Western analysts claim that Russia will not be happy if sanctions force it to trade less with Europe and more with China, as if the Far East were the equivalent of the medieval edge of the world, rather than the Next Big Thing. But a nyone still convinced that 'The West' will forever remain superior to modern China, should read "44 Days Backpacking in China ". This book is the indispensable pendant to 'When China Rules the World', taking the reader down to the micro level of a country whose 1.3 billion people are on the move in more ways than one.[tag]
Few people could be more qualified to introduce Westerners to post-Mao, post-Deng post-Hu China than Jeff J Brown. His university degrees in animal husbandry took him from the Peace Corps to 85 countries in the service of big business and government programs. Unlike most expat Americans, working abroad who can hardly order a cup of coffee in the native language, Jeff became fluent in Arabic while teaching Tunisian farmers under the trees, in French through marriage (and citizenship), and in Chinese while heading a baking operation for McDonald's.
Giving his two daughters a chance to experience life in France, he set up a CD Warehouse that rivaled the national giant, then in 2001 took his family to the States where he served as an international business consultant, before returning to China in 2010.
At the age when most people are looking forward to retirement, Jeff invents curricula for bi-lingual students in Beijing, while charting the changes he never would have expected during the seven years he spent there in the nineties. Two years ago he decided that the best way to keep his Mandarin fluent would be to spend his summer break on a seven-week hegira through five Western Chinese provinces toting forty pounds of gear.
With powers of observation that few can match, Brown trains a feisty, critical, yet affectionate gaze upon China's diverse peoples, landscapes, cultures and history. His daily narrative is threaded with comments on the leadership, which he calls Baba Beijing, and whose Heavenly Mandate is to make the Middle Kingdom the most prosperous and 'harmonious' country on earth, its relations with the rest of the world intertwined with Jeff's unique depictions of the challenges and opportunities of 3rd class travel.
In his solo journey across this vast country Jeff joined the five million locals who each day stand in line at dawn to buy a seat on a train, and when those are sold out, jump on one of the tens of thousands of busses that crisscross the country to and from a thousand interurban hubs. Who would have thought that Mao's descendants would do their own version of the Long March in relative comfort? Or that less than forty years after his death, an American would join them to backpack just as far, over 7,000 miles?
They may be designed to boost domestic spending, nonetheless the number of local attractions enjoyed by ordinary Chinese citizens is mind-boggling. While it is common knowledge that newly affluent Chinese have replaced the Japanese as the major contributors to Western tourism, with 100 million vacationing outbound this year, another 130 million non-Chinese are visiting the mainland. Nothing in the Western media even begins to suggest the cornucopia of Chinese tourist destinations, nor the creative ways in which they are enjoyed, such as escalators on sand dunes, rafts or zip line rides across the Yellow River, or exploring deserts in dune buggies or on camels.
You can see China on guided tours with five star accommodations, but with Jeff, you get to hobnob with the cooks of local eateries, each proud of their region's or town's specialties, and hear the stories of hostel- and cheap hotel owners that he searched out on his way. (During his trip he kept all the information on his cell phone, while using both international and Chinese sites).
En route, Jeff will tell you precisely what type of rock formation he is climbing, as his last breath threatens to expire. And he'll share a dozen ways to outsmart or circumvent China's ubiquitous park guards so that you can tour your own way. But his 160 thousand word book is far from being a panegyric. He takes you to the smoking chimneys that are Baba Beijing's despair, and enjoys castigating individuals eager to make a Yuan from unsuspecting travelers, including their own countrymen. You'll also discover how local entrepreneurs literally take Deng Xiaoping's advice, "do not care if the cat is black or white, what matters is it catches mice", as well as the 'four modernizations' that will soon make China the world's largest economy.
Brown views all governments with a healthy dose of irony, but it's clear he thinks China is no worse a place to live than many others he has known - including the land of his birth. Which brings me to the book's subtitle: "The Middle Kingdom in the 21st Century, with the United States, Europe and the Fate of the World in Its Looking Glass". The current demonizing of Russia, with its vast mineral wealth, is really about the fact that it backs up to China, which is to the post-industrialized world as the Medici's were to Renaissance Italy. Russia and China alone account for more than one sixth of the world's land area, more than 20% of its population and one seventh of its GDP. Add to this powerful duopoly 'the largest democracy' in the world, India, which borders China, throw in Brazil and South Africa for good measure, and you have an idea of what the world will look like tomorrow, as Northern and Western dominance is replaced by that of the BRICS nations, whose combined GDP is already equal to one fourth of the world total.
Westerners convinced their world will forever be the center of the universe should pause to consider this reality. And if after reading Brown's book you still think Russia should prefer Europe to China, let me know.
"44 Days Backpacking in China" is available from major online retailers and at www.44days.net .