Chris Blattman

Why is there no good news out of China?

Ian Johnson in the NYRB, reflecting on his days on the WSJ desk:

One of the most vexing questions for a writer on China is how best to capture the drama of its transformation. Twenty years ago, I joined a government-sponsored reporting trip to a remote, impoverished part of the country. A low-level official and I chatted for hours as our small bus wound through the mountains of Guizhou in south-central China, speeding through long tunnels and over suspension bridges. Why, he asked me, do foreign correspondents only write about the bridge that collapses and not the thousands of bridges that don’t?

I thought he was joking, but as we talked I realized he meant it seriously: countless studies show that one of the best measures to alleviate poverty is building infrastructure, and here we were on a road that was something of a miracle to local people, allowing them to get their products to market, their children to schools, and themselves to jobs in the cities. China was in the midst of an unparalleled and largely successful attempt to reduce poverty, so why wouldn’t we write about this, he asked. All I could do was stammer that good news is no news. Back in Beijing a few days later, I wrote a story about a girl who was so poor she lived in a pig stall. My editors loved it and readers pledged money, but I was often nagged by the feeling that this had been the easy story. More challenging to expectations would have been to look at how lives had changed in this poor part of the country.

The answer is partly that reporters in free societies have an obligation to dissect problems. Journalists at home rarely write about the highways that work because this is assumed to be a given; what citizens need to know about is the backlog of unrepaired bridges. But when applied abroad, this practice means a steady stream of negative stories with no overall sense of the broad situation of the country—in the case of China, reports of dissidents, internecine contests for power, and impending crises.

He was reviewing Peter Hessler’s books, and I’m intrigued enough to buy. The problem is there are many. Recommendations?



14 Responses

  1. “countless studies show that one of the best measures to alleviate poverty is building infrastructure”

    I was curious, could someone point me towards these studies? It seems intuitive, but also very hard to prove.

  2. I have not read Oracle Bones yet, but between River Town and Country Driving go for the latter. It describes some of those large scale social and economic changes which were still just starting in 1998 (when River Town ends). Factory life, village vs city, government/Party control, even childhood obesity gets discussed through interlinking narratives. An article on Hessler’s career as a writer on/in China:

  3. Oracle Bones is, I think, his best, although I feel I got more out of it by having read River Town first. It is certainly not necessary to read them in any sort of order, but some of his former students from River Town show up in Oracle Bones, making it a richer experience to know a little bit of their mutual background. That, and River Town itself is a great read for anybody interested in China. Hessler talks a lot about the building of the Three Gorges Dam and its impact throughout the region.

  4. I second Fred and recommend all three books. My favorite is Country Driving, and I think it’s also the last one, chronologically. So you may want to read it first, because it will contain the most relevant information — or last, if you want to chart transformation.

  5. I wonder whether Michael Pettis has written any non-economic stuff about China. Apparently he is very much into the music scene there.

  6. Some of the books may be dated. The next New Yorker reporter in China Evan Osnos also seems pretty good and has written a book ‘The Age of Ambition’. India’s Pallavi Aiyar has written a few books ( I have not read them) and articles interesting to Indians for the comparisons to India .

  7. I agree with the previous posts about Rivertown and Oracle Bones, but in terms of the theme of this blog, I would recommend buying Country Driving, then going straight to the last third of the book. I think that 100 pages or so provides the best explanation of a Chinese factory town, and therefore the larger Chinese economic miracle, that I have ever come across. He talks to everyone, from factory workers, to factory bosses, to government officials to understand their motivations and how the whole manufacturing ecosystem works. Highly recommended.

  8. Rivertown is a terrific book, but fits squarely in the genre of “Peace Corps Memoir”. Though his perceptiveness and insights into his experience do set it apart from the rest. Oracle Bones is broader in scope and so, i think, more rewarding. I would highly recommend them both. Haven’t read his other two. They are on “the list”

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