PHILIP SHORT is a young Englishman who was the BBC correspondent in Moscow from 1974 to 1976 and then went immediately to become its first Peking correspondent from 1977 to 1982. His approach is largely anecdotal but there are a great number of shrewd insights into the communist systems in both China and Russia.

He first contrasts the two countries. China has intercontinental missiles but "it is still a country more profoundly conservative than the most dyed-in-the-wool Western traditionalist could conceive of; a country where peasants still drown girl-children at birth, where a hundred million people are short of food, and hundreds of millions more spend their lives in a brutish struggle to exist." This combination of emergent superpower and backward developing country, ancient civilization and feudal peasantry, makes China unlike anywhere else, including the Soviet Union. With regard to national character, Russians are excessive; they go to the brink. Chinese are more controlled and reserved. Russians are patriotic to the point of chauvinism; Chinese are family-centered and cynical. Russians are violent; Chinese are calculating.

Their communist systems, on the other hand, have many similarities. "Many of the ills of communist systems are due to the way they are structured: all the lines of command are vertical, from higher authorities to lower ones; horizontal lines, between different units at the same level, are missing." Corruption in communist states is not a passing aberration but is intrinsic to the way the system is ordered. When politics outweighs merit and patronage is more important than ability, when the exchange of favors is more important than money, "corruption becomes part of the currency of daily life." The black market is only the small, visible tip of the "iceberg of corruption."

Privilege, like corruption and bureaucracy, is also intrinsic to the system. A senior army officer in Peking occupies a 23-room mansion belonging to a disgraced opera singer; a minister refurbishes his house immediately after his appointment and wants five bedrooms with bathrooms. "The fine tradition of plain living," complains People's Daily, "has faded among some of our comrades." In the Soviet Union, wives of Politburo members use French perfume and leaders collect luxury cars. In both countries a relatively small group of leaders dominates the system, in the Soviet Union, the elite is based on the nomenklatura posts controlled by the Central Committee and numbering about 250,000 elite positions, including those in the armed forces. In China, the number of comparable "high cadres" is probably fewer than 50,000, reflecting the fact that it is a much poorer country.

Next Short compares Stalin and Mao. He begins with notes on a political prisoner in China in 1967 who had liver cancer but whose life was prolonged so he could be subjected to shock interrogation. The prisoner, an elderly Chinese professor, hadn't done anything wrong. He had the misfortune of having the wife of Liu Shaoqi as one of his students 25 years earlier and he was asked to provide information for Mao to use against her in order to have Liu expelled from the Party. Old "granite- head," as he was called by his interrogators, refused and the confession eventually extracted from him was so incoherent as to be unusable. The account of the interrogation was made public during the trial of Mao's wife Jianq Qing. The report, says Short, could have come from the case-file of a political prisoner under either Stalin or Mao.

Stalin and Mao both built personality cults in the tradition of the feudal aristocracy. Both were corrupted by the power they wielded and the adulation they received. In Stalin's case it fueled his megalomania; in Mao's it cut him off from reality. In Mao's China as in Stalin's Russia, culture was "stifled by revolutionary mawkishness." Where Stalinist terror was performed by the secret police, Mao's terror was the product of a mass movement. The number of Stalin's victims was so huge as to be almost beyond comprehension. In the Great Purges, 1 million Soviet citizens were executed and 8 million imprisoned; from 1936 to 1950, 12 million prisoners died in the camps; at least 7 million died before 1936 in the collectivization famine. During his two decades in power, Stalin killed 10 percent of the Soviet population. In the Cultural Revolution, 1 million Chinese died, 30 million were persecuted and another 100 million were discriminated against because of their class or occupation or because they had relatives in political trouble. The brutishness of the Cultural Revolution, Short documents, and Mao's responsibility for it, cannot be overstated. Intellectuals were especially vulnerable and a number committed suicide. There were, however, important differences between Stalin's Great Purges and Mao's Cultural Revolution, the most important being that Stalin shot his enemies whereas Mao's "counterrevolutionaries" survived and went on to rule China after Mao died. Short mentions this critical fact but, unfortunately, does not analyze its implications.

Other sections of the book deal largely with post-Mao developments in China from the "Peking Spring" of late 1978 and early 1979 to the clampdown on "Democracy Wall," the tightening of political controls and the "conservative revival," including the repression of the democracy movement and one of its most eloquent spokesmen, Wei Jingsheng. Wei, the closest kindred spirit to Russia's great dissidents, ceaselessly argued in the brief period of freedom in China that "without political democratization, the four modernizations cannot come true." And he rejected "methods of dictatorship" to solve "problems of the mind."

Short also deals with some of the political and economic reforms that Deng has been trying to make in China since the crackdown on the dissidents and the restoration of party control. These include restrictions on the length of terms of Central Committee members, a systematic effort to promote younger men to positions of power, etc. Unfortunately, Short does not analyze the nature of the political reforms or the degree to which they are likely to have any permanent impact on the Chinese system. He devotes more space to the economic changes--the new priority to light industry, the greater role for market forces, the increase of individually owned shops and restaurants, the appearance of foreign entrepreneurs investing in joint ventures, and the de facto decollectivization of agriculture via the so-called "household responsibility system."

Short concludes with a discussion of the balance of power among Moscow, Washington and Peking. He has some insightful things to say about Sino-Soviet relations. The Soviet state and society, not just the leadership, is "neuralgic about China." Even such Russian dissidents as Solzhenitsyn and Sinyavsky excoriate the Chinese as vigorously as any commentary in the official press. Soviet political prisoners in camp with Andrei Sinyavsky in the 1960s said they would side with the West in any future war against Russia but they would fight for Russia against China. In the small towns of Siberia, according to Short, most people believe that war with China is inevitable. Of course, the Soviet leaders seek to manipulate this sense of threat to their own purposes; but there is a real, visceral, irrational fear of the "yellow peril," part of the "siege mentality" that has made Russians throughout the ages fear powerful neighbors.

In China, since Mao died, Short observes, the conditions for an eventual normalization of Sino-Soviet ties have been steadily developing. The ideological element of the schism has fallen away. The very term revisionism has been dropped and some Chmaninese suggest that the Soviet Union, despite its imperialistic foreign policy, remains a socialist state. If the Soviets show some flexibility, Short says, "a Sino-Soviet d,etente of some sort should be under way by the end of the decade."

The author is not alarmed at this prospect. In fact a reduction of tension between Peking and Moscow is in the West's interest because it would offer a real chance of achieving lasting stability in the triangle. Moreover, such a d,etente is a far cry from a Sino-Soviet rapprochement which is inconceivable for a number of reasons-- the territorial dispute, the Soviet urge to dominate, the force of nationalism on both sides, etc.

Short warns that there is a real risk not of a Sino- Soviet rapprochement but of a Chinese turn back towards isolationism if the United States disregards Chinese sensitivities over Taiwan.

This volume obviously covers a great deal of ground and can be read with profit by anyone with a serious interest in one of the supreme public issues of our day-- the nature of communism. Because Short avoids the over-simplified approaches of those who seek to understand communist countries either through the historical-cultural or the ideological approach alone, but rather synthesizes the two, the book is balanced. At the same time, the full horror of living under communism comes out quite vividly in these 500 pages.

If Short's book is to be faulted at all, it is for insufficient analysis of a number of questions that he touches on but does not probe in any depth. What are the limits of political and economic reform in communist systems of the Russian and Chinese type? Doesn't the fact that Mao's opponents are now ruling China while Stalin's opponents were put to death have significant implications for the future of reform in China? Can the Chinese elite succeed, without the political democratization demanded by the dissidents, in modernizing China? Is the Chinese revolution destined to be something of a carbon copy of the Russian revolution or does the enormous cultural difference mean that the outcome will be quite distinctive? Why are communist systems so prone to terror? In sum, I would fault Short only for not asking himself more difficult questions. Still, given the enormous merits of this book, that is only a quibble.