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By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune


By Jasper Becker. 464 pages. $25.50. John Murray

Reviewed by Philip Bowring

TEN years dealing with the state and party bureaucracy in China is enough to make any journalist wary and skeptical. Few Western correspondents in recent times have worked as hard at getting out of Beijing and finding out what's really happening in China as Jasper Becker, formerly of The Guardian and BBC and now with the South China Morning Post. He has the added insight of having previously worked in the Soviet Union.

Becker's latest book has all the hallmarks of the relentless investigation, sympathetic reporting, scholarship and sense of history that made ''Hungry Ghosts,'' his ground-breaking account of the great famine of the 1960s, into a classic. But ''The Chinese'' also bears the scars of years of confronting the arrogance of officialdom and the lies and other statistics that it pours out.

The title is a misnomer. This is not an attempt to rival David Bonavia's wonderfully delicate work of 20 years ago about the Chinese as a people, weaving history, culture and society. Becker's book is a series of aspects of contemporary China, within a historical context. It takes the reader from the illiterate and oppressed minorities of the southwest to the rust-belt factories of the northeast, from the dirt poor Yellow River cradle of Chinese civilization to the thriving real capitalists of Wenzhou on the Zhejiang coast and to the limousine-riding cadre expropriators of state assets now found everywhere. Much of it is, like most journalists books, a reassemblage of earlier reporting. But it is none the worse for that.

It is perhaps only by bringing together material from disparate journeys and topics that it is possible to portray the diversity of China.

The unstated common theme is the arbitrary power of state functionaries and the supremacy of state interests above all others. His descriptions are powerful and doubtless accurate, though critics might reasonably claim that he understates the success that Chinese people have had over the past 20 years in achieving a large measure of social liberalization within an unchanged political structure.

He seems of two minds as to whether China can ever throw off the bureaucratic dictatorship that has waxed and waned ever since the Qin dynasty, or that its present incarnation in the Communist Party of China, is too corrupt and incompetent to survive much longer. However, he recognizes as few other writers currently do, what a setback 1949 was for China, how much social and economic progress it had made and could well have continued to make but for the 1930s combination of Japanese invasion, Russian communism and global recession.

Becker is at his most eloquent and accurate in recognizing the appalling treatment of the peasants, in whose name the revolution was carried out. Dragooned into communes and then starved by Mao they were partially liberated by Deng Xiaoping's reforms - indeed, peasant entrepreneurship remains the unspoken dynamic of the economy. Becker is ever aware of what 90 percent of writers on China forget: that 70 to 75 percent of the population remains in the rural areas with incomes a fraction of those in the cities. They are kept there by the power of the state, which can then boast that there are no beggars and a million mobile phones in Shanghai.

Inequality in China is startling - much worse than in India. It is not so much due to the shift away from Mao's equality of slaves. It is largely an urban-rural divide that in part results from government fear of the masses - the rural masses. They must be kept in their place even if there is slim chance of increasing incomes from dry and eroded soil, or getting the full price for their grain after the exactions of officials who behave as badly or worse as the landlords of old.

Becker is a useful antidote to much naive optimism about China, and foreign overreliance on dubious official claims.

He may be overly pessimistic. His descriptions of the deficiencies of the legal, education, health, etc. systems are accurate enough, as are his concerns about the environment, nationalism and the bizarre racial notions that still flourish among many Chinese. But he gives insufficient attention to the political and social consequences of the massive progress that China has made in communications, whether roads, phones or with the outside world, and of the urbanization that the leadership can slow but never halt.

It may not be their aim but the Soviet trained engineers who now run China are creating the preconditions for political change. The extreme Qin-Mao legacy of legalism dead, is the Imperial-Dengist neo-Confucian model any more secure? Taiwan indicates that that is not so.

Chinese history, on the other hand, suggests that the remarkable survival of the single state is due to the supremacy of the state bureaucracy over individual and family interests. Becker leaves the reader wondering that imponderable: Can Chinese enjoy both liberty and unity?