Keeping up with the New China

Discos and Democracy: China in the Throes of Reform

by Orville Schell
Pantheon, 384 pp., $19.95

Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience

edited by Geremie Barmé, edited by John Minford
Hill and Wang, 491 pp., $25.00

Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China

by David Kidd
Clarkson N. Potter/A Griffin Paperback, 207 pp., $11.95

Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China

by Colin Thubron
The Atlantic Monthly Press, 307 pp., $18.95

The Chinese modernization effort of recent years is on so titanic a scale that it is hard to grasp. Can China switch from a command economy to a free market in goods, capital, people, and even ideas? If so, can Party dictatorship survive? A period of railway and city building, typical of the nineteenth century, coincides with a flowering of postindustrial electronic technology. Issues of the Renaissance and Enlightenment in the West compete with a reappraisal of China’s own values. Change is headlong; China’s development is stretched thin. Wang Yang-ming’s unity of theory and practice, so admired since the sixteenth century, is hard to find. No wonder Deng Xiaoping’s reforms confuse us as well as people in China.

As we emerge from our obsession with the cold war we find it useful to help the development of our erstwhile antagonists Russia and China, much as we found it useful to help German and Japanese reconstruction after World War II. But in China our understanding of the forces at work is confused by the size of the problems and their speed of change. Some sage must have remarked that it is harder to understand friends than enemies, particularly when the friends are pursuing revolution in the name of reform. The four books under review illustrate different kinds of first-person, nonacademic approaches to the Chinese happening. They are short on statistics, long on personal impressions.

Orville Schell’s talent has steadily matured pari passu with the revival of Chinese-American contact since the early 1970s. At first, when China’s intellectuals were still downtrodden and American observers were regarded as intruders, Schell could do little more than exchange furtive generalities in dark corners with alienated riders of mopeds. This enabled him to report on the marginal misfits in a still closed society as in his book “Watch out for the Foreign Guests!” But as Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues began to profit from their experience as victims of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, they took the path of opening China to the world’s trade and investment as well as to its people and ideas. On his repeated visits to China Schell found more and more friends to talk to. He was able to read the new press and magazines and finally to interview some of the more prominent and influential Chinese about vital issues. Where his earlier books, though always amusing, seemed sometimes superficial, in Discos and Democracy he has gotten inside the Chinese reformer’s situation. The result is first-rate reporting.

Schell’s main characters are three: first, the innovative entrepreneurs who are riding the tidal wave of foreign imports and influences; second, the hard-line Maoists of the old guard who try to save the communist order they built up. Third are the straight-talking critics—mainly writers—who assert the basic truths of the situation as the only possible basis for China’s reconstruction.

After 1978 Deng’s switch to an Open Door policy let in the flood tide of importations—electronic gadgets and other consumer goods, joint ventures of foreign and…

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