Pity John Woodruff, China book author. After five years combing the People's Republic for insights and anecdotes, after a year putting his thoughts and notes together into a coherent whole, after waiting patiently through copy editing and galleys, he finds his book coming out in the middle of one of the great crunch points of modern Chinese history, when student uprisings and army massacres place in doubt many of the assumptions of the period he had so carefully described.
And yet, this book has much to offer, thanks largely to Woodruff's comprehensive knowledge of China, sense of balance and--most uncharacteristic of China book authors--modesty about what can and cannot be said about a country in painful transition. For Americans who have not paid attention to the Chinese drama until recently--a group that includes about 99% of the reading public--this is a timely background briefing, a welcome addition to the stream of daily bulletins and headlines that have too little time and space to give anyone a history lesson.
White House advisers ought to tear out the book's last two chapters, "Students in the Streets" and "Will China Make It?," and stick them in their boss' weekend reading file the next time he goes off to Kennebunkport. In the chapter on students, we see the uncertain beginnings in 1986 of the movement that turned Tian An Men Square into a remarkable encampment for freedom and democracy, words whose vague meaning for Chinese is well analyzed here.
Woodruff describes the students' first use of "The Internationale," of all things, as an anti-government protest song. He traces the beginnings of large student demonstrations to some semi-official protests of Japanese foreign policy and to a few hundred Shanghai undergraduates who felt classmates had been manhandled by police at a concert given by the aged surf rock duo, Jan and Dean. In an intriguing clue to the spirit that erupted at Tian An Men, Woodruff finds young Chinese engaged in "a search for identity or a sense of place or belonging . . . in a society that has rejected both its old certainties and its new, and has replaced them mainly with a drive for national prosperity."
In the final chapter and in a brief epilogue written last December, Woodruff uses just the right term--"control-minded"--to describe the Chinese leadership that unleashed an ill-trained, paranoid army on the students. There is no better explanation for the root of the violent response to what most Western leaders would have considered an annoyance to be handled by local police, hardly something worth even canceling a vacation for.
The bulk of the book provides a helpful review of the reforms of the Deng Xiaoping era as they affect consumers, peasants, workers, women and the Communist Party. Woodruff avoids leaping to conclusions from the bizarre byproducts of loosened restraint, such as female body building and punk haircuts.
His last chapter includes an astute disclaimer that should probably be memorized by all China correspondents, past and present, and particularly by people like me who suffered severe emotional and intellectual whiplash from returning to Beijing in the heady days of May and then witnessing the terrifying, heart-breaking events of June 4 at Tian An Men:
"Foreign commentators have been writing for nearly one hundred years that China has been standing poised to join the modern world, and that the next few years would see China burst upon the world scene as a major economic and political force. These enthusiasms of foreigners have accompanied events as long ago as the abortive reforms of the late 19th Century, the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, the victories of the Nationalist armies in the 1920s, and the rise to power of Mao's Red Army in 1949. Some of the voices that have participated in these enthusiasms have belonged to figures of far grander reputation than my own, but I am little inclined to join this distinguished company."
Woodruff, who served from 1982 to 1987 as Beijing bureau chief of The Baltimore Sun, confesses at the very beginning that this is a journalist's book, "one reporter's attempt to describe and to comment upon what he saw of a unique moment in time." He takes care to disguise his Chinese sources and notes those moments he relied upon the observations of other reporters, but there is a depth and assurance to his reporting that may derive from the unusually long time he has been watching China--beginning in Hong Kong in 1970--and the Asian studies he has pursued at both the University of Michigan and the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University.
Knowing what we know now, Woodruff's cautious final conclusion strikes just the right note: "My sense is that the rapid and dramatic changes I saw are indeed potentially historic, but that the key word in the sentence may yet prove to be 'potentially.' It still seems too soon to feel certain that the Deng Xiaoping years will prove, in retrospect, to have been more than the greatest in a long line of ambitious starts."