It wasn’t until reading Jonathan Fenby’s Tiger Head, Snake Tails that I realised how polarised some of my previous reading on China had been. While I’ve read some superb reportage/analysis such as Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls and Richard McGregor’s The Party, there is definitely a strain of the literature that is either ‘China will conquer the world’ (eg Martin Jacques in When China Rules The World) or ‘China is doomed’. Mr Fenby is an experienced journalist – a former editor of the South China Morning Post – and the extent of his knowledge about the country is clear on every page.
Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How it Got There and Why it Has to Change
As always, the scale of anything about China is staggering – to give just one example from the book, China’s foreign exchange reserves in 2011 were enough to buy Italy; or all of the sovereign debt of Portugal, Ireland, Greece plus Spain, and also Google, Apple, IBM and Microsoft and all of the real estate in Washington and Manhattan, and the world’s 50 most valuable sports franchises. There are lots of fascinating insights too. I was struck by the information on market structure – many markets have a few state giants but are otherwise highly fragmented and regionalised. There are 121 very large state firms, another 114,400 smaller state owned enterprises, and a vibrant competitive fringe. In retail, the very biggest firms have less than 6% of the market each. Rare earth mining – surely somewhat capital intensive? – is carried out by small family-owned enterprises. Of the half million food producers, 80 per cent have fewer than 10 employees. The book has other interesting insights. For instance, China excels at individual sports – golf, table tennis, gymnastics – but fares poorly at team sports.
Like many commentators, Fenby highlights the enormous challenges facing China as it makes the transition from relying on cheap, abundant labour to drive rapid export growth and infrastructure (often debt funded) at home. These include the political conundrum of how the Communist Party will try to keep control – and whether it will succeed – and the enormous demographic challenge. He writes about the endemic corruption and absence of trust, the environmental horrors, the need for better social welfare including ending the distortions created by the ‘hukou’ system of residence permits. However, the book does not despair. All countries face difficult transitions at various points in their history, and China also has great resources for addressing the challenges. Tiger Head, Snake Tails is a cracking read, and I really like its injection of nuance into the debate we in the west have about China.