Books of the Year: My China syndrome

I have made three trips to China this year, having never been before, and I have fallen, if not in love, then at least into a deep fascination with this amazing country. Old China hands among my friends laugh at my new-found enthralment, predicting the inevitable disillusion to come. But at the moment, I'm reading everything I can get my hands on.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Susan Shirk's China: Fragile Superpower is definitely a book that deals a dose of realism, outlining how China's incredible economic progress has produced great internal problems, which have led to enormous political sensitivity in its leaders. The challenge this poses to Western countries seeking to do business in China in negotiating acceptable diplomatic and political co-operation is huge. Each side has an understandable fear of the economic and political ambition of the other, and the tension this creates, combined with growing domestic unrest in China, is one of the biggest challenges of the leadership.

It's a popular view that the economic might of China is based on its huge manufacturing capacity and that it lacks creativity and innovation - something that it must obtain from the West. One businessman in a joint venture with a Chinese company said he felt more like a management consultant because his Chinese partners absorbed all his company's ideas and know-how while giving only the most limited access to Chinese customers and markets in return.

The perils of doing business in China are well documented in many business books, one of the most amusing and instructive of which is still Tim Clissold's Mr China, which describes his attempts in the early years of China's economic liberalisation to invest in various Chinese businesses. The frustration of his experiences threatened his physical and mental health but still offer relevant lessons to those dazzled by the 'opportunities' offered by China's vast domestic marketplace.

I have to confess to a weakness for detective stories. I have sampled the good, the bad and the airport variety. Among my favourite detectives is Donna Leon's wonderfully uxorious Brunetti, who loves food and goes home for lunch every day, however horrible the crime he is trying to solve. Henning Mankell also creates credible policemen and exciting plots, though the characters tend to be rather depressed and Swedish.

I have, however, now made a new discovery that satisfies my insatiable appetite for crime and my curiosity about China.

Qiu Xiaolong has written three books featuring Chief Inspector Chen about murder in Shanghai. Set in the 1990s, they brilliantly describe the impact on everyday life in China as Deng Xiaoping's economic liberalisation reforms begin to have an impact. Those, like our hero Chen, who have 'iron bowl' jobs that offer lifelong security but poor wages, look with barely disguised envy at their contemporaries who have found ways to take advantage of the advance of capitalism. The Death of a Red Heroine is not only a gripping crime mystery but also an insightful account of a society negotiating its way between the power of the Party and an the inexorable march of materialism.

I am a voracious reader and I like to have about four or five books on the go at any one time, dipping in as the mood takes me. The mood at the moment is definitely around things Chinese. But when I want something completely different, to soothe and calm, I turn to On Fishing by Brian Clarke. This is a wonderful collection of articles and essays about all aspects of the sport, particularly on the tactics and strategies for catching trout - many of which, incidentally, could usefully be translated into business. Such a witty writer, he fills me with envy not only for his lyrical and elegant prose but also for all his many fishing opportunities.

Baroness Denise Kingsmill is a Labour peer and a former deputy chairman of the Competition Commission.

DENISE'S TOP FOUR
China: Fragile Superpower
Susan Shirk
OUP
£15.99

Mr China
Tim Clissold
Constable & Robinson
£8.99

The Death of a Red Heroine
Qiu Xiaolong
Sceptre
£6.99

On Fishing
Brian Clarke
Collins
£20

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