This lengthy volume has at least two great strengths. The first is its combination of vivid journalistic description and the analysis of a seasoned political scientist. Like a latter-day Marco Polo, Barnett has explored the back ways of China's western interior to see how the post-Mao reforms have affected Chinas most remote areas. The second great strength is the author's ability to see China in historical perspective. During his travels, he revisited many cities and provinces that he visited as a young journalist in the late 1940s. Unlike many other observers of China today, Barnett sees a country that, viewed in historical perspective, is dynamic, not stagnant; progressing, not decaying. He shows in great detail how even Chinas most remote provinces have benefited from industrialization, urbanization, modern communications, better education, higher standards of living and skilled young leadership.
In a stimulating final chapter, Barnett dismisses the view among some analysts that Chinese communism will collapse or that China will move toward a new kind of economic warlordism. Fundamental change in China, he argues, has historically resulted not from coups that affect only the top leadership, but from prolonged decay and disintegration within an ancien regime, which leads to profound social and economic crisis. But China today, according to the author, is not decaying but rather engaged in a historic process of economic and social renovation.
Barnett is particularly convincing on the historic importance of the sweeping changes of leadership at the provincial, county and township levels that took place in the 1980s. These changes have led to the wholesale replacement of Maoist-era ideologues with better educated, professionally competent technocrats who are committed to rapid economic modernization.