Top critical review
An informative but flawed "Modern China for Dummies"
Reviewed in the United States on April 26, 2002
While there is much to criticize about China Wakes, there is also much to recommend it. There is ample reason that it has become one of the classic "must reads" China books: it is an easy, accessible read that assumes the audience knows little, if anything, about China, and it covers very attention getting "human interest" type stories.
The latter fact has drawn much fire in other reviews, that murders and scandals are hardly representative of any country. While I concur, it also reveals the major problem of Western journalism on China: ignoring the big picture in favor of the exciting story. I have enormous respect for Kristoff and Wudunn as professional journalists, and for their colleagues now working for the NY Times in China. The current Beijing correspondent has done amazing work on the cover-up of the AIDS epidemic in China, the Shanghai correspondent has broken ground with his coverage of organ harvesting in prisons, and another of their staff has done notable work on labor unrest. Those stories are important and provide insight into the larger workings of the machine that is China, but compiled together would create a rather skewered version of the very complicated entity that is China. Unfortunately, what the average American wants to read on China is such sound bytes.
I read this book five years ago for a college class, just after returning from my first trip to China. Even then, it was outdated. A deeper criticism, though, is the book's Beijing bias. I, granted, have my own bias as a Shanghai-lander, but it's frustrating reading books by Beijing-based expats. In Beijing, politics is everything and everything is politics, and foreigners, especially journalists, are sequestered into isolated compounds. After exposure to too much coal dust and so uptight an environment in Beijing, one starts to see conspiracy theories and political boogeymen under every bush. The rest of China is not like that.
Nonetheless, it is a good overview of China in the early 1990s, and if you're a bit of a "China virgin", China Wakes coupled with a few Jonathan Spence books should break you in.