August 30, 1982 12:00 PM

by Richard Bernstein

Since Ping-Pong diplomacy reopened China to the West in 1971, many American observers have treated the People’s Republic as a billion strays who have returned to “our” flock. In these brilliant reports, however, two Chinese-speaking, Peking-based journalists (Butterfield was New York Times correspondent in 1979-81, while Bernstein covers China for TIME) penetrate that silken facade. They reach similar conclusions: Maoism has left China mired in poverty and cultural mediocrity; most of its people are bored and cynical after the senseless persecution in the name of the revolution. The authors capture the drab lives of the urban proletariat and of those displaced by the Cultural Revolution. They reveal a secret privileged class. Most fascinating, though, are glimpses of Chinese straining for expression beneath the weight of the police state. Butterfield visits a Peking red-light district and some young dissidents; Bernstein investigates an underground Roman Catholic group. The journalists cite slight progress in diet and health care, but they share a belief—and anger—that the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat has victimized the masses it pretends to serve. One can only marvel at the Chinese capacity to chi-ku (suffer—literally, “to eat bitterness”). (Butterfield: Times Books, $19.95; Bernstein: Little, Brown, $15.95)

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