AT A 1979 WHITE HOUSE dinner honoring China's leader Deng Xiaoping, actress Shirley MacLaine told Deng about a Chinese scientist she had met who said he was happier and more productive working on a Chinese farm. Deng cut her short. "He lied. That was what he had to say at the time," Deng retorted.

This anecdote is recounted by Time magazine's Richard Bernstein and The New York Times' Fox Butterfield, both just back from long stints in China. The story, whose source is the self-effacing MacLaine, sets their books' theme: the things we used to be told about China were lies.

Over the past five years, the Chinese have been telling painful truths about their society in order to confront some serious problems. From how women deal with their menstrual flow in a country that does not manufacture sanitary pads to the perquisites of high-ranking military officers, both these books, especially Butterfield's, offer much vivid detail on daily life not available to an earlier generation of travelers to China.

Butterfield's fast-paced, richly anecdotal, deeply moving book makes the best use to date of China's own newspaper reporting about political barbarism and economic bumbling. He recounts, for instance, a newspaper story from Hangzhou, China's beautiful lakeside city. Three years ago a young gang leader was executed on TV. For the previous four years, no one dared tell how a gang led by him and his brother, sons of a general, held kangaroo courts, before which 106 women were illegally tried and then raped.

The reform movement that is trying to overcome China's rape plague and many other problems is in trouble. For example, policies encouraging merit-access to education are being sabotaged. When access and promotion were by purity of politics, China's powerful army and administrative leaders could wangle their children's way into the best schools and the most cushy jobs. A society based on meritocracy would threaten the offspring of the ruling groups who fought and risked their lives to make the revolution.

The reformers are trying to buy out the incompetent old guard with early retirement, good pensions and honorary advisory status. But many of these noble red lords insist on passing their fiefdoms and status to their blood heirs. The reformers seem to have less a problem of building socialism than they do one of emerging from a feudal dark age.

Legal reforms read more like 16th-century practice in the West. The recent abolition of confession as a requirement for conviction is an attempt to remove a medieval remnant of traditional China that was an invitation to torture.

Many of China's most pressing problems--corruption, demoralization, juvenile delinquency and loss of respect for authority--should, according to Butterfield, be blamed on Mao's brutal and ultimately pointless Cultural Revolution.

But that's not how China's super-patriotic conservatives who oppose China's reformers see the mess. They blame the reformers. The nativistic old guard believes that China is threatened by a second invasion of opium brought on by the reformers' opening of China to the capitalist world. The secret police feels a need not for legal restraints but for more force to deal with foreign subversives and the new opium carried by foreigners--pornography, rock music, long hair, youth rebellion, and prostitution.

Bernstein offers a lucid, compact and informed introduction to the historical roots of this conservative xenophobica. Butterfield brings it home by piling on the horror stories of victims, dissidents and the Chinese press.

That these searing accounts are one- sided because they leave out the ordinary joys and tribulations of the 80 percent of China's people who live in the countryside is the fault of the rigid police regulations which keep reporters away from villagers. It would be misleading in the extreme to accept the characterization of hard-working peasants as "lazy, dirty, deceitful," a characterization offered by one of Bernstein's angry urban informants. Recent price reforms that have placed more money in peasant hands are partially turned into purchases of alcohol and tobacco, but not because rural folk are lazy. Rather, with cigarettes and drinks, one can entertain friends and family and live in harmony with the happy dictates of human sociability.

What both authors capture brilliantly are the profound patriotism, pride and conservatism of Chinese society. It is important for educated Chinese to be able to claim, as Butterfield reports, that whatever China's crimes or errors, still, compared to India, on vital matters such as longevity and income inequality, China is doing much better.

These prideful popular emotions are most obvious in sports. After China won an Asian badminton championship, the nets, rackets and birds sprouted all over. Recently, when China took an international volleyball title, the national jubilation was so wild as to scare even the police.

Given this nationalism, reformers who say all those bad things about China are seen by many Chinese as trying to run down China. While many Chinese might accept as accurate the abominations recorded by Bernstein and Butterfield, many fewer would accept the American authors' conclusion that they prove the Chinese system a failure and reveal Chinese socialism as an ideological cover for a police state, an overcentralized Stalinist economy that can't deliver the goods, and a brutal and conservative culture.

China's conservatives want reformers to stop washing the nation's dirty linen in public. They want positive heroes, not rape scandals, in the newspapers. Insisting on standing up for China, these nativists, with their police-state methods, brand the reformers as anti-China elements. Their xenophobia may yet be the poisoned glue uniting the mass of Chinese to discredit and defeat the reformers.

Bernstein and Butterfield point out that much has improved recently in China. Nonetheless, they lead one to expect that the reformers will lose to the super-patriots. But the poorest peasants have raced to embrace the reforms which free them from collective farms. And urban dwellers do hunger for what the reformers promise about housing, education, food, and legal order.

With popular cynicism running deep, as both authors show, the reformers feel they must quickly deliver the goods. Unfortunately, China's problems are so entrenched that each hasty reform backfires and leaves people more open to the siren song of the patriotic purifiers. These two books are excellent introductions to just how entrenched many of the worst problems are.