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China Wakes

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, husband and wife, were the Beijing correspondents for THE NEW YORK TIMES from 1988 to 1993 and won a Pulitzer for their coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Their aggressive investigations of Chinese life have produced sixteen essays (in chapters that they wrote alternately) of always interesting—and sometimes startling— reportage.

Kristof titles one chapter “Ghosts,” after the millions of people who died during the years under Mao Zedong. A former minister of public security estimated four million people were executed between 1948-1955; hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers died in Korea; thirty million or more died in the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward initiated in 1958; and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution launched in 1966 took a terrible toll of the most talented.

Of all these miseries, none compare in horror with what Kristof discovered in 1992 in secret Communist Party documents that described cannibalism in Southern China during the Cultural Revolution. At least 137 people, “and probably hundreds more,” were eaten in Guangxi Province, not out of hunger but for ideological reasons—to demonstrate the cannibals fervor for revolution. Teachers and principals were eaten by their students, and government cafeterias displayed corpses on meat hooks. This is the most harrowing chapter in a book that does not flinch from China’s grim history.

The book’s title, CHINA WAKES, declares the authors’ hope: that China may finally be rising from its long slumber. The authors acknowledge the recent repressiveness, but they reject any policy that would work against China’s foreign trade. They argue that a new Market-Leninism is growing in China—capitalist economics promoted by totalitarian rule—and they believe that it is better than anything else the Chinese people could hope for.