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March 20, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright March 20, 2008 Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. Used by permission.


So many authors and pundits today attempt to predict China’s future by looking at the numbers: GDP, population, military spending, trade surplus, environmental measurements. Taking any combination of these figures, it is easy to declare that China is either a rising superpower, destined for world domination, or a teetering giant, bound only for disaster. The fact that both perspectives can—and have—been argued indicates the complexity of China’s situation and the inability of statistics to predict much of anything.

Rob Gifford, former Beijing correspondent for National Public Radio, took a three thousand mile-long journey along China’s Route 312, from Shanghai to the border with Kazakhstan, in his own effort to answer the question, “Which is it going to be for China, greatness or implosion?” (xix). China Road (Random House, 2007), the product of that trip, offers no definitive predictions for China’s future, but does provide readers with an enjoyable and informative glimpse into various pockets of Chinese society today and the challenges the country faces as it moves into the twenty-first century.

Gifford’s first trip along Route 312 produced a seven-part series of reports for NPR in the summer of 2004; the book is an expanded account of that journey and an additional, longer, trek the following year. China Road is clearly geared toward the widest audience possible: Gifford takes pains to include pronunciation guides for all those tricky Chinese words, and his tales of life on the road are interwoven with basic explanations of Chinese history and society. While I didn’t find any of Gifford’s analysis revelatory, I appreciated the fact that he often appears as confused about China’s direction as I am, and I’ve recommended China Road to several friends and relatives who seem to like my stories about living here. For China specialists, this is beach reading—no highlighter or note-taking required.