Question: is China destined to rule the world as the exemplar of a new way of organising the economy and society – or to fall by the wayside, enmeshed by its contradictions and endemic weaknesses? In a country of 1.3 billion people, there is evidence enough for admirers and detractors. On the plus side, there is the spectacular growth together with elimination of poverty for 400 million and, for a rising power, a surprising lack of bellicosity. On the minus side, there are phenomenal inefficiencies, social brutality and lack of respect for anything that looks like justice or human rights. Holding the ring is the mysterious, repressive but streetwise Chinese Communist party – at least for the time being.
Events of the last three weeks have suddenly made the issues more urgent. The spectacular fall of Bo Xilai – party secretary of one of China's largest conurbations Chongqing and tipped for membership of the politburo this year (whose wife has been arrested on suspicion of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood) – has given a glimpse of life behind the party curtain. Heywood knew too much about the web of corruption around the couple, runs the story – of how hundreds of millions of dollars were siphoned out of the country.
Bo may have organised the singing of revolutionary songs and given out grants to the poor to fuel his political ambitions – but he was also a man of many concubines and business back channels, through which he ensured he was amply remunerated for awarding contracts and favours. Now the party wants a clean-up – or so it would have us believe.
Yet last week, blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who escaped house arrest by evading several control checks to secure asylum in the US embassy, was blackmailed to give up his claim and leave. Unless he did, his wife and family would be returned to Shandong province, warned the party, where they have been brutally harassed. But this is the party and government that protests its commitment to the rule of law and cleaning up corruption as it very publicly seeks to drive Bo and his network from office.
Welcome to contemporary China, a country where nothing is as it seems and there is evidence to support any case you want to make – positive or negative. But where the omens are increasingly ominous for those with eyes that see.
Which is why Tiger Head Snake Tails is such a timely and brilliantly documented intervention. Jonathan Fenby brings a welter of examples of the routine corruption, inefficiency, injustice and environmental depredation that is the hallmark of today's China. A story of a middle-aged businessman, Qian Mingqi, whose house was demolished to make way for a road that was never built and never offered compensation, is just one vignette of many. He takes his complaint to Beijing where it is never heard but he is held in jail, beaten up and incarcerated in a psychiatric ward. Finally, in desperation, he sets off three explosions outside government offices and is killed in the third. He left a message: "Ten years of fruitlessly trying to seek redress has forced me on a path I did not wish to take."
Qian Mingqi is one of millions subjected to the most arbitrary and brutal discretionary rule it is possible to imagine. Yet it is this same approach that allows the country's infrastructure to be built at apparently impossible speeds and so shoddily that trains crash. There is a riveting account of the majesty and madness of the hydroelectric Three Gorges Dam, which suffers mad levels of dangerous sediment, mudslides and ridiculously low levels of water levels downstream.
The parallels with the secretive, hermetically sealed world of imperial rule that the Communist party replaced are painful – even down to officials' penchant for openly having mistresses. Li Wei, China's "queen of mistresses", used her charms to amass an extraordinary fortune as her patrons and suitors awarded her valued export quotas or trading licences.
Thus the economy is rotten to the core: no numbers, however flattering, can be trusted – Li Keqiang, prime minister designate, told the US ambassador that the GDP figures were man-made and "only for reference". Fenby is devastating on the shoddiness and sheer danger of much of what China produces – and of the precariousness of its banking system. State-owned banks funnel cheap money to loss-making state-owned enterprises. Meanwhile, the private sector, such as it is, pays sky-high interest rates for highly rationed credit.
Yet despite the deadly mass of evidence he assembles, Fenby anticipates an orderly handing over of power to vice-president Xi and prime minister Li and that the system will lumber on – but with an ever-growing risk that if there are not root and branch reforms, the snake tails of China's many weaknesses may finally overcome the tiger head, the Communist party. He shrinks from drawing the more forthright conclusion to which his own superb analysis leads. There can and will be no such reforms. Snake tails will envelop the tiger head. The only question is when.
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