China: Behind the Miracle
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
Price: Rs 499
China: Behind the Miracle is an economic-travelogue that tries to chart the growth miracle of the most populous developing country in the world — China. Sumita Dawra tries to give an honest insider’s account and brilliantly explains the driving factors behind the unprecedented growth rates of the Chinese economy over an amazingly short duration.
Dawra is a civil servant and was posted as the Head of the Economic Wing in the Indian Mission in Beijing, China in 2011, holding that position for a little over three years. The impressive growth story of China has spawned several books, most of which seek to interpret, criticise or praise, or at times, even forecast the direction in which the Chinese economy is headed. Dawra chose to shun the archetypal approach, making this book quite a refreshing read.
A well-worded introduction precedes the book, which is split into ten crisp and insightful chapters that depict the many colours and aspects of the China story: how Beijing is at the spearhead of the country’s growth model and the “compulsions” of inter-provincial competition. These compulsions emphasise the dizzying scale of Chinese infrastructure and the significant part it plays in the country’s growth story — as well as the position, role and main points of financial liberalisation, the telling roles played by the Pearl River and the Yangtze River deltas in turning the country into the “factory of
Dawra, in her book, elucidates what attracts scores of multinationals and discusses how the tourism industry and culture of the country are promoted. She breaks the stereotype that portrays China as a hub of cost-effective manufacturing and cheap labour.
“Many of us still think China is a place where millions contribute cheap labour and manufacture goods that flood the world markets. This is, however, just a small part of the story today, as the dragon transforms itself in a surprising and significant manner with intriguing intricacies many of us may not be familiar with at all,” she writes. She goes on to argue that “more and more global employers, purchasers of real estate and investors seeking joint ventures in the developed world, are none other than Chinese nationals.”
Dawra’s position in Beijing mandated that she accompanies several high-powered delegations desiring to study the different facets of the China story, which include urban management, SEZs, corporate success chapters, farming practices, port cities, growth poles and more. This allowed her to explore different parts of the country in this book, whether rural or urban, glamorous or underdeveloped. She comments on how China has become an integral part of the daily lives of people around the world.
“It is much beyond simply the ‘made in China’ goods entering our homes. With Chinese growth rates driving world markets, and Chinese tourists boosting global tourism and the luxury goods markets, it suddenly becomes more important than ever to understand China better.”
She argues that the popular opinion formed in the minds of the people about the country is fascinating, yet there is a great deal of thought that has gone into driving the country to the forefront of global trade. “China intrigues most of us, and we remain curious about the country and its people, about the miracle of its economic and developmental transformation, about the tremendous growth story of China and its likely future path.”
She documents her observations in a straight and objective manner, refraining from making any sharp commentary on politics or ideology. So, what you essentially get is a curious little collage of experiences and observations that detail what she saw, heard from the locals and read in local media stories/government communiqués and reports — more or less a travelogue that focuses on matters “economic”. Here lies the true value of the book.
There is still a huge gap between the US and China in terms of purchasing-power parity with the former ranked at 30 on the UN Human Development Index and China still at a measly 91. Dawra writes that China will not remain a developing country with a marginalised population for long. “Where exactly is China on the development continuum; what are the economic challenges that the country faces as it grows and develops; are some of the important questions that intrigue the minds of developmental economists and the general world population,” the author writes.
The book scrutinises the status of health-care systems in the country, higher education; innovation in technology and how it promotes agriculture as well as manufacturing. Rapid development is bound to give growth pangs. She gives ample attention to how rapid growth generates its own set of problems and how inequality sharply widens in China with attendant issues.
The book shows how over-investment in traditional industries and infrastructure has made global slowdown an inevitable scenario. Readers get an appreciation of how such problems are sought to be tackled. It highlights how China has turned its economy into one based on services from one that was largely based on manufacturing by promoting innovation and entrepreneurship, much like what India is now trying to do. It notes how China has impressively built a service economy of over $5 trillion as company registrations crossed $3.5 million in 2014.
Dawra focuses on urbanisation as a critical pillar of the China story. While it took Europe time upwards of 150 years to achieve 50% urbanisation, China did it in six decades. Now it strives to touch 60-70% by 2020-30. The case stories she mentions and details depict all these aspects. She marks these depictions with her own account of “experiencing China”.
This is not a book to “form an opinion”. If, however, you seek to better appreciate the minor details of both sides of the China debate, while making use of a kaleidoscopic narrative, the book will serve you in good stead.