China Shakes the World by James Kynge

When I first came back to China in January, I was talking with my office director about books on China, and he told me, “The best book on modern China has to be China Shakes the World. Get a copy as soon as you can.” He gave a copy to our company president in New York, who promptly bought 100 copies to give to clients interested in dong business in China. Essential reading has a whole new definition.

I didn’t get around to buying it until May (to my knowledge the Bookworm is the only place you can find it for sale), and I read much of it on the plane to and from Germany that month; it was the main inspiration behind a post I wrote at the time that really seemed to push some readers’ buttons. My manager was right. This book is unsurpassed in terms of exploring and analyzing just how enormous an effect China is having on the entire world. And anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that China is shaking the world is either in a state of willful denial or is living in a cave.

The book gets its title from an unconfirmed and in all likelihood mythological quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “Let China sleep; for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” Well, China has woken and the quote has proven to be accurate, no matter who actually said it. What makes this book special is its approach to the subject, focusing on the effect of China’s rise on other countries and other peoples. It’s not just another roundup of stories about the “China miracle” and how much Western CEOs are loving doing business in China.

The book begins at what was once the site of Germany’s largest steel mill, now only “a scar.” Kynge describes how the Chinese bought the ailing business and transported the entire mill – 25 football fields in size, 250,000 tons in weight, with 45 tons of documents telling how to reassemble the plant – to China. 10,000 German jobs were gone, and a 100-year-old business, the lifeblood of the city of Dortmund, vanished. (It was not China that caused the mill to go bust; that process started before China’s meteoric rise, due to fierce competition mainly from South Korea.) Kynge’s description of how the Chinese took the mill apart, dangling from walkways 60 meter above the ground without safety harnesses and completing the job months earlier than planned, is spellbinding. It’s funny, and it’s heartbreaking. The mill is a metaphor for many of the traditional businesses that for decades, even centuries, the Europeans thought of as “their own,” only to discover that competition from Asia threatened their very existence.

The China “economic miracle” has been in the headlines since the 1990s. The first sign that China was about to shake the world, however, occurred in 2004, when manhole covers began to disappear from streets all over the world. This was a wake-up call: China’s thirst for raw materials was about to affect all of the world’s markets. It was with the disappearing manhole covers, Kynge says, that China “telegraphed its arrival” to the world. “Whatever else happened, China had to be fed…A new era in international relations dawned, one defined by the geopolitics of scarcity.”

Looking over the book now, I see that I’ve dog-earred just about every page and written notes in many of the margins. There’s so much, it’s hard to condense it into a single blog post. So allow me simply to give some impressions of various points Kynge makes, in no particular order.

What Kynge manages to do better than any author I’ve read to date is to capture in words just how strange a trading partner China is, and how it resembles no other great power. Examples are plentiful – companies that make semiconductors and tomato catsup; companies that thrive on the theft of intellectual property; companies that produce an insane over-supply of products; companies that operate on an entirely different moral and cultural plane from their global counterparts. Kynge’s vivid anecdotes paint a picture of a country that in many ways is downright freakish and unbelievably unfair and corrupt. A country that is just so different.

And yet…. Kynge is always clear-headed and balanced to a fault. After enumerating the many bizarreries that make China seem so peculiar, he offers some important balance:

It must be said that from a global perspective, China’s emergence is of enormous economic benefit. The value created by the release of 400 million people from poverty, the migration of over 120 million from farms where they perhaps raised chickens to factories where they churn out electronics, the quantum leap in educational standards for tens of millions of children, the construction of a first-class infrastructure, the growth of over 40 cities with populations of over a million, the commercialization of housing and the vaulting progress up the technology ladder have helped unleash one of the greatest ever surges in general prosperity.

You come away from this book enraged at China and in awe of China, hating it and admiring it. Perhaps the most hackneyed phrase about China is that it’s a “land of contradictions,” but such phrases only become hackneyed because they contain a strong element of truth. Kynge brings us all the contradictions and spins them into a narrative that kept me turning from page to page throughout my flight to Munich. One story about a girl whose life is for all intents and purposes stolen from her by a corrupt official who stole her identity so his daughter could get into a good university will bring tears to your eyes. And stories of the sheer guile of Chinese workers , like those who dismantled the Dortmund steel mill, will make you smile. And his description of just how inequitable the competition from China can be will leave you hopelessly frustrated:

The Chinese fixed the value of their currency against the US dollar, keeping it undervalued so as to give their exports greater competitiveness. They provided little or no welfare for their workers, so their costs were artificially low. There were no independent unions in China, so the safety standards…in Chinese factories would have been illegal in America. The state banking system provided cheap credit to state companies that could default without consequence. The central government gave generous value added tax rebates to exporters that were not available to US retailers. Restrictions on emissions were lax, so companies had to pay relatively little to keep the environment clean. Chinese companies routinely stole foreign intellectual property, but it was difficult to prosecute them because the courts were either corrupt or under government control. Finally, the state kept the price of various inputs, such as electricity and water, artificially low, thereby subsidizing industry.

Kynge is outspoken on Western Europe’s (in particular Germany’s and France’s) lack of competitiveness underscored by Germany’s 35-hour and long vacations. And yet, how can they possibly compete against China, no matter how many hours a week they work, when all of the cards are stacked in China’s favor, mostly due to maddeningly unfair government intervention (or lack of intervention)?

But for all of China’s ruthlessness and seemingly unstoppable growth, crushing anything that gets in its path, Kynge leaves us more with a sense of doubt than of fear (though there’s plenty of fear, too). Doubt, because China’s problems (and here comes another hackneyed clichee) are so immense, so overwhelming that its ascension to the status of a global superpower still remains in question. And if it does join the superpower club, surely it will be the strangest member. There has never been a superpower quite like it.

Although China is poised to overtake the UK to become the world’s fourth largest economy, on a per capita basis it ranks just above the world’s poorest nations, with an average income of just over $1,000 a year. Even if the country’s gross domestic product one day becomes as large as that of the US, simple mathematics ordains that its people at that time will on average be only one-sixth as wealthy as Americans.

Again, I can’t offer anything more than a snapshot; there’s so much here, and I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Even though I finished it in May I still carry it around with me, revisiting the sections I found most fascinating (and that’s a lot of sections). In terms of balance, perspective and brilliant analysis of what China is today and where it is going tomorrow, this is the best book you can buy.

Update: I just reread my recent post about Germany, which is really all about China Shakes the World, and it should be read along ‘with this post – it delves more deeply into the comparison of Germany and China based on Kynges arguments, and some of the comments there are first-rate.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 77 Comments

“Europe did not independently invent stern-mounted rudders”

Neither did China, that credit would go to the Phoenicians, who were crossing the Atlantic at will with sextants while the Chinese fuddled with coastal fishing boats.

The compass started out as a “qi meter” and gunpowder was likely as much of an accident.

“”Free speech” really isn’t as important as just letting your people publish and read well-sourced, objective materials. ”

That is part of free speech, versus reading material bent to support a “big leader’s” philosophical leanings.

And what does the 45-55,000 years ago have to do with anything? Oh please don’t bring up “Beijing man”.

July 21, 2007 @ 6:16 am | Comment

“Neither did China, that credit would go to the Phoenicians”

Nope. China’s rudders are nothing like that of the Phoenicians and China first started using theirs much later.

“The compass started out as a “qi meter” and gunpowder was likely as much of an accident.”

They were both put into practical use immediately. Regardless, both were the result of having a well developed society and agriculture (i.e using seed drills and not just scattering seeds around to feed birds, taking the time to irrigate the land on a large scale, etc) with strong division of labor; it freed up time for more experimentation in the upper classes.

“That is part of free speech, versus reading material bent to support a “big leader’s” philosophical leanings.”

They don’t need “free speech”. Just fewer restrictions, but the CCP sees a need to filter out idiocy. No one in China listens to a “big leader’s” philosophy anymore, if you haven’t noticed. The big leaders don’t philosophize anymore.

“And what does the 45-55,000 years ago have to do with anything? Oh please don’t bring up “Beijing man”.”

Heh it means modern Europeans have been milling around for some time before humans even reached Northeast Asia (which was pretty cold and desolate at the time), Siberia, North and South America, and Southeast Asia. But they spent some 20,000-40,000 years sodomizing the wildlife.

July 21, 2007 @ 9:01 am | Comment

“china can’t compete in terms of higher value products and won’t for a long time”

They said that about every single developing country before it finished developing, heh. Including South Korea and Japan. But the CCP welcomes hubris in its future competitors. Italy thinking they’re the only ones capable of making chairs is one amusing incidence.

“if the quality of the majority of students i taught is anything to go by”

It’s not. From my experience in the American public school system, 98% of your children are practically mentally retarded. And they’re definitely not creative, unless you think scratching misshapen vaginas and scrawling misspelled obscenities into bathroom stalls is artistic genius. But America still manages to be the richest country in the world, anyhow. The high school I attended was even one of the best public schools in the nation and I live in one of the richest counties in America when I’m there.

“japan has not grown much recently”

Actually, their economy is starting to recover and is moving faster than that of the EUs or America’s. For the time being.

“but still has an excellent standard of living and a low gini co-efficient. surely that has to be the aim of economic expansion, not just money making for its own sake.”

It should be. But more and more people are getting sick of cutthroat money for money’s sake thinking. I believe China has seen that peak, and they’re slowly starting to mellow out and gain some sense, from the trends and statistics I’ve been reading about at least.

July 21, 2007 @ 9:23 am | Comment

i taught in China for nearly half a decade, at all levels. i spent much of my time reading essays copied off the internet telling me chinese people are incredibly smart and that the rest of the world is a vapid, cultureless void populated by people leading empty, immoral lives.

thank you once again ferins for your mature contribution to the debate. fyi i’m not american.

July 21, 2007 @ 5:22 pm | Comment

and i’ve spent 15 years in an american public schools learning that americans are politically retarded and most of them don’t even bother plagiarizing to make their garbage sound halfway decent.

and how economically successful is your country compared to america? ok then, so we can assume dumb students on average won’t matter that much.

stop spamming unsourced anecdotes and drawing idiotic conclusions, plenty of people plagiarize.

July 21, 2007 @ 11:38 pm | Comment

and about this:

“thank you once again ferins for your mature contribution to the debate.”

you’re welcome. sorry i came in and rained on some peoples’ china bashing parades. what were you debating again? was it the stupidity, lack of creativity, big bad racism, ignorance of chinese students or the uneconomic claim that china is worthless to the world economy?

so far there was some good discussion until people just came in to complain and not offer anything constructive, as usual, and then there was the typical doomsday scenario, anecdotes, and of course nhyrc defecating on what remained.

i assume if nhyrc’s gibberish isn’t deleted, nothing will be. so far i’ve learned cho seung-hui is a chinese national, hong kong will collapse in 10 years, the phoenicians went to great britain (just like zheng he went to america!), and the fact that american murder rates are high is a thing of national pride (we’re better with guns! **** YEAH).

July 21, 2007 @ 11:48 pm | Comment


I’m beginning to construct a new theory about you…

…you were created by the CCP, as an examplar to warn all Chinese people of why they should not drink.

July 22, 2007 @ 12:26 am | Comment

ferins, you are losing it, first with poorly substantiated attack on countries and civilisations that you knew very little about, then by over-reacting to plagiarism allegations. Take my advice: back off, cool down and come back again when you’re calm and collected.

July 22, 2007 @ 12:30 am | Comment

Alright. Ferins, do you want to hear some REAL China-bashing?

(Richard, please allow me license to do this, just to teach Ferins a lesson):

This is my impression of a typical Chinaman, after I spent five years in China:

“WHOOAAH! (hock! spit!) Whaaa! (The Chinaman – a CCP member – walks like a bow-legged peasant and shakes his head back and forth while he says),

“You don’t under-stand China! WHAA! (Spit, jump a queue, knock over some other pedestrians in the rudest way while you walk down the street.) Oh, oh, OHHH! You Foreigner, do NOT TALK ABOUT POLITICS! Politics can be inconvenient. Many bad things can happen! Oh, OHHH, do not talk about politics! You don’t understand China. Chinese people are (here he takes a pregnant pause)…

…PRACTICAL! Chinese people are MATERIALIST!
PRACTICAL! (This, the Chinaman says, while he is surrounded by the worst pollution in all of World History – and as for the Chinese being “practical”, he glosses over the Great Leap Forward and its famine.)…”

The Chinaman continues:

“…Chinese people, are very reserved!”

(Oh yeah. The Cultural Revolution was a model of “reserve”, and the way Chinese people shout in public is “reserved.” Insert sarcasm emoticon here.)

“Whaah, China is oldest continuing civilisation in the world!”…

…and yet, they don’t even know the most essential basics of public courtesy – which is the foundation of any civilisation….

…because Mao and the Communists destroyed China’s civilisation, at least in the PRC.

Whatever remains of the truly ancient and noble civilisation of China, survives now outside of the PRC, in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan and, yes, Japan. Actually, MOST of what remains of China’s ancient civilisation today, is in Japanese culture.

And almost none of it survives in the PRC, and all true Chinese patriots should curse the Communist Party for that.

July 22, 2007 @ 1:12 am | Comment

Uh I guess technically I was, because the CCP chased my grandparents out of the mainland onto Taiwan.

It doesn’t change the fact that plenty of people in America are just arrogant, paternalistic meddlers looking out for themselves primarily (or just venting their close-minded bitching) and with all the resources and money in the world are still too dense and uncreative or greedy to do anything to encourage China (or the rest of the developing world for that matter) to do the best thing.

It seems like many are just interested in dick-waving and confrontation when it’s been proven for what, 50 years? That that approach doesn’t work with the CCP’s hardline conservatives. Or North Korea. Or Saddam.

And yes, I know enough about history and archaeology. Enough to not spew ridiculous ahistorical claims like that of nanhe’s. Phoenicians in Britain, lol. India had lasers as described in the Mahabharata!

The reason why I bring in what some see to be irrelevant (the history of Europe) is because it totally delegitimizes arrogant claims being spewed here on morality or creativity. Maybe once you gain some sense you’ll realize that whining, hand-wringing, doomsayer/chest-thumper rhetoric gets you no where. Unless this is actually a dumpster for anti-Chinese tirades by butthurt sex tourists, then I was misled because there are mainly rational, genuinely concerned and intelligent people making the posts.

And I thought the CCP was diplomatically retarded.

July 22, 2007 @ 1:17 am | Comment

PS, and now, just for good measure, as a prophylactic against any ignoramuses who might accuse me of being “anti-Chinese” for my above comment:

1. One of my greatest teachers and mentors was the son of Chinese immigrants, whose parents escaped from China to the West during the Japanese invasion. He taught me how and why to love Chinese civilisation – the civilisation which Mao and the Chinese Communists destroyed. And he also taught me how and why to love Japanese culture. I repeat: he is the son of Chinese refugees from the Japanese invasion, and yet he taught me how to love Japanese culture – because he is a true warrior, and this is how true warriors think. And it breaks my heart (and it breaks HIS heart a thousand times more) to know that there are very few true warriors left in the PRC.

2. Throughout my five years in China – and even now, in my new home in a Western country – I had a Chinese coin minted at the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, the time of my favourite Chinese poet, Li Bai. (aka Li Po.) I kept it on top of my computer throughout my five years in China (and it’s on my computer now in this Western country), to inspire me to write well.

3. The main reason why I hate the CCP, is because they destroyed Chinese civilisation.

4. Just a bit of ephemera, when I was seven years old, my first girlfriend was the daughter of Chinese immigrants in America. She took a special liking to me because I was so sensitive and intelligent – which is typical of women who come from REAL Chinese culture, quite unlike the women of today’s PRC. 😉

July 22, 2007 @ 1:34 am | Comment

Despite #4 being a little gross, I can understand- only I know I share roots with people on the Chinese mainland so insults tied to genetic determinism (and don’t deny there have been many of them) are insults to people from Taiwan; regardless of how much some of them might deny their heritage.

But I wonder how much anyone knows about “Chinese culture” when they think Starbucks, McDonalds, and sex-tourists-slash-businessmen slobbering over China with their pants around their ankles is anything like Chinese society. Where were they when warlords were ravaging the ROC? Or when Japan first started attacking in 1937? Or during the Long March and towards the end of the civil war?But I digress.

Mao’s hell transitioning into mini-America into uber-America (i.e eating the world to death with its excesses) is something that would make any real Chinese person lose their lunch. It’d make you sick too once some charismatic fool goads the rural theist voter bloc into permitting a launch of biological agents at Taiwan, Japan, America, Britain (can’t forget the Opium Wars) and Russia.

My general observation of most of those complaining on this thread is that their views lie on ideological spectrums and is grounded in ineffective, confrontational measures; i.e saying things that will just piss 95% of (PR)Chinese people off and make them (and thus their connections) more nationalistic.

Just rambling, though.

July 22, 2007 @ 1:54 am | Comment

I admire many individual Chinese, especially those that are tilting at windmills against corrupt officials and rapacious businesspeople. But since coming to China two years ago I have found that I admire the country and its culture less each day. I really don’t think the Chinese have much to be proud of. Much of the culture is destructive. People only care about money – only in Tibet will you find spirituality. China seems to be a society without a soul – at least a soul that non-Chinese could recognize. China may be booming but I see nothing to be proud of.

July 22, 2007 @ 2:18 am | Comment

China now isn’t even Chinese. Mao killed that.

But don’t pretend they’re the only ones who want money. They’re poor.. what’s everyone else’s excuse?

July 22, 2007 @ 2:43 am | Comment

Ferins, please take my friendly advice to chill-out before you come back again. You are making no sense. It’s rather dumb to have responded to Nanhey’s provocation. It’s even worse when you actually quoted him wrongly. Nanhey never said anything about “Phoenicians in Britain”. You did. Your problem is not so much with your lack of knowledge in history or archaeology. It’s got more to do with the fact that you don’t read. So go and read Nanhey’s comment again if you really want a good argument with him. Otherwise, don’t bother.

As for your other comments:

“only I know I share roots with people on the Chinese mainland so insults tied to genetic determinism” – No, you’re wrong. The target here is the Chinese Communist Party, not the Chinese people. Why do you as a Taiwanese find it necessary to defend the CCP? I don’t understand. Please enlighten me.

“Where were they when warlords were ravaging the ROC? Or when Japan first started attacking in 1937? Or during the Long March and towards the end of the civil war?” – you are not seriously blaming expats in China today for what happened in China prior to the founding of the PRC? So are you telling me that the corruption of the Chiang Kai-shek led KMT regime, the power struggle within the CCP and the inability of the 2 political parties to form a united front against Japanese invasion did not contribute to the suffering of Chinese people during WWII and the civil war?

“My general observation of most of those complaining on this thread is that their views lie on ideological spectrums and is grounded in ineffective, confrontational measure …” – So are yours. And you don’t even read before you start ranting.

July 22, 2007 @ 2:51 am | Comment

Heh, he said “sailing the Atlantic”, trying to draw modern connotations. There’s no point in trying to have a “discussion” with him, since he lack basic reasoning skills.

The things I write make perfect sense; comments by most from the U.S on China are idiotic. They’re about as far from reason as CCP propaganda. Only they are on the opposite side.

July 22, 2007 @ 4:33 am | Comment

so ferins, what you are saying is you lack a response. All you can shout is “bah, mantou!”

July 22, 2007 @ 5:13 am | Comment

er, you’d have to say something worth responding to.

bragging about gun deaths in america was a good one. it takes a lot of skill to shoot your wife from 2 feet away!

July 22, 2007 @ 5:31 am | Comment

ooh, good one.

But not as good as chinese parents who toss their kids out of apartments to show power or get revenge.

July 22, 2007 @ 4:01 pm | Comment

I probably shouldn’t reply – but just for the record.

Obviously my comments are “unsourced ancedotes” – they are my ancedotes. I don’t pretend to have any deeper knowledge than that. I didn’t say that Chinese students are stupid, just that in my experience lazy and propaganda spewing. It is a shame.

Certainly plenty of people plagiarise. I don’t recall arguing that China is unique in this.

Nevertheless I didn’t think these charges were bad enough to warrant the spleen and the attempt to insult me by saying that Europeans used to sodomise animals. As Fat Cat said reading carefully what people write will be helpful.

And again, I am not an American.

Anyway I won’t reply to any of ferins’ comments, as it seems to merely wind him/her up further

July 22, 2007 @ 4:57 pm | Comment

“ooh, good one.

But not as good as chinese parents who toss their kids out of apartments to show power or get revenge.”

a nice read for you would be the statistics on country and crime rate.

japan, korea, china, taiwan, hong kong, along with middle eastern states (sa, qater, morocco) occupy the bottom of the list, despite poverty, crowding (causes stress), etc etc.

keep the anecdotes, ahistorical claims, and unfulfilled prophecies coming.

“I didn’t say that Chinese students are stupid, just that in my experience lazy…”

“Europeans used to sodomise animals”

A cave painting (photograph) from at least 8000 BC in the Northern Italian Val Camonica[4] “depicts a man complete with full erection standing behind a female deer.

“Anyway I won’t reply to any of ferins’ comments, as it seems to merely wind him/her up further”

Guess people don’t like it when they get bashed back.

July 23, 2007 @ 12:49 pm | Comment

[…] the IMF. But that’s one of the peculiarities of China, verging (perhaps) on superpower status “while ranking just above the world’s poorest nations.” And yet there we […]

December 23, 2008 @ 11:49 pm | Pingback

[…] and progress that is real here to justify a lot of attention from the West, and everywhere else. As I quoted James Kynge in an earlier post: It must be said that from a global perspective, China’s emergence is of […]

May 28, 2009 @ 11:42 am | Pingback

Hello I have read the book and I am trying to find out the theory to the book. Please help!

June 16, 2009 @ 11:52 am | Comment

Is “China shakes the world” splitted in the two parts “The rise of a hungry nation” and “A titan´s rise …” or is the latter title just some new edition?

August 2, 2009 @ 9:42 pm | Comment

[…] remains in many ways poor and helpless. I like the way James Kynge expressed this contradiction in China Shakes the World back in 2006, Although China is poised to overtake the UK to become the world’s fourth largest […]

August 18, 2010 @ 5:56 am | Pingback

[…] remains in many ways poor and helpless. I like the way James Kynge expressed this contradiction in China Shakes the World back in 2006, Although China is poised to overtake the UK to become the world’s fourth largest […]

August 18, 2010 @ 7:25 am | Pingback

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