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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

What gives Becker's book particular value is that it evaluates China on its own terms. The book doesn't start with outsiders' preconceptions or abstractions, like capitalism and communism. Rather, it begins in the countryside, exploring such issues as poverty, tax collection and, especially, agriculture; the book then moves on to cities and state-owned enterprises and from there, finally, to the roles of the army and the Communist Party. Often, Becker backtracks to explain how government policy evolved from Mao's era through the early reforms of Deng Xiaoping to the present day. And he takes care to show how solving one problem often led to another. For example, in the interests of efficiency, Deng decentralized economic decision-making, taking power away from Beijing. However, notes Becker, "[t]he fewer specific orders the central government issued, the more autonomy local officials had." And that gave greater scope for local abuses, such as the officials he describes in Shaanxi province who responded to a drought by hiking up the taxes on peasants.

While describing China's dilemmas, Becker never lapses into the voice of bemused tolerance that has sometimes characterized those who have written about China in the past, like John K. Fairbank. Becker writes from the viewpoint of the Chinese people, not the government, and he regularly offers his own critical or angry judgments on what he observes. "Many urban as well as rural families bankrupt themselves trying to pay for the [medical] treatment of family members, and the fact that most public money is spent on only a fraction of the population breeds resentment," he explains at the end of one chapter. "It is an odd complaint to make of a Communist state, but health and education are the two areas where most Chinese experience a lack of state intervention and a need for public services."

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The West's interest in China's economy serves as the subtext for "The Chinese." Becker argues that China's economic problems are greater than outsiders realize, because of the continuing overhang of its inefficient state-owned industries, the debts they have amassed and the social upheaval that may result as China's leadership tries to phase them out. Still, he recognizes that these days, Americans and Europeans are fascinated by China as much for its economic potential as for its culture.

So, too, growing economic power across the Pacific provides the underlying rationale for "Thunder From the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia" by Nicholas B. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. They look at the growing importance to the West not just of China but of Japan, India, Southeast Asia and the entire continent. Despite some recent economic problems, they argue, Asia has the people and dynamism to become ever more important to the world over the coming decades.

Kristof and WuDunn, the authors of a previous book about China called "China Wakes," were New York Times foreign correspondents, a husband-and-wife team based in Tokyo in the late 1990s. From all appearances, they set out to write a book about Japan. "Thunder" contains a series of anecdotes about a small Japanese town called Omiya, which the authors repeatedly visited in an attempt to divine the essence of grass-roots Japan in the midst of change--but there is no comparable effort for any other Asian country.

In 1997, Kristof and WuDunn covered the Asian financial crisis that swept from Thailand throughout much of the rest of East Asia. They also seem to have thought about writing a book on that subject; "Thunder" includes two well-written chapters on the financial crisis and its aftermath.

Unfortunately, the authors tried instead to write about a subject so broad and vague that it eludes them: a portrait of all of Asia, which they somewhat arbitrarily define as the area from Afghanistan to Japan, from the Russian far east to Indonesia. The problem is that there's not much useful that one can say about such a huge area. The authors freely acknowledge the problem at the outset: "Even if one accepts that Asia exists in some sense, it is a bit like the weather: so diverse that it is difficult to generalize about," says Kristof. (The authors write separate, alternating chapters, except for a concluding chapter on which they collaborate.)

The result isn't really a portrait of Asia. It includes too much of Japan, where the authors lived, and precious little about India; the book contains an odd, incongruous passage about the Pacific Islands, yet gives short shrift to more important places like North Korea, Pakistan, Singapore and Taiwan. Instead, the book is an awkward pastiche: The authors' attempt to move from some anecdotes gathered in their reporting to sweeping conclusions about the entire continent.

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