China on the Rocks

China: Alive in the Bitter Sea

by Fox Butterfield
Times Books, 468 pp., $19.95

From the Center of the Earth: The Search for the Truth about China

by Richard Bernstein
Little Brown, 260 pp., $15.95

Our relations with China are notoriously subject to swings of opinion. Idealization and disillusion, euphoria and cynicism, follow each other as though our national psychology were regulated by some manic-depressive clock. The current trend toward disillusion about the quality of life in China is no doubt part of a cycle, swinging back from the overblown enthusiasm of the early Maoist revolution of the 1950s. But the new disillusion may also represent a new fact of life, that the Chinese people are in an unprecedented quagmire created by history as well as by the Maoist revolution. Since their hard fate affects ours, it is a time for understanding and for thinking twice. Disillusion could become a reciprocal process.

In the summer of 1943 when wartime propaganda and censorship had built up in the US a better-than-life image of Chiang Kai-shek’s Free China, three writers whose names began with B—Pearl Buck, Hanson Baldwin, and T.A. Bisson—punctured the rosy-hued balloon by reporting Kuomintang China’s actual fatigue, corruption, demoralization, and disunity. The “three Bs,” though denounced in Chungking as saboteurs, struck a blow for realism: they asked Americans to face the reality of China’s problems, while Chiang Kaishek told his officials to see less of Americans. Now come two more Bs—Fox Butterfield and Richard Bernstein—asking us again to face unpleasant facts.

Again, as forty years ago, we are caught in the Sino-American cultural gap. Muckraking, now called investigative reporting, is a public service to Americans, who need their daily muck to feel healthily democratic. But it is seen as an unfriendly if not treasonous disservice to the established order in China, which has normally maintained itself there partly by looking good. Since both the United States and China seem to be becoming less governable, no matter what ideologies they cling to, the shortfall in China between ideal and reality is poignant news in America, while to have it talked about may be considered bad news by the government in China. Yet Peking is committed to “seek truth from facts.” We all confront the usual problem, what is true, on balance?

Butterfield and Bernstein both start by examining the special status accorded foreigners in China, and the journalist’s need to break out of the polite cocoon of interesting bus trips and succulent dinners that makes tourism to China such a success. Both reporters have the special merit of being academically trained Sinologists and historians as well as first-rate journalists. Unlike travelers disoriented by culture shock, they can share the Chinese habit of viewing the present against the long sweep of the past.

They also represent the first wave of Chinese-speaking American correspondents to be stationed in Peking after the normalization of 1979. By that time modern-minded victims of Mao’s decade of cultural revolution (1966-1976) at last felt free to tell their stories of mindless victimization by adolescent Red Guards and Maoists. Both authors report case histories with names changed and identities masked, but the horror stories are in tune with much recent reporting. Most…

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