“Chinese Lessons” by John Pomfret

The author spent time as a university exchange student in Nanjing in the late 1970’s, shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution.  He became a journalist covering China for Western news media until being ousted following coverage of the 1989 Tiananmen events.  He was able to return to covering China about 10 years later, and got reaquainted from some of his Nanjing classmates, as well as marry a Chinese wife.  As such, he is in a unique position to report on the changes and situation in China to the Western world.

China has indeed made great progress in the last few decades, but at great cost and with plenty of room for concern about its future.  During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards actively destroyed links to established Chinese traditions through public humiliation and torture of the educated or the well-off.  Families were torn apart when children were forced to denounce their parents.  The Cultural Revolution in particular, and the Communist Party takeover in general (and probably the decades of instability prior to that) resulted in a distinct lack of a moral compass for China today.  Corruption in government is rampant and actually seen as acceptable, so long as the perpetrator is not found out.  Once in the book, Pomfret states that the driving force behind social stability in the West is guilt (not doing bad things because you will feel bad if you do), but in China it is shame (not doing bad things because people will find out – with the implication that if you can hide your actions, all is well).

China has whole-heartedly accepted capitalism and is communist in name only.  (Pomfret says that the main goal of the Communist Party is no longer to push a particular ideology, but rather to remain in power for as long as possible.)  “Man-eat-man” capitalism reigns, destroying the environment and exploiting the workers with all the gusto of the pre-Progressive industrial West.

Two other recent books on China that I liked (both by Peter Hessler):


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