I’ve recently read two new books that provide very different takes on China.
Three Billion New Capitalists: The Great Shift of Wealth and Power to the East (to be published in June by Basic Books) is by Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute and a former Commerce Dept. official in the Reagan Administration.
Prestowitz’s intent and direction pretty are well signalled by the description on the back: “a shocking wake up call.” That’s right, we’re all going to die–economically speaking, that is. America is gradually outsourcing jobs, business, and innovation capacity to China, India, and Russia.
The rant isn’t unreasonable, but it’s not that surprising, either. Prestowitz seems informed mostly by headlines in the morning papers, and by exchanges during polite tours and dinners during his frequent travels as roaming muckety-muck. He never makes much effort to help us understand what’s really driving those emerging three billion capitalists, and exactly what makes them such a threat.
Which is where Tim Clissold’s Mr. China: A Memoir (Harper Business) comes in. This is really a remarkable book. Clissold worked for Arthur Anderson in Hong Kong, where he became fascinated with China. He landed in 1990 in Beijing, where eventually he helped to start, raise money for, and manage a $400 million fund that invested in Chinese business enterprises.
Clissold takes us with him on his adventures into the heart of the Chinese economy–from endless meetings with grey and, yes, truly inscrutable ministry bureaucrats to epic dinners (More baiju! More cow’s lung!) We travel inside the gates of any number of dreary state-owned beer, auto parts, and, um, condom factories.
And it becomes clear exactly why the dream of quick and massive riches in China has been so hard for foreign investors and companies to realize. It’s an economy ruled by caution, fear, and self-interest, paralyzed by decades of state control. But ultimately–and this is the great service Clissold does us–China also is a nation of human beings, as glorious and as flawed (though in some profoundly different ways) as the rest of us.