Along for the ride

Karl Taro Greenfeld was the editor of Time Asia from 2001 to 2004 and is a correspondent for Conde Nast Portfolio magazine. He is the author, most recently, of "China Syndrome: The True Story of the 21st Century's First Great Epidemic."

ALMOST every reporter who has covered China has weighed doing the Big Journey-through-China-story, starting in the far west or extreme south and making one's way by various squalid means of transport to Beijing or the Yalu River. What dissuades most of us is the fact that travel anywhere in China takes so long, is so tedious -- and slightly dangerous.

Whenever foreign correspondents gather in China, they exchange stories of harrowing experiences on its highways, roads and dirt paths, many having to do with the fact that there are more than 100 million trucks but seemingly only a million working brake lights. At night, driving fast down a narrow ribbon of road to make an appointment in the next county, you notice these lumbering trucks only when you are practically beneath their rear bumpers. In China, though it is the cradle of Taoism, a trip is more often about the destination than the journey.

So it was with some admiration that I began Rob Gifford's "China Road," his account of following Route 312, a major east-west highway, by car and bus, from glittering Shanghai, the symbol of the new China, to Xinjiang, a largely impoverished Muslim region on the Kazakhstan border that neatly encapsulates many of the problems still plaguing the new China.

Most Western correspondents don't do their own driving on assignment, which means that the time spent getting to and from interviews and meetings is passed gazing out windows at repetitive stretches of factories or farmland. You end up talking to your drivers, who, when they are very good, become like assistants and local guides in 2001, but when they are lousy require steady cajoling and financial inducement to actually take you to the address scribbled on a piece of paper -- usually something like "Third House, Chicken Street, Number Three Village." The driver-reporter relationship is often so central that too many otherwise good journalists -- Gifford among them -- succumb to the temptation to quote their taxi drivers in stories, and why not? He's here, he's Chinese and he keeps talking. (When I was the editor of Time magazine's Asia edition, we instituted a no-quotes-from-taxi-drivers policy, which was sporadically observed.)

Traveling by bus, as Gifford also does through much of his book, is even more trying and less rewarding, primarily because kung fu movies are played at ear-splitting volume for the duration of many journeys. (The trip from central Jiangxi province to Guangzhou, I know from experience, takes 18 martial arts movies played back-to-back daily for 30 hours. And the more you pay, the more modern and colder the bus is likely to be. (I don't remember which five-year plan Mao Tse-tung devoted to air conditioning, but it succeeded admirably.) As a result, anyone on a sleeper bus in the bunk across from me was in bad company.

Gifford, thankfully, is a much better companion. Though he initially seems too chatty, that becomes a virtue as you ride through the Gobi desert without an oasis -- or interesting topic -- in sight. As National Public Radio's former China correspondent (he's currently stationed in London), Gifford writes in a way that sometimes seems better suited for the disposability of a radio story whose words can't be reread on a page. "Taxis," he helpfully explains, "have the advantage over buses of allowing you to stop when you want"; near the end, he writes, "I've traveled almost three thousand miles from Shanghai, and" -- wait for it -- "what a long, strange trip it's been." I'm not sure you could get away with that even on the radio.

Gifford, an Englishman and longtime China hand who speaks Mandarin fluently, is the sort of travel partner who grows on you. At first, some of his analyses of the country's economic boom -- we know, we know, it has lots of factories, huge internal migration issues, breakneck economic growth -- and standard history feel like the obligatory exposition that we have come to expect in narrative nonfiction. But gradually a compelling idea emerges: Now that the Communist Party has embraced crony capitalism, Gifford explains, it has become just the latest dynastic iteration in the great cycle of Chinese history, every bit as autocratic, venal and corrupt as the Qing, Tang and Qin emperors and empresses. And when do Chinese dynasties fall? Not when the urban intelligentsia is restless, as was the case in the 1980s before the massacre at Tiananmen Square, but when the rural peasant class finally rises up, he concludes.

That was what ultimately brought down the Qing in 1912 and the Nationalists in 1949. Mao succeeded only when he made his rebellion a peasant uprising. His successors in Beijing would be wise to take notice that there are now more than 200 incidents of rural unrest every day in China, and those are just the officially reported numbers. Man-eat-man capitalism, China's version of dog-eat-dog, is leaving too few scraps for the rural poor, who are beginning to organize and protest.

At one point, when dining with the proprietor of the only restaurant in a one-camel town in the middle of the Gobi desert, Gifford learns that the lone well in this village was paved over with concrete by local officials so that villagers would have to buy water from the nearby water company -- run by the same officials. "Mao's words from 1927 keep coming back to me," he writes. " 'A single spark can light a prairie fire.' The grass on this and many parts of the prairie is very, very dry."

The central dilemma for China's autocrats remains: Can they keep the economy growing fast enough so that some small benefit trickles down to the poorest? Or will an economic slowdown set that prairie ablaze?

Gifford, an observant Christian who at one point is dragooned into giving a sermon when he walks into a Christian church, is less adept at exploring China's sociological transformation. When writing about the sex industry -- which has grown faster perhaps than any save manufacturing since Deng Xiaoping's era -- his interview with a prostitute essentially turns into a tale of a hooker with a heart of gold. You can almost see her calculating exactly how much she can extract from this sympathetic Westerner with a sob story in lieu of her usual services.

While reading passages like this, I found myself wishing that Gifford delved a little more deeply, like writers William T. Vollmann or Ryszard Kapuscinski, so that modern China's dark places could be brought to light. Still, Gifford's book deserves praise as a fine vehicle for exploring important and worthy ideas on today's China -- even if it does overheat every few hundred miles.

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