Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010)
Thirty years ago, the People's Republic of China (PRC) rarely made it into the Western newspaper headlines. Only when something very extraordinary happened, such as when President Richard Nixon made his historic trip to Beijing, the capitol of China in 1972, will a newspaper reserve space to report news about China. Thirty years have passed, and it doesn't take much effort to discover information about China in the newspaper, because news about China is reported routinely in Western newspapers, and not just on one section, but in every section, including sports, economic, science, etc. China has grown rapidly in the past thirty years, from a land of villages to a country with more millionaires, more cities with populations exceeding one million, more internet users and more skyscrapers than any other country. Given all of this, Jeffrey Wasserstorm believes it is essential for everyone to learn about China. China in the 21st Century, written in a question and answer format, provides general information that the author believes is what everyone needs to know. However, this book will not suit the needs of readers who want to learn more about China's history and culture in depth.
The structure of the book contains two parts. The first part focuses on the past, while the second part focuses on the present and the future of China. Wasserstorm starts the book with an historical overview. To avoid confusing readers with the many dynasties of China's long history, Wasserstorm has selectively chosen his materials. He emphasizes the early Chinese schools of thought with a main focus on Confucianism, the political structures and major political ideas. The first part of the book ends with a look at the events and people which lead to the New China. In the second half of the book, Wasserstorm focuses on the present and the future of China. He starts with a look at some of the most significant people, policies, and events from 1978 to present. Then he moves on to discuss some misunderstandings between US and China. The book ends with some forecasts about China's future and its role in the world.
Despite a strong authorial point of view, Wasserstorm has tried to maintain a balance by including views from different perspectives. In the chapter "Revolutions and Revolutionaries", Wasserstorm focuses on Mao, the most important leader of modern China. Wasserstorm first mentions the view from an English-language biography--Mao: The Unknown Story. This book written by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, mostly provides a negative view of Mao by portraying him as a heartless monster. Wasserstorm then explores other alternative ways to view Mao. One is by comparing Mao with Andrew Jackson, both are far from perfect, but who nevertheless played a significant role in the development of a mass political movement. Also, Wasserstorm talks about the views of the ordinary Chinese. Many of them view Mao as someone who no doubt had his dark side, but also had played a significant role in developing the New China and made great contribution.
China in the 21st Century might be too light for an expert in Chinese history and culture, but the ordinary American and even Chinese will find the contents helpful. China has 5,000 years of history and also has experienced rapid growth in recent decades, which makes it impossible to include everything in a 150-page book. Wasserstorm selects what he believes is essential for most his readers. China in the 21st Century serves very well as a "Chinese 101" tool, giving readers an accurate, broad overview of China's history and the major factors which influence life in modern China. However, by necessity, there is little depth, so when readers find a topic interesting, they will need to search for other books for more detail.