China’s Great Wall of Debt

Mike Cormack reviews China’s Great Wall of Debt by Dinny McMahon

Debt has replaced unbalanced growth as the great fear afflicting the Chinese economy. Following the 2008 financial crash, this is understandable: the figures are enormous, and often unparalleled. Between 2007 and 2014, Chinese firms went from owing a total of $3.4 trillion US dollars to $12.4 trillion. Tell-tale signs of financial distress resound, even when muffled by the damper of Party news management. And though the economy keeps on growing by a hefty 6.5% or so a year, the vast surge in debt over the last decade suggests an economic system with deep-rooted problems – from inefficiencies to misallocation of capital and irrational priorities, led more by political constraints than economic imperatives. Deciphering these signals is a tricky game: growth remains substantial (if the data can be trusted, which is also doubtful), and interested parties are working to minimize the impact of market realities as industries decline and fall in the global marketplace. The fog of economic war is thick and hazy.

In his new book China’s Great Wall of Debt, former Wall Street Journal reporter Dinny McMahon dissects the Chinese economy through the prism of debt.


Swallowed by the State

Susan Blumberg-Kason reviews The People’s Republic of the Disappeared

When five Hong Kong booksellers disappeared in 2015, the world looked on in shock. Two of the booksellers were abducted outside the borders of mainland China. Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen, was taken from his apartment in Thailand that October, only to reappear in a televised confession months later. In January of 2018, after he had ostensibly been released from state custody, was seized on a train, the Swedish diplomats accompanying him no deterrent to his abductors. He still remains in China today, unable to leave. Lee Bo, a British citizen, was picked up off the streets of Hong Kong. He made a brief reappearance in the city, asking the Hong Kong police to drop the case of his disappearance and announcing that he would never sell banned books again. He was then whisked away back over the border to mainland China. How could this happen? A new book about enforced disappearance in China, The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories from Inside China’s System for Enforced Disappearances, explains exactly how common practice state-sponsored abduction is against anyone who is deemed to be a threat to China’s national security.


A Soprano’s Triumphant Journey

Brian Haman reviews Journey to the West by Melanie Ho

Opera travels well. Its stories are the stories of our collective humanity – love, loss, revenge, strife, rebellion, rejuvenation, absurdity, tragedy – and its archetypes not only define cultures but also connect them. In many respects, we can no longer speak in essentializing ways about Western opera or Chinese opera, but rather must address the world of opera and global operatic voices.

But what of its performers? What does it mean to think and feel and dream and sing in a language not one’s own, on a foreign stage, in a foreign land, under a foreign sky? For people and cultures in transit, the self is understood as neither fixed nor certain, but mutable and contingent. If you are a Western reader, then imagine for a moment boarding a plane to Shanghai with little cultural knowledge of China and virtually no ability to speak or understand Mandarin. In the absence of familiar salves of continent, city, country and society, the architecture of music imbues the opera singer with a familiar sense of movement, balance and scale within unfamiliar surroundings.


End of Empire

Emily Walz reviews Imperial Twilight by Stephen R. Platt

The outlines of the Opium War are familiar to many: from centuries ago, the Chinese had tea. The British, with their superior navy, wanted to trade opium for it. The meeting of these two sides brought about a literal trade war in the 1830s, forcing a treaty from China that allowed the opium trade to flourish and allowed foreigners to live in port cities like Shanghai. This series of events beget the reluctant “opening” of China, and set a pattern in which foreign powers would use violence to wrest concessions from China. Historian Stephen R. Platt’s newest work, Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, is the story of how Britain came to believe it could “demand peace by force of arms,” as read the inscription on one medal designed to commemorate what would become the first of two so-called Opium Wars.