China by the book
Two weeks ago, a then unknown 35-year-old man from north-west China threw a burning object at Mao Zedong's portrait in Tiananmen Square. Many newspapers around the world reported the event under headlines such as "Vandal sets fire to Mao portrait" - accepting the official Chinese version in which the arsonist, Gu Haiou, was simply a "vandal".
Most of these reports omitted to remind us of the historical resonance of Gu's action. For it recalls the three young men from Hunan province who in May 1989 as a political protest also "vandalised" Mao's portrait by hurling at it eggshells filled with ink. They were given savage prison sentences: the last of the three, Yu Dongyue, was only released last year, his mind broken by beatings and solitary confinement.
Should we still debate what happened in Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3-4, 1989, or should we consign it to history? Eighteen years is a very long time, literally a lifetime for hundreds of millions of Chinese who were young or not even born then. In many ways (though not in one crucial one - which can be easily guessed) Chinese society has been transformed since then in the great unbroken economic surge launched by Deng Xiaoping three years after the Beijing massacre.
The challenge for anyone writing about China is how to grasp its modernity without neglecting this past, and while reflecting the extent to which the country has moved on, to present a fair balance sheet of the winners and losers in the process.
Both objectives are achieved in two excellent new books that I want to single out from a crop of new publications on China. First is Duncan Hewitt's Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China, recently serialised on BBC Radio 4 - and I must declare an interest: we worked together reporting on China for the Guardian, and later were colleagues in Shanghai.
Getting Rich First is a gripping account written from the inside and with a great deal of vivid detail. Hewitt introduces us to the new Chinese who are building another new China - the entrepreneurs and the migrant workers, the ambitious students and the young lovers, the real estate agents and restaurant owners, the performance artists and those who search for new faiths.
Yet there is a sense of the old "new China" too. Visiting Shenzhen, Hewitt is taken by a trendy young designer, Mr Wu, to see one of the city's new housing compounds built for the emerging middle class (they tour it in a golf buggy). Later they stop off in the county town where Wu used to attend political meetings in the 1970s. The Hall of the People, where the peasants' revolutionary congress once met is still there - but it has been hired out for a trade fair promoting household appliances.
The title of the book - based on Deng Xiaoping's exhortation to the nation in the early 1980s when he started the first post-Mao economic reforms - is intentionally ambiguous. While some get rich first, others lag behind or may become worse off. Hewitt paints a grim picture of the state of rural health, which even the pro-reformers in Beijing admit has become a casualty of economic restructuring. By the late 1990s, normally cautious officials at international donor institutions in Beijing "were describing China's rural health system as being in a state of collapse". He describes visiting a county hospital in southern Anhui with just one patient - the only one whose family could afford to pay for the treatment.
Hewitt's final chapter makes no attempt to grab the high forecasting ground - neither a prediction that China will collapse nor that it will "overtake the US". He invites us instead to take a walk along Shanghai's Huaihai Road and reflect on the contrast between the shopping malls and their Buick-owning clients, between the migrant workers who build them and the beggars who beg on their doorsteps. His conclusion is that this is a country "rich in dynamism, rich in problems" - not very sensational but nearer to the truth.
There is a strong sense of historical continuity too in the other new book - Rob Gifford's China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power. Travelling the length of Route 312 from Shanghai to the border of Kazakhstan is not just a roadie exercise but a way of getting deep into the Chinese heartland. Gifford is constantly surprised, and surprises us too, by the variety of people and places he encounters. As always, people are more willing to talk when they are on the move.
He picks up both critical comments - China needs multi-party democracy - and more positive assertions that life is better now - even dustmen have mobile phones, points out one fellow-traveller. But on his journey into the north-west he also encounters deep historical tensions between dominant Han Chinese and unhappy Tibetan and Uighur minorities. Gifford comes to a more pessimistic conclusion than Hewitt about the future: both books give us a feel for the real China to help us make up our own minds.