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China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power [Paperback]

Rob Gifford
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Book Description

June 3 2008
Route 312 is the Chinese Route 66. It flows three thousand miles from east to west, passing through the factory towns of the coastal areas, through the rural heart of China, then up into the Gobi Desert, where it merges with the Old Silk Road. The highway witnesses every part of the social and economic revolution that is turning China upside down.

In this utterly surprising and deeply personal book, acclaimed National Public Radio reporter Rob Gifford, a fluent Mandarin speaker, takes the dramatic journey along Route 312 from its start in the boomtown of Shanghai to its end on the border with Kazakhstan. Gifford reveals the rich mosaic of modern Chinese life in all its contradictions, as he poses the crucial questions that all of us are asking about China: Will it really be the next global superpower? Is it as solid and as powerful as it looks from the outside? And who are the ordinary Chinese people, to whom the twenty-first century is supposed to belong?

Gifford is not alone on his journey. The largest migration in human history is taking place along highways such as Route 312, as tens of millions of people leave their homes in search of work. He sees signs of the booming urban economy everywhere, but he also uncovers many of the country’s frailties, and some of the deep-seated problems that could derail China’s rise.

The whole compelling adventure is told through the cast of colorful characters Gifford meets: garrulous talk-show hosts and ambitious yuppies, impoverished peasants and tragic prostitutes, cell-phone salesmen, AIDS patients, and Tibetan monks. He rides with members of a Shanghai jeep club, hitchhikes across the Gobi desert, and sings karaoke with migrant workers at truck stops along the way.

As he recounts his travels along Route 312, Rob Gifford gives a face to what has historically, for Westerners, been a faceless country and breathes life into a nation that is so often reduced to economic statistics. Finally, he sounds a warning that all is not well in the Chinese heartlands, that serious problems lie ahead, and that the future of the West has become inextricably linked with the fate of 1.3 billion Chinese people.

“Informative, delightful, and powerfully moving . . . Rob Gifford’s acute powers of observation, his sense of humor and adventure, and his determination to explore the wrenching dilemmas of China’s explosive development open readers’ eyes and reward their minds.”
–Robert A. Kapp, president, U.S.-China Business Council, 1994-2004

From the Hardcover edition.

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From Booklist

National Public Radio China correspondent Gifford journeyed for six weeks on China's Mother Road, Route 312, from its beginning in Shanghai for nearly 3,000 miles to a tiny town in what used to be known as Turkestan. The route picks up the old Silk Road, which runs through the Gobi Desert to Central Asia to Persia and on to Europe. Along the way, Gifford meets entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on China's growing economy, citizens angry and frustrated with government corruption, older people alarmed at changes in Chinese culture and morality, and young people uncertain and excited about the future. Gifford profiles ordinary Chinese people coping with tumultuous change as development and commerce shrink a vast geography, bringing teeming cities and tiny towns into closer commercial and cultural proximity; the lure of wealth is changing the Chinese character and sense of shared experience, even if it was common poverty. Gifford notes an aggressive sense of competition in the man-eat-man atmosphere of a nation that is likely to be the next global superpower. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


Advance praise for China Road

“How I envy Rob Gifford and his journey along China Road. How grateful I am to him for allowing me to share the trip through his vivid writing and his deep knowledge of and great love for China. As vicarious enjoyment goes, this one’s a ten.”
–Ted Koppel, managing editor, Discovery Channel

“Rob Gifford has found the perfect road trip. His years in China have given him a keen eye and a deep understanding of the country’s contradictions; he’s the perfect guide to this magnificent road from Shanghai to the Kazakhstan border.”
–Peter Hassler, author of River Town and Oracle Bones

“My gosh, I loved Rob Gifford’s book. His journey along Route 312 is a great road story–from Hooters in Shanghai to the Iron House of Confucianism. China Road is insightful, funny, analytical, anecdotal, full of humble humor and magnificent discoveries.”
–Scott Simon, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition and author of Pretty Birds

“Here is China end to end, told from its equivalent of Route 66 as Gifford journeys from Shanghai to the distant west, talking to truck drivers, merchants, hermits, and whores. Gifford portrays China with affection and humor, in all its complexity, energy, hopefulness, and risk.”
–Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, Columbia University

“Equal parts Bill Bryson and Jonathan Spence. Gifford is great company and great fun, and China Road is a terrific, highly readable book.”
–Jim Yardley, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Beijing correspondent

“A great book, a terrific read. Rob Gifford’s story is as engaging as any travel writing, but it is equally full of historical and philosophical wisdom about the future of the world’s largest country.”
–Joseph S. Nye, Jr., former assistant secretary of defense, Distinguished Service Professor, Harvard University

“After six years in Beijing, NPR’s Rob Gifford has written a wonderfully reflective but also well-informed account of his road trip across China. His knowledge and insight about China’s past and present do a marvelous job in helping the reader understand all the challenges that confront this very dynamic country’s future.”
–Orville Schell, director, the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations

From the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars China Road: a reality check Jan. 24 2008
I have a love/ hate relationship with travel literature. As with fiction, it takes an author great skills to successfully transport us on the roads traveled. Fortunately, Rob Gifford's book isn't so much about his excursion across China as it is about the great journey the Chinese people into modernity. Every bus, cab, car he takes provides a new insight into a sliver of China - one person at the time. From afar, China seems the powerful dragon that's about to swallow the world. If only it had cohesion; China is still smokes and mirrors, and hurts itself as much as it makes progress.

Great portrait of the country and its people! R.G.'s journalistic skills served him well in producing a travel book that reveals China as a country not often visited.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Trip through China Sept. 15 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The author journeys across China and meets up with many people that provide information on their area. He combines a description of geography with historical and politically backgrounds in an interesting manner. Excellent for anyone planning a trip to China or someone that wants an overview of the country.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  165 reviews
106 of 108 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 4.5 Stars... Slightly different take on China adds new perspectives Aug. 11 2007
By Paul Allaer - Published on
I have been reading quite a few books on China, as I am fascinated with and intruiged by the country's amazing economic transformation, and the potential consequences elsewhere in the world, including here in the US. (Among the better ones are China Shakes the World by James Kygny as well as The Elephant and the Dragon by Robyn Meredith). If you listen regularly to NPR Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Rob Gifford will be a familiar voice.

In "China Road: A Journey Into the Future of a Rising Power" (344 pages), Gifford, who has had a lifelong fascination with China and speaks Mandarin fluently, takes us on a journey across China on Road 312, the Chinese equivalent of our Route 66. Starting in Shanghai and working his way west, Gifford meets ordinary and not-so-ordinary Chinese and simply lets them do the talking. It makes for compelling reading. Talking to a well-known radio talk-show host in Shanghai, the host remarks that "morality--a sense of what's right and wrong--doesn't matter anymore".

At some point in his journey Gifford runs into a man holding a big sign that reads ANTICORRUPTION JOURNEY ACROSS CHINA. The man tells Gifford that "You see, in the West, people have a moral standard that is inside them. It is built into them. Chinese people do not have that moral standard within them. If there is nothing external stopping them, they just do whatever they want for themselves, regardless of right and wrong".

When Gifford runs into an Indian national, he hopes to have a discussion about how things are evolving in India versus in China, but the man is not interested in having the discussion. Gifford then dryly writes "So in the end, I have the conversation with myself over dinner and I conclude that I don't want to be a Chinese peasant OR an Indian peasant. But if I have to take a side, despite all the massive problems of rural China, I'll go for the sweet and sour pork over the chicken biryani any day of the week". Gifford spends a fair amount of time giving thought whether China can ever become a real democracy. Looking back at the 13th century, Gifford writes "There are many ways in which China was far head of Europe, in terms of technological development and prosperity. But for some reason, their system never developed any real checks on state power, and since in the West these checks did emerge, it has become a real contention between the two sides".

I could go on giving more quotes from the book, but suffice it to say that Gifford brings story upon story, and observation upon observation about China the culture, the people, the country, just superb. I was in China earlier this year and happen to be in a number of the cities that Gifford talks about in the book, in particular Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing and Xi'an, and this book brought back some great memories. This book is not just a "travelogue", but instead a wonderful mix of facts and observations. Highly recommended for anyone interested in China!
67 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rob Gifford dissects China beautifully. May 30 2007
By D. Stuart - Published on
Following the "silk road" is an adventure in itself, and one covered extremely well in other travel books, but here Rob Gifford is cutting across China with one underlying question: Where is China heading? The answers are a little bit scary. As we travel with Gifford (what a great travel partner he'd make!) we meet many people who show by turn resilience, entrepreneurship but also something a lot more desperate: an element that has been described elsewhere not so much as 'dog eat dog' but 'man eat man'.

The writing here is attractive, and often very entertaining, but the picture that Gifford reports isn't always a pretty one. With the world's biggest economy ballooning as it is, there's still a burgeoning, clambering desperation among the poor to get onto the ladder before the opportunities elude them. In some of the poorer, more remote areas, this fact - one can readily see, is already causing sad social consequences. There's a tone of fascinating regret here: a question about whether the price of progress is always worth it. Well recommended.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Honest and lucid work Sept. 7 2007
By Kindle Customer - Published on
Rob Gifford has writtent this book in a remarkably honest and lucid manner. He strikes a balance between the details he describes and the broader issues that relate to those details. He tries to look beyond the narrow focus on China's stunning economic development that many authors take. He makes abundant mention of the signs of the Chinese economic miracle that he sees on his 3000-mile journey across the country. But he has also tried to present the opinions of ordinary Chinese people ("old hundred names") as well as his own analysis of their problems, hopes, and future.

He highlights the severe problem of pollution in Chinese cities. He mentions the ubiquitous sex-trade that employs 10-20 million women. He mentions the severe shortage of marriage-age women in many areas. He mentions the problem of official corruption. And he highlights the severe political repression and colonization of Muslim Uighurs and Buddhist Tibetans by the Han Chinese.

He mentions his talk with a "family planning" doctor and learns that it is her job to go around in the villages and enforce the one-child policy. This means persuading pregnant women who already have a child to undergo abortion. Sometimes she has to abort 8-month old fetuses, sometimes kill them with lethal injection, and, if a baby still manages to be born alive, to kill it after birth.

He contrasts Hui Muslims in Gansu province with Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang. The Hui Muslims are loyal Chinese citizens, who don't like American and British policy and wars in the Muslim countries, and admire Osama bin Laden. The Uighur Muslims, by contrast, chafe under Han Chinese colonization, they like Westerners more than the Han Chinese, dislike fundamentalist Muslims like Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and even justify the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He comes across a group of Hui Muslims students cycling across the desert in Western China, trying to explore their country. He comes across Uighur youngsters who dress like their Han Chinese counterparts, even though their mothers wear burqas and headscarves. He comes across Uighur children who have been given the "opportunity" to study in Chinese schools thousands of miles away in eastern China because they excelled in school back home in Xinjiang. He comes across Uighurs who believe that dreams of independence from China are futile and so they must embrace the modernization and economic opportunity that China brings to make the best for themselves and their Uighur race.

Gifford honestly admits that he is a religious Christian who, at one point in his life, was hoping to become a missionary. He visits the graves of two long-dead Christian missionaries, stops by at a church in a remote area, and reminisces about three British Christian missionary sisters who preached on the edge of the Gobi desert about a hundred years ago. He estimates that there are at least 75 million Christians in China, clearly more than the 70 million Communist Party members.

He comes across a prostitute who took up the oldest profession not because of poverty but because she was jilted by her boyfriend. He comes across Han Chinese men who believe that it is ok for married men to have one or more mistresses if they can afford it. He comes across Han Chinese women who despise the darker skin color of ethnic minority people. He comes across a desert town where corrupt government officials have sealed off the town's only well to force town-dwellers to buy drinking water from their private company.

Interestingly he compares India with China, and after some debate, decides that the lot of the Chinese peasants is better than their Indian counterparts. He admires the awesome infrastructure development taking place in China, specially the highways, the buildings, and broadband Internet connectivity. He mentions the 450 million cellphone users, a number that is growing by 5 million every month.

Gifford is not very optimistic about democratic political change in China. But he says that this does not mean that the system will eventually collapse. He notes that with the rapid economic development, the Communist government is effectively trying to "buy off" the people. There is now a "safety valve" to the pressure cooker that Chinese peasants in the countryside live in. If their crops fail, they can always move to the cities to work on jobs where they make several times more than in the countryside. Their lot is much better than the parents' generation. The development of highways and railways means that poor peasants from even remote countryside villages can easily travel to the coastal cities to look for work. And a large middle class is developing in the cities. So, Gifford thinks that it is quite possible that the status quo may continue indefinitely, with relative peace between the people and the government, provided there are no major shocks that disrupt the economic development of China.
36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, Informative, Thought-provoking May 31 2008
By B. McEwan - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I am very glad that I read China Road before the recent earthquake because the background that the book gave me on Chinese culture and politics has helped me better understand the news coverage of the disaster. This is the mark of a book that is truly worth reading, in that it helps the reader deduce meaning from world events.

The premise and structure of the book are appealing. The author, Rob Gifford, an American journalist, hitchhikes across China on Route 312, China's equivalent of the US's Route 66, and writes about the places he visits and the people he meets. Along the way, he muses about China's history, its current building boom, its social structures and traditions, its problems related to its emergence as a global economy and its likely future as a world power. This makes for fascinating reading and, certainly for me, an entertaining way of getting to know a nation and a people who are increasingly affecting the lives of everyone on Earth.

As soon as I heard about the collapse of school buildings in the poorer provinces of China during last month's earthquake, I realized that many parents would have just lost their only child due to China's one-child policy. This, it seemed to me, would be one of the things more likely to create the kind of anger and dissatisfaction that the government will be unable to buy off by putting more consumer goods into the hands of China's growing middle-class. Sure enough. The news continues to be full of stories about the anger and resentment felt by many lower middle class parents whose children died in poorly constructed schools while the children of the wealthy survived because they attended well-built schools that did not fall during the quake. Some of the devastated schools stood right next to others that were barely scratched. That is exactly the type of situation that Gifford warns about in China Road -- an event that exposes the corruption of local governments, the results of which are so heinous that the people refuse to be appeased by more stuff.

Through reading China Road, I also came to better understand the conflict surrounding what is called Greater Tibet, some of which is actually a part of traditional China, and now see that the situation there is not quite as black and white as I once thought.

By the time Gifford reached the end of his tale of Route 312, I felt as though I had received a solid tutorial on a country that I had once only the most rudimentary knowledge about, and I was sorry to see the end of the road. Highly recommended.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gives a very interesting Western view of China Nov. 23 2007
By Paul P. N. Tung - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
China Road
By Rob Gifford, Published 2007

Rob Gifford has written an interesting and worthwhile reading book. I read the book, from cover to cover, very carefully, so careful that at times I would re-read a passage several times making sure that I did not misinterpret his ideas and intention. Yes, his intention which I analyzed with great caution and observed the body-language of his language used throughout the book that revealed a great deal what he had in his mind that he did not want to come right out stating his thoughts that he might not even aware of.

Spent about two decades of his Youngman hood in China did help him to be familiar with the history of China but his view of China, along with her history, is always shadowed with his, I regret to say, his very colored perspective or just plain bias.

The kind of initial love for China is quite common among many Westerners after reading the books by Pearl Buck a daughter of a Presbyterian missionary family in the 1890s in the then small city Zhenjiang a short distance east of Nanjing. Rob Gifford was also deeply inspired by an English missionary James Hudson Taylor who had been in China some forty years earlier before Pearl Buck, also did his missionary work in Zhenjiang area. Taylor, at the early age of twenty-two, felt a sense of divine calling to China and devoted about 50 or so years in his work there with a style mingling with the people there refusing to be separated from the locals in more comfortable houses for the Westerners. All of these deeply touched Rob and, reading between his lines we can see that Rob went to China with similar zest to ¡°save¡± Chinese with his Western vision, richly wrapped into Western religion, Christianity, but he was not allowed to be a missionary in China today and this is where his body-language seeps through all throughout the his book.

Rob¡¯s mental makeup is so deeply soaked in his Christianity background that this is principally his yardstick to measure so much in contact with him in China. His frequent, often quite lengthy, analysis and criticism about Chinese tradition, culture, history, political system, wither current or historical, are all based on his personal background in England as a young man, almost about the same age as Taylor 160 years ago. But it is amusing that he gathered very little about how most of the educated Chinese are rather resentful of foreign religious missionary and this is not something existing only China today since 1949. It is important for the average Westerners to understand that not being religious, such as being a Christian, is a sign of ¡°backward¡± but such is not the case with the much better educated Westerners and slowly more better educated Westerners realize that Chinese were very fortunate not being so culturally dominated by any religion, Muslim or Christianity such as what we see the terrible struggle between the Fundamentalists and the more Secular directed Americans in the U.S. today. With his contract with NPR, an American organization, as a correspondence, he would frequently speaks as though he were an American, or perhaps he thinks the two are really just one.

His arguments against current Chinese political system very much as an extension of the very ancient political and cultural systems are surely quite upsetting to many Chinese but I think the Chinese have nothing to lose if the arguments are taken as something to ponder over with open mind whether they agree or not.

Rob¡¯s many encounters with the Chinese ethnic minorities almost always with some hidden with to stirrup troubles and he seems disappointed if the Chinese ethnic minority he met did not blast all the Han Chinese. But he did report that one Tibetan school teacher who teaches Chinese language to other Tibetan students and saying that the Tibetans are doing better today under the current government than staying as the traditional nomads as in the past. As one born in China and deeply concern and sympathetic to all the ethnics around the world I was uplifted by the forward looking Tibetan young teacher Rob had encountered in Gansu Province. The story Rob has told about this Tibetan teacher echo my wish for the Navajos in Arizona where I have had some wonderful contact with since the 90s and I tried hard to convince my Navajo friends to strive for the best to complete a solid education while also trying to preserve their traditional culture.

In a fleeting passage Rob briefly mentioned that Zhao Zi-Yang was attempting to initiating even before the 1989 Tian-An-Meng protest and the policy released was fully approved and supported by Deng Xiao-Ping. It is a profound regrettable event that the students in Beijing were very impatient with the progress made in political reform and the demonstration turned out to be one of the greatest political set back in modern China. Despite of the fact that Deng was the paramount leader he had to deal with the still very powerful old CCP members from the way back in their 80s or 90s and Deng still, of course, remember the two political purges and what he was put through by the wild students Red Guards during the so-called Cultural Revolution, the fear is very real for one at his age he gave in to the hardliners headed by Li Peng (ÀîÅô) to crash down the protest with Liberation Army. Rob is one of the few Westerners mentioned this factor but filed to provide any degree of evaluation of Deng¡¯s role and only his endorsement of economical development.

The expressions Ocean People and the Old Hundred Name are used very frequently in the book but both terms are very important to the Chinese than to the Westerners and the loss of the Chinese flavor here is a real substantial missing elements. Rob should have explained at the beginning and use Yang Ren for Ocean People and Lao Bai Xien (ÀÏ°ÙÐÕ) for the Old Hundred Name because the term is used to denote the common folks, not really the surnames much like when we say that we are the taxpayers in this country because we are so heavily taxed and barely able to get by unlike the top 1% particularly under George W. Bush government. .

Rob¡¯s final chapter is an extensive analysis that I wish he had save for himself for perhaps another 30 years then he would be able to make some revision. But I would not be telling the truth to say that I did not enjoy reading this book. I did, and very much so.
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