A Bitter Sea

China: Alive in the Bitter Sea By Fox Butterfield Times Books, 475 pgs. $19.95

THE SEVERITY OF COMMUNIST RULE in the Soviet Union is a well-established fact here in the West. The excesses of the totalitarian system there--the random arrests, the extensive security methods, the harshness of prison life, the denial of civil-liberties--have rightly horrified us. And there has proved no lack of Solzhenitsyns, Sakhorovs, and Pasternaks to remind us of these and other terrors.

Yet in the West lately and particularly in America, notions of a much less oppressive Chinese Communist rule have taken hold. Joyful and benevolent revolutionaries bringing quick progress to receptive masses, somehow this image has penetrated the psyche of many Westerners.

This is all part of a long-standing and fundamentally warped view of China upheld in many American quarters. Public opinion and perceptions of the country have long swung from one extreme to the other, rarely stopping to look at the reality of the situation.

In the early part of this century. American reformers thought they could remake China along Western lines and in the process create millions of new, untapped customers for American exports. Such unlimited hopes for China were dashed with the Communist takeover in 1949, and the pendulum of American opinion soon swung back the other way. McCarthy-era fears of "yellow hordes" hell-bent on expansion dominated the American imagination for over twenty years and grossly distorted our foreign policy in Asia. This attitude changed, however, in the 70's, with Nixon's visit to Peking. Today, the glowing reports of Communist progress we received from a few visitors in the 50's and 60's have become more or less orthodoxy, as we rush to build a failsafe strategic alignment against the Soviets.

IN CHINA ALIVE IN THE BITTER SEA, veteran correspondent and China-watcher Fox Butterfield debunks most of these illusions about the nature of the Chinese government, and injects a very believable image of society into our consideration of that country. A sprawling narrative of his tenure as New York Times bureau chief in Peking from 1979 to 1981, the book paints an ugly picture of the "unofficial" China lurking behind the official facade of a prosperous socialist success story. Drawing on a wide and extensive series of interviews with students, dissidents, party members, reporters, and his own observations and insightful analysis. Butterfield shows us a China with a degree of control over its people on par with the Soviet Union. He shows us a China of uneven growth, with great pockets of poverty. He shows us a China where party cadres and their children enjoy tremendous perks and benefits--so much for the society's supposed egalitarianism. And he shows us a Chinese people tired out by too many campaigns and shifts in the political line, their faith in communism slowly dwindling.

Butterfield touches on a wide variety of subjects in his probing of Chinese society, its peoples and attitudes. These range from the struggling dissident movement and youth disenchantment to daily life and sexual practices. The book is a collage of experiences, anecdotes, and conversations that marked Butterfield's stay in Peking and other travels around the country.

At one point in the book, for example, we meet his eager friends Li and Miao Wang over dinner in their "middle class" but spartan, two-room apartment. At another, we watch a tense encounter between Butterfield and authorities over failure to pay for a train ticket he did not want, it turns into a sort of "struggle session" from which he can escape only by paying for the ticket and apologizing for his "mistake."

As China: Alive in the Bitter Sea shifts from one snippet of life to another, Butterfield's sad image of the country becomes clearer. But the book is far from disjointed. Each anecdote of woe, each unfortunate experience, each tale of persecution fleshes out Butterfield's vision of official happy China's less appealing underside. More importantly, several significant themes reverberate throughout the work and color the reader's perceptions of this mammoth country.

The Cultural Revolution, for example, has left rivers of apathy, indifference, and distrust of communism running through China. "Before the Cultural Revolution, we Chinese lived under a great illusion," one discontented daughter of intellectuals tells Butterfield. "We believed the Communists could save China and make it prosperous and strong again ...Now people have seen through this, and they have suffered a terrible loss of faith."

This apparent malaise pervades the China Butterfield visited. He sees it in the factories, where "malingering on the job has become endemic." And he sees it in a compulsory class on Marxism which he attended one day at Peking University: an embarrassed teacher is unable to elicit a response from her students on what are the basic principles of socialism. "China," Butterfield dryly notes, "has become an authoritarian country with an authority crisis."

That this is, indeed, a terrifyingly authoritarian country the reporter hammers home throughout the book. The tight monitoring of the people, the stifling of free movement, the indoctrinating effect of loudspeakers everywhere--in fact, all the techniques of modern totalitarianism--are well developed in the China, we are told. This government control is, oddly enough, more psychological than physical. Constant monitoring by neighborhood groups and workplace authorities usually make overt police and military brutality unnecessary. "The constant exposure to publilc scrutiny and peer pressure makes life in China like living in an army barrack," Butterfield writes.

Not that the Communists hestitate to resort to force if "necessary." Arbitrary justice and unfair punishments abound, Butterfield notes, and the labor camp system is just as chilling as the Soviet Union. Struggle sessions, confessions, slave work, and summary execution are the rule in Chinese gulags. Butterfield learned from former prisoners. He is troubled by the failure of Westerners--who have followed closely the terrors of the Soviet gulags--to examine as closely similar excesses of the Chinese system.

BEYOND THE APATHY and terror of China, however, Butterfield tries to show a little of what everyday life is like--the struggle to get by in the morass of tight control, endless bureaucracy, mania for secrecy, and inefficient economic planning. The key here, he reiterates, is guan-xi, or connections. Tying together China's millions are invisible threads of relation between friends and acquaintances. "It's who you know. . .if you do something for him...then he'll do something..."--this sort of backdoor agreement is the lifeblood of the system, and the real avenue for getting things done in China, he says.

Moreover, he describes an economy wracked by inefficiency and inequality. New equipment lies unused in factories around the country. Too much emphasis has been placed on heavy industry, and the government has neglected such fundamental sectors as transportation, housing, consumer goods, and agriculture. Indeed, Butterfield notes that in the land where Mao hoped to bring about equality for the countryside, farmers lag for behind city-dwellers economically, and the central planners have done little to bridge this gap.

Although Butterfield's vision of China is bleak, he never degenerates into spite. The approach is factual and dispassionate, the work detailed and well-documented. Butterfield's conclusions are not the result of one or two conversations, but of dozens of interviews, penetrating observations, and a deep understanding of Chinese traditions. He compiles an impressive array of contacts and uses them well, giving us not a blind and hateful rejection of Chinese communism, but a precise analysis of its problems.

For Butterfield is the first to agree that the Communist rule is a marked improvement over that of the decrepit Nationalist regime it replaced. But this apology for China's present problems, he notes quite correctly, ignores the "reality that 65 percent of China's one billion people...have been born since liberation and don't remember the bad old days...all they can remember is tumultuous political campaigns and a sluggish economy." Such an explanation is "condescending and insulting," he notes. "It suggests that China could not do as well economically as its neighbors Taiwan and South Korea, or achieve both the political democracy and economic growth of Japan."

Butterfield's picture of China is indeed grim, but it is convincing. He has evidently scoured Chinese society to get at its roots, and the result is impressive. While one might wish he had investigated certain aspects of China in greater depth--rural China, for example--one cannot argue that this nearly 500 page book is not as complete as it could possibly be without being tiresome and longwinded.

And despite its disparaging message. China: Alive in the Bitter Sea is not without hope. For if there's one thing that Butterfield celebrates, it is the talent and creativity of the ordinary people. People like Lihua, a young woman who managed to educate herself and get herself back to Peking, despite having been sent to the countryside during the stormy Cultural Revolution. Or people like Wang Keping, a young dissident sculptor. Or the many other talented people whose energy, idealism, and talent have been wasted, "blighted by misguided political passions." The potential for success is there, Butterfield seems to be saying. It is now up to the Communists to start tapping this talent.