CHINA: Alive in the Bitter Sea by Fox Butterfield
Kirkus Star

CHINA: Alive in the Bitter Sea

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

From his three years as the New York Times Peking correspondent (1979-81) and four prior years in Hong Kong, from informants and scholarly sources, Butterfield depicts post-Revolutionary China as a shambles--and, on the scale of human values, a sham. True, the lifespan is longer; but except for the well-looked-after-elderly (who also recall pre-1949 penury), life is meager and confining. Your danwei--technically, your place of work--also controls your existence. (If you have a strange visitor, the danwei security section will be alerted. If you want to get married, divorced, or have a child, the danwei must approve.) Yes, women have been liberated; but they cannot now choose not to work. (And though women have undeniably benefited, they are far from equal--in status, work assignments, education, or pay. Overall, they do most of the fieldwork and also most of the housework.) Those enchanting, well-behaved toddlers? ""Every activity is still highly organized and, I noticed, initiated by adults."" The thriving peasantry? ""A widely variant patchwork of emerging prosperity and continued poverty."" (Maoist ironies abound--like emphasis on grain production in unsuitable regions, or at the expense of other valuable food sources.) Indeed, Butterfield stresses the growing disparity between urban and rural areas--and the discrimination: the barriers to a college education, the difficulty in joining the Community Party. The booming factories? Some impressive accomplishments--along with ""colossal waste, monumental miscalculation, an inefficient economic system, and bureaucratic bungling."" Like others (such as Bernstein, above), Butterfield cites the workings of privilege, the anti-intellectualism, the limited background of many cadres. He has some of the most extraordinary absurdist stories yet to see print--and some of the most horrifying. He expands on the disaffection of the young, the disenchantment of the once-committed. (He also observes that the peasants have a certain protective autonomy--and retain many unsuspected traditions.) And he writes, specifically, of ""the Chinese gulag"": the labor camps to which (per a rare official disclosure) ""80 percent of all prisoners in China are assigned."" Add the Koestlerian ""struggle session"" that Butterfield himself was once put through (for balking at paying for a ticket he hadn't ordered), and one can only share his sorrow for ""the hope, the energy, the talent, the idealism that were wasted, blighted by misguided political passions."" Given Butterfield's goodwill, there is too much here for the most wide-eyed friend of China to ignore.

Pub Date: May 14th, 1982
Publisher: Times Books