James Kynge's book China Shakes the World came recommended by about eight different people, so I went into it with high expectations — and I was not disappointed. Kynge, a Financial Times correspondent who went to university in China, is an extremely entertaining writer who has a knack for spotting the exactly perfect little anecdote from his gigantic repertoire to illustrate the many fascinating points he makes about the rise of China and the perils it faces now.
There's a lot of nuance here, a picture painted in shades of grey. Kynge isn't entirely enthusiastic about the impact that China's rapid growth and industrialization has had on the country and the world, but he's also not a sinophobe. There's plenty to marvel at in China, and Kynge's happy to show us the amazing spectacle of failed German steel factories being packed up and shipped in hundreds of containers to China; to introduce us to brave and diligent and likable people who've endured incredible hardship and gone on to become titans (the founder of Lenovo started out as a night-soil collector, worked his way up to IBM salesman in a borrowed suit, and ultimately bought IBM's computer business from them).
But he's also possessed of innumerable stories of corruption, breathtaking disregard for the environment, and hardscrabble cruelty, and these are painted just as vividly — like the story of a young woman who was informed that she'd been mistaken about being accepted into college, and whose life for decades was plagued by curious circumstances, like mysterious congratulatory baby-baskets when she'd had no child. Eventually, she discovered that her surpassing exam results and her identity had been appropriated by the slow-witted daughter of an important Party member who had been living as her for decades in a grand city, while she lived a life of rural poverty.
Kynge does an admirable job of capturing the sweep and scale of the changes racing across China, and when I was done, I found myself holding a book with dozens of dogeared pages and underlined passages I wanted to return to later as I work on my next novel, which is partly set in China. I've read dozens of books about China this year, and this one is easily the best so far.