'Tiger Head, Snake Tails' by Jonathan Fenby: book review

Big-but-piecemeal reform will only exacerbate weaknesses elsewhere in the Chinese system, since everything is connected... Fenby isn't just right about the biases and simplifications that are commonplace in airport-book ‘polemics’ about China - he is right for the right reasons. 

Samuel Burt
16 May 2012

In recent years there has been no shortage of books purporting to be introductions to modern China written for non-specialist audiences. Despite this, Jonathan Fenby is convinced that with Tiger Head, Snake Tails, he has filled a gap in the market . He intends that this book will serve as a "one-stop account of where the fastest-growing major nation stands and what that will mean both for China and the world".

This book is designed as a counterpoint to "polemics arguing that China will either rule the globe or implode". The title itself is indicative of this, adapting a Chinese phrase that can be used to contrast the attention-grabbing public 'face' of China that tends to dominate headlines with the messier, fractured reality on the ground. Fenby's thesis is that the nature of China's unique political system means that any effort to understand China today must be holistic if is to succeed - the whole is not just different from the sum of its parts, but exceptionally so. As Fenby puts it, "everything connects with everything else everywhere, but nowhere more so than in China". The Communist Party of China penetrates deep into all sections of society, providing an omnipresent conduit for major change in one area of society to make itself felt elsewhere: "the Party's influence is everywhere even if it is not always outwardly evident" (p.162). Yet at the same time the CPC functions to separate disparate provinces, and localities within the same province, and to contain and regulate the flow of people, goods and ideas (for example, through the 'hukou' system of household registration).

Like all networks, the CPC relies heavily on feedback, personal connections and the transmission of insider knowledge within the Party, but it also relies on sustaining a firm divide between those inside, and those outside, the Party. The CPC is neither a monolith, nor is it as finely-ordered as it appears on paper; it is a system that privileges insider knowledge, thus connections, thus heredity (the expected next ruler of the CPC comes from the "princelings" faction of descendants of first-generation revolutionaries), and thus the political status quo. It follows that a sound understanding of the basic roles, structures and processes of the CPC is critically important to grasping the full meaning of Fenby's holistic injunction - if China really is "as unique as it is varied", it is in no small part due to the CPC. We must try harder to understand the key choices, debates and contestations occurring inside China on their own terms.

What Fenby seems to be arguing for is the necessity of adopting a telescopic perspective to analyse modern China - considering the significance of the small-scale in the context of the large-scale, switching back and forth between these landscapes and continually adjusting our understanding of one in light of the other. Such an approach is reflected in the structure of the book, which comprises 18 non-chronologically ordered and loosely-themed chapters, each one shifting backwards and forwards through China's history (from the Neolithic era to speculations about the imminent leadership transition) and - just as importantly - shifting between vivid anecdotes and macroeconomic contradictions. The only minor downside to this structure is the occasional duplication of material, but it is hard to see how this could have been avoided. In any case, feelings of déjà vu are unlikely to affect the general readers for whom this book is first and foremost intended.

Fenby skilfully deconstructs some of the more questionable conventional wisdom about China that makes for convenient shorthand. He scrutinises clichés such as: the "civilisation-state" model (the idea that China's state represents a deeper historical identity than that of more recent nation-states, and thus has the advantage of commanding greater loyalty); the "great man" tendency in histories of modern China (emphasising Mao's central role in the disasters during his rule and downplaying the complicity of his comrades; portraying his successor Deng as the visionary who single-handedly reversed course, whereas in fact reform started under Hua Guofeng and was often initiated by others); and the story of China's history in terms of its isolation from the outside world, or else its seamless assimilation of outsiders within its own static culture (for example, Fenby notes that the Qing rulers, who were Manchu invaders, continued to view their imperial domains as constituting a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic realm, rather than as a Chinese creation emanating outwards from a celestially-ordained centre). "The largest untapped market on earth" often turns into a kaleidoscope of protectionist mini-fiefdoms on closer inspection.

But Fenby isn't just right about the biases and simplifications that are commonplace in the airport-book "polemics" about China - he is right for the right reasons. The proliferation of overly simplistic binary narratives about China's pending collapse/hegemony is reflective of the peculiar status of China in the global economy and in international institutions. As Fenby puts it, "for many governments the platitude of 'constructive engagement' hides a desire not to have to make a choice where China is concerned; to profit from its economic growth while avoiding confrontation over issues such as human rights or Tibet...  Their ambiguity is, by its nature, a frailty" (p.13). Since Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai initiated rapprochement under a shroud of secrecy in the early 1970s, China's re-emergence on the world stage has been uneasy. Until 1979, the USA, the UN and most of the major powers recognised the Republic of China on Taiwan as the legitimate representative government for the whole of China. But Taiwan did not disappear overnight in 1979 when the world switched its attention to a mainland which was growing in importance, first in geopolitics, second in economics.

A profound ambiguity amongst heads of state towards the PRC re-emerged after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. China is in the G20 but not the G8. It argues that its influence in the US-dominated Bretton Woods institutions of world trade and finance lags behind its contribution to global economic growth. The EU still enforces the arms embargo against China it introduced in response to the Tiananmen killings and refuses to grant China "full market" status, which gives it greater flexibility to apply sanctions. Politicians in democratic countries are under considerable pressure to criticise China's leaders when they meet them at summits.

In short, China is in many respects half-inside, half-outside of the web of international institutions established since 1945. Although Fenby does not himself go this far, the collapse/hegemony literature arguably reflects the fact that, given China's ambivalence as a global actor, one can plausibly conceive of either of those scenarios unfolding. Whilst China's collapse (economically and/or politically) would have profound implications for the rest of the world, it is not inconceivable that the rest of the world would allow it to happen, because the US-inaugurated world order could survive without China. Similarly, it is not inconceivable that if China manages to overtake the US as the world's largest economy, it will set out to energetically reorganise the current nexus of world institutions to better suit its national interests. As long as the world is ambivalent about how it relates to China, that ambivalence will be reciprocated, and the underlying uncertainty will continue to provide grist to the mill of alarmists and triumphalists alike.

As he explains, China’s export-and investment-driven growth model is coming under increasing strain. The nature of the challenge confronting the CPC is that a set of fundamental policy changes need to be enacted to sustain the momentum of recent decades. And herein lies its dilemma - the sway of entrenched sectional interest groups, a legacy of China's current growth model, creates an environment in which cautious consensus-builders rise to the top of the CPC. These leaders, "operating atop a complex web of interest groups" (p.143), do not envisage comprehensive, sweeping plans for reform, but instead concentrate on shoring-up their alliances, which channels any energy for reform into an incremental, piecemeal and partial policy agenda. But the essential nature of China's one-party system is precisely that big-but-piecemeal reform will only exacerbate weaknesses elsewhere in the system - everything is connected.

He gives many examples of these interlinkages: "If farmers gain ownership rights, local authorities would have to be given greater powers to raise revenue...Greater regulation applied objectively would reduce the power and rent-seeking opportunities for officials...In each case, the power of the Party and central state would be weakened" (p.386). The fear that stalks China's leaders is that, if they can't engineer visionary and far-reaching change, they may also be unable to fix the system bit-by-bit, rushing from industry to industry, region to region, putting out new fires - and if they can't, and growth slows dramatically, whether from passivity or badly-sequenced intervention, then all bets are off.

Will they be able to pull it off? According to Fenby, there is little use in broad-brush speculation. His emphasis on keeping in mind both the internal diversity and interdependency of China - the concept of change in one domain causing diverse changes in other domains - is a valuable corrective to predictions of extreme outcomes. It is not that China's collapse or its unperturbed ascension are beyond the realms of possibility - it is rather that China's future is unlikely to be so clear-cut, perhaps alternating between brief, uneven periods of growth and decline.

Fenby recognises that our instinct is to try to fit China’s story into a straightforward narrative because China holds "a central place in discussions about the future of our world" (p.16); thus China risks becoming a convenient ideological tool to haul out in support of all manner of agendas, from environmentalism to advocates of population control and "Asian values." Yet this clash of grand narratives will not be settled by reasoned argument alone; although these "opinions make sense in their own terms, the weakness of most sweeping verdicts is that they ignore facts that point in the opposite direction, or take a Western view of today's China, or have highly elastic timeframes that render them virtually meaningless" (p.16).

Tiger Head, Snake Tails succeeds both as a comprehensive and thought-provoking beginners' guide to China today, and as a stimulating point of departure for readers well-versed in the subject. Fenby enlivens what are already colourful historical events with the pithy anecdotes one would expect from a seasoned correspondent and, crucially, his observations are never merely decorative. He writes with the nuanced and often self-reflective tone of somebody familiar with the literature in this market, and has skilfully organised a vast swathe of material into a structure that reflects his central themes. He has shown that the saturated market for books about China is another case of 'tiger head, snake tails' - it looks like its countless rivals, but only at a glance.

Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How it Got There and Where it is Heading, by Jonathan Fenby (March, 2012) is published by Simon & Schuster, 387p. 


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