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November 10, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright November 10, 2009 Maura Dykstra. Used by permission.


When I first left to study in China, I asked around about what presents to bring. I took the advice of a professor, and boarded a plane to Shanghai with two bottles of Johnny Walker and two cartons of Marlboro cigarettes. I had heard tales of men and women in China beseeching their foreign friends to purchase such items at Friendship Stores, and had been reassured that these name-brand products would be eagerly consumed by deprived whiskey-drinkers and smokers on the mainland. I wasn’t in China for more than a week when, stepping into a local convenience store, I was confronted with a very inconvenient truth: behind the counter, well-stocked shelves of alcohol and tobacco – including the products that I had schlepped across the Pacific – silently testified to the difficulty of understanding, predicting, or characterizing the relationship between U.S. and China markets.

My personal revelation notwithstanding, there is no shortage of truisms about China’s development in the US. Grandmothers and grandfathers complain that everything these days is made in China, and widely-read periodicals peddle a portrait of China as the dragon awakened from its slumber. Graduate students used to living easily even in China’s most expensive cities comment wistfully on how much less a U.S. dollar buys, and agitated members of Congress cry out for aggressive reevaluations of the RMB. When I tell a neighbor, or a friend of the family, that I study China, they often wink at me, and hint that they approve of my crafty and timely decision to study the world’s next greatest up-and-comer.

But despite all obvious signs of China’s success and fears of what this means for the U.S., the nature of China’s development, and its import for the U.S., Asian, and world economies, is poorly understood. Richard C. K. Burdekin’s volume ($75.00 from Cambridge University Press) is a sound step in introducing the curious scholar to the complexity of the issues behind China’s domestic and international fiscal policies from the 1930s to the present. This work is a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics related to China’s monetary history and contemporary financial trends. It includes narratives of the inflationary crises of the 1930s, 1940s, and the early PRC period (Chapters 5, 6, and pp. 12 – 14 of Chapter 1, respectively), as well as extensive detail about China’s response to the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 90s. Burdekin’s keen summaries of government policy approaches to economic trouble at different periods allow him to characterize current policy in a rich and meaningful context. This background is juxtaposed against in-depth coverage on contemporary fiscal issues, ranging from questions central to the debate over the USD/RMB exchange rate (Chapters 1 to 4), the financial repercussions of China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization (Chapter 7), and China’s changing role in the wider Asian economy (Chapter 8 on Hong Kong, and Chapter 9 on Taiwan).