Book review: China in the 21st Century – What everyone needs to know

A few decades ago, only a handful of experts in international affairs would have predicted - and believed possible - the rising of China to its current status of superpower. The “Reform and Opening” policies implemented in the late seventies contributed to bring China into the daily life of Westerners. From wearing clothing 'made in China' to working on a computer that was also made in China or just by watching daily news report on the astronomic growth of the giant, China is everywhere. But what exactly do we know about China’s vast history and contemporary politics and, most importantly, where does one start to become acquainted with a country that is over 5000 years old? Wasserstrom’s “China in the 21st Century: What everyone needs to know” is the perfect book for individuals interested in getting to know the basics of this superpower. The book will also prove to be a valuable resource for people with a deeper knowledge of China who wish to take an accelerated refresher course.

The book is divided in two major sections: Part I relates the “Historical Legacies of China,” going through the Confucian roots, the dynasties and the revolutions of the country up until Mao’s reign. In just about 65 pages, this review is a brilliant recap of China’s historical events and movements. It is concise and it gives the reader just enough information to master the basics of this era or to have the desire to find further information on any of the events depicted.

The second part begins its discussion with an overview of China’s more recent evolution, starting with the end of Mao’s era. The first chapter of this section, “From Mao to Now” constitutes and excellent starting point in order to understand the economic reforms that led China to become the world’s largest manufacturer. It also discusses in a very honest and unbiased way some delicate topics such as the “One Child Policy,” the “1989 Tiananmen Uprising,” the repression of the Falun Gong Movement, and China’s “Big Brother” approach to internet access. Pages 76 and up explore in a captivating way how the fall of other Communist governments only reinforced Beijing’s position and why the Westerners that had predicted the fall of the Chinese Communist Party years ago were wrong.

The author dedicated a chapter of this second part to “US-China Misunderstandings.” While it is surely interesting to read about misunderstandings that some Americans may have of China, some non-American readers may find this part difficult to relate to. The last Chapter of the book entitled “The Future” may leave certain readers wishing for a deeper analysis as to what is to be expected from this superpower in the near future. Some readers may also be disappointed to learn very little about China’s complex and fast changing business world. But this is quickly forgotten when, at the very end of the book, the author draws striking comparisons between the United States and China that will surely leave some readers open-mouthed about the two superpowers similarities:

“the leaders of each country have a longstanding tendency of insisting that their country is rooted in an abhorrence of “imperialism” in all its forms, and yet each country has been perfectly ready at times to impose its own visions of “modernity” and “civilization” upon unwilling populations.” (p. 132)

And further:

in the late 1800s, it was the United States that was often seen by Europeans, as China is now often seen by Americans, as a place that produced inferior and sometimes downright dangerous goods and issued pirated editions of best-sellers.”  (p. 133)

The book also includes a practical index and a “Further Reading” section, which gives an impressive number of suggested readings for the curious minds who wish to explore a certain topic further. It is a must-read for anyone looking to master the basics of China’s past and contemporary affairs and discover all the wonders of this intriguing and fascinating country.

WASSERSTROM, Jeffrey N., “China in the 21st Century : What everyone needs to know," Oxford University Press, 2010, 135p.


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