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Reviewed by:
  • Meeting Technology's Advance: Social Change in China and Zimbabwe in the Railway Age
  • David Pong (bio)
James Zheng Gao. Meeting Technology's Advance: Social Change in China and Zimbabwe in the Railway Age. Westport (Connecticut) and London: Greenwood Press, 1997. xiv, 218 pp. Hardcover, ISBN 0-313-30095-x.

This book purports to study "the effects of transfer of [railroad] technology on the lives of local people in recipient countries" (p. 1). For two main reasons, the author has chosen China from 1889 to 1928 and Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia) from 1889 to 1924 as his target societies. First, the two countries "were both exposed to the West in two linked processes: the transfer of Western technology and the imposition of European domination." Their experiences, Gao claims, "mirrored a global trend" (pp. 1-2). Second, China and Zimbabwe had different political, economic, and cultural settings, and were thus well suited to spotlighting the different outcomes in the two countries.

Chapters 2 to 6 make up the core of this study. In chapter 2 Gao looks into the "Troubled Beginnings." In China, where the primary concerns were national security and unwelcome foreign influence, the Chinese succeeded in resisting the initial British attempts at bringing railways to China. They then built their own railway in 1881 (the Tangshan Coal Mine railway) to serve Chinese interests exclusively. The Western and Japanese imperialists did not gain railway concessions until China's defeat by Japan in 1895. In response, the Chinese government decided to build its first major line, the 750-mile-long Jing-Han (Beijing-Hankou) Railway.

In Zimbabwe, the story begins in 1889 with Cecil Rhodes' plan to push into the region from South Africa as part of his grandiose Cape-to-Cairo railway scheme. The British South African Company, formed under a royal charter to carry out the scheme, soon encountered resistance from the Ndebele people in Matabeleland. No matter: the BSAC Pioneer Column cut a wagon road, the precursor of the railway, and opened the area to larger numbers of whites (hunters and traders at this point). Further application of force brought both the Ndebele and their enemy, the Shona of Mashonaland to the north, firmly under Company control.

Chapter 3, "Resisters and Collaborators," first examines how young African men responded to the establishment of the wage-labor system by Zimbabwean railway companies (BSAC subsidiaries) and experienced changes in their group identity. In time, they formed self help societies, and eventually, in 1944, the first African trade union in Zimbabwe.

In China, Gao studies the key interest groups in the Rights Recovery Movement. He then concludes that in both Zimbabwe and China, "resistance and collaboration were not necessarily contradictory approaches, as both were flexible [End Page 444] strategies . . . to protect and develop economic interests while seizing the benefits that technological progress might bring with it" (p. 60). "In both countries," Gao continues, "The railway experience gradually changed group identities, and technology provided a new force to bind together laborers of different provinces and diverse ethnic backgrounds into workers' organizations" (p. 62). This reviewer has great difficulty in linking these exaggerated conclusions to the foregoing analysis, notwithstanding a two-paragraph discussion on Chinese railway workers in the concluding section.

Chapter 4, "Reaching the Market," studies how the railway "made a revolutionary contribution to the development of a market-oriented economy" in both Zimbabwe and China (p. 69). In 1893, the railway from South Africa reached Mafeking, 400 miles from Bulawayo, greatly stimulating the wagon transport that supplied food and necessities to the growing numbers of European farmers and gold miners in Zimbabwe. Responding to the demand for food, the Africans took to agriculture with new enthusiasm, resulting in labor shortages for the mines. To protect both the European farmers and mine owners, the BSAC took measures to restrict African agriculture, promoted grain growing and cattle raising among the whites, built many branch lines, and completed the "national" railway network in 1910. With this network the age of wagon transport came to a close.

The Chinese railway system had a similar effect on the junk trade. The completion of the Jing-Han Railway in 1906, for example, caused a decline in...


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