THE CHINA OPTION by Nancy Dall Milton


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Co-author of The Wind Will Not Subside (1976), an exemplary memoir of teaching experiences in China, Milton has solid, intriguing ideas about China's future--especially the possible complications in any American plan to ""play the China card"" in an alliance against the USSR. Here, however, she attempts to dramatize those speculations in an all-too-conventional romance/suspense novel; and the result is a talky, fitfully absorbing, and highly uneven future-history thriller that drifts back and forth between damsel-in-distress adventures and diplomatic/military machinations. The heroine is new-to-China newswoman Anne Campbell, ex-wife of a top China-news expert (he wanted babies, she didn't), who promptly slips away from her Peking ""guide"" long enough to make contact with a group of young dissidents: they tell her of mass arrests, of strikes, of anti-Western sentiments, of peasant hardships. Meanwhile, however, some out-of-control hawks in Washington are planning to cement the US/China alliance--with a nuclear-warhead buildup and a contrived China/USSR border incident. And, not very plausibly, while secretly meeting with strikers in Tianbei, Anne gets hold of evidence of this US plan--so she is soon branded as a KGB agent, relieved of her newspaper post, and nearly assassinated. But finally, since Anne is also having an unlovely affair with Peter of the US Embassy, she's able to help arrange a meeting between the US Ambassador (who's been kept in the dark by the hawks) and the Chinese-dissident leader . . . though not in time to avert Sino-American catastrophe on the novel's last page. (""Now the experts in Washington would explain it all, the ones who'd been carefully holding their hands over their eyes so they wouldn't see anything to disturb their precious strategies."") Milton does best here with the insider-views of China: ambivalent popular reactions to modernization, the operation of ""free-trade-zone factories,"" the possible sources of wide rebellion (plus some less-than-relevant lecture material on ancient Chinese history). The hawkish scheming is somewhat less convincing--more doomsday-cartoon than textured futurology. And weakest of all is the use of Anne herself--a not-especially-engaging heroine whose role in the international goings-on is amateurishly contrived. An ambitious, intelligent, ill-coordinated mix, then: too thickly informative for casual suspense reading, too creakily plotted to take seriously throughout--but modestly rewarding as a pu pu platter of China topics, if not as a main-dish political thriller.

Pub Date: Oct. 18th, 1982
Publisher: Pantheon