CHINA'S FATE; A People's Turbulent Struggle with Reform and Repression 1980-1990 By Edward A. Gargan Doubleday. 340 pp. $22.95

CHINA'S FATE belongs to a genre of unevenly successful foreign-correspondent China books, many of which are as much about the difficulties of being a western journalist in a land in which everything that is not explicitly "open" is "closed" as they are about China itself. Former New York Times correspondent Edward Gargan falls into this trap in self-consciously written early chapters, which resemble grab-bags of leftover travel notebooks and official interviews. However, the book takes off when Gargan finally discards his laconic observer/analyst role and becomes engaged, first as a sympathetic eyewitness to student demonstrations in Shanghai in December 1986, then as an outraged chronicler of cultural devastation and military repression in Tibet in October 1987, and finally, spectacularly, as one of the western journalist-heroes of May-June 1989 overtaken by the people's urgent pleas to "let the whole world know" about the massacre.

A former Berkeley graduate student in medieval Chinese history, Gargan lived in China from 1986 to 1988 and returned in the spring of 1989 to witness the student demonstrations. In chapters on U.S. China policy, the Chinese people's loss of faith in the Party, the destruction of traditional culture, the economic reforms, the black market and the city of Shanghai, Gargan records such China-watching essentials as the Hainan Island automobile import scandal, businesswoman Guan Guangmei's controversial success in rescuing failing state enterprises in Liaoning, and President Bush's secret dispatch of high-level emissaries to Beijing within months of the June 1989 Tiananmen massacre. However, Gargan is often just enough off the mark to be disconcerting. There is a tendency to simplify complex questions and omit important descriptions of how China operates; much of what he writes has been better and more thoroughly stated elsewhere.

Among books by foreigners, more consistently interesting have been those by people of less sensitive status, whether English teachers, like Mark Salzman in the witty, self-centered Iron and Silk or Rosemary Mahoney in the sensitive and moving The Early Arrival of Dreams, or intrepid travelers testing the limits, like Colin Thubron in the beautifully observed Behind the Wall or former graduate student Vikram Seth, whose adventurous journey from Xinjiang through Tibet to Nepal is described in From Heaven Lake.

Gargan gives the impression that he might have preferred the old China of his graduate studies. He rightly takes Beijing to task, for example, for the destruction of the old city wall and ancient neighborhoods -- although this loss has been extensively described by other observers. In a chapter bemoaning the disappearance of minority cultures, "The Other China," he condemns the vicious suppression of local traditions, but gives little sense of the complexity of official policy toward minority nationalities, failing to mention, for example, the Nationalities Institutes, which both preserve local culture and train assimilationist officials. BUT Gargan hits his stride in his dramatic description of the events of spring 1989. He spent May visiting students in their tents on the square, and he vividly depicts the optimism of those days and the fact that almost no one foresaw the impending violence, not even the "frightened youngsters in uniform." He conveys an atmosphere of jubilant festivity, even when the soldiers first arrived: Protesters handed them popsicles and water, and they dissolved into tears of confusion and retreated.

In what has now become a controversial position, Gargan supports a very high fatality figure of about 3000, based not only on early Red Cross and intelligence reports, but also on what he and friends saw on the night of the shooting, when he saw "many" deaths by machine gun near the square and heard reports of "many" more, including the mangling of students by tanks as they lay sleeping in their tents. However, his own findings at the campuses, in the aftermath, tend to support the lower figure of less than a thousand that is now widely accepted: He found no deaths at an unnaturally quiet Beijing University, where workers with hoses were eradicating all trace of the big character posters that had been put up over the previous six weeks; white wreaths honored three students ("Mourn our students. Mourn our China") at a furtively put-together memorial at Qinghua University. At People's University, Gargan heard of raids by plainclothes policemen and fought off a crowd of government thugs, but was apparently told of no deaths.

Gargan's strength lies in description rather than analysis. He does not, for example, address the essential question of what might have happened had Zhao Ziyang's reformers, and the students, prevailed (as they came close to doing) in a land in which there is only a weakly developed civil society and little cultural basis for pluralism. In fact, many activists now acknowledge that their struggles were premature at best.

Until recently, books by western observers were among our only windows on intrigues at the very highest levels of power in China. Since the June 1989 Tiananmen massacre, however, many former Chinese policy makers, now refugees in the West, have lost all incentive for self-censorship. It is simply untrue that, as Gargan claims, "There is much that will never be known about the battles fought inside the Zhongnanhai compound {the residential complex of many of China's top Party leaders} during April and May 1989." In fact, many of the key participants are now writing books precisely about those struggles and those of the past decade. Until such time as they are published, however, Edward Gargan's book provides a fairly comprehensive summary of some of the more dramatic events of recent Chinese history.

Judith Shapiro, co-author with Liang Heng of "Son of the Revolution" and "After the Nightmare," is a resident scholar at Philadelphia's Foreign Policy Research Institute.