Which book did I read?
China In The 21st Century by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom. The author is an academic currently teaching an the University of California – Irvine and was a contributor to the popular China oriented blog The China Beat until it was discontinued. He has decades of China related academic publications to his name and seems genuinely well informed of both Chinese history and the modern situation.
What does the book attempt to do?
Wasserstrom introduces American audiences to China, covering topics ranging from ancient history to Mao to modern China. The book is broken down into dozens of very specific topics – each in the form of a question. For example “Who was Confucius?”, “What was the Boxer rebellion?”, “What is the One-Child-Family policy?” and “Is China bent on world domination?”. I really liked the format of the book, each section could be read by itself and as such is very focused on one issue. You could easily jump around or skip sections if you weren’t interested. I liked the format so much that I have used it for this article!
Why is the book frustrating to read?
Wasserstrom packages information in a nice format and writes in a readable style, but I couldn’t help but get frustrated by some of his positions. He often presents opinions or controversial topics as black and white accepted fact. I feel that whitewashing controversy could be a decision he made in order to make the book more palatable for the neosinophile, but even then was the wrong decision. He does a real disservice to the topic when he doesn’t address the questions head on.
In some sections Wasserstrom is actually very good about showing the controversy. In the section “Did Confucianism hinder Imperial China’s economic development?” he goes into the popular line of thought initially popularized by Weber at the turn of the 20th century about how Confucianism did hinder its economy, but then gives several arguments against that line of reasoning. Some sections are really just terrible though, like the section on the problem of male child preference.
What is an example of Wasserstrom’s difficult to follow logic?
The section “Was female infanticide encouraged to help limit population size?” is really aggravating to me. It’s full of half answers, ignores the heart of the issue, and worst of all glosses over that the issue is even a real problem at all. The whole section comes off as very apologetic, first saying that it isn’t a modern problem, then switching over to actually saying that the female infanticide and sex selective abortions are ways of fighting against the one child policy, and finishing by saying that while it might actually be a problem it’s not actually the governments fault.
Each of these arguments is frivolous or insincere. It is easy to google statistics showing that sex selection is a current problem, even from the CCP’s own analysis’s. While the CCP didn’t intend to increase sex selection practices when they introduced the policy, they recognized the effect of the policy almost immediately after implementation in 1979 and have done little to change course since. It is much more accurate to say government of China has decided that sex selection must be accepted as a cost of keeping the one child limit policy. They should be held accountable for that not given a pass.
What is my verdict on this book?
While it is written as an introduction to China for the western audience I can’t recommend it as such. Wasserstrom too often glosses over fundamental facts and portrays unsettled issues as old news for a reader just getting an introduction to the topic.