Book Report: De Chinacode Ontcijferd

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A lot is said, written and discussed about China. Is China a dictatorship or a democracy in the making? Is it a colonizer in Africa or a developmental partner? Should we fear for Chinese product quality or will the Netherlands be flooded by Asian hi-tech? From the jungle of media reports it seems almost impossible to understand what is true and false about China. Indeed, due to Chinese cultural, regional and socio-economic political diversity, everything you say about China could be true and false. Today, China is no longer the dictatorial one-party state of Red Guards, overpowering censorship, and tanks on Heavenly Peace Square. But it is no less the fantastic market of 1.3-4 billion Chinese people, which you must go to if you want to participate in the big money taking. The truth about china today is – as Confucius would say – somewhere in the middle.

It is with this reason that Henk Schulte Nordholt wrote this book against China bashing and also China-euphoria. Paradoxical China is written by well-known Chinese specialists in the Netherlands. It exposes the field of tension between Western perceptions of its political economic aspects and Chinese reality, and quickly and properly highlights China’s development in its opposite facets. Henk Schulte Nordholt is a professor of Chinese Economics and Development at Leiden University, and has published several books on China including the successful ‘dit is mijn china’

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It is in this aspect why I chose this book for a book report for the class China in transition. It raises a lot of questions which emphasizes the importance of a critical, nuanced look. It covers a few political aspects which are quite ambiguous in the current field of political economy. Economy diplomacy is a big part of China’s current international strategy which reflects a lot of internal policy changes.

The various authors in this collection balance on a slap cord between perception and reality. But other than sketching the image of an authoritarian state, or of a mega-market where ‘the sky is the limit’, the authors try to illuminate China in all its opposite facets.


The title of the booklet is a very weak allusion to the De Da Vinci Code hype. Therefore, you might think that the book is of the same weak level. But fortunately, that is not the case. It is actually a nod to the current China hype, which the writer seems to think is a bit exaggerated. Although he honestly confesses to be happy that, thanks to this hype, he has easily been able to find a publisher for his book.

According to writer Henk, the China hype is not based on anything, because 21% of the total world population lives in China. And China is the 4th largest economy in the world, growing no less than 9% a year at the time when this book was written. If you consider that most Chinese people are still poor by western world standards, China has enormous growth potential. But at the same time the writer tells us that everything is nothing new. As has often been the case in the past, there are some who enjoy the huge markets and others see an emerging totalitarian superpower. This is not the first China hype and it will probably not be the last.

China is also a very old empire, dating back to the time of the Pharaohs. Mind you, that is long before our civilization originated with the ancient Greeks! The Chinese are also aware of this long and rich history and see the current poor situation of China as an injustice done to them, and that above all needs to be repaired. They are also now seeing the damage that the revolution has done to the country, and so administrators are opting for a more conservative approach, with changes taking place step by step. All this in order not to disturb the growth that will have to raise them to the world again.

The big question is, of course, does China continue to grow so quickly or is there a kink in the cable? There is, for example, the problem of social stability in a country where prosperity is increasingly unequally distributed. In 2004 alone, some 74,000 relatively large riots were reported by the Ministry of Public Security.

The book therefore pays attention to the countless challenges that China faces: How does this, still very centralist, single party develop? A state where many are forbidden, but everything is possible. Will the rule of law find more entry, so that there is more certainty about ownership? Or do business people continue to be at risk, especially if they enter politically more sensitive territory?

The functioning of the rule of law is also clear from the fact that despite the enormous economic growth of recent years, the Chinese stock market has not risen. The price level of 2005 has still not exceeded the level of 1999! But the highly regulated banking sector is also not functioning well and is struggling with huge amounts of bad loans.

China also has a shortage of resources. To secure this for the future, China is signing agreements with all kinds of autocratic paria states (Iran, Burma, Somalia, etc.). The industries are not energy efficient and highly polluting. They are also working hard to make better use of their own energy sources such as coal, nuclear energy and hydropower.

Economic growth also translates into a huge increase in defence spending. What worries her neighbouring countries and certainly countries such as America and Japan. Certainly, because it is not yet entirely clear how the Chinese state is developing.

China is still a one-party state, where President Hu Jintao called democracy ‘a dead end.’ The book elaborates on this and describes, for example, that the party is currently experiencing rigidity. The party believes that further reforms and openness are not necessary. Considering the enormous economic growth, people are full of this. People want to turn China into a world power again and they think that current growth can only be sustained within the current autocratic system.

Also discussed are the extreme Chinese nationalism, the Xenophobia, the enormous hatred for Japan, the conflict with Taiwan and border conflicts with its neighbouring countries. These are all things that can cause surprises in the future.

According to the book China is a country that is very aware of its history. In order to be able to understand the empire that has been around for thousands of years, knowledge of its past is therefore essential. The writer introduces us quickly to the most important events in Chinese history. From Marco Polo to our own Chinese voyages of discovery. The dogmatics of Confucius and how Mao did build on that at a certain level. The relationship with the West and the isolationist attitude of China. How she lost Hong Kong to the English and how afterwards even large parts of her territories were more or less occupied (even Germany gets a piece). The coming and going of the communist revolution. But her relationship with her neighbouring countries is also extensively discussed. The book sketch with a mixture of history and description of contemporary developments a different image than the superficial image we are used to having from China. That picture is not subdivided positive, but certainly not negative either. According to the writer, China is an emerging power with enormous potential. Although we still have to wait and see how that develops. But China is not a coming world empire, for that it has turned too much into itself and there is also no alternative ideology. The Chinese state so far seems to pursue its own interest primarily in an opportunistic way, while not having a lasting attraction for other states. And certainly not for her neighbouring countries who are anxiously watching the resurrecting China.

One thing is clear, China is recovering. And since almost a quarter of the world’s population lives there, this is by definition important for the rest of the world. With this smoothly written book by Sinologist Henk Schulte Nordholt, who has been working there for many years, everyone can get a nuanced and realistic picture of the rise of China. This book is easy to read and definitely worth it.


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