China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World, Ted C. Fishman, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005

The New Chinese Empire: And What It Means for the United States, Ross Terrill, New York: Basic Books, 2003

China has become a hot topic in recent years, and everyone—journalists, expats, Chinese-Americans, politicians, business people, and academics—have something to say about it. In the case of China, Inc. and The New Chinese Empire, a journalist (Ted Fishman) and a scholar (Ross Terrill) have joined the fray.

Fishman asks readers to consider what will happen when China is able to manufacture nearly everything that Europe and the United States can, at perhaps half the cost. As a journalist, Fishman produces all sorts of impressive statistics and touches on such popular topics as automobile manufacturing, commercial counterfeiting, China’s educational system, piracy, Taiwan’s independence, outsourcing, the sex industry, Communist hubris and memorabilia, small businesses, human rights, and the Three Gorges Dam. It’s a fascinating read, but Fishman never does manage to answer the question he initially posed.

As for Ross Terrill’s The New Chinese Empire, while the title suggests glittering success, in fact Terrill sees the Chinese empire as weaker than it appears. Terrill believes that when China’s three-thousand-year-old imperial system collapsed in 1911, China failed to develop an appropriate new political system and to become a nation-state. He feels that that after a tumultuous twentieth century, China is stuck in between the old and the new. China’s leaders, imperial Leninists, stubbornly strive for stability, unity, and strength and reject diversity, political evolution, and power to the people. Strangely, this hegemonic rule persists as China’s economy and people progress forward. Terrill believes that in the long run, that state of affairs cannot continue: he predicts a rapid downfall rather than a gradual successful change. Figuring strongly in his calculus are China’s aging population (by 2030 a quarter of the Chinese will be over sixty-five), the complicated border disputes with Tibet, Taiwan, and Xinjiang, China’s banking systems, its environmental problems, and issues of health care and disease.

Although Terrill’s opinion goes against the current trend of fearfully predicting China’s coming dominance, his credentials as a scholar and research associate at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center require us to consider his views seriously. If Terrill is right, then Fishman’s question about what will happen when China can produce everything the West can produce at half the cost does not, in fact, need an answer—because China will be unable to achieve those economic heights.

First published in Guanxi: The China Letter.