A Westerner's perceptive look at China's people; The Chinese: Portrait of a People, by John Fraser. New York: Summit Books. $14 .95.
For those who have visited the People's Republic of China as tourists in recent years, this book will be welcome for its deeper insights and useful information about what they have already glimpsed. John Fraser, the Peking bureau chief of the Toronto Globe and Mail, was there from 1977 to 1979, and he has an exceedingly sharp eye and keen ear.
For those who are planning to go to China --book is a highly readable assessment of almost every major aspect of life there today. As a good journalist should, Fraser writes with plenty of color for ordinary people, not for the specialist or academic, and he has certainly covered a lot of ground, literally and figuratively.
As the title makes clear, his prime interest is the people of China -- not officialdom, international relations, or government. So one gets a personal portrait of ordinary Chinese, sometimes as individuals, sometimes as typifying a large group. Along the way, however, most of the top officials and major issues come into the picture naturally enough, for, after all, they are what individual Chinese are thinking about, talking about, or reacting to.
For the beginner, Fraser takes us through his own early weeks in Peking, when everything was new and he was somewhat of a tourist himself -- although one determined to convey every facet of Chinese life to his readers in the outside world (including those of The Christian Science Monitor). Later he came to know many Chinese personally and could delve into their thoughts and activities with greater perception. His affection for them grew, but it seldom blurred his ability to ferret out and record their shortcomings, too.
One of the book's highlights is a section on Xidan Democracy Wall, which flourished in late 1978 and early 1979. There, for the first time under Communist rule, ordinary Chinese were allowed to voice their true sentiments aloud and in wall posters. They were even permitted to make contact with foreigners. And John Fraser was on hand night and day, eager to catch every nuance. Indeed, he himself once participated at the wall by giving (at the request of the crowd) a report on the meeting of US columnist Robert Novak with Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping.
Xidan was, he says, "a remarkable, unprecedented time," and it was then that he first felt able to penetrate the curtain of inscrutability the Communist rulers have so carefully erected and find the genuine Chinese sentiments that lie behind the screen. His description of the crowds and his own interaction with them makes compelling reading.
There are profiles and anecdotes about well-known people Fraser encountered, such as Chinese writer Han Suyin, author of "A Many Splendored Thing," along with a few caustic comments about visiting dignitaries who seem to speak mainly in platitudes -- except for the Prime Minister of independent Fiji. (He put in a good word for his island's former colonial mentor, Britain, which so dismayed his Chinese hosts that his speech was rigorously censored in the press.)
Yet, to my regret, the book seems to bog down in its later chapters. It is not that the material becomes less interesting. It is only that there is so much of it. Like China itself, it sweeps over you and begins to seem endless. There are the young and the old, the city and the countryside, the political elite and the poor, women and minorities, armed forces and police, housing and jobs, and children, and, of course, romance. One is reminded of a sumptuous Chinese dinner where the courses keep coming and coming until they begin to pall.
What one remembers best, however, is the Chinese people's incredible ability to adapt to any system, no matter how repressive, to learn to survive under it, to bend before it, but also to bend it, and sometimes, with swift, silent strokes, to even the score with an oppressor. This carried them through the chaotic, unstable latter years of Chairman Mao, when universities were shut down and many educated urban families were sent into the hinterlands to live with the peasants and supposedly learn from them. The same doggedness and adaptability serves the Chinese today, when life is less unpredictable but still far from ideal.
In the years before US correspondents were allowed into China for more than brief visits, it is good that this candid, apparently tireless Canadian was there to chronicle what went on.