Review of Yiyun Li’s “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life”

In what is proving to be a busy day for the publishers of my articles, South China Morning Post has just published my review of Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life. Go check it out. It is a wonderful book.


“China’s Asian Dream” by Tom Miller

Here is my full review, as printed by South China Morning Post. (Check out my interview with Tom Miller, too).

Tom Miller’s previous book, China’s Urban Billion, was a well-received examination of the processes and effects of the unprecedented scale of China’s urbanization. Now Miller has moved onto an examination of China’s main diplomatic and economic strategy, the “One Belt, One Road” policy that aims to be the legacy of President Xi’s administration and to inspire China’s great rejuvenation. As a senior analyst for economic research institute Gavekal Research and managing editor of China Economic Quarterly, Miller brings a wealth of knowledge to the subject, as he examines China’s neighborly diplomatic and economic strategies, from its uneasy relations with India and Vietnam to the broader effects of its efforts in the South China Sea.

What emerges is perhaps a central conflict between economic development and genuine influence. China’s efforts in building infrastructure are enormous. Every country Miller visits and discusses – Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam – can attest to huge development. Economic corridors, ports, railways and roads, are being built at a phenomenal rate, even through some truly arduous landscape. A planned high-speed railway from Kunming to Singapore would include a “417km line from the Chinese border to Vientiane [and] will have 154 bridges and 76 tunnels”, while “the Laos section alone is projected to cost up to US$7 billion, around half the country’s annual economic output”. In Pakistan, “it took [five years] for the China Road and Bridge Corporation to complete five new tunnels and eighty bridges in reconnect the two sections of the [Karakoram] highway” following a landslide in the mountainous region.

Yet for all China’s efforts, it is receiving little affection. Countries fear rather than welcome being drawn into China’s economic orbit. This is particularly true of nations where independence or liberty has been hard-fought. Miller shows how Myanmar, for example, has divested itself of Chinese influence and turned towards the west, China being seen as too close to the former military junta. Similarly, Vietnam’s relations with China have long been fraught and are now deeply troubled thanks to competing claims in the South China Sea. Nonetheless, “20% of Vietnam’s trade is with its northern neighbour, which is the source of nearly 30% of its imports”. Vietnam thus has to tread a fine line, especially when there is a “visceral” hatred of China amongst ordinary Vietnamese. Similarly, mutual suspicion and border squabbles have hindered India’s economic relations with China: exports to China declined 20% from 2010 to 2014. India sees itself hemmed in by “a string of pearls”, its name for Chinese naval facilities across the Indian Ocean.

The most lasting forms of hegemony are those of shared outlook, rather than commercial factors or military power. Man is not homo economicus; he is deeply tribal, and – rightly or wrongly – concerned about the influence of outsiders. China lacks a threat to bind together its Asian neighbors in genuine partnership; indeed, for many of them, China is the threat. The frequently vaunted “win-win” development China seeks, for instance, is not so much a partnership of equals in covalent, mutually beneficial, harmony. The term deliberately obscures China’s strategic purpose of using economic development to subdue its neighbors into client states acquiescing with China’s geostrategic goals. Independent nations naturally do not want their freedom of action diminished, yet China’s economic gravity is so strong that its neighbors are being forced to choose to what degree they will go along with this. Governments are also having to factor in domestic opposition to China’s encroachments: not everyone is happy to see their former way of life swept away on a tide of economic development, especially as Chinese companies tend to bring in Chinese employees rather than employing locals.

China’s Asian Dream is superbly organized, and Miller deftly combines the plethora of data points and statistics with vivid local colour. He describes people with “tobacco-stained teeth” and a “scraggly moustache”, and markets “selling everything from green Burmese jade and Pu’er tea to yak-bone jewelry and Tibetan leopard pelts”. He talks with vendors in local markets as well as officials and engineers. Each chapter is a discussion of one geographical region, such as central Asia, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea. Each is then subdivided into the relevant nations and regions. While this schematic is helpful in organizing the material, it can make the book feel like a series of unconnected essays: only the opening chapter, introducing the Belt and Road strategy and the Asian Investment Bank, gives an overview of the book’s contents. But perhaps this was the right approach. China’s strategy is to focus almost exclusively on bilateral relations, where its economic heft gives it far greater clout than if it were simply considered one country amongst many. It relies on asymmetric trade deals which might properly be called “unequal treaties” (the GDP is Laos is just one-twentieth that of Yunnan, one of China’s poorest provinces). But as long as the cash continues to flow, most countries and most people have gone along for the ride. What will happen if or when capital outflows dry up? China has not bought affection, but its economic power has answered all the questions – so far.

Interview with Tom Miller


Tom Miller is a senior analyst at Gavekal Research, managing editor of China Economic Quarterly, and the author of China’s Urban Billion: The Story Behind the Biggest Migration in Human History (2012). He explained more about his new book, China’s Asian Dream: Empire Building On The New Silk Road.


How long did it take to research the book? What was your approach?

Aside from a short trip to Myanmar in January 2013, I did all the on-the-ground research between March 2014 and September 2015—so 18 months in total. From my base in Beijing, I made research trips to Xinjiang, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Yunnan, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Singapore, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India and Washington, DC.

I organized meetings with officials, government ministers, diplomats, journalists, academics, think-tankers, businesspeople and companies, usually in advance, but also relied on “walking and talking”. It’s amazing what you can find on the ground by hiring a taxi for the day, walking into offices, businesses and hotels, asking lots of questions, and generally being really pushy. I hitched rides on trucks, downed drinks with construction workers, accosted businessmen in departure lounges, questioned traders, and even chatted with monks and prostitutes. Back in the office I read hundreds of articles, reports and books, both in English and Chinese, and scoured investment data and corporate reports.

This research produced around 40 notes and articles for clients of Gavekal, which we published in 2014-15. In the spring of 2016 I filled in the holes in my research and turned these articles into a book. The whole process took the best part of two years.

You document how much China is investing in its neighbors, but is it working on the soft-power side?

China is always better at hardware than software. It is opening Confucius Institutes across Asia, but few people have much affection for China. State companies are beginning to learn that they need to pay more attention to social responsibility in order to avoid a backlash against Chinese investment on the ground. But Chinese firms and officials prefer to deal with elites rather than worry about winning over ordinary people. Chinese officials talk about “win-win” diplomacy and building a “community of common destiny”, but they rarely look beyond building hard infrastructure and delivering economic development.

Are Chinese companies learning from working abroad?

Some are. Take Myanmar, where a number of big investments were cancelled or put on hold after the political transition of 2011. Big state companies there have stepped up corporate social responsibility programs and are engaging public opinion. It is fair to say, though, that most Chinese enterprises pay less attention to how they are perceived than do firms from countries that have pernickety shareholders and international brand names to protect. Still, Chinese firms must do enough to ensure that projects stay on track, and the requirements are different in different countries. Chinese investors and construction companies are going through the same learning curve that European, US, Japanese and Korean firms went through before them. Some do a much better job than others.

What will success for China’s One Belt, One Road strategy look like, do you think?

“One Belt, One Road” is one part of a broader push to cement China’s position as the undisputed power of Asia. The aim is for China to sit at the heart of a trade and investment nexus and to develop a wide geopolitical sphere of influence. It wants to play a similar role in the East to that played by the US in the West. But the initiative is, in the first place, about domestic development and security. It is designed to create new markets for China’s capital goods exporters and construction firms, and bring prosperity to its own underdeveloped border regions. It is about creating strategic energy corridors and making multilateral institutions work better for China. And it is about drawing countries into China’s economic and geopolitical embrace. Essentially, Xi Jinping wants to “Make China Great Again”.

The Belt and Road cannot do all these things by itself. But if China can succeed in improving connectivity across Asia while boosting trade flows and simultaneously strengthening its geopolitical grip across the region—and if it can do that without writing off tens of billions of dollars of loans—I think we can call it a success.

You focus on China’s bilateral relations with its neighbors – but how important are multilateral institutions like ASEAN?

China prefers to deal with countries on a bilateral basis, where its economic heft gives it considerable leverage. But it also works with multilateral organization like ASEAN, partly because it has to and partly because multilateral bodies can help to deliver big trade deals. With the collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, China is pushing an alternative free-trade vision encompassing the 10 ASEAN countries and their six FTA partners: China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. It also knows that bilateralism has its limits, because small countries do not want to be reduced to Chinese vassals. Still, I am sure that China would prefer ASEAN to remain the loose and weak association of states it is today than for it to become a genuine economic and political power.

Finally, China approves of multilateralism wherever that means limiting the power of the US and its allies. With establishment of the Asian Infrastructure investment Bank, it has shown that it will create its own multilateral organizations to supplement what it perceives as the inequities of the current international architecture.

Published in Business Tianjin

Interview with Lijia Zhang


Lijia Zhang is the author of Socialism Is Great!, a caustic memoir of her experience growing up in 1980s China. She has just published Lotus, a novel about a women from Sichuan who gets caught up in the sex trade in Shenzhen yet who has ambitions to make something more of herself. Inspired by the deathbed revelation that her grandmother had been sold into a brothel, Zhang aims to give a voice to the voiceless and the powerless. I spoke to her about researching the novel and the difficulties of relating a different culture in a foreign language.


Can you tell us the story of how you researched the novel?

I interviewed many sex workers in Shenzhen, Dongguan, Beihai, Beijing and Tianjin. When you don’t know them well, they don’t always tell you the whole story. I tried to make friends with them, but it was hard to maintain a friendship with them, as their lives were often transient as they moved from one city to another, from one parlour to another, they changed their mobile or they simply vanished. What really helped me to gain insight was my experience of working for a NGO for female sex workers in a northern city in China. Lotus is a purely work of fiction (not another memoir based on personal experience) but many details, Lotus’s first handjob, for example, are real, and learned from the girls I befriended.

The character Binbing is based on the real photographer Zhao Tielin, who photographed sex workers in Hainan. Did you meet Zhao in person?

Yes, I indeed met him, quite a few times. But I never really had in-depth conversations with him, which would have allow me to find out the deeper reasons why he would live among the working girls and photographed them obsessively, beyond the grand reason of giving a voice to people with no voice. I was hoping to do so after I got to know him better. But he fell ill and passed away. I did read all of his books.

The photographer character Hu Binbing in Lotus is inspired by Zhao. What’s Hu’s motivation? I hinted – perhaps too subtly – that photographing prostitutes serves Hu as a tool to achieve success, to prove to his ex-wife that she’s wrong about him, as well as to feed his own sexual fantasies.

Did you have any literary models or inspirations in writing the book?

No, I don’t really have any literary models when writing the book. Generally speaking, I love social realism. Back in my factory days, when I tried to teach myself English, I fell in love with Dickens who used realism to portray the harsh reality of his time. Tolstoy is my most favourite novelist of all time as his books have a richly detailed but panoramic view of Russian society. And indeed, I admire Nabokov for his creative use of language.

In preparing to write this novel, I carefully read novels such as The Poison Wood Bible, The Kite Runner, Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress, to learn how to tell a good story to an audience from a different culture.

What was the meaning of the reference to the novel Portrait of a Lady?

For me, the novel is also about the journey of a young woman finding herself. I very much appreciated the theme in Portrait of a Lady – a young woman confronting her destiny.

Lotus’ returns to Sichuan have a heart-rending quality to them. Have you had similar experiences?

Yes, I’ve had similar experiences. I’ve travelled quite far from where I came from – if I do say so myself. I am often irritated by my parents’ bad habits such as throwing rubbish anywhere and spitting.

I’ve followed working girls returning to their home villages. I noticed that they always put on their finest outfits; and like me, they often criticized their family members ‘peasant behaviours’ of spitting and littering: they feel they are entitled to do so because their financial help to their families elevated their positions at home.

Why did the novel take 12 years to write? Did it go through many drafts?

It did take 12 years to complete, during which time I did many other things. I had to make a living as I have children to support. I did indeed go through many drafts. In the early drafts, the writing was far too journalistic. I also experimented with the point of view. At one point, I wrote entire conversations in pigeon English, for example: “Where is the toilet” would be “Toilet is where?” But I decided it didn’t work and started another draft. Of course, bear in mind, English isn’t my native tongue, which means I write slowly, very slowly.

What is your typical writing day and what is your writing environment like?

I don’t really have a typical writing day. When I can, I try to write 300 words, even though I may chop out 250 the next day. I write mostly in my study. I live in a lovely house in the outskirts of Beijing, in an area populated by migrant workers, who use the similar sort of earthy language as my characters.

Did you have a didactic aim in writing Lotus, or were you trying to simply give a voice to women like your grandmother?

Yes, I do have a didactic aim and I do want to give a voice to the women like my grandma. Having spent plenty of time with the working girls, I’ve gained much empathy and sympathy for them. Most women, those from low-middle establishments in particularly, got into the trade due to circumstances such as poverty or some tragic personal events. Almost all support their families financially. Drug abuse is uncommon.

I like the combination of poetic prose and earthy dialogue. Is it hard to convey Chinese thinking and feeling in English this way? Is this an attempt to convey the two aspects of Lotus – her grimy day-to-day existence and her dream of a better life?

I try to borrow Chinese saying and expressions. But it is often hard to translate the sayings into English directly. For example, we have a saying “A man has his face just as a tree as its bark’, implying that a man has a sense of shame. But I am not sure it works in English.

Yes, to the second question, as symbolized by the name she gives herself – Lotus, from the Chinese saying: The Lotus springs from mud but yet not imbued.

You moved from memoir to a novel. Which did you find easier or more fun to write?

I found writing fiction so much harder. The freedom to create anything you like is both exhilarating but intimidating! I enjoy writing profile stories, which I still do from time to time. It’s good fun as I love people and appreciate the opportunity of really getting to know someone.

I am trying to write some short stories, some of which I made use from materials chopped off from the novel.

What are your literary projects for the future?

I’ve already started a narrative non-fiction on China’s left-behind children, featuring one village in Guizhou, in Southwest China. Using real life material, I can apply fiction techniques to make the book more enticing and readable. I think literary non-fiction is the way to go for me – for now anyway.


Lotus is published by Henry Holt & Company and is out now.


Interview published in Tianjin Plus