A word of caution before you start reading — or even flipping through the 430 odd pages plus five pages of the preface of — Henry (Hank) M Paulson Junior’s ‘Dealing With China: An insider unmasks a new economic superpower’. Make sure you have five-six hours, or maybe a few hours more at hand because the book ain’t really readable…. It’s unputdownable.
Paulson combines vivid and lively memories of his more than 100 visits to China — first as Chairman & Chief Executive Officer of The Goldman Sachs Group from May 1999 to July 2006, then as US Treasury Secretary (under President George W Bush) from July 2006 to January 2009, and currently as Chairman of Paulson Institute, the international affairs think tank he founded on June 27, 2011 — with a vast, profoundly informed and uniquely intuitive understanding of both American and world business and economics, political affairs and geo-strategic complexities.
Writing in the style of a memoir — and an excellent style at that — he starts his story on February 25, 1997, just a week after Deng Xiaoping’s death, when he landed in China’s capital Beijing on one of his first trips to the country. During that (now historic) visit, Paulson met China’s then Vice-Premier and one of Deng’s closest protégés Zhu Rongji, whom he lauds as “the country’s economic czar”. Zhu went on to become the country’s Premier and a very close friend of Paulson. In fact, through the following two decades of game-changing interactions with China, the author forged an incredible network of friends (and not just “connections”) among that country’s political and business power elite.
Note the order in which I just used the words ‘political’ and ‘business’. It is clear throughout Paulson’s masterpiece — and that is exactly what the book is — that in China, unlike in most other countries (including my own India), the political elite is unambiguously more powerful and matters more to foreign negotiators than the business elite. In fact, the centers of these two forms of power often coincide in China, as the author illustrates through some of his umpteen anecdotes of deal-making with the Chinese. Paulson’s array of close friends almost reads like a who’s who of the Chinese establishment and includes the supreme leaders of the last three governments — President Jiang Zemin, who served contemporary to Premier Zhu, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, and current President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.
This relationship of friendship and even trust with the Chinese government and business leaders gave Paulson a unique insight into the workings of the mainland Chinese mind — both at the individual and collective level. That is why what sounds almost like a confession in Paulson’s preface — “I’m not a scholar or theorist” — isn’t at all necessary.
Paulson more than makes up for this ‘deficiency’ through the sheer force of his “personal experience in working with the Chinese to get things done”. The book is a treasure house of revealing anecdotes and I feel tempted to start sharing some of them with you. But that would be like blabbering away about the gripping scenes and chase sequences of the movie to a person before he gets a chance to see it for himself. And I certainly don’t want to deprive readers of the fun. And although the book is full of detailed encounters at the micro level, Paulson succeeds 100 per cent in conveying the macro picture too of post-Deng China — the panoramic picture or to use one of his now well-known phrases, ‘the big picture’.
So, what was supposed to be just a businessman-politician-diplomat’s personal experience-based ‘manual on how to get things done in China’ has ended up being infinitely more than that. It will certainly become one of the definitive ‘must reads’ for students of Chinese history and, in fact, any intelligent layman who wants to understand the incredible journey of post-Deng China.
Hank Paulson Junior’s ‘Dealing With China’ is more or less assured of a permanent place on the top shelf of ‘Chinese history’ sections in libraries and on the first page of Google searches on this subject. And for those like you and me, who happened to be lucky enough to lay their hands — and eyes — on the book just after publication: Happy Reading!