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‘Country Driving’ in China

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To the outside world, contemporary China can look like a baffling whirlwind of hyper-growth and change these days.

From the inside, for ordinary Chinese, says my guest today, it can look much the same.

New Yorker magazine writer Peter Hessler wrote “River Town” and “Oracle Bones,” great works on modern China. Now he’s hit the road in China, going deep into vast and intimate landscapes that are being transformed overnight. Into the Chinese race to keep up with their own wild economic evolution.

This hour, On Point: Peter Hessler on life in the China boom.


Peter Hessler joins us from New York. He’s a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the books “Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present” and “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze.”  His new book is “Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory.” 

Read an excerpt from “Country Driving.”

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  • Mike Taylor

    I have worked in the yacht building industry in China for 10 yrs. I don’t want to go back.
    1 I don’t trust the food. Milk – still a problem and agri/aqua-culture in polluted water. Hotel chef says eat beef from N China or lamb from NZ.
    2 Dirty, dirty, dirty. Air, land and water.

    But, lots of great people.

  • M Ali

    I am orginally from India, my brother who lives in India went to China for some business a month back. Once he came back, he said that the argument that India & China are going to be next superpowers is nonsensical, China’s growth & development of infrastructure is at record speed. India can’t even keep up with it. What does your guest have to say about this? Is China truly that ahead!

  • Andy

    I appreciate that all countries have the right to progress towards a more technologically advanced and modern society, but I wonder how that will affect the cultural aspects of the society. I’m particularly concerned that the influx of Chinese to Tibet will destroy the Tibetan culture in their native land that much quicker. As for Chinese drivers not using turn signals, it sounds like Boston … I think in both places it’s viewed as a sign of weakness.

  • Huyu

    What I do know as facts is that every year the average of us have about 3600 US$ in the pocket, and the average of you about 40,000 US$. Enough said, leave us alone.

  • andreaa

    I’m dying to go to China! I’ve traveled in so many Asian countries, lived in Japan, and Thailand. Would he, afterall, recommend 2 weeks, one month? What is the best area for first time visitors? Any comments or advice would be great.

  • http://www.cantrellart.com Ted

    I am an artist and I started going to China (Beijing) in 2005 to participate in art exhibitions. I split an art studio in a village called Suojia Cun, which is just outside the 5th ring towards the airport. It is an amazing experience to walk from my village where running water is a faucet in front of the one room houses called houtongs, under the highway, and into the WanJing district, which is a shinny new chrome and glass, modern 1st world city. I love going there. The people are great. I hang out with everyone, artist, government officials, millionaires, professors, buisness people, to people who sit on the sides of roads all night in front of a little charcoal fires eating roast meat and drinking biejoe.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I hear it that American companies can make big profits by using Chinese labor, but what about the taxes on those profits? And what about jobs for those here who aren’t great innovators, all 350 million of us?

  • Lennus Hinds

    The last caller seem to be blaming the Chinese for the fact that greedy American businessmen sort out cheap labor in order to maximize their profits at the expense of the American worker and ecomony.

  • velobabe

    you haven’t lived until you bicycle the city of beijing. i have biked the world over and just to ride in these swells of people on bicycle commuting was the most surreal experience in my life.

  • Ellen Dibble

    What Chinese — Mandarin or Cantonese — do you travelers learn? Or are there places they speak English?

  • Lee Gold

    Want to draw listeners’s attention to a new documentary film: “Last Train Home.” It tells the story of a rural couple’s attempts to return, once a year, to visit their children. They left when the youngest was a year old. They work in a garment factory in the South. The film follows their attempts to go home, 2,500 kilometers, by train. It shows how factory workers live, how critical this paid work is and the toll it takes on them and their children. It’s visually beautiful and hopefully will get wide distribution. I saw it in Toronto in January and it was going to be shown at Sundance shortly thereafter. The film maker worked on “Up the Yangtze” but this is his first feature. By all means read the book, but do try to see this film too for an even fuller picture of industrial China.

  • http://www.cantrellart.com Ted

    Before you go, learn some Mandarin. In Beijing and Shanghai many people speak a little English but to understand the country, studying the language is helpful.
    In regards to your comment about American companies, yes it is true. They make things cheaper there to sell here and also cheaper there to sell there. 40 % of profits for most large companies come from overseas markets.
    When you go to China you will see the chances for a person to change themselves are limited compared to here in the West. Take advantage of what we have, we have a lot more opportunities than the people in the village where my studio is.

  • ageofaquarius

    ***Take advantage of what we have, we have a lot more opportunities than the people in the village where my studio is.***

    That’s right! Or should we say be content for what we have here, not “more is better” (which our commercials tells us this 24/7), share world resources with the world, not just for American people. Stop believing the stupid slogans that corporations ads stuffs us with “more is better”, “consume! consume!”, “you don’t want to miss this sale”, “you need this”, “you deserve this”, “buy it for your loved one”, “are you depressed? buy this”, “Don’t you want a perfect birthday/Valentine/…….”, “your hair is not blond enough? get this……”, on and on and on……….. Television HYPNOTIZE, politician STRATEGIZE!

  • Zhou Yi

    ***What I do know as facts is that every year the average of us have about 3600 US$ in the pocket, and the average of you about 40,000 US$. Enough said, leave us alone.***

    You meant US$40,000 in “debt”, right? Let’s see, times that amount with American population, that’s about right — national debt.

    Have you ever read the book “China Road”, another western view about China. You will find a pattern of those books, started out praising “Chinese people” and her history, then comes back slapping us with our values, which is essentially made up with “Chinese people”. It’s ridiculous that the author of China Road-Rob Gifford, criticizes China’s lack of morality because its lacking of Christian religion belief. It’s a shame that when a book started out good, then as you read on, the author’s hidden agenda started to creep in.

  • Peter S.Mulshine

    This is one of the mOst ingorant shows I heard.This is not about work Americans will not do .This show illustrates the avarice of businessmen who thinks only of how cheap something can be made&how much they can retain.IT is not about what the European or American Countries make .IT IS about the greed of the CHINESE&the international business’ .
    THis transition of China&Decline of Americans income, happend because of the greed of Republicans&the ignorance of Democrats who do not analyze the growth of RED CHINA.

  • mamie thompson

    We can’t for the most part grow chickens or plant food.
    We could request that stimulus money be given to all citizens in the form of food vouchers.
    People would not have to go hungry.
    More stores would open.
    We could afford organic food.
    Farmers would be able to stay in business.
    Jobs would be created.
    Trucks would roll.
    Rails would rumble. (GREENSPANERS WOULD GRUMBLE)
    We could get fat–not the banks.
    Each man, woman and child should receive at least $100 a month. eg could be based on income.
    I say “MOO” to you.
    “MOO” is the word to pass around if you like the idea. Or a similar idea.
    Say “MOO” to your politions.
    Say “MOO” to Obama
    We could eat and drink our way out of this depression.

  • mamie thompson

    Thanks for info. re: Continental Congress
    Please tell me again the name of the bill to limit contributions to $100 per person.
    Where is the list of emails for congressmen?
    Let’s get those Tea Partiers going on this.

  • James Barker

    Hessler’s book River Town was a great help to me. I had been traveling to China for several years and had enjoyed very much working with wonderful clients there. But, his discussion of his students helped me to understand some of the challenges that I faced in getting individuals to express their views and experiences. Hessler and other authors have helped me so much in understanding these wonderful people. As so many have experienced, business relationships in China are all about trust and mutual respect. I look forward to reading Hessler’s new book and hope that there may be something about Anji district in Zhejiang Province and the wonderful bamboo museum that is there.

  • Kathy

    I didn’t read Peter’s books. Listening to the program, I don’t feel he has deep understanding of China’s history. For most Chinese people, even they haven’t had the experience themselves, they never going to forget the hopeless 100 so year before 1949. As confused as they are in some degree now, one thing for sure, that Chinese people never want to go back to the day before 1949. They will work out a way for themselves. They are very spiritual people, which you don’t understand too. The comment of all Chinese people do and think now is business is a shallow view.

  • ageofaquarius

    ***They will work out a way for themselves. They are very spiritual people, which you don’t understand too. The comment of all Chinese people do and think now is business is a shallow view.****

    Kathy, that is so very true. I can never understand why westerners always think people in general have to “religion” to be spiritual or have moral value. I guess same thing goes to westerners, who can never understand why Chinese culture & civilization can last so long without being so religious.

    Whenever people here in America talks about what would it be like if without religion, they make it sounds like it’s the end of world. To be honest, I found Chinese “traditional” moral standards are quite high. Those standards applies to our daily life, say, we don’t like to bully people, we are more humble & modest, we don’t like to criticize others when we are equally just as wrong, we have high respect for our parents, respect for elders, respect for teachers, most of us don’t use nasty language to get our point cross, take marriage seriously, benevolence & kindness are highly regarded in Chinese society, peace & harmony is our goal……I can go on and on with our moral values without mentioning a single religious commandments. Let’s face it, religious commandments are “common sense” of human civilization.

    But there’s one concern I do have with today’s modern China since the communism era. In communism era, Confucianism & Taoism were heavily denounced, lots of great literature materials were burnt to ground during culture revolution. On top of that, since the one child policy adopted, parents have a tendency to let their “only” kids to have their way, spoil their future generations. It’s becoming a warning awareness among older adults. Tom Ashbrook did a show about Confucius earlier this month. This is why China has to restore Chinese traditional moral values back in our future generations. Can you imagine our younger generations only see dollar sign and success from western perspective, what will this lead China’s tomorrow? I don’t even want to imagine that.

  • CC

    The songs you played during the show is from Taiwan, not China.

  • ageofaquarius

    CC, Who’s the singer, are you able to type Chinese? Thank you!

  • ageofaquarius

    I don’t know if the author went extension on explaining this in the book, Zhejiang and Shanghai regional people are know for shrewd business people. They are extremely pragmatic people with quick wit. It’s a known fact since Shanghai became open port in China. My mother side of family are all from that region, and I can very much see those traits in them, also traveling to Shanghai a few times has also proven such.

    I guess the rest of country has just caught up by the wave of “making money” mentality – a symbol of being successful. I’m not sure if this is a good thing for our overall environment, because more success in “money making” means more consumption, more consumption means more stress on our natural environment. I truly hope China’s speedy developments on infrastructures is part of the plan of stabilizing and sustaining society, by using sustainable process during development and after.

  • Frank the Underemployed Professional

    “…And the workers who make them are being paid 40 cents-an-hour, which is a very good wage for them.”

    “…And to be honest this is what the Chinese want to do,” (make higher-value-added products).

    We are doomed.

    It doesn’t matter how much education Americans get nor how productive we are nor how innovative we are. We simply cannot compete against 40 cents-an-hour, few labor and environmental regulations, and a non-litigious legal environment. Americans might very well innovate Next Big Thing technology, but the actual production of the goods and services for Next Big Thing technology will be produced in China.

    Eventually the United States will become an impoverished, overpopulated third world country that is indebted to and owned by China. It’s only a matter of time.

    In the future, Americans will be remembered as the largest collection of morons in world history: The U.S. will be remembered as a once wealthy nation that was filled with free market dogmatists who refused to understand real-world economics and who became impoverished and destitute as a result. We’ll be remembered as a nation that once enjoyed great prosperity and self-sufficiency that threw it all away in the name of free market ideals resulting in a tiny percentage of the population becoming rich with the rest of the people becoming poor.

    If our nation is to be salvaged, we need to end foreign outsourcing, we need to end the H-1B and L-1 work visa programs, we need to end mass legal immigration, and we need to end illegal immigration. However, since doing that contradicts our free market religion, we will not do it and we will suffer the consequences.

    Are you ready for the American Economic Holocaust? Are you ready to watch as our nation transforms into Third World America? It’s happening right now.

  • Barry Liu

    As a manufacturing engineer for 22 years working for many industry giants including Sony,Millipore,GTE,Siemens, and Heidelberg, I believe that American is on a long slippery slope losing its ground as a world power, the industrial power. In the past 3 decades, I made my living at various plants of world class quality in the US. There they came, with high finance in mind, they dismantled plants one after the other in the name of “outsourcing”,”access to cheap labor”,and “inevitable trend”.

    I have the following remark for the author since he accepted the way it is.

    “Some people see things as they are and ask why, I dream things that never were and ask WHY-NOT !”

    American can avert the bloodletting by taking back every manufacturing job from China. Let us outsourcing our criminal correction system not our industrial system.

  • Prosper China

    When a person on the top, all he worries day and night is who is going to steal his throne. I wish Americans (citizens and politicians) will just humble a little and stop looking at everything as a Darwinian game.

    Who teaches us to blame our personal unemployment on strangers from thousands of miles away? The American media industry. They know that as long as China exists, it could always be used as a scapegoat to blame for American domesticate problems. Maybe we should stop blaming and start thinking innovatively on our own–independent from media influences.

    It was this competitive mindset of the U.S. and China that ruined the Copenhagen meeting. Let us care less about world hegemony and more about international cooperation.

  • ageofaquarius

    The author said it’s scary some Chinese still believe Dalai Lama is a war monger. Isn’t this equivalent to some of Tea Party here referring Obama as Hitler? Don’t you think this is more damaging when our “current president” in the office is being viewed such.

    Too many western views about Dalai Lama is so one sided. Again the author falls into stereotyping Chinese people are naive and ignorant, and being brainwashed by their government, so it is VERY SCARY! There’s nothing more scary than our “Tea Party” here, who is doing a real good job on fact twisting and regression.

  • ageofaquarius

    For some reason, I like the liberal view of their own government, but I don’t like their views on other countries’ domestic issues, often times they judge without thorough understanding of others’ culture and history, but only basing on western views of democracy and human right, believing that they can apply the same formula to others. I found it troubling.

  • Zhao

    Whenever I listen to/watch a show about China, I can’t help but get emotional and angry. Usually the host invites a bunch of so called China experts who criticize China with such ignorance and arrogance. And rarely a real Chinese person shows up but whenever he has something different to say to defend China he is shut up or distracted by the host. Most of westerners would love to hear dark side of China, probably it feels good, and it has some self-hypnosis effects when their feelings of superiority diminish and their domestic problems worsen.
    China is rising in all aspects, with or without westerners understanding.

  • Zhao

    I happened to have an opportunity to talk to a local politician in U.S. He is a strong supporter of the Taiwan separatists. As we carried a small talk about Taiwan, I was so surprised to know he was actually talking about Thailand!!!

  • ageofaquarius

    ****I happened to have an opportunity to talk to a local politician in U.S. He is a strong supporter of the Taiwan separatists. As we carried a small talk about Taiwan, I was so surprised to know he was actually talking about Thailand!!!****

    HAHAHA…….. I get that all the time. When I talk to my acquaintances, and told them I’m from Taiwan, they comment “Oh, I love their food”, then come to find out they are talking about “Thai” food. :D

    Westerners need to keep their nose in their own domestic issues, which they got plenty to improve and correct. And don’t forget there are always “ambitious” politicians from Taiwan and Tibet asking help from United States and European countries. Our expression is “you can’t hear a clap with single palm, it takes 2. Now all they need is a little push in the name of democracy and human right issues, bam! they got separatists and independent activists bad mouth China on international level.

  • Milichka

    I read “River Town” while I was serving in the Peace Corps, and loved it. So much of it spoke to my own experience in distant (from China) Eastern Europe. Since then, I’ve enjoyed so many of Hessler’s NY’er articles. 

  • Elapab

    India and China did not have any good relation in past. However, these does not tells that tie is” impossible”. When I was in China for education, I found a very patriot nation. Routine and law throughout the nation. Most of them love their country and wants to sacrifice for the country.  They hate western.Most important is their economic growth. They will establish themself no:1 prosperous country by 2016. At present they are busy with economic growth , after that they will look around the world with power.

    India has some problems. Instead of growing their economy, they are concentrating on power. 

    I don’t believe that India will come to the same row as China. Corruption in India is much more than China.


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