Later this year, in the cavernous Great Hall of the People in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the new top leadership of China will be unveiled. The so-called fourth generation will be stepping down — thanks to a two five-year term rule and retirement at the age of 69 — and we will know who are the fresh creme de le creme of the Communist Party hierarchy by the order in which the nine members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee walk out on stage. Most China-watchers believe that the new President will be Xi Jinping and the new Prime Minister Li Kechang, though one can never rule out a last-minute surprise. One absentee will be the Chongqing party chief, Bo Xilai — a high-flyer who has gone down in flames over an extraordinary scandal that allegedly involves the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood by Bo’s wife, Mme Gu, who is a figure straight out of pulp fiction. I am sure someone is busy writing the synopsis of a novel based on the affair right now. But in the meantime, anyone who wants to know what is going on in China, how it got where it is and where it is going could do no better than buy and read the latest book by Jonathan Fenby, former editor of the Observer and the South China Morning Post, whose Tiger Head, Snake Tails is a brilliant study of a country that might not yet rule the world (as Martin Jacques predicted in a book a few years ago) but is probably heading to be the world’s largest economy within a generation, providing it doesn’t trip up along the way. The fall of Bo Xilai happened after Fenby’s tome went to press, but otherwise it is admirably up-to-date. More importantly, it draws on many years of intelligent study and reporting in China and Hong Kong. It is full of statistics and telling anecdotes, but written in a style that successfully walks the tightrope between popular journalism and academe. It is thus accessible to the uninitiated and illuminating to old China hands. Highly recommended.
Tiger Head, Snake Tails, Simon & Schuster, £20