Marking a transformation

An entertaining, at times superficial, look at journalist James West's time in China. 

BEIJING BLUR
James West
Pengiun, pbk, $35

Review by Victor Billot

James West is a young Australian journalist who worked in Beijing for a year at a state-radio broadcaster.

West spent much of his spare time investigating China's urban youth subculture, and more specifically its emerging gay subculture.

He suffered from culture shock and would hang out with bloggers, punk musicians and rootless, confused twentysomethings.

His story is candid and honest, and it's a personal tale.

He moves in circles largely comprised of young, relatively wealthy and educated urbanites, most of whom are focused on personal advancement and a fashionable lifestyle.

His insights into the collapse of traditional relationships in Chinese society were interesting, but the political analysis was superficial.

Clichéd references to communism seemed devoid of meaning, as the authoritarianism and corruption he writes about co-exist and flourish under a dynamic and brutal market economy, and the gap between economic classes rapidly grows.

The China he experiences appears to be a curiously depoliticised society, where a remote and unaccountable ruling class set technocratic goals.

Self-interested individualism or simple survival is the defining mood and response of the people to their situation.

Beijing Blur is a readable and sometimes fascinating account of a nation in hyperacceleration mode, its hedonistic party culture and the shadow of suicide and despair, the breakdown of social and sexual traditions, and the consumerism of a new commercial class.

But it only touches on the underlying economic and social forces behind the great transformation taking place in modern China.

- Victor Billot is editor of the Maritime Union magazine.

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