Communist China, The Early Years: 1949-55
by A. Doak Barnett
Praeger, 360 pp., $6.95
Fundamentally China is a sellers’ market. The first half of this century, when there was a glut of books, seems to have been the exception. Since 1949 a veil has once more been drawn over the center of the mysterious east, and the situation has reverted to that of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when any work on China however shallow or careless was seized upon eagerly by the reading public. At first sight Professor Barnett’s work, an apparently hurried compilation of articles written between 1949 and 1955, might appear to exemplify this: the articles are repetitive and disconnected, and the book as a whole has no apparent pattern or direction. In fact, however, the writer is no dilettante and this work is one of the most interesting studies yet to appear on modern China.
Communist China is made up of such a profusion of paradoxes that it is impossible to describe it with both coherence and accuracy. Are the people happy under the new regime? Are they better off? Is the government popular? Is it oppressive? The answer to all of these questions is yes and no. In such a situation the book’s lack of structure is an advantage. With its piecemeal approach it begins to give one the feel of contemporary China in a way that would be impossible in a more methodical study. However, Barnett has not completed even an impressionistic picture of China during the first six years of the new regime, chiefly because he has not described the widespread popular enthusiasm for the Communist government. While it is true that writers sympathetic to the regime have vastly overestimated the extent, depth, and duration of this enthusiasm, it undoubtedly existed, and without some account of it a history of Communist China is completely incomprehensible. Part of the blame for this omission lies with Barnett himself, but most of it is inevitable in this genre.
Anyone but an American must immediately suspect the writings of an American sitting in Hong Kong, interviewing refugees and poring over official Chinese documents, with the apparent purpose of finding admissions of governmental failures. In the case of Barnett these misgivings are rather unfair. Although he is only on the outside rim of China and his sources of information are restricted, his experience of the country and his instinct for the essential enable him to overcome many of the limitations of his position. Indeed he creates a much more convincing picture of China than many people who were there at the time have done. Of course the situation of the expert in Hong Kong is not entirely disadvantageous. In some ways distance from the scene of action improves perspective; a writer’s eyes are often his least reliable source of information.
Barnett’s caution keeps him within the bounds of his information. One positive result of this is that he makes few mistakes, at least in the articles reprinted in this collection; they date very well indeed. At a time …