BOOK REVIEW / Hearing the truth in parks and kitchens: 'Evening Chats in Beijing' - Perry Link: Norton, 17.95 pounds

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PROFESSOR Perry Link's book has been praised by the great and the good of Chinese studies, and for the most part it is hard to disagree with their generous words. Professor Link has conveyed the thoughts of his Chinese intellectual acquaintances in admirably clear and elegant prose, untrammelled by the academic gobbledegook that bedevils so much social studies writing.

It is soon evident that Link has an impressive command of Mandarin Chinese and has mastered the old skills of operating as a Westerner in a totalitarian country. He respects his informants, and knows how not to make trouble for them. The 'evening chats' refers to those special conversations - stolen in parks and cramped kitchens - familiar to any Westerner who has tried to pierce the shell of an unfree society.

In the course of his conversations, Link sets out the world view, and the world, of China's thinking classes. The conversations boil down to one dilemma: to compromise with the system, or not. Link's informants almost always choose a degree of compromise in the name of the greater good. What use is one individual's futile protest, you can hear each trying to say, in a collective society?

The most noteworthy exception is the dissident Fang Lizhi, in 1989 a university professor, who has been described as China's Sakharov. Some may recall a colourful incident during President Bush's visit to China in February 1989, when Professor Fang and his wife were hounded - from car to taxi to bus - across Peking to prevent them attending the official banquet at the US embassy.

Link recounts this episode in detail: he had arranged to accompany the professor, but instead found himself chased across Peking, then - as news filtered out through foreign radio stations - an underground hero.

The story has a sequel. After the storming of Tiananmen Square, Link helped Fang and his wife to escape to the American embassy, where they lived for several months before the Chinese agreed, with bad grace, to let them leave the country.

Fang is one of the few identifiable individuals to emerge in the book. But there are plenty of insights into the way educated Chinese feel about their world. Film of Western countries shown on Chinese television had an effect quite unintended by the authorities. Even when the commentary was rabidly critical of the West, one Chinese says, the viewers would be transfixed. 'I'm a full professor and I don't have those things,' volunteers one. 'Why is it that Chinese do well everywhere in the world except China?' Even sex is different. A young writer told Link that it was only when he saw American films that he realised 'sex could include sound. In China . . . sex is silent.'

Link's informants offer him the usual catalogue of Communist disasters: the power of leaders and connections, the eternal buck-passing, the under-employment, the dire state of social services. In one private nursery, he was told, the children were given sleeping pills to make them docile, and returned home at night awake and energetic.

While accepting that Link aimed to portray a class rather than a group of individuals, his approach tends to perpetuate the view of the Chinese as a collective-minded people - a view that may, in time, prove as misguided as it was when applied to the subjects of other Communist regimes. There is, too, more than a hint of that special offence peculiar to Chinese specialists: Sino-centrism, the assumption that China is special and that its problems are unique.

In his introduction, Link tries to establish the 'bilingualism' of most Chinese intellectuals - their capacity to switch between 'official' and 'unofficial' languages: the one reserved for work, the other for the kitchen table.

While referring to parallels in East European experience, Link still insists that China is different. Those East European writers, thinkers and politicians who reclaimed their languages from Communism after the democratic revolutions of 1989-91 would probably beg to differ. Their view would surely be that Peking's intellectuals still have something to learn, and that China's intellectual turmoil is far from over.

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