He Qinglian is mad and she's not going to take it anymore. The author of perhaps the hottest nonfiction book in China these days has come to this ancient capital on an ironic quest: to denounce a book written under her own name.
He's book, "China's Pitfall," constitutes the most cogent critique of China's economic reforms to have come out of the country. In it she blasts everyone -- but mostly the Communist Party -- for creating a situation where wealth is concentrated in the hands of sleazy bureaucrats, national resources are plundered for the benefit of the few, and the common folk are left to pick through the leavings with little hope of a fundamentally better life.
He (pronounced Huh) paints a grotesque Chinese landscape packed with rip-off schemes run by party officials, smuggling rings masterminded by cops and officers from the People's Liberation Army, and whorehouses managed by government toadies in polyester suits.
The publication of the book in Hong Kong late last year and a toned-down version titled "The Pitfalls of Modernization" in January marked a major event in Chinese publishing. For the first time since reforms began in 1978, a Chinese scholar has written a systematic critique of the process -- not from the perspective of a leftist wrapped up in the moribund theory of Marx, Lenin and Mao, but from the perspective of one who has lived through the process and seen what has happened to people on the street. So why is He in Xian, more than 1,000 miles from home?
"I'm being ripped off, too," says the 42-year-old economist as she sits in a ramshackle hotel room strewn with teacups and cigarettes. "It's pretty ridiculous. Here I spent years trying to get this book about the reforms published. I did it so I could raise consciousness about the issues. And what happens? Somebody is eating my flesh, drinking my blood."
And the perpetrators weren't sneaky about it at all. Indeed, they came to Xian, the site of the ninth All-China Book Fair, to openly advertise a new title -- "Behind the Pitfalls of Modernization." Its author, they claimed, was the famous He Qinglian. They stuck up a big red, white and black poster featuring her name in marquee-size letters, scattered thousands of promotional bookmarks and set up a booth to hawk thousands of copies.
The only problem, He says, is that she didn't write it.
"This is worse than pirating," she says, pointing out that an estimated 330,000 copies of her actual book already have been sold illegally without her getting a cent (in addition to the 100,000 copies sold legally by her publisher).
"This is complete fabrication. I mean who is this He Qinglian?" she says, pointing to a copy of the bogus book. "This is what happens in China when you get a little famous. You don't get respect; someone just tries to rip you off."
He's solution is straight out of America. "I'm going to sue," she says. And go to the press.
Indeed, her hotel room on the outskirts of town has become a veritable newsroom over the past few days as reporters from the freer southern Chinese newspapers and TV stations have traipsed in and out. She even took a camera crew to the room of her alleged malefactor, where one station filmed an acrimonious exchange between He and journalist Zhu Jianguo, who is the real author of the book with the misleading title.
"Can you believe this guy?" He asks, staring dumbfounded from behind her Coke-bottle spectacles.
Unlike much of the economic analysis in China these days, which is out of touch with everyday life, "China's Pitfall" is steeped in the real world. That's why the book is so popular. It's interested not so much in economic growth, which has been among the world's highest for the past 20 years, as in how that expanding pie has been distributed among the country's 1.2 billion people, and not so much in the theories behind economic reforms but in how those reforms have been implemented.
In her book, He argues that the disparity between rich and poor here is vast and increasing daily. Calling China's reform "crippled" and "half-baked," she advocates "making justice the starting point" of the next round of changes.
He at times resembles a romantic, longing for the equality of the old days of socialism but reveling in the country's new freedoms. Still, her book constitutes a powerful challenge to many American China-watchers and business executives who have made careers out of convincing people that all is generally well in the People's Republic. Their line is that as long as China's economy is growing, things will work themselves out.
"These people," He says, "spend a lot of time looking at figures. Things go up, so they think things are getting better. They need to spend more time looking at who is getting what, how things are changing, how power is used or abused. "
A native of Hunan province -- known for its spicy food and favorite sons Mao Zedong and Zhu Rongji, China's current premier -- He mostly escaped the ravages of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. In 1988, after finishing graduate work at Fudan University in Shanghai, she went to Shenzhen, a freewheeling boomtown near Hong Kong.
Of all places, Shenzhen, with its trashy night life and its get-rich-quick schemes, its profitable joint ventures and its greed-is-good philosophy, combines all that has succeeded and failed in China's reforms.
He jumped into the middle of it, landing a job at a firm that was transforming itself from a collectively owned enterprise into a joint stock company -- one of the changes in China that have been lauded by Western economists. What really happened, however, is that the old managers grabbed all the stock and took bank loans that were supposed to be for a furniture factory and invested them in fly-by-night real estate schemes. The firm is now tottering on the brink of bankruptcy, He said, because the managers have moved all its capital into their private bank accounts.
After quitting the firm a few years ago to join the Shenzhen Legal Daily as an editor, He makes about $375 a month. The writer is married and has one child.
In recent weeks, He's book, which has not been translated into English, has been touted in the United States -- attention that makes her extremely uncomfortable. An essay in the New York Review of Books and an article on the opinion pages of The Washington Post endorsed "China's Pitfall" from a perspective that she argues is flawed.
The dissident journalist Liu Binyan, who co-authored the New York Review piece and has not been back to China since the 1980s, used He's book to support the argument that the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 was the death knell of reform here. Which meant, Liu said, that economic reform was doomed to fail.
Columnist Michael Kelly, writing in The Post, said He's tome showed that U.S. policy toward China, which backs engagement over containment and quiet diplomacy over confrontation, is "dead wrong." The reason, Kelly argues, is that He's book proves that the administration's premise -- that China's reforms are slowly creating capitalism and democracy -- is misguided.
"The butchers of Beijing," Kelly wrote, "were also the looters of Beijing."
While such statements could affect He's freedom to work, that's not the only reason she objects. "Anyone who thinks that China had a choice about reforming doesn't understand the situation here," she says.
"What I am saying is that now we have gotten to the point where we have to look at what has happened, to take stock and to see what kind of society we have created. This is not a book about U.S.-China relations. This is not a book that aims to sweep away all that has been accomplished in 20 years, to negate it all, like many dissidents want to do. I know that I can't stop it from being used as a political tract -- just like I can't stop it from being pirated -- but that is not why I wrote it. And I think that is not why many people are reading it."
And many people are reading it, including China's top leaders. Indeed, the only organization that reportedly has banned its members from buying the book is the People's Liberation Army, possibly because the army has serious corruption and smuggling problems of its own. But throughout the Communist Party and the government, the book has become very popular. In August, He, who has never been a member of the party, was invited to Beijing to speak to its Central Commission for Discipline Inspection on corruption. "They said, We want to treat you like one of our own, say anything you want. Speak the truth,' " she recalls. "So I did."
He says that all her fame has made life "pretty miserable these days."
"I've had to change my phone number at home three times and still people find it. They pay off the operator," she says. "I've changed my beeper number twice. It's ridiculous. I've moved out of my house into my office. I feel like I'm living in a fishbowl." Still, she is writing.
"Oh, the next book is going to be even worse," she predicts with a mischievous smile. CAPTION: "This is worse than pirating," He Qinglian says of the bogus book with her name on it. ec