If you had to invent the model foreign correspondent to cover China, the script might run as follows: Several years of graduate work in Chinese affairs, interspersed with Chinese language training in Taiwan. Then a stint in New York to master reportorial skills, and finally a few years in Hong Kong to practice the fine art of China watching.
This ideal correspondent should have a fondness for things Chinese, but shouldn't cross that line separating balanced reporting from obsequious flattery.
Too utopian? In this instance, Richard Bernstein and Fox Butterfield (reporters, respectively, for Time and the New York Times) fit this description, and as a happy consequence we have two masterly works on China.
These books should alter the way Americans think about China, and in that sense they are clearly landmark works. If Theodore White's celebrated writings about China in the 1940s warned us about Chiang Kai-shek's inept government, then Butterfield and Bernstein instruct us that much is amiss in post-Mao China.
Both writers readily acknowledge China's many achievements -- the growth of industry, the generally high quality of public health, the stunning feat of feeding a billion people, the herculean (if unesthetic) attempt to improve housing, and much more. Yet many recent accounts of China suggest that the irrational aspects of Maoism have been replaced by Deng Xiaoping's famed pragmatism (''I don't care if the cat is black or white, just so it can catch the mice'') and that China now marches forward toward the fulfillment of the ''four modernizations'' (agriculture, industry, the military, and science). This appeals to Americans, and is all the more attractive since China is a well-known opponent of the troublesome Russians.
But is it reality? Bernstein and Butterfield argue otherwise -- China is a wounded society, whose wounds won't be healed easily. The Cultural Revolution ( 1966-76) was not, as the Communists claim, an aberration to be contrasted to the wonderful present and the even more glorious future. The authors document the long-range damage to the system.
Mao's Cultural Revolution tried to create the ultimate egalitarian society; instead it reinforced an abiding cynicism. Mao was deified, but now he is widely hated, mocked, or ignored by both officialdom and commoners. The Cultural Revolution was intended to draw rural and urban China together, but the millions of youths sent to the countryside regard their experience as the ''lost years.'' It's as though Mao had invented an internal ''brain drain.''
Bernstein tells of the ''sufferings, persecutions, and suicides, of the utterly mindless, superstitious fanatacism that characterized'' the Cultural Revolution. Butterfield sums it up: ''In the Cultural Revolution something snapped. The Communists lost popular confidence. . . . China has become an authoritarian country with an authority crisis.''
Both writers avoid ponderous descriptions of such things as government decisionmaking or the complexities of China's budget. Rather, they relentlessly focus on the system's impact on the average citizen. Readers will relish the vivid portraits of people, places, and moods - the remarkable cast of characters includes peasants, factory workers, religious pilgrims, clergymen, students, dissidents, train conductors, prostitutes, upright and corrupt bureaucrats, soldiers, children, hotel clerks, and many more. In brief, there's a breadth of ''real people'' unparalleled in recent books about China.
The two authors hammer home the crucial importance of China's staggering population, currently growing at about 14 million a year. ''Because of the mistake (failure to implement an effective birth control program) of one man,'' an intellectual told Bernstein, China has ''half a billion more people than we can comfortably support. In that sense alone, Mao is our greatest tragedy.''
Another prime focus is the pervasive importance of status and power, and how the scramble for both erodes standards of public morality. Using the ''back door'' (i.e., ''influence'') is now commonplace for thousands -- perhaps millions - of Chinese, who often seek nothing more than a ticket to a popular movie or the right to buy a bicycle.
Both authors write with grace and verve. For example, here's Butterfield on bureaucracy: ''The Chinese invented bureaucracy over 2,000 years ago, and their capacity for it is endless. Avoiding responsibility has been raised to a national art form.'' Or Bernstein on Peking: ''(It is) quiet and dull and entirely lacking in that spontaneity that can best be described in the negative 'un' form - as unlively, uncolorful, uninspired, unbeautiful. It is a city that has declined enormously since its splendid past and is struggling to restore itself to mediocrity.''
Bernstein and Butterfield have crafted the yardsticks by which others will be measured. They deserve a wide audience.