China Whispers: Why everything you’ve heard about China is wrong

The official introduction to the book:

CHINESE WHISPERS tugs aside this age-old curtain of distortion in a powerful counterblast to modern assumptions about China. By examining the central myths, or ‘whispers’, that have come to dominate our view of China, Ben Chu forces us to question everything we thought we knew about world’s most populous nation. The result is a surprising, penetrating insight into modern China.

Chinese Whispers by Ben Chu - Book review by Mike Bellamy

Book review by Mike Bellamy

One of my favorite TED talks is “How not to be ignorant about the world” by Hans and Ola Rosling. Essentially, they use facts, hard data and proven statistics to blow away some of the false, yet very common assumptions, held by the majority of people in the West in regards to issues of global population, heath and income. Because the typical person watching the evening news from their home in N. America or Europe has grown accustom to hearing certain messages repeated over and over again in the media, they have stopped questioning if those messages are still accurate or not. In their TED talk, the Roslings demonstrate that these assumptions are often very very far from being accurate. They show how a monkey selecting at random has a higher chance of getting the answer right than the typical European!

Ben Chu’s book’s subtitle “why everything you’ve heard about China is wrong” could have just as easily been called “how not to be ignorant about China” as like the Roslins, Chu exposes as false some commonly held assumptions about China.

I purchased “China Whispers” the other day initially thinking “cool, here is a book by a Chinese person that is going to show us Laowai that we really don’t understand China”. This proved to be misleading on two levels.

The book is really written for readers who have an interest in China, but not those “China hands” who are dealing with China culture or business on a daily level. So in my case, after 15 years living here, while reading Chu’s book, it turns out that “what I’ve heard about China is right!”. While “China hands” will enjoy his arguments and the way he presents the facts, Chu should be more clear in his book intro that the target audience is a typical Westerner who is based in N. American, AUS/NZ or Europe getting their China content fed to them via the traditional media. And I would agree with Chu that much of what that group hears about China is wrong.

While the author has a Chinese name, he has spent very little time in China (but lived in HK for 2 years as a child- that doesn’t count…no offence , as Hong Kong isn’t “real China”) having been raised in the UK to a “Chinese dad and White British mom” as he puts it. So if you are looking for a Mainlanders take on why the West doesn’t understanding China, this book is not for you. BUT, if you want a Westerner’s take on why the typical “white guy on the sofa” may not be getting an accurate picture in the media about what is happening in China, then yes, this book is perfect and I highly recommend it.

Each of the main chapters of China Whisper uses the following format:

  • A well-known stereotype or cliché about China is presented.
  • The author gives detailed background on how that stereotype came into existence and why so many people believe it to be accurate.
  • Then Ben attacks the stereotype with great passion using a wide range of resources from statistics to personal experience to expose why the cliché is not accurate in today’s China.


He doesn’t go so far as to predict what tomorrow’s China will look like, but he does paint an acute picture of today’s China.

Here are the 7 topics he covers:

  1. China has an Ancient & Fixed Culture
  2. Chinese are Racist
  3. Chinese don’t want freedom
  4. China has the World’s best education system
  5. Chinese Live to Work
  6. Chinese have re-invented Capitalism
  7. China will rule the world

In summary, if you consider yourself well informed about modern China, then this book will probably validate that you know your stuff. If you are new to China, this book offers a short cut in terms of getting up to speed on what is really happening out there in the streets of mainland China.



About the reviewer: Mike Bellamy

Based in Asia since 1993

Founder of the PassageMaker family of companies

Business Lecturer at the China Sourcing Academy


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