Friday, June 12, 2009

Sterling Seagrave : Lords of the Rim

For my final book review I choose to read Lords of the Rim by Sterling Seagrave. I opted to read this book mainly because i had read another book by Mr. Seagrave, The Soong Dynasty, not too long ago and found it to be extremely interesting. The Soong Dynasty related the story of the Soong family, one of the most influential clans in modern Chinese history and their rise to power aided in no small part by American companies and connections. The book showed that America's deep connection with China was not a recent occurrence, and that the ground work for the Sino-US relationship had been laid in the the both positive and negative events of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In his newer book, Lords of the Rim, Seagrave explores the economic and political power of overseas Chinese, in particular their domination and control of the Pacific Rim area. He takes a relatively big chance by going back to the 11th century BC to begin his the narrative. Spanning three thousand years of history thoroughly is impossible to do with one volume, in addition glossing over many areas of history implies that the author did not do thorough research into many subject areas to which he is trying to relate. Still, the purpose for his huge scope is most likely to give the reader a small glimpse of the massive history of expatriate Chinese and their unbelievably extensive and successful experiences in moving about the globe. In this Seagrave is successful as the western reader can scarcely identify with a cultural group that has a history of the same length, let alone one that has been able to diversify and relocated as well while retaining an intact identity.

Though Seagrave uses a sensationalistic style in relating the adventures and intrigues of many of his characters, he does have some valuable analysis interwoven with the tales of mayhem, greed, murder, and betrayal. In terms of value for modern business leaders, Seagrave makes the important point that these expatriate Chinese are one of the foremost forces to be reckoned with as they posses both the resources and the knowledge to operate in both worlds. Thus if one were to be able to ally with them and harness their skills and powers, no easy task as this group can to some extent be extremely secretive and wary of outsiders, one would have an important advantage in dealing with China directly. Seagrave makes and important point that the influence of many of the expatriate group is especially strong in the south of China, where he theorizes the Beijing government may find its greatest challenges in terms of unrest and rebellion in the future.

Seagrave seems to enjoy playing up the rivalry between the north and South Chinese, portraying the north and militaristic, idealistic, and always suspicious of the wealth loving, intelligent, opportunistic and slightly corrupt South. The archetype of a combination business man/pirate is extolled in examples such as Zheng Zhilong , the father of Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga), who was loyal to his government (Ming) but also took advantages to raid and pillage where he could. (Reminds me more than a little bit of Sir Francis Drake) It is true that most overseas Chinese do come from the South, and that many of the criminal organizations associated with overseas Chinese, such as the Sānhéhuì or Triads, are known to have originated in Southern China. A closer look however reveals that most of these organizations were at first political, the Triads for example sprang out of the Tiandihui (Heaven and Earth) society of the 1700s that was formed to fight against the Manchu occupation and restore the Ming dynasty. Thus is would be unfair to say that the purposes of all Southerners relate to wealth. To apply environmental determinism to the argument, the north in contrast may be less adept at trading and wealth creation due to the fact that the northern reaches were colder and less accessible thus Northern people historicaly had less good to trade. Regardless, Seagrave's over-simplification of the complex differences and animosities between North and South China leave something to be desired.

What Seagrave does make a good point in clarifying however is the face that the goals and motivations of the overseas Chinese communities do not align very well with those of the current Chinese government. This could be especially troubling to the CCP in light of the extreme financial and political clout that overseas Chinese posses throughout the globe, most notably in areas such as the USA and Canada, regions in which China is eager to find both investment opportunities and build a good reputation. Reputation in particular is something that is very important in Chinese culture, it remains to be seen what, if anything Beijing will attempt to do silence the vocal voice of dissent from expatriate Chinese organization around the globe.

Overall, Seagrave's account of the rise and continued success of overseas Chinese is highly entertaining and enjoyable to read. Though is may not give the reader any real tools in dealing with members of the expatriate Chinese community, it does give some insight into the conditions and circumstances that led these people to success. The book has too broad of a scope to be of real value to a business leader and would be best used as a way unwind on the flight to or from China. In contrast to The Soong Dynasty, which seems to be well researched and insightful, this book attempted to evoke strong feelings in the reader without really providing the necessary justification for provocation. I rate it 6/10.

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