On reading ‘Alive in the Bitter Sea’

Fox Butterfield’s China: Alive in the Bitter Sea is the original China journalist’s book of the modern, post-Cultural Revolution era, and it holds up quite well today. Published in 1982, it captures China at a remarkable and delicate turning point: a time when the old system had lost all credibility thanks to the exhausting turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, but it was not yet clear what new system would come to replace it.

By his own admission, Butterfield completely missed the economic renaissance that was beginning to unfold during his time in China, possibly because he was prevented from traveling to the rural areas where the most dramatic changes were taking place. But for me this adds rather than subtracts to the book’s value, because it is not shaped by the false confidence of hindsight, and reflects all the doubts and uncertainties of the time. Given all the China-model triumphalism that is going around today, it is useful to recall that in 1980 no one knew that an economic miracle was about to unfold in China, least of all the Chinese.

But Butterfield was a good enough reporter that there are plenty of hints of what was to come in his interviews. One of many excellent anecdotes in the book is the following:

By lucky chance, on the night before I left China, a friend arranged for me to have dinner with a member of Mao’s family. My friend specified we could meet only if I agreed not to divulge the man’s identity–he lived a precarious existence–and I assented.

He turned out to be a dignified, reserved middle-aged man with a high forehead and swept-back hair reminiscent of Mao. Whenever he mentioned Mao, it was always as “the Chairman.” He wanted to talk with me, he said, because he felt there was misunderstanding about Mao. Mao was not a conservative, he insisted, he was always open-minded. He loved to read books–when he went on tours of the provinces, the one thing he took with him were cartons of books, and his bed was always half covered with unread volumes. …

When dinner was finished, Mao’s relative wanted to ask me a question. Why, he pondered, was China so backward compared to Japan? One hundred years ago they had been at the same level. “Is it because socialism is not as good as capitalism?” he asked.

It was an awkward situation. I felt embarrassed to evaluate China’s adoption of communism in front of a member of Mao’s family. But then he answered for me.

“In theory, socialism is excellent,” he said. “It provides for economic as well as political democracy. But in practice, it has shown weaknesses. We let the state and the bureaucracy grow too strong and prevented the development of individual initiative. China needs to find some way to combine the two systems.”

Would the Chairman feel the that way? I asked.

“The Chairman was always prepared to learn,” he answered.

Thanks to Lucy Hornby for recommending this book to me.

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