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China’s Geography: Globalization and the Dynamics of Political, Economic, and Social Change, Third Edition

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By Gregory Veeck, Clifton W. Pannell, Youqin Huang, and Shuming Bao Lanham,

Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016

422 pages,

ISBN: 978-1442252561,


Reviewed by Craig R. Laing

I must disclose at the outset of this review that I have a special attachment to this text. As an undergraduate student majoring in geography in the 1980s, the textbook for my Geography of Asia class was a 1983 book titled China: The Geography of Development and Modernization by Clifton W. Pannell and Lawrence J. C. Ma. This book, and how it presented China, initiated a lifelong interest for me in the physical and human geography of the country. In 2007, twenty-four years after the publication of this text, Pannell, Gregory Veeck, and a new group of Chinese scholars updated it, albeit under a new title and new publisher. The third edition of this text retains elements of the 1983 Pannell and Ma text; however, the dramatic changes wrought in China in those intervening years yields a much different, and current, text. When the first edition of this text was published in 2007, there was no doubt that it would be one of the required textbooks for my course on the geography of Asia.

Attempting a comprehensive geography of a land so vast in area and population as China and addressing current issues is a herculean task, but this is exactly what this group of four scholars has attempted to do, and done so quite well. While the book’s title suggests a greater emphasis on contemporary changes in China, do not be mistaken—it provides one of the most comprehensive geographies of the country written in English. The text achieves a balance between exploring the remarkable changes and challenges confronting China and covering the variety of physical and human geography topics typically surveyed in a traditional regional geography text. The third edition comprises fourteen chapters, at an average length of twenty-eight pages per chapter, that cover a comprehensive array of topics on the geographies of China. After an introductory chapter, the rest of the book looks at these topics from a spatial perspective: the natural environment, history, politics, cities, population, inequality, economy, agriculture, industry, trade and transportation, environmental issues, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. The text is not an exhaustive coverage of each of these topics, but retains a focus on the spatiality of these topics. It is a geography book, after all. For example, the chapter on history focuses on the salient spatial characteristics of dynasties, such as the section on the Song Dynasty that emphasizes this dynasty’s southern maritime orientation. China’s political geography is well-covered in a chapter that includes, among other topics, a discussion of the country’s geopolitical view, its growing international influence and power, and a geographic explanation of China’s complex array of political administrative units. Most notable about this chapter is the lengthy discussion of China’s national minorities and the areas they inhabit, including Xinjiang Uygur, Tibet, and the southwest. Veeck’s research interest in Chinese agriculture enriches the chapter on this strategic economic sector. Starting with a discussion of historical farming practices, the chapter moves on to cover the shift from the commune to the responsibility system, agricultural modernization (particularly the Comprehensive Agricultural Development program), challenges to the agricultural sector, contemporary food production, forestry, and aquaculture.

The chapters on inequality and environmental issues cover topics that are not typically found in regional geography texts, but represent two of the most significant issues facing China today. After establishing the rising income inequality in China, the authors elaborate on how inequality is manifest in Chinese society along several dimensions, including the urban-rural divide, employment categories, housing, gender, education, and political status. The chapter concludes with discussions of how to explain inequality in China and perceptions of and policy responses to inequality. The text’s chapter on environmental issues is particularly relevant, given the gravity of the issue in China, and focuses on documenting the spatial dimensions of the pollution crisis and the response by the government to it. More particularly, the chapter begins with a discussion of the growth of China’s environmental movement and how pollution and land degradation issues are impacted by spatial variations in population. The chapter then proceeds to elaborate on such issues as air and water pollution, environmental issues in agriculture such as pollution and land degradation, and a discussion of government efforts at reforestation. The spatial dimension of the environmental crisis is well-documented in the chapter, with quality maps displaying per capita water resources by province, CO2 emission in large cities, the number of smog days per year, rainfall acidity, and levels of antibiotics in major river basins.

The text does have a curious lack of coverage, or even reference, to tourism in China. Given this industry’s phenomenal growth and the spatial impacts it has engendered, tourism is an important topic that should be covered in a text claiming to address China’s contemporary changes and challenges. China’s remarkable rise from practically no international tourists in the late 1970s to today, when it receives 57 million international tourists a year (only surpassed by France, the United States, and Spain), as well as the unprecedented number of domestic tourists traveling within the country, requires a text on the geography of China to pay attention to the tourist industry.

Another notable absence in the text is a discussion of regional differences along cultural dimensions. Chapter 2’s coverage of China’s physical geography does include a discussion of the diverse physical landscapes of the country, including eastern China, southwest China, northeast China, and western China. But the discussion of China’s national minorities in the chapter on politics would be strengthened with some recognition of the differing cultural landscapes that are created by these minorities and how they compare to Han cultural landscapes.

This edition’s visual presentation is better than previous editions, with much better cartographic unity, as maps show a greater visual consistency across chapters. Figures and maps are crisp and clean, and will provide instructors with many visuals for possible classroom use. While this edition does have more photographs than previous editions, there are still not enough photographs to adequately present China’s geography. There are numerous chapters that have no photographs, but the chapter on cities includes about a dozen photographs and provides a good visualization of China’s contemporary urban landscapes.

In the book’s last two chapters, Veeck and Pannell cover the physical and human geography of Taiwan in one chapter and Hong Kong and Macau in the final chapter. Additional material in each chapter deals with place-specific issues such as a discussion of Taiwan’s political relationship with China and the dramatic growth of the gaming industry in Macau since the 1999 handover.

While this text is most appropriate for a college-level course on the geography of China or Asia, it provides an excellent source of information for high school or middle school teachers whose curricula includes Asia. Teachers should greatly benefit from purchasing the text, as it will become an often-referenced and easily accessible source of information on China. Of particular note are the references at the end of each chapter, which include a robust list of academic journal articles, recent news stories, and classic sources. For example, the chapter on environmental issues lists forty-four references, with many of them dated within the last five years. The text has a companion website with digital versions of the visuals used in the text and additional materials not in the text. This text fills a significant gap in English-written geography books about China and should be on the shelf of anyone interested in a comprehensive geographic survey of the lands of China. ■

CRAIG R. LAING is an Associate Professor of Geography in the Department of Social, Cultural, and Justice Studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He has spent a month and a half in China on two separate visits. One of these trips was a field seminar to Yunnan Province to study the province’s ethnic minorities, sponsored by the Asian Studies Development Program of the University of Hawai`i East-West Center. He regularly teaches a course on the geography of East Asia.