Country Driving, A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, Peter Hessler, Harper Collins, 2010
Reviewed by Graham Mulligan
This is a book inspired by solitude and yearning. After leaving the Peace Corps (Rivertown) and moving to Beijing as a journalist (New Yorker and National Geographic) the author gets his Chinese driver’s license and starts a road-trip. The route is defined by its proximity to an icon of China, the Great Wall. Leaning heavily on Arthur Waldron’s book The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth and David Spindler’s mostly unpublished research, Book I ‘The Wall’ describes Hessler’s 2001 journey from Beijing to Xinjiang.
Hessler’s strength is story telling, especially from direct experience. He often re-tells historical events when setting up a context for some story he is relating. His weakness is when he editorializes, perhaps throwing out a line like ‘As a source of new ideas, the Party might be bankrupt, but its still incredibly well organized and coordinated’ (p.203) while telling a story about F***n Gong as it was first popular in village life, then banned by the Central Government.
This book is a diary, watching China evolve. As such the writing can be fresh. For example, the story of Wei Jia’s experience of school and the process of ‘criticism’ in reporting to parents sounds very much like an alternate school I once worked at in Canada. In contrast, the writing can fall down and sound stereotypical when Hessler ‘gets political’. An example is the story of the Party organization at the village level where the ‘propaganda speakers’ image is overused (p.225 & 230 and more). The writing is more neutral when the author is relating business events. The story of the growth of the car industry, especially QQ (p.193) is an example. The tobacco industry (p.232) and the explanation of ‘guanxi’ is another.
Book II is about Hessler’s experience of Chinese village life close to Beijing. Overall, this is a story of change from village to urban values and especially the acquisition of ‘stuff’. Becoming an entrepreneur, harvesting walnuts as a communal act, opening a restaurant and guesthouse, joining the CPC, rising status – the path is traced through Wei Ziqi and his family.
The story concludes with the political campaign in the village and the visit of two township cadres who quell the unrest with their presence.
Hessler captures the rhythm of China through his stories. The changing village life, originally agricultural, gradually mechanized. Farmers spread grain on roads in Inner Mongolia for passing cars to crush and separate the chaff, likewise walnut growers in the village near Beijing use roadway threshing. In the Factory chapter the rhythm of change begins in late winter after the Spring Festival when workers change jobs and factory owners hire new workers. (p.315)
The planned development begins with building new roads, then laying out infrastructure gradually into the countryside, electricity and water, and then offering cheap rent to startup industry and attracting investors. The population shifts from construction workers to factory workers – men to young girls (p.324).
I like the way Hessler explains how small pieces of the system work like minimum wage regulations that vary from city to city and how that translates, along with working as many hours as possible, into a migrant workers salary. Hessler is able to gain access to many levels of society, bosses, workers, minor officials and scholars because he is a foreigner who can speak Chinese but also, I suspect because his personality is sympathetic and curious, childlike and usually non-judgmental.
In another real-life story Hessler tells how a migrant family lives in the new factory town. Daughters work the factory production line and parents sell cheap toiletries and sundries from a stall on the street with penny margins that add up.
In yet another explanatory aside, Hessler details how he learned about the systematized ‘guanxi’ of Zhejiang province (p.340). Gifts are standardized and portable, for example, a carton of cigarettes can be passed on by the receiver to earn more ‘guanxi’ just like currency, once spent can be re-used by the new holder to buy more goods.
The cost of development, Hessler explains, is high so where does the money come from? Not taxes because no one pays, not rent, because it is so low especially in the first three years. It comes from the conversion, by government from the township level and up, of agricultural land to urban-use land, ‘a kind of arbitrage, buying rural land and selling it as urban’ (p.344). The Chinese real estate system depends on continual growth and bubbles have developed recently causing Central Government interventions to slow growth especially in 2006 and again in 2010. The whole system is based on the fact that no one owns land privately so governments can manipulate expansion (p.345-6).
Book III, The Factory, begins with the story of Condoleeza Rice giving advice to build roads, like America in the 1950’s. Hessler’s move to Southern Zhejiang is intended to place him as an observer of the migration from countryside to town. “I was curious about this early rush” (p.283)
The story is about the bra ring Machine and its ‘inventor’ Liu Hongwei, an uneducated migrant worker who copied an original German designed machine, and who moved over from Taiwan to Xiamen in the mid 90’s (p.303)
The Self-help book ‘Square and Round’ explains how to function in modern society. Squareness represents a person’s internal integrity, whereas roundness is the external flexibility necessary to deal with the other people (p.352) ‘if a lie works, fine; otherwise just burn the bridges’ (p.362).
Hessler analyzes the failure of the factory he writes about as lacking a systematic structure and education. Can Chinese companies move beyond low-margin products and develop industries that require creativity and innovation, he asks (p.364)? Western industrialization was driven by a shortage of labour (western expansion in the U.S. drained the pool of able-bodied workers in the eastern U.S.) causing industrialists to be more efficient and innovative, thus creating the assembly line, standardization and interchangeable parts, for example.
When describing the injustices of resettlement from the flood reservoir area of the Tenkeng Dam, Hessler engages in some ‘should have’ advice as though he knows a better way to do things (p.392). He describes the system of compensation for farmers as filled with minutiae to distract them from the big issues. Protests are ‘intensely local and individual’ and if a capable person remains on the land or stays in the village he/she will most likely be co-opted into local government. If the system doesn’t serve individual needs you simply move. Cope with it or move on because it is a ‘doomed battle against the cadres’ (p.394).
Hessler sees change of the system as ‘escaping the group mentality of the village’. Future change is dependent on the middle and upper classes becoming frustrated with their own prospects.
Ancient Weir Art Village (p.400) is the story of the cynical artist/worker who moved to the village because the government offered 3 years free rent to attract artists. Paintings sell by size, not artistic quality and all are knock-offs of European and American artists. In an amazing anecdote Hessler describes how town scenes commissioned from American photographs often contained misspellings of storefront signs because the artist couldn’t speak English enough to recognize and reproduce the correct letters, thus ‘Bar’ becomes ‘Dah’.
Writing about China for an American audience raises the question of perspective. A foreigner writing about a developing country brings with it a lot of assumptions about how to read what is written much like watching the news on television says more about the watcher than the news itself. We choose our channels and favourite reporters. Contexts are all-important here.