The Chinese, by Jasper Becker

A Book Review

Last year I came across this post on a message board, and it inspired me to buy Jasper Becker’s book, The Chinese.

I have lived in China four and a half years and Jasper Becker’s “The Chinese,” gave me more insight into the reasons why things are the way they are here than any other source. The depth and immediacy of the work makes it easy to keep going even when the facts are sometimes brutal. He illuminates Chinese history and connects it to the problems of the present with grace and assurance. I kept saying, “Aha!” as I read and discovered the answers and causes I had searched for myself. Becker’s writing has a fine way of “taking” the reader somewhere – as if curiousity and the need to know have created a path. His sources are terrific and the notes and bibliography alone make a fine reference.

Annali Galey
Xiamen, China

I had a very similar experience reading The Chinese. Aspects of books like Grass Soup and Wild Swans that earlier seemed quite odd to me became clear,as Becker tied Chinese behavior today to the history on which it is founded. It is not a detailed history book. It’s more of a primer on what makes China the inscrutable place it is today.

While I’d read much about this subject earlier and knew that the Chinese government of today is in many ways similar to that of its earliest emperor, Becker’s examples and commentary bring this point vividly to life. He writes about the plight of China’s peasants contrasted with their rulers’ never-ending orgy of corruption and gluttony with enough wit and pith to keep it always engaging. It’s definitely one of those books you don’t want to put down.

While the book is at first glance a series of loosley connected vignettes and anecdotes, it has a definite and simple purpose: to unwrap what seems to the Western eye to be the endless series of riddles and enigmas that is China. Becker has done a remarkable job, taking so many disparate anecdotes and melding them together to form a unified, coherent exploration of China and the deep challenges it faces at the start of the new millennium.

Becker sees the Chinese Communist Party as the greatest blight in this country’s 5,000-year history, and points out its sins in a methodical, matter-of-fact manner, with plenty of documentation and quotes. He is never preachy like Gordon Chang (The Coming Collapse of China); he makes his points without polemicizing.

It’s almost impossible for me to pick and choose quotes that show how smart and perceptive Becker is — I’d have to quote just about every page. Here’s a random example, a description of just how distant China’s government is from the mass of its people:

Whether China should be treated as a state, an empire, a self-perpetuating bureaucracy, a culture or a nation is an open question. Perhaps it is quite simply sui generis. Even so, the way of life that China’s rulers have created for themselves since they won power in 1949 seems a peculiar retrogression. For they live as a separate caste, in a style as secluded as anything created by the Qing or earlier imperial dynasties….

Without the need for regular contact with the “masses,” China’s ruling elites not only lead lives entirely separate from their subjects but they also inhabit a political system that prevents any views from below from ever reaching them. Dissidents are given lengthy prison sentences as a warning to all, and China is now one of the last countries in the world without a functioning parliament. The National People’s Congress does exist but it has no building of its own, no permanent staff or offices and it assembles just 10 days a year.

That’s a powerful image: a congress that has no address, no phone number, that simply melts away after the annual party congress. And it underscores Becker’s larger point, that this government has no legitimacy or claim to power, it has no mandate from its subjects and rules by terror and threat, answering to no one and destroying whomever gets in its way.

Becker gives example after example of this. “One petitioner who tried to hand a letter to Mary Robertson, the first UN Human Rights Commissioner to visit China, was dragged away screaming before her eyes in 1998.” Businessmen are thrown into jail simply for succeeding in a manner that threatens a state-owned enterprise. And his descriptions of China’s 700 million utterly disenfranchised peasants taxed and exploited in the nation’s poorest provinces are simply infuriating.

Again, it isn’t just a recounting of today’s suffering in China, but of what the origins of the suffering are and why in so many respects things in China do not change. It also deals at great length with the country’s new wealth and what it’s meant for the mass of the people.

China is now a society in which everyone seems to be engaged in deceiving and cheating one another. In such circumstances, the transition to a market economy has not led to any fairness. Hard work and honesty are not rewarded; corruption is. The privatization process in a dictatorship such as China has brought about the criminalization of the state Party members, who are beyond the law, have been free to engage in the theft of state assets on a grand scale. The cynicism and hypocrisy this has fostered are destructive….A society in which no one is prepared to tell the truth, whether about historical events, small or large, or commercial transactions, cannot prosper.

As long as the CCP is accountble to no one, as long as there is no independent judiciary with the power to back up wth law, Becker sees no hope for true change and progress in China, only window dressing. He totally rejects the notion that the CCP is doing great things for China. Considering the sheer industriousness and entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese, one can only imagine what they could do and how they could improve their lives if they were given true freedom in business, without facing prison and beatings and death for threatening local officials. (And success in a business that competes with an SOE is a threat to local officials, who grow rich from the money-bleeding state-supported business, the lifeblood of China’s corruption.)

I would say that anyone who wants a relatively brief and highly readable guidebook to why China is the nation it is today must read The Chinese. It’s not a pretty story and there is little to feel happy about when you’re finished with it. But it is an eye-opener, and it offers no mercy to the myth that the CCP is an actual government representing its people. Far from it.

A quick note on Becker: I referred to The Chinese in a comment on another web site some months ago, and another commenter quickly jumped in, saying Becker could not be believed or trusted because he is “anti-Chinese.”

First, Becker is obviously very, very pro-Chinese or he wouldn’t be writing this book about them and lamenting the tyranny under which so many now live. Second, to be “anti” any government does not necessarily mean you are against that government’s country or people. (I hate Bush, but I despise random and thoughtless anti-Americanism.) The commenter meant that Becker is anti-CCP, a big plus in my book.

Let’s think about the commenter’s point for a moment. When we read a book about Stalin or Hitler do we feel better knowing that the writer is pro-KGB or pro-Nazi? When we read a book about China, should a criterion for its credibility be whether its author is pro-Mao or pro-CCP? I would say it’s just the opposite. If I know a writer on China is pro-Mao or pro-CCP, I will immediately look at his words with a higher degree of skepticism. Same with books on Nazi Germany. Anyone sympathetic to such causes, in my eyes, has blinded himself to history, to facts. So to paint Becker as unreliable and untrustworthy because he hates the CCP won’t fly. Now, if he allows this prejudice to cause him to lie, to alter facts, to leave things out or to propagandize, then I’ll be wary. But after reading the entire book and then reading dozens of reviews from the most reputable writers and historians, I have a huge degree of admiration and respect for Becker and what he has accomplished.

The Chinese, along with Becker’s other highly acclaimed history, Hungry Ghosts, should be required reading. After reading it, one can never view China with quite the same perspective again.

The Discussion: 10 Comments

I guess everyone agrees that CCP’s governance needs significant improvement.

However, like Bush’s Iraqi paper, Becker’s book is littered with truth, half truth and lies.

“First, Becker is obviously very, very pro-Chinese or he wouldn’t be writing this book about them and lamenting the tyranny under which so many now live.”

Well, this argument is weak. When I was young boy, communist published lots of articles detailing the suffering of american working class. They were trying to justify the advantage of socialism. Could we say that CCP is VERY, VERY pro-american?

January 17, 2004 @ 10:34 pm | Comment

It depends on the communists you are referring to, and what we can estimate to be their motives. The American communists of the time prolly were pro-American, but the CCP of the time were prolly doing it more to keep their masses in line, rather than any desire for communism in America.

“Second, to be “anti” any government does not necessarily mean you are against that government’s country or people.”
Yes, but critizing the government can be used as a moralising tactic, to discredit the people via association with the government, and inflate ones own opinion of oneself.

“China is now one of the last countries in the world without a functioning parliament.”
Erm, there are quite alot of countries without ‘functioning’ parliaments, just about every dictatorship, for example.

“Becker sees the Chinese Communist Party as the greatest blight in this country’s 5,000-year history,”
That is just hyperbole, one could easily point to the mongol invasion as being far worse, and china has prolly had some pretty crappy regimes in that period.

January 18, 2004 @ 8:34 am | Comment

Factory, good points. It may be hard to measuyre which regime was worse; but in terms of scale, the CCP almost certainly gets the gold star.

Criuticisng a government may be a moralizing tactic to slam the people, as you describe. Not the case here, where Becker is constantly noting the irrepressible spirit of the Chinese people and their ability to achieve great things under adverse circumstances.

About the functional parliaments, I wondered what he meant as well and decided the key was “functional,” a group that meets regularly and actually operates and actually does something. He said China is one of the last countries without such a body, not the only one. Still, I agree it is not well stated.

Steve, I think you misunderstood my main argument there. Here it is, much shorter: If someone writes a book about a police-state regime with a well-known record of murder and human rights abuse and says he is a great friend and admirer of that regime, I will read him with a good degree of skepticism. Period.

January 18, 2004 @ 9:23 am | Comment


We are actually in total agreement. Just as you will be skeptical of works written by people claiming pro-CCP, Chinese will be very skeptical of works written by people hostile to China, such as those people advocating Taiwan independence or china disintegration into several small countries.

Anyway, to be fair, Jasper did have a long history of reporting from China since 1985 until he was fired by South China Morning Post. There is another article by Jasper:

He wrote: “Yet, in order to do so, Jiang has moved the Party so far to the right that it often seems more Thatcherite than anything attempted by the Conservatives in Britain.”

That is today’s China. CCP is doing all those things that the righ-wing in US wants to do, but can not do. That is why the left in China is lamenting the plight of peasants. That is why the work laid off from SOE marched with Mao’s picture.

CCP today is not Mao’s CCP. More frankly, CCP today is just doing almost everything Mao hated. China is changing so fast. Sometimes we joked that if Mao came back to life, he will faint again.

In our community, the community deputy is selected accoding to resident vote. The city minister and deputy mayor are selected via exam and open debate on their achievement. It is true that they are not selected by one person one vote. However, this selection process has its strength too, e.g., it can avoid demagogue. I am pretty sure China is moving in the right direction and will get better everyday.

January 18, 2004 @ 10:13 am | Comment

Steve, thanks for the elaboration, and yes, we are basically in agreement. Not completley, but close. I think in general China now IS moving in the right direction in almost all ways. My big gripe, and it is major, is the local officials pocketing incredible sums of money, and the children of Jiang and Deng becoming trillionaires by birthright while their people have no rights and no power. As long as there is no independent judiciary that can mete out justice, there is no hope for change in this regard. The corrupt rich are not going to give it all up. Thus we have censorship and no right of assembly, and the state’s power to arrest people at will. The corruption can only continue if the people are frightened into silence. And that really bothers me, in China as it did in the old USSR and in Guatemala and Chile.

January 18, 2004 @ 10:48 am | Comment


Corruption is indeed a very serious problem. The question is about the cure.

One plausible solution is democracy. However, if you check corruption index, India is even more corrupt than China. So did Russia. Of course, there are lots of democratic countries with little corruption, like Finland and US. But China is probably more like India than like Finland. Considering the risk of China disintegration after adopting full democracy and the following turmoil, full democracy is probably not a good solution.

On the other hand, Singapore and Hongkong has limited democracy but little corruption. Their model could be used. The good thing is that, Jiang will die eventually and his son will be exposed to examination.

Anyway, in chinese, the crow is black everywhere. G.W. Bush got into Harvard MBA with average C, was bailed out by his Dad’s supporter from a failed business venture and got rich with another supporter,…. People in power will get his share no matter what.

January 18, 2004 @ 12:03 pm | Comment

Steve, you’re right, democracy certainly doesn’t guarantee a cure to corruption. Wherever you have tax dollars being collected, you’ll have corruption. Look at Italy! But at least in Italy there are avenues for citizens to make themselves heard and seek at least some justice. In China, just complaining can result in a long jail term. Not only in China, I know, but China is trying to pass itself off as a player on the world economic and political stage and must therefore conform to some extent to internatinal standards of transparency.

The first step to take, as I’ve said before, is an independent judiciary. As long as the government is judge and jury and prosecutor, there’s no hope. And remember, corruption serves a purpose in China. It keeps those local officials loyal to the Central government; it’s their only impetus to maintain stability (i.e., silence and crush any sign of protest) in their respective regions. The lifeblood of Chinese politics, the CCP simlpy cannot exist without it. All those loyal generals who live in plush, fenced-off housing — if that’s all taken away, will they fight with all they have to keep the CCP in power. I don’t think so, and neither does the CCP. So the corruption continues. Every few months we hear of a new government initiative to crack down and end corruption, and there’s the highly publicized trial and inevitable execution of a corrupt official or businessman, but it’s for show; corruption blossoms today as never before in China. As long as corruption is the platform for the CCP, I cannot give the government any credibility or validity. It is a bunch of rogues paying off its goons to keep them in power at the expense of the hard-working people.

January 18, 2004 @ 12:24 pm | Comment

“The Chinese”, by Jasper Becker

Having been reading “The Chinese” in the MRT while going to, and comging from, work these last few days. I see a lot of curious stares from my neighbours… Probably they are attracted by the obvious title in the middle of the cover! ‘Races’ are a very…

February 28, 2004 @ 12:54 pm | Comment

Becker’s book doesn’t seem to me to be plagued by anti-chinese sentiment but rather with unsupported asertions and outrageous arguments. For example, in the chapter Secret Empire (pp. 281-282 John Murray Pub.) he claims that PLA soldiers were on drugs when they crushed the Tiananmen Square uprising and that some soldiers from Beijing refused to take part. However he does not cite any evidence; no footnotes or interviews, nothing. We have only his word that these things happened.

Elsewhere he shows an equally careless disregard for figures and statistics. On pp.301, he cites the figure of 30 million for the number of Communist party members “judged rehabilitated and compensated”. He states that 250 million peasants were living on the verge of starvation (pp24). He also suggests that China suffered a million casualties in the Korean war and that it sent 400,000 soldiers to the Vietnam conflict(pp.273-274). On pp. 383, he claims that 30 million people died in the Great Leap Forward. Millions of aids patients and 10 million drug addicts are said to abound (pp.242). In all these examples and many others throughout the book, Becker does not provide a shred of evidence to support these numbers .

Becker also makes claims which are hard to take seriously. He argues that China (pp. 345-348) has aspirations to be an empire and to that end is slowly expanding it’s territory. As proof of this, he cites the establishment of military bases on the Spartly and Parcel islands. To him this shows that China has pushed it’s borders hundreds of miles from the mainland(pp.346). There are a number of obvious flaws with this argument. FirstlyChina, as do other countries in the region want these islands for their natural resources and not for military purposes or to expand thier teritory. That would be the same as arguing that the USA has borders thousands of miles from the mainland because it has a strong military presence in Japan and South korea. Secondly, China does not have the largest military presence on the Spartly Islands -about 450 troops. That honour belongs to Vietnam with 1,500. Other countires such as Taiwan, Malaysia and the Phillipines aslo have military contingents on those Islands( source: Wikepedia). Even the CIA world Factbook lists all the countires as stationing low levels of troops. Hardly, Becker’s idea of an expantionist empire!

If that is not enough, he asserts that the overseas Chinese are caught up in this dream of China as a world empire. He cites numerous publications ( again, no evidence is provided) published by overseas Chinese which support these views. He also makes the frankly absurd claim that virtually all overseas chinese overwhelming identify with china and chinese nationalism. Anyone who talks to a Singaporean, Malaysian or Indonesian Chinese especailly the young will find these assertions complete rubbish. To take one example, when the Us bombed the Chinese embassy in 1999 scarely a peep was heard from the chinese communities in these countries. Ironically enough it was in the US that more Chinese protested (evidence available on request)

Becker caps of this flawed argument with his claim that China still regards neighbouring countires as vassals(pp.348) and cites the memoirs of Sirin Pathanothai as an example. However it was the Thai Prime Minister who chose to send his two children to China and was not ordered or threatened by the Chinese to do so. Furthermore, this did not reinstate the practice and was very much a one-off gesture. The leaders of other neighbouring states have not, to the best of my knowledge, followed suit.

These criticisms in no way invalidate the other aspects of Becker’s work such as his careful record of human rights abuses by the chinese government and his searching interviews with the people. However, his book lacks athuoritative weight because of the numerous unsubstantiated claims which tend to make his eveidence anecdotal rather then factual. His wild claims on Chinese power too seem to reflect sloppy writing and perhaps a more polemical approach more suited to a columist then an objective reporter. The analysis he gives is as a result, incomplete. Thus the occasional unreliablity of the author’s sources coupled with some ridiculous arguments deigned more to frighten rather then inform, make it difficult for me to see how becker is both smart and perceptive

December 15, 2004 @ 11:28 pm | Comment

china writer orville schell of the university of california has got it right and can be summed in one or two sentences:

china is a prisoner of it’s past.

#1. Prisoner of the 1949 Revolution. We cannot pretend it never happened. Deng Xiaoping destroyed Economic Communism, but did not destroyed the communist party.

The economy was let loose, but the CCP held power. No doubt, the CCP is evil and as Becker points out, the CCP is the worst calamity to hit China in 5000 years.

China, along with Russia Vietnam have a dead body on display.

In a civilized world, the dead are cremated or a big hole in the ground is dug to bury them.
It’s time to bury Mao, the Mass Murderer. and bury CCP in a deep, deep hole.

#2. China is a prisoner of it’s feudal past, past, & past.

Witneess the writing system. Primative, feudal backward. Like foot binding, it’s time to bury it’s feudal and primative past.

China is a “prisoner of the past” In order to live the future, we must confront the past with the Truth.

We must live the future with Truth. Truth is what will save china.

Time to face the Truth. The past is past. Time to bury the Past. Bury the past.. live the future with Truth.

September 4, 2006 @ 2:06 am | Comment

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