China Moves Faster Than the Times

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China: Alive in the Bitter Sea, by Fox Butterfield, New York: Times Books, 1982, 468 pp., $19.95.

To be labeled feudal in China today is to be identified as an unacceptable throwback to the past. It is the single most disparaging charge that can be made of any social, economic, or political institution. And yet, despite its technological achievements and nuclear capability, China is more feudal today than it has been for over a hundred years. A Chinese may not change his residence or even travel any distance without a written permit; once assigned a job, it will be his for life (and will likely be handed over to his oldest son); marriage requires the approval, not only of one's parents, but of both partners' danweis (the omnipresent organization of one's place of work); having more than one child also requires approval; and if one commits a crime (of which philandery is a most serious one), there is no comprehensive body of law or procedure by which one will be tried, convicted, and serve out one's sentence. Even the rights of ownership were better guaranteed in pre-Magna Carta, feudal England than they are in China today.

Fox Butterfield's China: Alive in the Bitter Sea reveals a China of inherent contradictions: a Communist society whose 30 years of painful, evolving revolution has, more often than not, only achieved the opposite of its intentions. For a social planner, it is a textbook on how not to go about improving a society. It is the most disconcerting testimony to the futility of striving for an egalitarian society or for a more equitable distribution of wealth that we have available.

China may be the most consciously classless society anywhere, anytime, but it has replaced class with an intricate system of ranks—and rank in China has its rewards, in spades: the difference in income and benefits between members of the lowest and highest rank in any particular Chinese profession is often 10-fold—appreciably more than in any Western society. China's rush to mechanization has most often been shown to be more costly than traditional, labor-intensive methods. Mao's Great Leap Forward of 1957–59 had the disastrous consequence of setting the country back 10 years; his dying attempt to regain control and rekindle idealism with his Cultural Revolution of 1966–71 has had the effect of sapping the country's revolutionary spirit and creating pervasive disillusionment, anomie, and—most frightening—an aimlessness that seems to pervade every branch of society except the military.

Why the military? Because they were the only phoenix to have arisen from the ashes of Mao's Cultural Revolution. They were the only force that could, in the end, suppress the destruction unleashed when Mao turned the young, the illiterate, the untrained, and the unskilled loose on the emerging elite of technocrats, professionals, and intellectuals that had become the inheritors of Mao's long march to China's Communist revolution. The Cultural Revolution disrupted and destroyed the lives of 100 million of China's most highly skilled, organized, and educated—one out of every nine people. When the Red Guards were finally called off and the country put back to work after five years of disorder, the army emerged as the only remaining stabilizing force.

But the dead could not be brought back. The humbled and humiliated had learned their lesson, too; they did not return willingly to their old jobs and to leadership positions. It is not the Chinese way—the Confucian code—to leave oneself open again to renewed attack. So China now has hospitals headed by untrained doctors, factories by unskilled managers, and government by unscrupulous bureaucrats. Seventy percent of the men who head China's prestigious Association of Science and Technology are neither scientists nor technologists; they are party hacks.

We come now to the most unkind contradiction, the quickest cut of all: the most conservative and restrictive force to emerge from China's revolution is proving to be the left, in both its investment strategy and its suppression of personal rights and freedoms. And, irony of ironies, the most liberal and progressive force emerging in China is the right, in its advocacy of profit incentives to increase production, deficit spending to increase capital accumulation, personal freedoms, a written body of law, a new emphasis on the provision of tangible rewards for labor (consumer goods and housing). It's really an old story: the story of religion and the rise of capitalism out of feudal Europe. Except now, the restrictive religion in China's counterpart is the old guard of the Communist Party. A more entrenched, conservative lot you'll find nowhere, not even in Russia.

It is in this China that Fox Butterfield arrived in 1974 to set up the New York Times bureau, first in Hong Kong, then, when China opened up in 1979, in Beijing. Armed with a reporter's jaundiced eye, a cynicism developed from looking closely at the Pentagon, and a mastery of the Chinese language unusual for Westerners, he found much in China to expose and exclaim about.

Butterfield's book recounts a dismal past and recounts it well, with the reporter's knack of pitching the reader a strong opening line, following it up with facts and details (too often gleaned from standard texts), and ending with the inevitable personal anecdote. It is a waning style (every chapter is structured this way) that makes for easy, if not occasionally repetitious, reading. But it is a hard-hitting, fact-filled book that is well researched—although not always well documented.

There is a major problem with Butterfield's book in that it can almost be said that it had to be written now, and quickly, if it were going to be written at all. For in my recent visit to China, I found it to be neither as pervasively depressing and corrupt, nor as hopeless, as the world portrayed in Butterfield's pages. It is hardly a land of plenty—barely enough around to eat for 95 percent of its people—but it is a cheery and hopeful place, not without humor.

The professionals I met in China—architects and city planners, as distinct from government guides and Communist cadres—have little patience for bureaucratic pretense and rigamarole. They appeared shy and withdrawn while the officials were present, but the occasional smile or twinkle betrayed their real thoughts. Once alone, they told the truth about the progress of various plans; and we plotted, successfully, to circumvent the prescribed visits to the joyless, modern monuments of Communist culture. Instead, we escaped to look at how people built their environment and live in age-old traditions.

This was my experience in city after city visited, with building contractors and construction workers as well as professionals. I don't know the common root of this rebellion, but I sense it is pervasive and that the Chinese speak a different language out of the earshot of officials. Five years ago, such encounters would not have been possible. And so one must suppose that this new administration is providing the change and relief to China that was the vision of the revolution of 1949.

The Chinese have through the ages assimilated religions and philosophies as they have invaders, making them uniquely their own. One can assume they will do the same with communism; the signs are already there. The current regime has been talking about the mistaken ideas of the "left" for a few years now. There's a fresh wind blowing. For how long, one cannot say. But it is the most important thing to happen to China in 30 years—and one can feel it as a breeze even in Butterfield's book.

In attempting to strike a balance, I don't want to give an incorrect, overly optimistic view. The problems are large and remain in evidence. They will take a long time to erase because they are supported by entrenched bureaucracies; and people, not systems, are the most recalcitrant force with which every new administration, regardless of persuasion, has to deal.

To understand China, one must understand its context, something Butterfield seems reluctant to waste pages on. One billion people—five times the population of the United States—live in a country only slightly larger in area than ours. But that's just the beginning. Most of China's arable land is located in the relatively small eastern segment of the country, and 90 percent of the population is located there. Since 80 percent of the Chinese live in rural areas (in contrast with 70 percent of Americans who live in cities), it is not surprising that the rich farm country that lies between Canton, Shanghai, and Beijing is occupied at the same density as greater Los Angeles, producing the problem of people crowding out rich farmland.

China is the world's largest producer, but also the world's largest consumer, of grain. Not enough is produced to feed the country, and even with sizable imports, the caloric intake of most Chinese is barely above subsistence level. All basic necessities are rationed in China: food, clothing, housing, manufactured goods.

Visitors to China, and there are many these days, provide a handsome source of foreign currency. But they are carefully shown only the most prosperous areas and are fed like emperors by Chinese standards—given that ration coupons allow a pound of fish per adult a month—if there is money enough to buy it.

Surreptitious visits to ordinary department stores in my visits to China's medium-size to large cities revealed plentiful consumer goods at rock-bottom prices: 6 US dollars for a dress, $12 for a man's suit. Even if the quality is shoddy by our standards, the price is right (although less than 25 percent of urban dwellers—or 5 percent of China's total population—earn enough to buy simple household things regularly at department stores).

Some goods in China are even exceedingly well made. Overly curious on a shopping spree one day, I noticed that both the exquisite handmade paintbrushes and the luxurious brocaded silk were manufactured right there in Shanghai. On a whim, I asked if it were possible to visit the factories that made them. It was toward the end of my professional visit to China, and as I had spent more time working than intended, the Chinese were anxious to express their thanks by granting me my every wish. The brocade factory proved one of the joys of my journey. It was of English manufacture, shipped over in its entirety in the 1860s. It looked like an entire factory made up of the gleaming parts of antique automobiles. An ingenious old man and his two young apprentices kept it running. They had even built themselves their own machine shop to make spare parts. It clicked, it clanked, it sent steam puffing, and it wove out a brocade of the finest grade and texture. But it did so at one-tenth the rate of modern machines, not counting the numerous stops and starts. It is not the wave of future China.

Butterfield talks of a poorly housed China, of uniform people in uniform clothing (women in colorless shirts and pants), and of no public display of affection, even among young couples. He tells horror stories about individuals caught up in the trap of a domineering, gleefully malicious bureaucracy. No doubt the stories are true, but how representative are they? People who seek out foreign correspondents to share their woes are a self-selected group. Most Chinese professionals and workers I encountered are weighed down and feel stymied, it is true, but they are neither without hope nor without laughter and open displays of affection. Everywhere I went there were young people necking at night.

Most people view the brutalizing restrictions and naivete of the Communist bureaucrats as a temporary phenomenon. China's civilized past is being rediscovered. Times appear to be changing. Shops are filled with colorful blouses and dresses that are being increasingly worn in the streets by the indigenous population in even low-income areas. The housing crunch is excruciating, but all of China—large city, village, and farm—is stacked with bricks and mortar for the construction of new housing. The standards of the new construction are admittedly minimal, but housing is going up at an increasing rate, currently one million units a year—peanuts by our rate of building, but a hundred times faster than what was going up before. Ten years ago, all government-supplied building materials went to the construction of new factories—highly inefficient factories, it turns out—but now bricks are going mostly for housing. Factories are also turning their attention to the supply of consumer goods.

Again, don't draw the wrong conclusions; things in China are anything but rosy, and by any comparison China has a long way to go even to catch up to its neighbors in Hong Kong and Taiwan. China's industry and work standards are inefficient and lax and suffer from severe disorganization and lack of individual responsibility. But this is recognized and being changed through profit incentives and decentralized control. The methods of successful Japanese business are being studied and copied.

But China needs 20 years of peace to make the strides it is hoping for. It also must begin to dismantle the largest standing and comparatively best-fed and -housed army in the world. All this is a lot to hope for in a nation with 13,210 miles of borders shared with 12 nations, including the Soviet Union, North Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, India, Mongolia, and a highly contentious Taiwan just off its coast (not to mention the industrial giant of Japan). Even Butterfield, with all his reservations, recognizes China's achievements and potentials and wishes her luck.

Oscar Newman is an internationally known architect and city planner who, at the request of the Chinese government, recently toured China's largest cities. His books include Defensible Space and Community of Interest.

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