Thu, Jun 07, 2018 - Page 14 News List

BOOK REVIEW: Life next to a rising superpower

With evocative photos, thoughtful travel musings and manageable doses of past and recent political history, ‘China at its Limits’ is an aesthetically-pleasing and intriguing look at China’s relations with its neighbors that carries more of a personal touch than one might expect for such a topic

By Han Cheung  /  Staff Reporter

The first mention of Taiwan in the introductory chapter, however, is a questionable statement: “What, for example, is life like on the border separating countries that once teetered on the brink of nuclear war, as was the case with China and both the Soviet Union and Taiwan?” War has always been a looming possibility between China and Taiwan, and Taiwan did try to develop nuclear weapons in the past, but it’s a stretch to state that the two countries were “on the brink of nuclear war.”

In any event, the book delivers on its promise of the human aspect, as the first chapter — featuring North Korea — begins with an anecdote about how a Chinese woman refers to the hermit kingdom’s leader Kim Jong-un as “Fatty the Third,” while charging them for a peek across the border via telescope.

The prose alternates between personal experience, information and analysis, continuing into the “places for the curious” section where the authors detail their encounters and observations in selected locations on both sides of the North Korean-China border that illustrate different aspects of local life.

The most valuable part of these sketches are the actual conversations with local residents, from authorities following them and asking them to delete their photos and the sentiments of the grandson of “North Korea’s Greatest Chinese Hero,” to the Chinese Korean who openly proclaims her disdain for North Koreans. Each chapter ends with a “lingering question,” in this case, China’s role in the defection of North Korean refugees and its opportunities for migrant North Korean workers.

The book moves on counterclockwise to Russia and Mongolia, the sensitive areas of Xinjiang and Tibet and their neighbors, Southeast Asia and finally, to China’s interests in the South China Sea.

While Taiwan is mentioned in the greater context of Chinese maritime expansion, including the multi-national territorial disputes over a number of tiny islands, its section begins with an Internet forum quote from “hardcore Chinese military hawks.”

“There is one thing more urgent than recovering the islands and reefs in the South China Sea — namely, uniting Taiwan with the motherland.”

While brief, the authors do a balanced job in describing what they call “the tragedy of Taiwan, an international orphan,” where life seems to carry on as usual but “nothing betrays the fact that peace could break down at any time, especially in light of growing Chinese military threats.”

The fluctuating recent relations between China and Taiwan are thoroughly explained, as well as the recent development of a unique Taiwanese identity unrelated to China.

Interesting comparisons are made. The erosion of democracy in Hong Kong, for example, provides Taiwan plenty of reasons to worry about “excessive mainland influence,” and how Taipei is willing to reflect on its not-so-glorious past of authoritarian rule and political persecutions while Beijing still refuses to do so. They even manage to find the rare Chinese person who does not favor unification, and conclude that it would be risky for China to force democratic Taiwan to submit to “rigid Communist rule.”

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