Something rotten in the People's Republic

The Real China: From Cannibalism to Karaoke by John Gittings Simon & Schuster, pounds 15.99; Coca-Cola, Confucius and the Celestial Kingdom can be a volatile mix. Martin Booth finds a warning for the West in John Gittings's stark new portrait of a nation
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East, it was said, met West at Port Said, where P&O liners berthed and passengers, when not watching gully-gully men pull live chicks out of catamites' ears, bought "genuine'' camel saddles or Egyptian antiquities of dubious provenance. Gradually, over the years, the boundary shifted relentlessly eastward to hit the buffers at its inevitable destination, China. The Celestial Kingdom of terracotta armies, silk and jade has been invaded by an alien and ugly culture.

It first struck me in winter 1993, in Wuzhou, Guangxi Province. It was late evening. I was seated at a food stall in the street, dining on stewed dog with a Chinese friend. Scarlet paper lanterns hung in the arcades, coolies passed with laden poles, a man went by taking his canary for its constitutional. We could have been in China at any time in the past two centuries, save that from a nearby doorway wafted the unmistakable strains of someone trying to sing Are You Lonesome Tonight?

Where once the West suborned China with opium, now it does it with crass vulgarity and tawdry commercialism although, in truth, it is not just westerners infiltrating China but her old enemy, Japan, too. Just as she demoralised China in the 1920s with morphine, so now is Japan undermining her with that insidious export, karaoke. But the sing-along joint is just the tip of iceberg of China's rottenness. Corruption is all-pervading, starting in Beijing and seeping throughout society until it reaches its last and hardest-hit victim, the peasant.

China is still a nation of peasants: 45 years of Communism have not greatly altered their lot. After a brief ideological honeymoon, they have slid back to the position they always held, exploited by everyone. Where once their nemeses were the landlords or tax-grabbing mandarins, now they are the government and tax-grabbing Party cadres.They are stuck in a vast rural timewarp in which agricultural prices are artificially manipulated, resources withheld and the chance to benefit from the promise of the new "liberalism'' is nothing but a dream.

Tens of millions of peasants have pursued that dream in search of work and wish-fulfilment. Just as indentured coolies sailed to America in the last century, looking for the legendary Golden Mountain, so now do they board trains heading for China's developing coastal areas, the Special Economic Zones. Once in the SEZs, they become exploited near-slave labour (if they are lucky), beggars, petty criminals and spiritually as well as physically destitute beyond their wildest nightmares. For most of China's population, the cream of socialism has soured into the curds of disillusion.

John Gittings has seen the terrible reality of the nation's plight and reports it with stark and horrifying clarity, relying not only on personal observation but also numerous interviews and an expert grasp of current trends and facts.

China is not the propagandist's free land of patriotically singing labourers and smiling faces, but a land of enchained despondency, of millions bowing under oppression's yoke and seeking release in the old religions of Buddism, Taoism, Islam and even Christianity. Those not turning to heavenly gods are kow-towing to the secular deities of designer jeans, BMWs and designer drugs.

The future looks bleak, not just for China's peasants but for the world. China is now a major polluting nation, a major exporter of illegal labour (350,000 to the EC), a rapidly developing heroin producer and, potentially, a politically unstable nuclear power.

Just as the West has exported technology and Coca-Cola, so should it now export values and advice, for if - perhaps, more pertinently, when - China cracks, the world will shake. Yet, as Gittings bluntly states with considerably authority in this exceptional and very accessible study, China has very little time to heed history's lessons and choose a safe path forward. She is loth to listen to anything from outside her borders - except, perhaps, Are You Lonesome Tonight?