Dissecting the revolution

Monday Book Review

January 09, 1995|By Myron Beckenstein

CHINA WAKES, BY NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF AND SHERYL WUDUNN. Times Books. 501 pages. $25.

IF A GOOD BOOK about a foreign land gives you facts, color and a feeling for that country, "China Wakes" is a very good book.

Mixing anecdotes, trends, statistics and theories, the husband-and-wife authors, who recently ended a reporting tour for the New York Times in China, write alternating chapters touching just about every aspect of Chinese life and policy.

What they see is not as simple as simple Communist repression.

"Two overwhelming forces . . . are reshaping China today," they write. "These two forces dominated our five years in Beijing. Each is of historic proportions and seemingly unstoppable, yet at least on the surface they appear incompatible and competing."

The first "is China's instinctive repressiveness, coupled with all the signs that this is an illegitimate, collapsing dynasty." The second is an "economic and social revolution. We severely mislead ourselves if we see only the first China and not the second. In the long run, the explosion of wealth in China may prove to be the most important trend in the world during this age."

How big can the economic revolution be? "Imagine," they write, "another Japan, but with a dozen times as many people -- plus nuclear weapons."

The revolution will affect not only China but also the entire world. As China grows economically, its needs will change, adding huge new demands for energy and an even greater threat to the environment.

There also is a political aspect: "If China manages to sustain its economic boom, the lesson that many people in developing countries will draw is that autocracy offers the best hope for an economic miracle."

China's repressiveness is well documented, especially Tiananmen (the authors won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the massacre), but while deploring it time and again, and adding some other grisly stories, they note that even repression is changing, moderating. Victims no longer are counted in the thousands and millions.

"China is now becoming an authoritarian country, instead of a totalitarian one, and it is likely to remain authoritarian for years to come," they say. Also, they add, "It's a mistake to think of China as a Communist country. It's really a fascist country led by a Communist party."

They describe a country in which "almost nobody believed in communism," where "I don't know a single person . . . who speaks absolutely candidly," with leaders "so out of touch that they don't always know that they are out of touch." Also, it's a country so thoroughly wormholed with corruption that this not only helped spark the Tiananmen protest but also helped some of the protesters flee the country afterward.

The writers know how much of themselves to add to the story, personalizing it enough to add color and detail, but not so much as to make the book a memoir. The nature of their experience differed between the two. Not only was there the male-female situation, in a country where this matters quite a bit, but also Ms. WuDunn is a Chinese-American who was able to do things Mr. Kristof wasn't (although he did go to one area so removed that people there thought he might be Chinese).

Among the telling tidbits recounted in the book is one about a recent computer virus that struck across the country: "The virus generated a question on the computer screen: Do you think Li Peng is a good prime minister? If the computer operator answered no, the message disappeared and nothing happened. But if the person said yes . . . then the virus wiped out the computer's entire hard disk."

The tale is typical of their multipurposed anecdotes: Not only is this story funny, but it also says a lot about the economy and dissidents.

One topic they do not dwell on is internal politics. While they do talk in general terms of what the future may hold, they do not speculate about which leaders may emerge when the long-looming post-Deng Xiaoping era finally arrives. Instead, even though China's history has been shaped by personalities, they concentrate on trends. They might have figured the frail Deng Xiaoping would have died by the time the book was published.

The authors caution strongly about their conclusions and about anybody else's too, saying China watching is "an exercise in humiliation" that makes weather forecasting seem a precise science: "China is such a vast and confusing subject that it is difficult to be sure of either the facts or the conclusions."

Why? One reason is "the authorities do not just manipulate the truth. They lie. They invent. So you don't just get a distorted view of reality. You get absolute falsehood."

Unlike too many books, this one knows how to make good use of the footnotes at the back of the book. They are not just citations, but valuable additions to the story. It is too bad they are not marked in the text. In contrast, the index is too spotty to be relied on.

Lest Americans look down their big noses at China too much, the authors give some examples of why the Chinese, for good reason, find the United States as incomprehensible as we find it. And they also ask:

"If China is a bankrupt regime, why is a baby born today in Shanghai expected to live 76 years, 2.2 years more than an infant born in New York City? Why is that baby less likely to die in its first year of life if it lives in Shanghai rather than New York? And why is it more likely to learn to read if it grows up in Shanghai instead of New York City?"

"China may be a gerontocracy, a kleptocracy, and a thugocracy all folded into one," they conclude, "but it could scarely have done better for the living standards of its people in the last fifteen years."

China continues to be a fascinating and important area, and the subject of several new books. This is one that should not be ignored.

Myron Beckenstein works on the foreign desk of The Sun.

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