Five Classmates and the Story of the New China
By John Pomfret
Henry Holt. 315 pp. $26
Those of us reporting on China a few years ago believed the big story of the early 21st century would be its transformation from impoverished pariah to economic juggernaut and global superpower. Instead, 9/11 shifted the attention of U.S. media to the Muslim world, and China became, as it had been for most of the previous 500 years, an intricate sideshow. That's a shame, because the massive societal shifts in China -- which form the most fascinating, relevant and important development of the new millennium -- have been steadily pushed off the front pages and opening segments by a flood of stories on the war on terror.
Washington Post reporter John Pomfret's compulsively readable new book on today's China deserves far more attention than that. Chinese Lessons is a rich, first-hand account of modern Chinese history as it was lived and experienced by five of the author's 1981 classmates at Nanjing University. Pomfret was among the first generation of American college students to enroll in exchange programs with Chinese universities in the early 1980s; the New York native grew up to become The Post's Beijing bureau chief and one of the very best reporters covering China throughout the dynamic 1990s, with his writings emerging as the standard by which many of his peers judged their own work. In his hands, the journey of his classmates becomes not just an entertaining and precisely rendered account of a changing China in which consumers' aspirations ratcheted up from bicycles and wrist watches to Audis and flip-phones; it also becomes a splendid human narrative of how fragile souls weather barbaric cruelty, social shifts and the rewiring of a nation.
When Pomfret arrived in China shortly after Deng Xiaoping had launched China's free-market-oriented economic reforms, he met his college roommates -- seven perpetually hungry, reed-thin, cotton-jacketed survivors of various denouncements, rustications and "struggle sessions" inflicted on supposed traitors. They generously gave him the bunk next to the window, a prime location in a dank, first-floor dormitory room that was a maze of wet clothes hanging to dry amid a haze of garlic stench. The students whom Pomfret came to know were only just emerging from a long Maoist nightmare: "My classmates snooped on each other, read each other's diaries, feared and suspected one another -- an expression of the deep mistrust they perfected during the Cultural Revolution when they were pitted against their parents, siblings, and friends."
Every Chinese over the age of, say, 45, has a vivid recollection of life under Mao Zedong -- often of the national psychotic episode known as the Cultural Revolution, in which Mao unleashed his Red Guards as he reestablished control in the mid-1960s. Pomfret vividly recounts such stories from his classmates and their families. There is Old Wu (called "old" because he is a year older than Pomfret), the son of a prominent academic, who found out about the murder of his parents from two fellow Red Guards as they giddily recounted it. Or there's Zhou Lianchun, who, as a 15-year-old Red Guard, fanatically denounced his mother in public for three days as a "capitalist" and screamed at her to renounce her "bourgeois sensibility."
The journey of these college roommates through university and into middle age is an easy-to-follow road map through post-Mao China. Chinese Lessons explains so many of the contradictions that one encounters in the country today: A nation that prides itself on family bonds and ancestor worship can also exploit relatives and tear down monuments. Pomfret shows how the cutthroat immorality that pervades so many segments of Chinese society today is rooted in the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. ("Why," he wonders, "did so many stories in China always seem to end with the bad guys getting away, literally, with murder?") Yet once Deng lifted the economic strictures of communism, as immoral as they were, they were never replaced by another ethical code save the "man-eat-man" (the common Chinese translation of "dog-eat-dog") capitalism of modern China.
As a result, China has gone from being one of the most egalitarian societies in the world to among the least. It is a rapidly aging country stricken by widespread and devastating environmental degradation, and the government's first response to epidemics, poisoned water supplies and natural disasters is usually to try to cover up the debacle. Pomfret's sketches of self-serving Chinese officials, bureaucrats and businesspeople will be depressingly familiar to anyone who has worked in China. (Though this was the first time I had read of some Chinese executives' penchant for spending weekends smoking methamphetamine, popping Viagra and bedding prostitutes.) And Pomfret's portraits of contemporary Chinese who enter adulthood with a naive optimism that is soon replaced by heartbreaking cynicism will be maddening to readers who are rooting for China to become a responsible world power. Yet to his great credit, Pomfret's affection for the people he is writing about almost always shows through, which keeps Chinese Lessons from feeling like a polemic; the book's accumulation of acutely observed detail is compelling.
Pomfret ends by positing a notion that will be increasingly discussed in years to come as China's great opportunity for economic growth begins to look more and more like a wasted chance to improve the lives of so many of its people: "The social contract hashed out by Deng -- you can get rich if you keep your mouth shut -- is fraying because too few people have won their share of the bargain." If Pomfret is correct (and I think he is), China will still be the great story of the 21st century -- not because of what has gone right but because of what has gone wrong. ·
Karl Taro Greenfeld is the author of "China Syndrome: The True Story of the 21st Century's First Great Epidemic" and was the editor of Time Asia from 2001 to 2004. He is now the editor at large at Sports Illustrated.