The Magazine

The Chinese Wall

It separates reality from wishful thinking in the West.

Nov 24, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 10 • By ELLEN BORK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

China's Great Train

Beijing's Drive West and the Campaign to Remake Tibet

by Abrahm Lustgarten

Times, 320 pp., $26

The China Price

The True Cost of China's Competitive Advantage

by Alexandra Harney

Penguin, 352 pp., $25.95

Empire of Lies

The Truth About China in the 21st Century

by Guy Sorman

Encounter, 325 pp., $25.95

Last March, the largest demonstrations against Chinese rule since the late 1980s took place in Lhasa and spread beyond the boundaries of the official "Tibet Autonomous Region" to neighboring Tibetan areas in neighboring provinces. The Chinese responded by arresting and prosecuting monks, vilifying the Dalai Lama, and launching a campaign of political indoctrination.

With the Olympics only months away, the suppression briefly focused attention on China's policies since its occupation in the 1950s. As a concession to international protests, Beijing agreed to a meeting with representatives of the Dalai Lama--though its policies toward Tibet remain unchanged. In addition to religious persecution, these include massive population transfers of Han Chinese and infrastructure projects.

One of the most grandiose of these projects is the Qinghai Tibet Railroad, linking Lhasa to Beijing, and the subject of China's Great Train. First conceived by Mao, the railroad is more political imperative than commercial proposition. China's leaders hope it will help them secure Tibet's international borders, subjugate the Tibetan Buddhist population, and extract abundant natural resources.

Here are the elements of a great story. An audacious construction project requires innovation in a harsh environment. The builders must find a way to secure tracks on top of unstable permafrost. The head engineer nearly drowns in quicksand. Altitude sickness kills at least one worker, after which China stops disclosing deaths. The locals hardly benefit. Few Tibetans find work on the railroad, towns are relocated, and the landscape and culture are degraded.

Unfortunately, the narrative proceeds in a disjointed way, culminating in an anticlimactic journey to Lhasa on the train. The awkward writing distracts from the compelling and urgent problems faced by Tibetans and those who wish to help them resist Beijing's destruction of their culture and society.

The China Price tackles a subject Americans take even more seriously than the oppression of Tibet: cheap Chinese imports. This is a tightly written, thoughtful account of the working conditions and economic incentives behind China's production of consumer goods for overseas markets. Alexandra Harney resists relying on caricatures--enslaved workers toiling around the clock, happy to earn a Yuan--but some stock villains do make an appearance, such as the unscrupulous factory manager who dupes Wal-Mart's obtuse (or worse) inspector with a "shadow factory" set up near the real one, complete with phony timecards and other faked evidence of compliance with labor standards. Wal-Mart and other manufacturers come in for more sympathetic treatment when Harney explains the complex problems companies face in monitoring their operations, and the contradictory outcomes well-intentioned efforts sometimes produce.

To report The China Price Harney bunked in a dormitory with young women who traveled from their rural hometowns, with little money and no skills, to find jobs in boomtowns. They are indefatigable in the face of long hours and spartan living conditions, probably because their prospects at home are so poor. With little to lose, Harney argues, this generation of migrant workers, the second since the beginning of China's economic reforms, is savvier about their options, and more assertive. One excellent chapter deals with a struggling human rights movement, which tries to use existing laws and regulations to secure compensation for horrendous
workplace injuries and illnesses.

"The balance of power, long tilted in favor of factories," Harney concludes, "has begun to shift slightly, but inexorably, toward labor." Maybe--but she goes too easy on the central authorities, whom she criticizes mainly for lax oversight of local officials rather than for a one-party Communist system that (among other things) jails labor and anticorruption activists.