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Review: Tiger head snake tails

books Updated: Apr 27, 2012 18:18 IST

Gautam Chikermane, Hindustan Times
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Tiger Head Snake Tails

Jonathan Fenby

Simon & Schuster

Rs 599 pp 418

A Chinese businessman had once asked veteran journalist Jonathan Fenby if he would like to get photographed with the Chinese premier. The picture would be worth 800,000 yuan.

Fenby declined to pose with the premier but uses his latest book to warn about not one China, but “a hundred, thousand or a million”, the ones he refers to as snake tails.

“If basic economic, political and legal reforms left undone since the 1980s are not addressed,” he writes, “China’s onward march will be hobbled, and the world as a whole will feel the consequences as the snake tails wrap themselves round the tiger head.”

Fenby doesn’t say that China will implode as he brings together the speed, scale and shortcomings of the greatest rags-to-riches transformation on earth in a one-stop sweep in Tiger Head Snake Tails: China today, how it got there and where it is heading. The book, he says, is not intended for the China expert.

I plodded impatiently through the first half which narrates every statistic and headline (and more) I recognised from my recent years reporting from China. There is the oft-cited instance of the reality show contestant who would rather “cry on the back of a BMW than laugh on a bicycle”. There is the six-year-old girl who wants to be a corrupt official because “corrupt officials have a lot of things”.

I turned the pages in anticipation, expecting the author to put in perspective the superlatives spilling out of the fastest-growing economy with the fastest-growing rich-poor gap in its history. China may be the world’s largest car market, he notes, but ownership works out at 6% of the population, compared to 75% in the American economy that it is set to surpass. China surpassed Britain in its number of millionaires in 2009, but Britain is 20 times ahead in terms of population. Internet penetration is less than half that of North America though China has the world’s largest online community (equivalent to over half the Indian population).

Read this book if you are on your way to Beijing for the first time or getting curious about the conundrum that is rising China. It will tell you (almost) everything you need to know about China, from its ancient dynasties to the once-a-decade leadership succession this year, from the ‘murderous’ Mao-era policies to economic stardom where Beijing is buying stakes from America to Africa.

I found myself agreeing with Fenby in the brief summary of the frost-and-thaw ties between Asia’s largest rivals. “The Chinese tend to regard Indians as messy, disorganised and probably dirty people incapable of getting their act together, while Indians see the Chinese as regimented mice doing what they are told …” Reading the recap of China’s rise, I wanted to go directly to the final section on China’s future, a daunting sub-title even for an insider. Fenby argues that the last three decades of economic miracle — from poverty to prosperity — was the easy bit. The greater challenge lies ahead. The largest emerging middle-class on the planet is now conscious of the country’s lopsided development shorn of individual rights. China’s future leaders have shown no signs that they are ready to take the radical steps necessary to balance the economic, political, environmental and factional demands clamouring for attention at the same time.

Fenby sketches a slick portrait of the future president and premier of China. President Hu Jintao’s heir apparent Xi Jinping comes across as a “conciliatory and consensus figure” yet one who rose through the ranks determined to survive by “becoming redder than red”. That itself is a contradiction to watch out for in our interaction with the coming superpower.