If I have to pick three books for Western readers that best explains modern China, I would recommend Shaun Rein‘s recently released book, “The End of Cheap China: Economic and Cultural Trends That Will Disrupt the World.” (Also, see my interview with the author earlier this year.) The book draws heavily on Rein’s personal experience working and living in China. During one of his early trips in China in the 90s, visiting Changchun, he recounts being propositioned by a beautiful prostitute. Over the years, he has noticed a gradual “uglification” of the prostitution pool. He attributes that to the general trend of economic expansion in China where women are increasingly finding better job opportunities.
Rein in fact recounts how Chinese women are becoming bread winners in many instances in Chinese society, and how their tastes are driving every-day consumption patterns in China. For Western companies, “The End of Cheap China” is indispensable. Some foreign banks have already purchased thousands of copies of his book as a requisite material for their employees.
The book is filled with many personal anecdotes. As the founding managing Director of The China Market Research Group, whose firm specializes in identifying trends in China for Fortune 500 firms, he is able to back his observations with survey data culled over the last decade. For example, Western media like to portray an imminent collapse of the housing market. He explained why that is unlikely. Unlike the recent subprime mortgage crisis in the U.S., the Chinese are required to put 30% as down-payment for their first home. In Shanghai, residents are limited to two homes where the second down-payment is set to 50%. Rein’s firm interviewed many homeowners and finds that they will not abandon their homes even if there is a significant percentage drop.
Of course, the bigger trend in China is one of pent-up demand as hundreds of millions of Chinese move into urban centers. (See my prior post on this topic.) In fact, the Chinese government’s latest 5-year plan stipulates creating 11 million more low-income housing units because demand has been so high!
Rein has access to all strata of Chinese society, including the ruling political elite. There, he is able to tap into his wife’s side of the family, who were personal friends with Zhou Enlai and Mao. He is able to peer into the relationship between every day Chinese and their local and central governments. The dynamics between the local and the central governments are crucial to understand, because they impact the success or failure of certain ventures, Rein’s book explains.
I also like his recount of the various problems he sees in China. For example, food safety. The melamine milk scandal created a buying spree in Hong Kong for imported baby formula. He himself had to make such trips.
In all, I enjoyed the book, because Rein does a masterful recount through his own eyes what is happening in China. He has a true front-row seat into Chinese society. That, in conjunction with the purpose of his firm to identify trends for their clients, there is really not many Westerner who is as uniquely situated to tell the China story.