Bound to China
Personal and impersonal forces weave Americans and Chinese together.

Reviewed by Susan L. Shirk
Sunday, August 26, 2007

A YEAR WITHOUT "MADE IN CHINA"

One Family's True Life Adventure In the Global Economy

By Sara Bongiorni

Wiley. 235 pp. $24.95

CHINA GHOSTS

My Daughter's Journey to America, My Passage to Fatherhood

By Jeff Gammage

Morrow. 255 pp. $25.95

CHINA ROAD

A Journey into the Future Of a Rising Power

By Rob Gifford

Random House. 322 pp. $26.95

Just three decades ago, China was a remote and mysterious land far removed from daily life in the United States, much like North Korea today. Children were told that if they dug a deep hole in the sand they might reach China. Their parents held vague and frightening images of a nation of ant-like workers, a massive population garbed in baggy blue uniforms and brainwashed into hatred of America. When in 1972 President Nixon visited China and Americans got their first glimpse of the actual country, the televised event excited almost as much attention as the first landing on the moon.

Fast forward to 2007. China has become an inescapable presence in American life. A drop in Shanghai stock prices triggers a sell-off on the New York Stock Exchange. NASA moves one of its satellites to avoid debris from a Chinese weapons test. Californians wipe Chinese soot off their cars. And it is now practically impossible for an ordinary American family to go 12 months without buying something from China, as Sara Bongiorni chronicles in A Year Without "Made in China."

Bongiorni and her husband -- whom she calls the "weakest link" because of his skeptical attitude toward her "experiment in globalization"-- cheat by allowing the children to accept Christmas and birthday presents made in China (and by dropping broad hints to friends and relatives about the children's wish-lists). They also classify hand-me-downs and anything fished out of the trash as "fair game." But finding alternative sources for necessities such as shoes, printer cartridges, birthday candles and mousetraps eats up hours of effort and extra dollars.

This breezy, somewhat tedious domestic comedy is more Erma Bombeck than Tom Friedman. Bongiorni struggles to explain why she imposed the private boycott on her family. She insists that it is not a political protest on behalf of U.S. workers and "nothing personal" against China. Her great-great-grandfather was Chinese, so she says she can't be guilty of anti-Chinese prejudice. In the end, Bongiorni wonderfully articulates the ambivalence that many Americans feel toward China's modernization: "When I see the words Made in China, part of me says, Good for China, while another part feels sentimental about something I've lost, but I'm not sure what exactly."

Whether noble or nutty, one family's shopping habits obviously cannot dent the roughly $230-billion annual U.S. trade deficit with China, the largest imbalance we've ever had with any country. But a national embargo on most or all Chinese products -- as Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) recently proposed on food and toys, in reaction to highly publicized recalls of adulterated pet food and lead-painted playthings -- would cause an economic pile-up harming many countries, not just China, and bring back few, if any, U.S. jobs. Almost two-thirds of Chinese exports are manufactured as foreign brands by foreign-owned companies, mainly from Taiwan, Japan and the United States. Only about 35 cents of each Barbie doll selling for $20 stays in China. Television sets, computers and lots of other consumer products are churned out by production chains linking a number of countries; instead of "Made in China," their labels really should read, "Finished in China."

Many Americans have even more complex and unbreakable bonds to China, the largest source of international adoptions into the United States. Since Beijing began allowing foreigners to adopt Chinese children in 1992, U.S. families have taken in nearly 62,000, almost all girls. As Jeff Gammage explains in China Ghosts, most Chinese parents prefer sons to daughters because a son functions "as a built-in social security system in a country with no social security."

Gammage's book reads like a love story between father and daughter (his wife plays only a minor role in the drama). Obsessed with Jin Yu's history before he rescued her from an orphanage at 2, he imagines her birth parents and their decision to abandon her in an alley. He is angry with them, "furious at these phantoms who have moved into my house . . . because I know in my heart that whatever penalty a government might impose on me -- halve my salary, take my job, knock down my house, cut off an arm -- I would never surrender Jin Yu." But he also feels gratitude: "The truth is they gave life to Jin Yu, the person who has come to define my existence, and they suffered for it."

Regardless of such powerful emotions, the number of Chinese babies available for adoption is likely to shrink in years to come. Beijing no longer strictly enforces a one child per family policy, which in the past drove some rural couples to give their daughters to orphanages. In a historic exodus, 150 million farmers have moved to the cities, and city dwellers typically have fewer children.

Chinese leaders also worry that the population will age before it gets rich; the economy is booming in part because an astounding 70 percent of the population is of working age. As the populace grays, not just birthrates but also economic growth will slow, and it may become harder for the Communist Party to hold off challenges to its monopoly on power.

With China looming so large in American life, it's no surprise that relations with Beijing have emerged as an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign. Look for candidates to bash China for its currency surplus, military modernization and coziness with African dictators (let alone for lead paint and toxic food additives). Americans expect their political leaders to stand tall in the face of a rising power that appears to combine the economic threat of 1970s Japan with the political-military threat of the Cold War Soviet Union.

Yet appearances can be deceptive. From afar, China looks like an emerging superpower, but Rob Gifford contends that up close it is "more fragile and brittle than it appears." "What we have in China," he writes in China Road, "is a mobile twenty-first-century society shackled to a sclerotic 1950s, Leninist-style political system."

Gifford's book is an account of a two-month trip he took along Route 312, which spans the country from east to west like an oriental Route 66. He draws on the extensive knowledge he acquired during six years of reporting from Beijing for National Public Radio. Although not as adventurous a traveler or as vivid an observer as Colin Thubron (whose Shadow of the Silk Road covers some of the same route), Gifford weaves into his travelogue a crash course in Chinese history, geography, economy and society. To him, China is a land of contrasts, and "for every fact that is true . . . the opposite is almost always true as well, somewhere in the country."

Nowhere do we see the contrast between China's economic dynamism and its fragile politics more vividly than in the government's fumbling reaction to crises such as street protests, labor unrest and the 2003 SARS epidemic. An information revolution is creating new challenges -- 144 million people use the Internet, more than 450 million are cellphone subscribers, and tabloid newspapers are pushing the limits of censorship to attract readers. When confronted by SARS or a chemical spill in a river, the party's natural reflex is to impose a media blackout. But it is impossible to block news from leaking out. E-mail and cellphone text messaging also enable instant protests such as the anti-Japanese student demonstrations that spread to 25 cities in 2005, or a recent rally against a chemical plant in Xiamen that was videotaped and posted by bloggers in real time.

Moreover, Chinese families are as outraged as are we about unsafe products. For years, muckraking Chinese journalists have been breaking stories about counterfeit infant formula and other scandals linked to corrupt officials. Months before reports of tainted dog-food and toothpaste alarmed foreigners, the head of the state food and drug administration was prosecuted for demanding bribes. His execution was hugely popular.

Suddenly, China seems much closer to the United States, sometimes right on our tail. Yet our new images may be no more accurate than our old ones. It is the idea of China -- sometimes frightening, sometimes romantic -- that preoccupies people such as Sara Bongiorni and Jeff Gammage, not the complex reality of China on the ground. Rob Gifford is on the right track when he listens to the voices of Chinese people complaining about corrupt officials and the crass commercialism of modern life. Now that China is accessible, we have no excuse for projecting our fears and fantasies onto an imagined China, instead of seeing it with clear eyes. *

Susan L. Shirk is director of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and author of "China: Fragile Superpower."

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