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Inside Out

THE CHINESE; By Jasper Becker; The Free Press: 464 pp., $27.50

THUNDER FROM THE EAST Portrait of a Rising Asia; By Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn; Alfred A. Knopf: 378 pp., $27.50

February 18, 2001|JIM MANN | Jim Mann was Beijing bureau chief for The Times from 1984 to 1987 and is the author of "About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship With China From Nixon to Clinton." He writes the International Outlook column for The Times

Books that seek to define China or Asia tend to have a short life span. Rummaging through the used bookstores of the world, you can collect, as I do, the tomes of earlier eras, each one offering confident predictions that have quickly turned out to be hilariously inaccurate.

In 1959, following a brief tour of the Middle Kingdom, a hapless Australian politician named Leslie Haylen published "China Journeys," which may have set the gold standard for wrongheadedness. Mao Tse-tung had just embarked upon his Great Leap Forward. Haylen knew it would revitalize the nation. "Only the blind and the biased could ignore the significance of the tremendous rise in production this will give permanently to the Chinese economy," he enthused. Having met with Chinese leaders, Haylen also informed his readers that Moscow and Beijing were bosom pals. "I do not believe the frequently expressed opinion that China will have a different sort of Communism to the Russian variety. That, of course, is wishful thinking."

In very short order, the Great Leap Forward was revealed to be a calamity for the Chinese economy; the Sino-Soviet feud broke out into the open and copies of Haylen's book began gathering dust.

Books about modern-day China are subject to many of the same vicissitudes. Over the last three decades, various authors have portrayed the Chinese as a nation of avid Maoists in the early 1970s, as Westernizing reformers in the 1980s and as apolitical money-grubbing entrepreneurs in the 1990s. Indeed, the best writers in this breezy genre (such as, for example, America's Orville Schell) glide almost effortlessly from one entertaining image of China to another, leaving readers to wonder what ever happened to all those seemingly committed radical egalitarians (or democrats or entrepreneurs) described a few years earlier. Does all of China really change so rapidly, or merely the avant-garde of Beijing and Shanghai, or does China remain relatively constant while Western perceptions change?

It is a tribute to Jasper Becker's new book, "The Chinese," that he seems to have transcended the obstacles and come up with an enduring portrait of modern China. Becker doesn't try to establish some new stereotype, of the sort that may soon be outdated, about what 1.3 billion people all want and think. Instead, he describes the deeper problems with which its government has failed to cope, such as migration from the countryside to cities or the lack of a social safety net. The result is a book that is the best available introduction to China for tourists, business executives and anyone else curious about the country.

Becker is a journalist who has been writing from inside China since the mid-1980s for The Guardian, the Economist and the South China Morning Post; he is the author of one previous book, "Hungry Ghosts," the definitive account of the famine caused by Mao's Great Leap.

"The Chinese" benefits in two important ways from his extensive reporting experience. The first is that Becker has traveled throughout China and not just in its leading cities. He gives the reader portraits of China's "almost forgotten villages" far from paved roads, of tyrannical local despots and the peasants who occasionally try to rebel. (Visiting Zizhou, about 200 miles north of Mao's old revolutionary headquarters at Yenan, Becker discovers that "now the peasants were afraid not of landlords but of the [Communist] Party officials who prey on them just as the landlords once did.")

Second, Becker succeeds because he has had firsthand experience in China both before and after the great divide of 1989, when the crackdown on nationwide demonstrations that began in Tiananmen Square dramatically altered the country's politics and leadership. Becker recognizes that the current stereotype many outsiders accept--that Chinese don't really care about politics--is just a passing phase and a pragmatic response to repression. And yet, having lived through the last decade, he also understands the profound economic changes that have transformed China since the upheaval of 1989.

Becker's portrayal of China is not a flattering one, certainly not to the Communist Party leadership. China's rulers, he says, "live as a separate caste, in a style as secluded as anything created by the Qing or earlier imperial dynasties." Whenever the nation's leaders go on inspection tours, local and provincial cadres conspire to make sure they don't see anything that will disturb them. In 1998, when Premier Zhu Rongji inspected flood-relief efforts in Anhui province, there seemed to be a plentiful supply of grain. Later, after getting a tip that he had been duped, he learned that the state granaries had been empty and that local officials had borrowed the grain from elsewhere to impress Zhu and show him they had everything under control.

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