correspondents from the US and elsewhere deserve credit for covering tough subjects that Fallows barely touches on. These include pervasive government corruption, dangerous poisons in Chinese food and milk products, a brutal crackdown in Tibet, severe restrictions on Muslims in Xinjiang, and widespread repression of dissidents, petitioners, and unauthorized religious groups.

Seriously understating the case, Fallows acknowledges that the rule of law is “still shaky” in China.

He writes that the Chinese government at all levels is becoming “more accountable,” but he neglects, for instance, to look into local-level gangsterization  – the use of paid thugs by local officials and police to intimidate protesters and enforce land grabs.

To his credit, Fallows acknowledges his limits. No one, he argues, can provide the “overall picture” of China in a single book. It’s “simply too big and too contradictory.”

Fallows bases his book on magazine articles on China that he wrote from 2006 up until quite recently. But “Postcards from Tomorrow Square” already has a slightly dated feel, because Fallows – understandably – was unable to incorporate the most recent news about the global recession that has struck China with great force.

The Chinese media call this a “financial tsunami” and Fallows may need an entirely new book to deal with it.

Dan Southerland, executive editor of congressionally funded Radio Free Asia, is a former Monitor correspondent and a former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post.

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