Rob Gifford

"China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power "

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte NOV 8, 2007)

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As an ardent NPR fan, I have followed correspondent Rob Gifford’s reporting from China closely and especially enjoyed his series on Route 312 in China. So when I learned that he had written a book about the same travels, I was only too delighted to check it out.

Gifford, now NPR’s London bureau chief, reported and worked from China for many years. As his final adieu, he decided to take a road trip down the country’s primary economic artery--Route 312 which runs all the way from dynamic Shanghai in the east to the Chinese border with Kazakhstan. It’s a journey of nearly 3,000 miles and Gifford meets a wide variety of interesting people on his way. There is even an Amway salesman he meets in the middle of the Gobi desert.

As many good travel writers do, Gifford is quick to recognize that the people are a reflection of the society and he succeeds in interviewing many of the people he meets as he pushes forward on Route 312.

Gifford does a good job of shedding light on some politically controversial issues such as the Chinese control over Tibet and the AIDS villages of Henan province. In all cases, he clearly explains all sides of the story, but he sometimes seems too soft on the Chinese government. While he does often point out their shortcomings, like a loving parent, he also immediately makes up or apologizes for doing so, as in here: “There is still massive corruption, the wealth gap is growing, and many people are being crushed unable to cope with the convulsive economic change. But there is no doubt that the Chinese economy is many areas is booming, and there are many more options available for people with some ambition to succeed.”

Gifford often uses a city and the residents to sketch the place’s history or to shed some background information on a related topic. In most cases this strategy works successfully. In a few cases though, his wider inferences seem a stretch. At one point in Hefei, he visits an Indian restaurant and asks the Indian manager there essentially to contrast India with China. After the manager gives some halting answers, Gifford uses the (non) conversation to compare the two countries’ economies and related growth in some detail. (Interestingly enough, he mentions China’s lack of a completely free press almost as an afterthought in the discussion.) “I’m really disappointed that one of the only Indians in central China does not want to have this conversation with me,” Gifford says rather naively. It’s like running into a lone American working at a McDonald’s in Kazakhstan and asking him to be an ambassador to his country by expounding on the pluses and minuses of NAFTA.

As the trip goes on, you don’t start to tire of the landscape but you do tire of the same questions Gifford seems to be putting to his interviewees: “How are you doing? How is your life now compared to 10 years ago?” In quite a few instances, you hear the same replies and it gets monotonous after a while: “Yes, life is great. Yes, there is great progress and I am very happy.”

For all the length traveled in the book one actually wishes for more time spent with the people, delving into their lives, to shed some more light into the sociological perspective of things. As it stands China Road is a good read capturing the country’s transition from “the kowtow to the air kiss in less than a century.“ But in places the book feels like his NPR radio segment stretched too far. Toward the end, there were a couple of times when I even caught myself asking : “Are we there yet?”

  • Amazon readers rating: from 142 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

 

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Book Marks:

  • Daily Show interview with Rob Gifford
  • NPR feature on China Road (includes interview with Gifford and excerpt from book)

 

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About the Author:

Rob GiffordRob Gifford first went to China in 1987 as a twenty-year-old language student. He has spent much of the last twenty years studying and reporting on China. From 1999 to 2005, he was Beijing correspondent of National Public Radio, and he travelled all over China and Asia reporting for Morning Edition and All Things Considered. He is now NPR's London bureau chief.

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