Recently, on the Bund in Shanghai, I gazed at a bronze statue of Mao Zedong’s foreign minister, Chen Yi, and thought of a courageous remark he uttered at the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1967. "Marx came from Germany," Chen said as Mao-worshipping Red Guards assailed him at the foreign ministry. "A Kautsky and a Bernstein were produced there to modify him. Lenin came from the Soviet Union; a Khrushchev appeared there. Chairman Mao belongs to our country; there may also be someone to modify him, wait and see."

We waited, and we have seen. Mao has been modified by Deng Xiaoping. Shanghai in appearance has ceased to be a city of the Mao era (clothing of one style, political slogans on every wall) and become a city of the Deng era (advertisements everywhere, traffic jams, the dust and hammering of construction). Has Deng buried only Mao, or Marx and Lenin too?


New York Times reporters Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn spent 1988-1993 in Beijing, and for their coverage of the Tiananmen crisis became the first married couple to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Now their book of reportage, memories, and reflections captures the late Deng era, in which Tiananmen was digested, by Chinese and foreigners alike, and "economic boom" became the new code word for China.

America’s scrutinizing of China during the century and a half since the Yankee clipper ships began calling at Canton has thrown to the fore few journalists as cool and professional as WuDunn and Kristof. Every page of China Wakes is trenchant, and I cannot think of a reportorial book on China so zealous in investigation and so painstaking in probing issues from every angle.

Reading this book reminds one of how China and the image of China in America have changed in one generation. In 1964, when I first visited Beijing, about 500 foreigners lived there and only one foreign airline, Aeroflot, flew into the capital. No American diplomat, businessman, student, or newspaperman resided in Beijing. Politics suffused every realm of life, and economic development was not seen as its own justification. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was still being celebrated with photos at bus stops of Chinese children cheering at the fall of an evil man. Kristof and WuDunn have no evident memory of this period when the United States and China often were on the brink of war. "Until the mid-1980s," Kristof writes, "China was no threat to anybody because its armed forces were so miserable." These are clearly not the words of someone who lived through the Korean War, the India-China fight of 1962, or the various Taiwan Straits clashes.

The 1970s were calmer than the 1960s, but four filters stood between China and the American public. Exoticism: we had not begun to see the universals that lie within Chinese particularities. Too many things in China were hailed as unique because we could not probe them from every angle. Ideology: the categories of discussion were shaped by Maoism. Many terms used by American journalists had little meaning apart from the agenda of the Chinese Communist Party: "Gang of Four," "three worlds," "serve the people," "capitalist roader." Propaganda: the voices of official China were the overwhelming source for reporting in the Mao years. The China reality was more or less what Mao and Zhou Enlai said it was. And finally, realpolitik: it was Washington’s cultivation of Beijing as a counterweight to Moscow, not the arguments of China watchers, that led to a favorable portrait of Mao’s China in the American press in the early 1970s.

This arms-length writing gave way by the late 1970s to books and reporting by resident correspondents that reflected a human engagement with the Chinese. Sports news from China began to appear on the sports page, health news from China in the medical journals. By the time of Fox Butterfield’s Alive in the Bitter Sea and Richard Bernstein’s From the Center of the Earth, both published in 1982, the abstractions of "threat" and "exotic" dissolved into an uneven array of specifics. China as what Mao and Zhou said it was gave way to China as a market for Boeing aircraft, a balance against Moscow, a laboratory of human stoicism and ingenuity, a represser of Tibet, and a tourist destination offering the electrifying terra cotta soldiers of Qin Shihuang’s tomb at Xian.

Kristof and WuDunn did not find China exotic in any way. Making Chinese friends, they bridged that gap between a self-conscious West and a self-conscious China that gave rise to the idea of exoticism. Ideology scarcely makes an appearance in their book. In China they "went native," helped by the fact that WuDunn is ethnically Chinese. They had contempt for the American embassy, found diplomatic parties fruitless, and nearly always had the option of unofficial sources. During their posting in Beijing, China was neither America’s adversary (as in the 1950s and 1960s) nor its quasi-ally (as in the 1970s). Only for a period after the Tiananmen disaster was their reporting affected by the flux of international affairs. Mostly they were free to look at Chinese society with a steady eye.

Candid and subjective, humanists in the style of their generation, Kristof and WuDunn struggle to be fair, worry about global warming, bring their baby son into the book, and care more for families and friendships than for politics and history. Here is no Agnes Smedley, pen in one hand and sulfur drugs for wounded Chinese soldiers in the other, or Edgar Snow, with his arm around Mao’s shoulder and his mind scarred by Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West.

China Wakes is removed, not just from Snow and Smedley, but also from Butterfield and Bernstein, both of whom studied China in graduate school, vexing over Vietnam, the "Taiwan problem," and the thoughts of Mao. Kristof’s Asian interests at Harvard were "limited to excursions with friends to a bar called the "Hong Kong." He and WuDunn did not set foot in China until 1987 and came to Beijing without baggage from the field of China studies or the feuds over China policy of the 1960s. China bubbled at their feet; they took it as they found it. They were not haunted by hidden meanings. Reading China Wakes, we realize China is being treated as a normal nation. The book could be titled Beyond a Pathology of China.


China Wakes is a deeply ambivalent book. The authors’ grim experiences of repression, especially following the Tiananmen disaster, jostle against their palpable excitement that China is taking off to prosperity, even to freedom, as Taiwan did before it. Kristof catches the illogical but hopeful spirit of the age by calling the Deng system "Market Leninism." Writing in alternating "he" and "she" chapters, the couple depict an economy jumping through the roof and a politics sunk in Stalinism. They see a system of rule by men and not by law, where the petty thieves are punished while the big crooks run the country. They observe the shriveling of Marxist faith, leaving "about as many believing communists in China as there are Zoro-astrians in the West." Filling the vacuum are religion, money-making, qi gong (the Daoist art of breathing and concentration), and a superstitious cult of Mao. "Maybe I’m not a believer," a travel agent at worship in a Catholic church tells WuDunn. "But this is Western culture, and I want to learn more about it. This is a very famous religion."

We read of eye-opening talk radio and a new literature of nihilism, which does not so much criticize the Chinese Communist Party as laugh at it, like the novel Fei Du (Wasted Capital), in which the main character sucks milk from a cow and a young woman dies from masturbating with corn cobs. We hear of the spreading cancer of corruption in which graft has turned into Mafia-style organized crime. (It is revealing of the Deng era that intellectuals do not bulk large in this book. We more often hear something interesting from a businessman or the son of a high official than from a professor.)

It would appear that Kristof (especially) and WuDunn have bought the Deng view of the reform era, as if only in 1978, when Deng edged out Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, did the globe begin to spin. They make a burlesque of the Mao era and subsume the Cultural Revolution of 1966-69 into the broader category of the late Mao years. These distortions are worth noting because they carry a warning about China-watching in the future. Involved is a mental process originating with the Beijing government, blacken yesterday to brighten today, that has tarnished all who have spent years listening to the Chinese communists. Actually, China still serves up a Beijing Opera version of events, complete with heroes and villains. Campaigns no longer target ideology as in the 1960s and 1970s. But they continue to occur; witness the handling of the Asian Games in 1990 and the failed bid to secure the 2000 Olympics. In the new campaigns, the nationalistic interest of the Chinese state replaces Maoism as the campaign’s raison d’être.

Kristof and WuDunn take potshots at Edgar Snow, Felix Greene, and others for past misjudgments about China, but some of Kristof’s own observations may bring a smile to the faces of our grandchildren. "If China can hold its course," he writes, "it will produce the greatest economic miracle in recorded history." Do I hear an echo of the drumbeating that surrounded Mao’s Great Leap Forward? Kristof concludes that the Chinese "live about as well as an American might live, in America, on $2,000 a year." If China did not have 1.2 billion people, no one would turn a hair at such a statistic. But Kristof’s conclusion is grand: "Never before has such a large proportion of humanity risen from poverty so rapidly."

One trait of the current awe at China’s economic boom, happily avoided in China Wakes, is a condescension to the Chinese and a supposition that a full belly and gadgets in the kitchen are all they desire. People do like to be free. There may not be a Chinese Solzhenitsyn, as Kristof and WuDunn point out, but a Chinese farmer knows what freedom is just as much as Kristof or WuDunn or I do. We should not underestimate the materialism of a people inured to scarcity and now unleashed. Nor should we underestimate the intelligence of a people who have spent thousands of years hiding their thoughts from lofty rulers.

Is China really "waking" in climactic fashion? Chinese intellectuals and American liberal reformers have announced such a dawn many times. But Deng’s policies of the 1980s and 1990s have only dismantled Maoism; they have not set in place a new polity, public philosophy, or socioeconomic order.


China Wakes is a child of the American liberal vision of progress. "We had in-vested our souls in China," the authors confess. WuDunn says she went to Beijing searching not just for the "real China" but for her own identity. Kristof felt "betrayed" by the Tiananmen massacre, as American liberal reformers in China before him felt betrayed by decadent Mandarins, warlords, Chiang Kai-shek, and Japanese marauders. The pair avow that China has "a fighting chance to go the rest of the distance." To where?

If there is a core to China Wakes, it is a ping-pong-style debate on this issue with three plausible scenarios for the future: China as a second Soviet Union headed for breakdown, a "dynasty" ruled by an emperor and now exhibiting terminal decline, or a country in which a civil society is jelling and a new politics of pluralism will soon result. Kristof and WuDunn cling to the third hypothesis. They think business, decentralization, and technology will in the end achieve a political result that the Tiananmen democracy demonstrations of 1989 failed to do.

I am not so sure. The authors rightly call the People’s Republic of China the "last great multiethnic transcontinental empire left in the world." The unity of China, historically often a myth, cannot be taken for granted as China undergoes socioeconomic change. If, as Lucian Pye has argued, a lack of competing interest groups facilitated Chinese unity, pluralism will imperil it. Various parts of the P.R.C., including Tibet and the Moslem province of Xinjiang, are not happy under Beijing’s rule. "We’re like Kuwait," a trader in Kashgar lamented to Kristof of the subjugation of Xinjiang to Beijing. "We’ve been invaded, but no one will help us." In addition, the capitalist jewel of Hong Kong is due to be absorbed within the P.R.C. less than three years from now, and a further "province," Taiwan, is coveted by Beijing. We cannot say all this makes for stability. The emperors may be dead, but "imperial Beijing" is alive.

Contrary to widespread belief, only about 10 million to 12 million people are employed in private enterprise in China. Beijing is losing economic control, less to the capitalism of entrepreneurs than to local state capitalism. Traits associated with private enterprise, property rights, the rule of law, free prices, professional associations, do not necessarily come when local governments act as capitalists. Hence the push that economic freedom gives to political freedom will be muted in China.

I cannot agree with Kristof that China "at this moment is not a communist country." There is no great ideological barrier to a transition away from Communist Party rule in the countryside. But the central Leninist power apparatus, including the police, the organizational and informational grip of the Communist Party, and the paternalistic control of urban industry, cannot just wither away. Leninist rule does not make a habit of slipping away in the night, as if China could imperceptibly become one huge Shenzhen.

The replacement of authoritarianism by some form of (Chinese) democracy will require more than economic development. It will occur only when the sense of nation as a jia, a household with an undisputed boss and a single set of values, is buried. And only after individual autonomy strengthens and the exaggerated sense of China’s uniqueness breaks down as today’s youth become power-holders.


Kristof and WuDunn are refreshingly unselfconscious about the U.S. role in China’s future. WuDunn in particular crisply separates herself from the American tradition of proprietary messianism toward China, and she wisely embraces "peaceful evolution" (Beijing’s term for America’s evil intentions) as an appealing principle for China and the United States to use in dealing with each other. A moral judgment of Deng’s rule is not helpful to American policy; an assessment of whether "Market Leninism" can endure is crucial. The human rights issue is really about China’s future, not America’s muscle-bound moralism.

The human panorama offered in China Wakes does not directly intimate what U.S. policy toward China should be. Yet America’s relations with China unavoidably will be shaped by the most basic question China Wakes discusses: Can Beijing’s authoritarianism smoothly evolve into political pluralism? The sharp swings over the P.R.C.’s 45 years between apparent political calm and violent political ruptures have taught me a lesson about the false facade of stability of a communist state. The raucous way democracies air their problems can give the appearance of instability, but in reality that process makes for stability. Real instability lies in dictatorship’s unaccountability, secrecy, and repression of opinion, for without freedom, political change can only come through bullet, coup, or dictator’s whim. "The loudest thunder comes from dead silence," a Chinese communist leader once said. "We are not afraid of the masses speaking up. What we do fear is ‘ten thousand horses standing mute.’" The words are Deng Xiaoping’s. As the 90-year-old leader plays with his grandchildren, those horses stand mute in every province.

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  • Ross Terrill has written extensively on China. His most recent books are China in Our Time, and the biography, Mao.
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