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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #38 (September 20, 2005), page 13.

The new Red Menace

China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World

By Ted C. Fishman

Scribner, 2005

Hardcover, 342 pages, $26.00

By Andrew J. Weber

China is the Wal-Mart of the world. Just like the ubiquitous big-box retailer, China drives down costs and creates relentless pressure on its competitors to compete or die; it is the proverbial 600-pound gorilla of global manufacturing. Yet China avoids public attention in much of the West, flying quietly under the radar. Ted Fishman has set out to change all that, and no one who reads China, Inc. will ever be able to forget the Asian giant again.

Fishman is an accomplished financial journalist, with published work in The New York Times Magazine, Money, Harper’s, Worth, and Business 2.0, and once ran his own trading firm on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Armed with a dizzying host of facts and figures, Fishman is well qualified to take the reader on a whirlwind tour of modern China and its economy at the dawn of what is likely to be remembered as the Chinese Century.

If America needed a wake-up call about China, Fishman need not have bothered writing his book at all; he could have simply delivered the back cover. "Three hundred million rural Chinese will move to cities in the next fifteen years. China must build urban infrastructure equivalent to Houston’s every month in order to absorb them," he tells us, in just one of a series of jaw-dropping statistics about the enormous economic and demographic changes taking place in the world’s most populous nation.

China’s massive urbanization is the heart of the "largest migration in human history," occurring right now. Uncounted millions of peasants are leaving rural areas to find work in China’s cities, where they can expect to make approximately 75 cents per hour in manual labor jobs. The supply of these migrant peasants is essentially unlimited, and although China now has more than 100 cities with a population of 1 million or more (the U.S. has nine) China’s urban growth will continue unabated for any foreseeable future. The wages these peasants command are so low that even traditional low-cost-labor countries such as Mexico are unable to compete and are losing jobs offshore.

Not surprisingly, China’s wrenching economic changes bring broader societal changes along with them. Particularly effective is Fishman’s description of how the image of Mao is now commonly used across the Chinese mainland for marketing all kinds of products and services; Little Red Books have become cheap flea-market collector’s items. The great revolutionary leader has become kitschy.

Thankfully, Fishman’s prose remains clear and lively throughout, and despite detailed discussions of intellectual property issues, legal reforms, and exchange-rate pressures, the story never becomes bogged down in the numbers. Fishman never forgets that at the heart of the economic landscape lies a human story, and he is excellent at distilling the experience of more than a billion people down to a few individuals.

Some critics have accused Fishman of glossing over China’s many problems, including government graft and corruption, structural weakness in the banking center, and some of the worst environmental problems in the world, all of which jeopardize China’s record growth. But Fishman provides plenty of sobering facts in these areas (two thirds of China’s cities are short of water and 40 billion tons of raw sewage are dumped in China’s rivers each year) and China is simply too vast and varied for any one volume to even try to contain it. Fishman aims to create a snapshot of the country, not an exhaustive analysis, and on that he delivers a stunning success.

It’s a debatable point which is more surprising: the astonishing numbers Fishman piles one on top of another, or the fact that for the vast majority of readers this will be the first they have heard of them. Even business leaders who are well aware that a newly ascendant China poses some sort of competitive threat are unlikely to know that China is on track to become the world’s leading manufacturing country by 2012, or that China has 220 million "surplus workers" in its central and western regions, far more than the 140 million people total currently working in the United States.

What is not debatable is that it’s time the world took notice.


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