China: The Stealth Empire was published by The History Press in 2008


The basic premise of this book was that while commentators and newspapers discussed how long it would take China to become the world’s largest economy and gain increasing global political importance, a kind of new Chinese empire, in fact China already had an Empire. It was subtle, nearly invisible, but putting together all the elements beneath the radar built up a quite different image: the impact of Chinese culture on major eastern countries such as Korea and Japan, the influence of Chinese investors in Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, the large Chinatowns with considerable business influence - from San Francisco to Prato - the presence of Chinese students in the all the major universities of the English-speaking world, and above all the worldwide network of Chinese restaurants and the ease with which most people now handle chopsticks (which surprises the Chinese themselves when they see foreigners eating in their country). That constitutes a “stealth empire”.

The book was based on the personal experience of living and working in China for five years, travelling extensively in the many large cities and also in remote areas, and reading about China in several languages. It sought to avoid the common obsession amongst journalists and political commentators with Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, simply because they do not loom large in the minds of ordinary Chinese people. For most of them live in the broad swathe of coastal plain which stretches from Beijing to Shenzhen, where, for better or for worse, other things matter (not to mention the millions of rural Chinese who live at one remove further, sometimes even unaware that Mao has died). It also sought to avoid clichés about the numbers of cranes and building sites, forced eviction and demolition of old buildings, and of the exploitation of young women in textile factories, because that too is not how most Chinese see it. They need the new buildings, justly crave decent sanitary conditions after decades of deprivation, and are content, as is usually the case, that their extended family’s overall situation is improving. Above all, it sought to avoid the changing fashions inherent in praise and criticism of China: before 2002, for example, the emphasis in Western reporting was on human rights and political dissidents; from 2003 to 2006 it was on stunning economic growth; since the beginning of 2007 it has been shifting to environmental issues; from 2010 President Obama’s “pivot” towards Asia dominated global news; and in recent years concerns about China’s growing military strength and territorial expansion have taken over. 

I find that it is only after years of patient study of the native character that the student fully realizes that he knows nothing whatever about his subject, and never will. It is only the more intelligent who are able to reach this advanced stage; the remainder write books…’
— Jay Denby, Letters of a Shanghai Griffin, 1910.
A statue of Mao Zedong on sale in Yan'an in 2015.  Photo EB.                   

A statue of Mao Zedong on sale in Yan'an in 2015.  Photo EB.                   

Meanwhile, Chinese life goes on. In China and elsewhere - especially in the now worldwide Chinatowns.

Change is notoriously rapid in China, so much of the book needs deleting or updating. So my idea is to prepare a new edition of the book. It is clear from the Table of Contents from 2008, written in 2007, that the final third of the book - which is altogether 100,000 words or 300 printed pages long - should be almost entirely cut. Part I sought to explain what China is, and how it came to be the way it is, both in its strengths and in its rejection of imperial expansion in the past. Part II analysed the way in which China has come to possess a global empire of sorts almost in spite of itself. Finally, Part III looked at the ways in which these pasts will inform the future as China reclaims her ancient role on the world stage after a century of false starts. Chapter 12 is particularly redundant since it discussed the Politburo under then president Hu Jintao and the structure of the government and military power. Much has obviously changed in that respect. So, too, has the section on technology, based on detailed knowledge that I then possessed of several “High Tech Zones” and new companies in them.

But I believe that most of Part I and Part II, dealing with the past rather than the present and future, bear reprinting with some light editing and revision. It is a task will will soon be addressed, but without a specific time-frame.

           The Great Wall at Simatai, north of Beijing. From the original book (where it was printed in b&w).                                                                      ©Edward Burman, 2004

           The Great Wall at Simatai, north of Beijing. From the original book (where it was printed in b&w).

                                                                   ©Edward Burman, 2004