FROM MY BOOKSHELF: China: Refreshing, Intriguing, Confusing, Unsettling

By LeRoy Lawson

Rob Gifford, China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power (New York: Random House, 2007).

Rob Gifford, National Public Radio’s China correspondent, closed out his six-year tour of duty there by sending his family off to London ahead of him, stuffing his backpack, and setting out to explore Route 312 (the old Silk Road, treasured today like America’s Route 66) from Shanghai in the east to Korgaz at the Kazakhstan border in the west, a trek of more than 3,000 miles. Along the way he took in the contrasts and conundrums that define contemporary China.

After my last visit there I tormented my friends with this question: “Do you know what the national bird of China is?” They didn’t. “The construction crane,” I answered. Clever. The feeble joke betrayed my astonishment at the new buildings I saw everywhere. America’s days as sole economic superpower are numbered.


Gifford marvels with me. He remembers that in 1987 “many everyday items could be bought only with ration tickets and you couldn’t even purchase milk over the counter. Now, anything you can buy in the West can also be bought in a Chinese city such as Shanghai. You want an MP3 player? IPod or any other brand is available in every department store. Food processor? Exercise bike? It’s all here. Caviar? Champagne? Oreos? Special K? You name it. Stores in China’s coastal cities stock them all.”

He also speaks of something most American travelers, armed with our stereotypes of brutal, repressive communism (as exhibited in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and Tibet in 2008), find difficult to assimilate: the apparent freedoms the people enjoy. It’s as if, he says, “the government made an unwritten, unspoken deal with the people of China: stay out of politics, and you can do anything you want.” (When my wife, Joy, and I were there a few years ago in late November, for example, we were startled to hear Christmas carols —even the Christian ones—piped into the lobby of our hotel.)

As Gifford leaves the eastern cities behind him, though, and penetrates farther into China’s massive interior, he uncovers the disparity between urban prosperity and freedom and rural poverty and restrictions, where incomes average a little over a dollar a day and local party bosses dictate the doings of the peasants. There are more than 200 incidents of rural unrest every day.

He also becomes acquainted with some Christians. “There is a purity and an intensity to Christian believers in China and it overflows in their prayers. Mention Christianity to ordinary Chinese people, and they are not burdened by visions of crusading soldiers, fornicating popes, or right-wing politicians. They have heard about this belief relatively late in the faith’s long and winding history, and for them it is a matter of the heart.” He stops along the way to worship with a band of 40 believers, who ask him to preach and pray for them. He does.


After reading so many antimissionary diatribes over the years, I found it refreshing to read Gifford on the legacy of James Hudson Taylor and other missionaries who are still honored. “Though sometimes criticized as being the ‘spiritual arm’ of the imperialists, many of the missionaries were deeply committed to China and had a great love for the country. Their impact was immense, and not just in conversions. They were a progressive force, bringing modern education and medical expertise to China, and emphasizing the need to teach girls, who were largely denied education in traditional China.” Today’s rapidly growing indigenous church is in their debt.

Gifford does not give short shrift to China’s other belief systems, either, even its nonbelief systems. Young people brought up after the collapse of Maoism (and Mao’s attack on all theistic beliefs) are struggling to know what and whom to believe. The author’s interviews introduce persons of all walks of life and faithfully record their views. If you can’t go to China, journeying with Gifford is a pretty good substitute.

I have seldom enjoyed a travel book as much as China Road. The final chapter alone is worth the purchase price as Gifford speculates on China’s future. While admitting, “It’s impossible to be neutral about China,” he refrains from offering quick prophecies. He’s not blind to the nation’s dark underside, either: “How can I not care when a fifth of humanity is being convulsed before my eyes, and thousands are making millions, and millions are being crushed?”

No easy answers: “And if I seem a little confused about China, it’s because I am. And if you’re not confused, then you simply haven’t been paying attention.”

Well, I was. And I am.

W. Travis Hanes III and Frank Sanello, The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another (London: Robson Books, 2002, 2003).

If you would like a little more information on the emergence of modern China, W. Travis Hanes III and Frank Sanello’s The Opium Wars is a good place to turn. “Modern” begins in the 19th century, when British merchants forced high-quality opium onto China (this is profiteering at its most villainous) and condemned a nation to addiction. Twice, from 1839 to 1842 and again from 1856 until 1860, the government tried to extricate itself from Britain’s death grip, but the opium saturation continued unabated until the communists gained power after World War II. It took Mao’s totalitarianism to liberate (read “detoxify”) the country.

When you consider the West’s abuse of China you find it easy to understand the country’s paranoia regarding all things Western. The authors draw too many analogies between the brutal economics and empire of the 19th century and those of our own century.

Hanes specializes in British imperial history. Sanello is a film critic. Together they trace the causes, military campaigns, and tragic effects of the Opium War.

It’s an unsettling read.

LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.

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