26 July 2004

Alive in the Bitter Sea

I recently skimmed through parts of Fox Butterfield's book China: Alive in the Bitter Sea. Butterfield was a New York Times reporter who lived in China after it first opened up. The book is an interesting read, but suffers from a number of serious defects. The major fault is in the author's basic attitude. Butterfield has a very patronizing negative view of the Chinese revolution and everything that followed. He constantly discusses the everyday difficulties of Chinese trying to "survive" (as he puts in) Chinese society. One gets the feeling that Butterfield has never visited another third-world country (although he in fact has) or that he is unfamiliar with the realities of poverty and life in the third world. Living in poverty is difficult and involves endless sacrifices.

The hidden implication of the book seems to be that China would be a giant Taiwan had it not become Communist (an idea that is constantly parotted by many right-wing true-believers). I have a hard time believing this. It is my understanding that the so-called Asian tigers actually got their start from war-profiteering (does this sound familiar?) during the Korean and Vietnamese Wars--it's unlikely that a large country like China would have enjoyed the same cozy status as supplier for the US war machine. What's far more likely is that a capitalist China would have gone the way of many South American countries with a huge gap between the rich and poor and an economy vulnerable to outside interference and manipulation. Such an economy may have produced more in the long run, but the benefits would probably not trickle down to the average Chinese citizen. As it worked out, the Chinese, under communism, were autonomous and able to develop a sense of self-confidence. This is not to say that Chinese communism did not have its problems, but any critique of it should fully acknowledge the backwards state of the country when the communists took over.

On a more minor note, I could point out the author's odd rendering of the original Buddhist meaning of the four-character phrase that forms the book's title. Butterfield says it means something like surviving the bitter viscissitudes of life (I can't find his actual words). I can't think of a less Buddhist sentiment. Does anyone know the originally meaning? (I think the Chinese would read something like Ku Hai Ju Sheng).

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