Shining A Light On China's Dark Side


By Jasper Becker

Free Press -- 464pp -- $27.50

According to Jasper Becker, Beijing bureau chief of the South China Morning Post, today's China is not a happy place. In his impressive if pessimistic survey, The Chinese, the author describes the huge strains facing the country as it attempts to modernize its economy, while still being led by a suspicious and heavy-handed Communist Party.

Becker's primary focus is on some of the less attractive aspects of this rapidly changing land: often abused workers and peasants, worsening health care and falling education standards, a weak rule of law, rampant corruption, and widespread environmental degradation. He introduces the reader to a wide range of Chinese--from an elderly Hunan farmer outraged by high local taxes to the Guizhou police officer who is too poor to afford shoelaces but still rides in a luxurious Japanese jeep. Becker asks: Will China overcome the obstacles facing it and slowly open its economy and country to the world? Some of his conclusions are discouraging. "A tiny elite will remain in charge of the destiny of the vast majority of submissive, relatively poor, and ill-educated peasants," he predicts. "China will remain an essentially agrarian and autarkic economy in which living standards for all but the elite will improve only slowly."

It's a useful corrective for those who imagine that free markets are already producing a broad, modern, middle-class society in China. Unfortunately, Becker's pessimism blinds him to some positive developments, such as the role being played by new entrepreneurs.

Becker is particularly well suited to write this account, having spent more than a decade reporting from China's sprawling cities and its remotest hinterlands. He is deeply skeptical, especially when it comes to data on economics and social achievements such as reported high levels of gross domestic product or low rates of infant mortality. He knows all too well how statistics have been bent to serve prevailing political elites. In his earlier book Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine, Becker laid out in grim detail how fake economic numbers led to a famine that may have killed tens of millions during the 1950s' Great Leap Forward. While many China-watchers assume that China's economic data can be relied on at least to show trends, Becker doubts even that. "The information travels up through the bureaucracy, and every layer revises it to conform to the targets set by its superiors," he says. "I suspect...that many figures are simply made up to suit the propaganda needs of the day."

But what Becker is sure about--and persuasively demonstrates--is the degree to which life in China remains for many a struggle to survive. From the arbitrary taxes levied on farmers by rapacious local officials to the working conditions of migrant workers in the export-oriented factories of China's south, Becker offers powerful evidence that life for many is not improving and may even be worsening, a clear indictment of the supposedly pro-worker Communist Party. Similarly, the author's outrage over rampant corruption, and the asset-stripping that has accompanied attempts at reforming the state-planned economy, is vindicated by the past year's crackdown, which saw executions of scores of officials, including a deputy chairman of China's Congress.

Becker also details such environmental disasters as deforestation, desertification, and dwindling water supplies. We get, for example, an ominous picture of arid Shanxi province, where rivers are dry and many peasants live in caves carved into barren hillsides.

But the author has less to say about such major developments as China's imminent entry into the World Trade Organization, arguably the clearest sign to date that China's leaders have decided to gamble on the long-term benefits of globalization. And except for cataloging the abuses in export-oriented factories run by overseas Chinese and Korean investors, Becker offers little on the huge roles that foreign investment and expertise continue to play in China, the world's second-largest recipient of foreign investment.

Moreover, while Becker does a good job of laying out the many challenges facing private enterprise in China, including government prejudices against private businesses and difficulty finding funding, he barely mentions perhaps the most important new group of entrepreneurs and managers in China today: The returning overseas students and homegrown academics-turned-businessmen who are starting and running a plethora of info-tech companies. These include China Netcom's Edward Tian, UT Starcom's Wu Ying, and Legend's Liu Chuanzhi. These key players will only become more important, given the World Bank's observation that China's private sector already accounts for one-third of total GDP and is growing at 70% per year.

Shining a Light on China's Dark Side

Becker at times seems so focused on bad old Communist China that he may underestimate the degree to which personal freedoms have expanded despite the huge obstacles to political reform. And he is prone to overstatement, going so far as to conclude that "China is now a society in which everyone seems to be engaged in deceiving and cheating one another." Ironically, his book provides powerful evidence of Chinese strength: Whether it is a loutish police officer in a Hunan brothel or an impoverished peasant in the southwest, Becker shows most people are ready to speak the truth. Their voices go a long way toward mapping out the challenges that lie ahead.

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