China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World
by Ted Fishman
A review by Hope Glassberg
During the 1980s, as China lurched toward capitalism, Deng Xiaoping characterized
his country's economic progression as "crossing the river by feeling for stones."
In the last two decades, the cautious, zigzagging approach that Deng was describing
has given way to a full-speed charge across the river. The impact of China's transition
from state-driven planning to a powerful market system -- it is now the world's
seventh largest economy -- is the subject of Ted Fishman's China, Inc.,
a book as sprawling in scope as its subject's geography. In a span of 300 pages,
Fishman tackles the Chinese job market, the Shanghai sex business, the sock business,
the fall of Communism, Ramen sales, automobile manufacturing, Communist memorabilia,
the outsourcing debate, Taiwanese independence, commercial counterfeiting, Chinese
currency, and the Chinese educational system -- many of which would warrant entire
Fishman has compiled an impressive array of facts, figures, and anecdotes
about China's business boom. And to his credit, he includes worthwhile interviews
with everyone from shop sellers in a Shanghai knick-knack market to Patrick
Lo, chief executive of networking equipment giant Netgear Inc. But while Fishman's
range of reporting is impressive, his book could have benefited from an overriding
argument -- or rather, any strong arguments at all. Occasionally Fishman lets
an opinion seep in, but only in the most cursory of terms. For instance, in
his discussion of the Three Gorges Dam, the government's massive effort to block
off a Lake Superior-sized reservoir along the Yangtze River, he laments briefly
that the project will destroy much of the gorges and several cities, while displacing
over a million people -- quite a point for a mere aside.
By avoiding more controversial waters, Fishman reduces heated political debates to endless on-the-other-hand dialogues that would put Tevye to shame. In his chapter on piracy, Fishman says that China's vast counterfeit market constrains business innovators because they know any good idea will be ripped off. But he stops short of outright condemnation of piracy, explaining that the underground economy also provides an influx of much-needed cash to China. Then, moments later, he concedes that China's piracy robs the world of wealth. In his chapter on the valuation of the yuan, Fishman hedges again, noting both that the yuan's peg to the dollar falsely inflates China's competitive advantage and that if the yuan were unpegged, it would create instability. In other words, there are pros and cons to the current valuation of Chinese currency. You don't say.
This is not to claim that any of the complex issues raised by China, Inc. can be shoved into easy either-or paradigms. And Fishman does provide a good introduction to China's economy. But rather than sprawling so widely over such broad terrain, he might have focused on a few areas and developed arguments about them. What should be done about China's rampant piracy? Should the yuan be pegged to the dollar? Offering answers to such questions might have made for a more purposeful narrative than the one China, Inc. provides. Too often, Fishman appears to be crossing the river by feeling for stones.
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