Inside The Peoples' Republic
800,000,000: The Real China, by Ross Terrill Atlantic-Little, Brown, $7.95.235 pp.
IN SPITE OF the televised hoo-ra-rah of Nixon's trip to China last February, and all the instant books on "The New China" which have proliferated in the aftermath, the need for reporting in-depth persists. Most of the small number of reporters given the chance to enter the country with the Presidential mission were caught by the suddenness of the Chinese overtures of friendliness, went on little notice, and had little notion of the country's history and customs. Once there, they discovered that some expertise was needed in order to treat the big stories; nationalism, the people's morale, the party's publically-stated ideology, the party powers' use of it. As an uneasy compromise, they spent their time writing mood pieces and verifying for the folks back home that the Great Wall did truly exist.
This was not the case for the Australian Ross Terrill. He not only reports the major issues in his book The 800,000,000, but also provides political, cultural, and historical background necessary to evaluate the significance of the developments he reports. Both a scholar and a journalist. Terrill had been to China briefly in 1964: last summer he was invited to return for forty days. As a scholar and a writer, he had at least three angles from which to view his hosts. First, there was history. Because he was familiar with Chinese history, he could compare the circumstances of their present to the conditions of the past. Second, he had the perspective of his other trip, in 1964. Having been to China before the Cultural Revolution, he was able to make first-hand observations about the changes which took place during the seven years he was away. Third, Terrill is a member of the Australian Labor Party. Considered a friend by Peking, he was given more freedom to talk with officials and mingle with the people than most visitors are allowed. Because he speaks Chinese, he made the most of his talks with officials (from Chi P'eng-fei, the Acting Foreign Minister, to Chou En-lai) and time in the streets.
HE IS best when combining his scholar's knowledge with his journalistic instincts in deciphering a real-life situation. For instance, he makes us see the relationships between the behavior of his restaurant waiters, the toned-down political slogans on city walls, and the new Chinese hospitality for Henry Kissinger. He shows us how the Red Guard and the Peking theatre reflect the Party line, and how the Foreign Ministry's willingness to talk about Taiwan demonstrate their new diplomatic flexibility.
Like all the Western journalists who thrive on their freedom to come and go as they please Terrill blanches at the thought of living with the restrictions on personal liberties which in China are commonplace. However, he stresses that the restrictions mean different things for the Chinese than for us. For the Chinese, the control provides a reassuring social structure in which to work. For the Westerner, it carries only negative connotations. Throughout the book Terrill tries to give a sense of Chinese values and the Chinese view of the world.
UNFORTUNATELY, the merits of this book only point to the need for further work out of China. For every question dealt with by Terrill, ten more come to mind. For instance, in spite of Terrill's attempts to communicate the spirit in which the Chinese embrace their slogans, it remains a puzzling phenomenon (for us.) Before we understand it, we shall have to know how the spirit of the rhetoric gets transmitted to the children. And for those Chinese whose revolutionary enthusiasm flags, we want to know the spirit in which criticism of them is given and accepted. Is this spirit culturally-cultivated, and thus relatively consistent in the population, or does it depend on the individual? Do married men and women really live holding their political responsibilities above their family obligations? How has the Chinese family structure been changed by the Party? The number of questions it is possible to ask about China go on indefinitely.
With his book Terrill has asked and answered a few; and raised and deferred a good many more. As journalism of the moment. The 800,000,000 provides points of departure for any and all with an interest in China. Incomplete as it is, it will have staying power as an introduction to further, more complete studies of the People's Republic.