THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER, RED CHINA TODAY, by Edgar Snow, Random House, 810 pp., $10.00.
In 1937 when Edgar Snow evaded Chiang Kai Shek's Kuomingtang blockade of the Communist controlled Shensi province and first met Mao Tse Tung and his band of revolutionaries, most people in the outside world doubted that these Chinese "soviets" even existed. Snow's prediction of a Kuomingtang-Comunist alliance was widely discounted; his warning of a post-war victory for the revolution was almost completely ignored. In fact, Russia as well as the West scoffed at this so-called Communist movement, which possessed a peasant rather than prolctarian base. Up through the 1949 debacle, the Soviet Union continued to support Chiang.
Snow's interview with Mao made history. He was the first journalist whom Mao had permitted to visit Communist territory, and in his classic book Red Star Over China he gave the world its first close-up of this guerrilla movement that was steadily gaining strength in the North of China. At the same time, he obviously enjoyed travelling through the mountains with a group of young men who seemed to be among the few people in China actually doing something about mass poverty, illiteracy, and Japanese imperialism.
In 1960 Snow once more made history. As the first American journalist since the 1949 Revolution to revisit China with the permission of both the U.S. State Department and the Chinese government, he again enjoyed a monopoly of first hand information. Judging by the tone of his book, Snow seemed to hope that his trip would reopen Sino-American channels of communication.
It may be that the Chinese, by allowing him to visit their country, were indicating a desire for improved relations with the United States. But it remains to be seen whether the State Department will be able to incorporate the facts that Snow presents into its thinking about the land behind the "bamboo curtain."
During his five months in China in 1960, Snow talked at length with Mao Tse Tung and Chou En Lai: an opportunity no American diplomat has enjoyed. Yet When Snow returned to the United States, Dean Rusk (who was then about to assume his position of Secretary of State) only managed to find about ten minutes to talk with Snow. His questions reportedly did not reveal a complete grasp of conditions inside China. "Does China have much iron?" Rusk is said to have asked. Why yes, the largest vein in the world," Snow gratefully replied.
But Snow could have said a lot more to Rusk. As an old China hand who remembered famines that reduced millions of human beings to eating bark, selling their children, or just dying in the streets, Snow found China's material progress since 1949 pretty incredible. Although he was in China during a year of severe drought in some areas and floods in others, he found that an equitable rationing system introduced by the government had virtually eliminated the old problem of starvation. (Actually industrial workers, pregnant women, and children get special dispensation.) Snow personally investigated almost every province in which American journals (which he had no trouble receiving by air all the time he was in China) reported famine. But he failed to observe any signs of severe malnutrition. To be sure, no one was fat. But people were eating rice, not bark.
Industrialization by American standards is still generations away, Snow emphasizes. China is still a poor country; but it is precisely in its attempt to escape its poverty that the nation's influence over other revolutionary movements lies.
Most of the underdeveloped world is evaluating the contrasting methods of industrialization employed by China and India, and according to Snow's statistics, China appears to be well in front. Unless, he argues, the United States wishes to alienate every nation that prefers China's techniques for making rapid progress to India's terrible poverty, it must adopt a far friendlier attitude toward social revolutions, even if they are guided by Communists.
Inside China, according to Snow's estimates, the revolution has the support of about 80-90 per cent of the people. Almost everyone he talked with during his visit, even those people whose wealth and status has declined since 1949, took great pride in their country's recent achievement.
But material progress is no moral justification for a regime, even if its leaders have managed to acquire widespread popular support. Hitler, after all, built good roads and won himself some elections. According to Snow, however, the Chinese government has demonstrated neither the brutality nor the imperialist tendencies of a fascist state. National pride is widespread, to be sure, and, after ten years of indoctrination, so is widespread belief in the eventual triumph of world communism. But according to all the official propaganda, at least, this does not mean Chinese or Russian territorial expansion. The Chinese intend to aid and encourage independent, "national wars of liberation whenever they can, rather than fight them.
In contrast to the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communists seem to have consolidated their revolution with a minimum of physical brutality. Snow ran into many "reformed" landlords and ex-businessmen--men who would have been killed in Russia. According to law, political criminals are executed only when their counter revolutionary activity results in the death of another person. Most political prisoners go to rehabilitation centers or work camps where they receive education in socialism, a process called brainwashing in the West.
Snow's reaction to the China he visited in 1960 was inevitably tempered by his memories of the courageous and dedicated guerrillas he once knew and the abysmal conditions in which most Chinese then lived. Needless to say, the Mao The Tung he interviewed in 1960 heads a nation of 700,000,000, a nation that claims to be even more Communist than the Soviet Union. The Chou En Lai whom he accompanied on several trips now directs a foreign policy based on the premise that Snow's native land perpetuates and itself epitomizes all evil. But he is also the man whose wife Snow saved from capture and death at the hands of the Kuomingtang.
If Snow in his book seems to take a kind of whimsical, slightly naughty pride in dropping names of people most Americans associate with evil incarnate (something along the "I was the only person ever to interview Mao Tse Tung in his pajamas" line), this only defines his perspective. It does not destroy his objectivity. The great value of Snow's massive collection of personal observation, statistics, anecdotes, and philosophical commentary lies in his intimate acquaintance with the Chinese scene, before and after so to speak. Here is a man who lived in China for about fifteen years before the Revolution, speaks the language, and knows personally China's top leaders. Yet he is an American who admires what is most American in the Chinese Revolution--the new work ethic, social equality, and even some of the puritanism. As an American, however, he regretted the controlled press, the extent to which most people's lives are regulated by the state, and most of all the fantastic distortions of American life and policy that the official line perpetrates.
Snow did get the feeling, however, from many of the Chinese to whom he talked, that the reasons for much of the discipline and sacrifice of personal liberty were pretty well understood and accepted by the population. Chinese who remember the old days of hopeless poverty can now see, from year to year the material results of their sacrifice, though they cannot yet enjoy them.
If Americans find it difficult to conceive of such sacrifice perhaps it would be easier to remember that the Chinese are making war against poverty and backwardness in as real a sense as they would wage any kind of foreign war. The food shortages they suffer are relatively not much worse than, for example, those of Britain in the worst stages of World War II. In spite of the people who would bring even further hardship on the Chinese in the hopes of crumbling the regime, it is hard to blame Snow for wishing their revolution well.