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Doing the Middle Kingdom Boogie : DISCOS AND DEMOCRACY China in the Throes of Reform by Orville Schell (Pantheon Books: $19.95; 384 pp.)

June 26, 1988|Perry Link | Link is professor of Chinese at UCLA

One thing that has made contemporary China-watching so interesting--and treacherous--is that purportedly "historic" change is announced every few years. The revolution brought land to the tiller after 1949; then, with nearly equal drama, it went into collectives (1955), into larger communes (1958), back into collectives (early 1960s), and finally back to the tiller (late 1970s). Intellectuals were told, over the same decades, first to support socialism, then to speak out freely, then to criticize those who had spoken out, then to completely remold their exploiting-class world views, then to "banish residual fears" and prepare to speak out again, and most recently to be cautious of "bourgeois liberalism."

Orville Schell, a gifted free-lancer living in Northern California, is the only Western journalist who has written enough books on China (five, beginning in 1972), and whose viewpoint is flexible enough, to have captured "different" Chinas at several stages. "Discos and Democracy," his account of 1985-87, is once again full of surprises. Schell enjoys juxtaposing images of current and earlier Chinas in order to point up ludicrous incongruities: Mao and Kentucky Fried Chicken sharing Heavenly Peace Square; Mitsubishi ads on the backs of tickets to the Palace Museum. The theme of the book is that, under the reform program of Deng Xiaoping, Westernization has flooded China in unanticipated ways.

Chinese worries that such a thing might happen have been around for a long time. Since the middle of the last century, Chinese leaders have held, in various ways, that China should accept what is good from the West (primarily technological modernization) and reject the questionable things (mostly cultural and social practices). But experience has shown that modernization kits inevitably drag their cultural caboodles with them. Deng Xiaoping is by no means the first Chinese leader to discover that the bad tends to come with the good. Schell's book focuses on two items that recently have been causing the most controversy: commercialism and pop culture ("discos") and the press for political liberalization ("democracy").

The democracy part of the book is a tour de force that tells a story the West needs to know. Chinese intellectuals are often chagrined that Westerners follow human rights issues in the Soviet Union with much more assiduity and indignation than they ever apply to China. This book is a fine contribution toward redressing this imbalance. With remarkable speed and cogency, Schell has assembled an account of the 1986-87 student demonstrations and the subsequent purges of pro-democracy intellectuals. He has a sensitive feel for the mechanics of Chinese politics, including its fascinating paradoxes: A Party leader can win his position by "wrapping himself in the rhetoric of his opposition"; a dissident intellectual becomes a true public hero only after--and because--he is criticized by the party leadership. Schell's insights are especially profound in his discussion of why "left" has become (again paradoxically) a synonym for "conservative" in China. This happens because the two positions, despite their theoretical differences, emphasize Chinese alternatives to Western culture and thus protect China's ancient and well-founded pride.

Schell's discussion of the "discos" issue is important and entertaining, but somewhat overdrawn. Most readers will share his embarrassment at all the Western junk in China: not only disco but "rap music," "break dancing" and electric guitars atop "gyrating pelvises"; cosmetic nose jobs, eye jobs, leg jobs; bikini contests; body-building magazines that amount to soft porn; luxury resorts and limousines for hire; a huge international advertising sale-o-rama in the Great Hall of the People. Most astounding is Schell's discovery of a shooting range where "foreign friends" can come and blow a hillside to smithereens for U.S. $120 or $325, depending on one's choice of artillery.

The contrast between all this and the straight-laced socialism of the Maoist period can, of course, hardly be overdrawn. The problem is that Schell has not done enough to put it in context. First, rampant Westernization is basically limited to the cities, and especially to the urban young. As the gap closes between the West and these Chinese youth, another gap widens between them and the vast Chinese hinterland. Second, Western things can get "Sinified" as they enter China. Although something called "old people's disco" is now very popular in China's public parks, no born-to-boogie American youth would recognize the neat rows, stylized gestures and baggy pants of its Chinese devotees.

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