Since the book China Road came up today in our discussion after Up the Yangtze, I thought it might be helpful to give a quick summary from what I can remember of the book. It was written in 2005 (ish?) by Rob Gifford, who was NPR's chief China correspondent and has studied/reported from China since the 80's. In preparation for a relocation to London he decides to take a journey along the entirety of Route 312, also known as The Mother Road, which is analogous to Route 66 in the U.S. It begins in Shanghai on the East Coast and ends at the Kazakh border in Xinjiang.
Making the journey mostly by taxi and hitching rides, he explores the everyday life of China's common people - "Old Hundred Names" - in particular of the Western provinces. As Gifford makes the journey, trekking through Uighur villages in Xinjiang, giving an impromptu sermon at a tiny roadside church, and chatting with a hermit who lives on the top of a mountain (with a cellphone), the incredible immensity and diversity of China come into focus.
He also weaves in a great deal of history, from the sense of cultural superiority of the Qing dynasty to the humiliation of the Opium Wars and formation of "treaty ports" under the control of European countries, and you gain a sense of the Chinese perspective as the underdog nation. Gifford's central thesis is that there is a growing tension among China's rural poor, ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups - from the truck drivers who do battle with corrupt officials to the poor farmers struggling to make ends meet with essentially no political power. Gifford puts a face on many issues that are viewed as troubling from the West, from the more ambiguous policies such as the cultural assimilation of Uighurs by (among other things) sending the brightest students from Xinjian to Beijing to study, to the devastation and suppression of the "AIDS villages." Ultimately Gifford proposes that the history of China indicates that the government's long term stability rests upon its ability to become more responsive to the plight of China's poor and marginalized citizens.
In related news, below is an interesting link about increasing tensions in Hong Kong, where natives are beginning to react to increasing numbers of mainlanders who have different customs and dialects: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-501712_162-57374539/hong-kong-asserts-identity-to-beijings-dismay/