China-focused Satire, Social Commentary, Comics and More

Postcards From Tomorrow Square – a Review

The Escape List: Postcards From Tomorrow Square by James Fallows

*Editor’s Note: The Escape List originally existed as a separate identity from TRW. However, as busy readers and watchers we thought we ought to include some exposure for the various China-related (defined as broadly as we decide) media we have ingested and try to put them into the context of our own perceptions. These books, films, and other things are not necessarily new releases, they are not in any special order, and some will be much more relevant to your interests than others.

As we have reminded our readers recently, China’s rapid development and emergence as a world power is the source of a great deal of fears and misconceptions, as well as a well-deserved general amazement (which may link to the former two). Fellow China-dwellers may be familiar with the fascination one encounters upon returning to America (and presumably other countries), and the ensuing exhaustion and numbness that comes from answering identical China questions every time you encounter someone you haven’t yet seen. (“Actually, Chinese students are not perfect angels.” “Really!? Tell me more!”). Of course, we do what we must do, just as we might try to ensure people over here that not quite everyone in America is a gun-toting madman. Meanwhile, there is no end to the implications that China is frightening, both from blatant fear-mongerers and well-meaning sources.

James Fallows seems to be the opposite of a fear monger – a sensibleness monger, perhaps. This collection of essays, Postcards From Tomorrow Square, could save expats on leave some trouble. The most obvious theme throughout the book is the need for the world, especially America, to take a realistic view on China. His essays take on broad and relevant topics (though three or four years old), and could be seen as a sort of introductory guide, as if the author anticipated what might be the most common questions Americans would have about the country and then did his best to answer them: How do Chinese factories work? What’s the deal with pollution in China? How does the Great Firewall work? If the Chinese hold our debt, can they make us their slaves? Indeed, he is often not writing about China so much as China’s relation to American and Americans, with the aim of reminding them of the United States’ supposed strengths, using China as a sort of big smudgy mirror. His conclusion, naturally, is that what America should fear is its own moping apprehension. China is important, but it is not scary. It is a place experiencing profound change and advancement but it’s people are still mostly poor. Its government may be shifty, but is often self-damaging. Of course, he does not dismiss the idea that there are things to be concerned about – pollution is real and is a world problem, for example. But repeatedly he encourages America to stop worrying that a usurper is coming, urging it instead to look across the ocean for collaborative opportunities, as well as to start exercising the old competitive muscles and get innovating.

Most of all, Fallows aims (and succeeds) to get one point across – that China is complicated, and therefore there are both positive and negative sides to almost every issue. Shanghai, he ensures his readers, is just a weird shiny blip in the vastness of the country, where a great variety of people and problems exist. If it is a dose of stark ideology you are after, avoid this reasonable author and turn on Fox News. Or read the China Daily, for a more entertaining – and oddly enlightening – kind of spin.

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