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'China Road' Trip Gauges a Nation on the Move

Rob Gifford (center) met Wei Daiying (left) and Yang Jiarong along his journey. Wei and Yang are employed by a construction company and regularly travel Route 312, the road Gifford followed across China.
Rob Gifford (center) met Wei Daiying (left) and Yang Jiarong along his journey. Wei and Yang are employed by a construction company and regularly travel Route 312, the road Gifford followed across China.
Many Chinese prostitutes work out of karaoke bars or out of hair salons that have a very basic room behind them in which they see clients.
Rob Gifford, NPR /
/
Many Chinese prostitutes work out of karaoke bars or out of hair salons that have a very basic room behind them in which they see clients.

In 2004, Rob Gifford set out on a 3,000-mile journey across China. The NPR correspondent followed a single highway west from Shanghai into the heart of Asia. His trip resulted in a series of stories and now a book, called China Road, a look at the rapidly rising nation.

"China is really a nation on the move," Gifford tells Steve Inskeep, in explaining why he set out on the journey. "It's really the sort of perfect metaphor for what's happening to China to some between 150 million and 200 million people, who are traveling across China looking for work and leaving the rural areas, coming to the cities.

"As you meet those people ... you get a feel for the sort of mobility, the convulsions, the sort of churn that is going on in individuals' lives .... But on a grander scale, there is this 21st century revolution. It's not political anymore. It's social, it's economic and it's transportational."

Gifford didn't have to look far for the subjects of his stories.

"I'd just get on a bus, and you just find the four people sitting around you all have amazing stories about their life in the countryside or their life in the city. You know, everywhere you go, you just ask the people, 'What are you doing? What's your life like?' And they just want to talk about it, and that's really what the book is."

Like the Amway salesmen Gifford who invited him to a sales meeting in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Or the brothel "hostess" in southern Hunan province who shared the hopelessness of small-town life.

As China struggles with its political, economic and cultural shifts, Gifford, who covered the nation for six years, sees "fault lines" emerging.

"One of the conclusions that I came to at the end of my journey is that I think there may be some kind of crunch coming," he says. "I just think you have this completely mobile 21st century society and you have this sclerotic 1950s political system, and I do fear that any political transition could be very difficult indeed."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.