BOOK REVIEW / Ninth circle of hell: Black hands of Beijing by George Black and Robin Munro, Wiley pounds 15.99: a single tear by Wu Ningkun and Li Yikai, Hodder pounds 18.99

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The Independent Culture
THESE ARE depressing books. They are about repression and brutality, innocence and broken hopes. Together they span four decades, from the start of China's Communist dynasty in 1949 to the violent crushing of the student-led democracy movement in June 1989.

They are books about intellectuals, the people that Mao Tse-tung dubbed the Ninth Stinking Category, but the importance of both works goes beyond that, for they provide a catalogue of the mad-house that is China under the totalitarian and chameleon-like rule of the Chinese Communist Party. It is an institution that accepts no laws, no restraints and, at its most corrupt, is merely a platform on which a collection of political dwarfs and pygmies fight their personal battles for power. There are, of course, some notable exceptions, but the party usually crushes them.

China and its people suffer and survive - sometimes they even prosper - but you will learn from these books that, ultimately, the party always lets them down. The party's survival, after all, is considered much more important than the Chinese people in whose name it governs. And when the Chinese people, not just a few intellectuals but a mass of ordinary workers and civil servants and students, call for reform and defy authority, as they did in 1989, the party has to find evidence of a conspiracy to explain away the threat to its stability. The events of April, May and June 1989 are the closest the party has come to losing power. Needless to say, it refused to admit its own ineptness and political bankruptcy and began to document a sinister plot. It was not just any conspiracy, however, but one 'so immense that it would explain how China had been brought to the verge of insurrection'.

George Black and Robin Munro, authors of Black Hands of Beijing, work for Asia Watch, an American human rights organisation, and have been monitoring the fate of dissidents and political prisoners in China for some time. The three alleged conspirators, or so-called 'black hands' of their story, are two children of the party, Wang Juntao and Chen Zeming, who took the party at its word, and an outsider, a young labourer, Han Dongfang, who set up an independent trade union to protect workers' rights.

Wang and Chen honestly believed the party wanted to reform itself. They failed to recognise a crucial point: when Deng Xiaoping talked about opening China to the world he was talking about commerce and investment, not foreign ideas, and especially not those involving Western-style democracy. Han Dongfang had no such illusions. The students and intellectuals despised him and his colleagues, just as the party feared them; feared them most because they were ultimately a greater threat to the party than were students. Han and his Peking Workers' Autonomous Federation - the first independent labour organisation in Communist China - wanted a better deal for ordinary workers from a party that had long since lost its claim to represent them.

Black Hands is riveting and reads like a novel. The authors set a cracking pace, taking you from the first stirrings of the democracy wall movement in 1977 after the death of Mao through their attempts to urge moderation on the students and finally to their kangaroo trial and despatch to China's gulag. I felt great outrage when I put the book down.

A Single Tear goes back to 1951, when Wu Ningkun, then studying English in Chicago, returned against the advice of his friends to take a post at Peking University so as to help the 'new China'. As a free-thinker, he was immediately persecuted and became a victim of several subsequent political campaigns. No sooner was he rehabilitated than he was condemned again, a poison weed one year, a cow-demon the next. There was no let-up: in prison, he nearly starved to death. Wisely, he left the country when he could, some 30 years later, and survived to tell his story, written with the help of his wife, Li Yikai. Other Chinese are not so lucky.