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Sunday, Dec. 20, 2009

Wake up a friend about China at Christmas


LOS ANGELES — Attention last-minute holiday shoppers: We have an easy-to-purchase gift to recommend. And we guarantee that it will fit all sizes, shapes and tastes. This is assuming your intended recipients are intelligent, literate and eager to learn about the world.

The answer is to buy your friends a book on China — any book on China, or any two or even three books. You cannot go wrong. In the last year not one book on China has been published that's not worth buying and reading.

That's not because the best writers in the world are writing only about China. It's because China is a subject of such vast and profoundly important interest right now that it's virtually impossible to write a bad or useless book about the world's most populated nation/civilization, even if you try. The field of China books today is fiercely competitive.

Serious people understand the need to comprehend with sophistication the surprising shape of the emerging new world order. It is a matter of urgency and responsibility, especially in a democracy where we have an obligation to be informed. No one has time for literary jokes of half-baked book scams.

Comprising between 19 percent and 20 percent of the world's population, holding more U.S. Treasury investments than even the rich Japanese (the previous all-time high U.S. bondholder), and burning up more and more of the world's energy and mineral reserves and resources, China is, as they say in Hollywood, the new plot line.

Just check your favorite book-search engine and see what's available. It's an amazing list. No one can read all of them, but why not buy at least one of them, for a friend if not for yourself?

If you absolutely must have a firm recommend, it's a provocative new book with an even more provocative title: "When China Rules the World." This is probably the book to read or give to a friend if you're not going to get more than one. It encompasses a huge range of issues, is written in flawless, clear and concise English, and comes to firm and disturbing conclusions. I even agree with some of them.

Author Martin Jacques is something of an alarmist about China's rise in the world. The British journalist and well-traveled research fellow takes the view that China will rise on its own terms. This means its modernity will not resemble ours in the West.

And when it has finished rising, it will not look like any Western democracy we have ever seen, and will have pushed smaller nations to the side, like a whale surfacing and not caring what other smaller fish may flounder in its wake. Jacques is deliberately provocative without playing the fool, and the reader is richer for the effort.

The Chinese, he believes, take the view that they are different from — and better than — the rest of us; indeed, they view themselves as being (somehow) biologically different: "They have an overweening sense of superiority and the hierarchical mentality this has engendered." The implication for the West is that we really need to start paying more attention to what they are up to, especially because we haven't: "China is the elephant in the room that no one is quite willing to recognize." That's a perfect example of Jacques' delightful in-your-face approach, and the end result of the effort is an invaluable book.

To be sure, a more scholarly treatment would have to recognize that Asian thinkers have been telling everyone "the Chinese are coming" for years. This column, launched in 1995, has been saying much the same from the West Coast over and over. Singapore thinkers, especially Lee Kuan Yew, Kishore Mahbubani, George Yeo and Tommy Koh, have been warning the world over and over again to wake up about China.

But it's all right with me if the author of "When China Rules the World" wants to lay claim to inventing the wheel that has been rolling along for two decades in Asia. He seems to get a charge out of the phony exclusivity. No matter. The book he has produced is worth the conceit. My advice: Buy one for yourself, give one to a friend. Or buy another book on China.

Compared to the value of knowing as much as you can about this Asian elephant, almost all other gifts would be wildly overpriced.

Author and syndicated columnist Tom Plate is a former university professor. A blog archive of old columns is up and running at pacificperspectives.blogspot.com © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center


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