Wednesday, February 1, 2012

My Review of James Fallows' Postcards from Tomorrow Square

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of articles and learned so much I hardly know where to start describing the book. This is a series of articles written by Fallows and published in The Atlantic Monthly December '06-November '08. The subjects range from China's self-made manufacturing billionaires, to how Macau became the gambling Mecca of the East, to what's really going on with Internet access in China.  Every essay offers fascinating information that I have not come across elsewhere. Here are a few sort of random comments about what made an impression on me.

From "After the Earthquake," about the horrendous May 12, 2008, earthquake in Sichuan province that killed more than 100,000 people and left millions homeless and injured, Fallows reports the comments of a local elder regarding an earlier catastrophe: "Yao Minggao...said that the easiest way to tell city people from country people was by what they thought was the major disaster in modern Chinese history. If they said the Cultural Revolution, it meant they were from the city and viewed losing their careers and being sent to the farms as the ultimate hardship.  If they said the Great Famine [starting in 1958], it meant they were country people who had seen many of their neighbors starve" (237). Fallows also comments that the date "5/12" when it appears in China carries the same punch and shocked recognition as "9/11" in the US.

I think the article I enjoyed most was "The Connection Has Been Reset" about the Internet in China, focusing on the period of the Beijing Olympics.  More than anything else I've read, this article made me feel that I finally had at least a tentative grasp of both the philosophy behind the attempted control of the Internet by the Chinese government and the attitude of the average Internet-savvy Chinese toward this control. First, much is accomplished by the government by simply making it inconvenient to bypass the "Great Firewall."  It can be done, sure, but most people aren't interested in working that hard to get their information. Second, there's this, quoted from a technical analysis conducted by two US universities: "'The presence of censorship, even if easy to evade, promotes self-censorship'" (183).  In other words, while evading the GFW may require technical skills that many Chinese have, most people don't bother because of "nontechnical factors."

The only downside I felt in reading this series of articles, and this is not a criticism, was that developments in China and between China and the rest of the world are moving so quickly that even articles from 2007 or 2008 felt out of date.  So much has happened since then.  But if you want to see the view from January '08 of China's involvement in the world's financial meltdown and, especially, in the debt of the US, you should start with "The $1.4 Trillion Question" (144-68).

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