People's Daily

If you read Chinese and can spare $72 a year, you don't really need to go to China to get your news from the ''Middle Kingdom.'' You can subscribe to the People's Daily from an American outfit called China Books and Periodicals.

But if your Chinese is poor - or nonexistent - and you cannot afford a translator, relax. You can still order English-language publications such as the Peking Review shipped from China.

Take a look, for example, at a recent issue of the Review.The cover story, ''A Change in the Peasants' Mentality'' is noteworthy for the use of a journalistic technique long familiar in the West - an ''events and trends'' section with an opening profile of a peasant to illustrate the ''trend.'' The trend in this case is the growing success and popularity of the government's agricultural policy.

Enter peasant Song Zeming of Shandong Province, who has kept secret his yearly income of $8,500. The reason? In the old days, ''erroneous left'' thinking sought to limit peasant income on grounds that to be rich is to be ''revisionist.''

But, the article says, policies begun in 1979 allow Mr. Song, like many other peasants, to increase both income and production. Still, Song worries that the policies may be changed again, making him a target of attack.

''Song's fears were allayed when he and his family saw a televised excerpt of [Chinese Communist Party] General Secretary Hu Yaobang's report to the 12th Party Congress last September, . . .'' the article says. It concludes, happily, ''The change in Song Zeming's way of thinking is typical in China's rural areas today.''

Other articles in this issue include a note from political editor An Zhiguo on China's new Constitution, plus articles on the Youth League Congress, Premier Zhao's visit to Africa, and the dispute between Spain and Britain over Gibraltar.

If you prefer a lengthier treatment of Chinese life, there is an English-language version of the monthly magazine China Reconstructs. Printed in Los Angeles, the North American edition first appeared in January. For $8 a year , this portfolio of color photos previously printed in China spotlights in approved official fashion such topics as ''Urban planning for a better Beijing, '' and ''China's Senior Citzens.'' Identical to the Chinese edition printed in China, it stresses China's ties with North America.

It includes such photo essays as a Sesame Street special ''Big Bird in China'' and ''New research on Chinese origins of the first Americans.''

The influx of such Chinese publications got a major boost in the 1970s, notes Christopher Noyes of China Books and Periodicals. One reason was the growing demand for Chinese materials from businessmen, academics, and libraries as well as general readers and political sympathizers.

To meet the demand, Peking has moved toward closer cooperation with a family with deep historic links to China. The Noyes family, with a missionary and educational involvement in China dating back to 1847, has reestablished itself as a new kind of ''friend of China'' by distributing Chinese publications in the United States.

It all started in 1960 when China-born Henry Noyes founded China Books and Periodicals in Chicago. Son Christopher, who joined the business in 1960 at age 18, took over from his father as president in 1981.

In the 1960s China Books was the only American enterprise besides RCA telegraph that was doing direct business with China, Christopher Noyes says. In 1963, when the company moved its single outlet from Chicago to San Francisco, there were only four or five employees running one shop. Now his firm has retail outlets in San Francisco and New York as well as Chicago - with a total of 34 employees.

Asked about his politics, Mr. Noyes replies, ''I am certainly a 'friend of China' in the sense that I've helped introduce Americans to China publications. . . . The missionary background has played a part in my relations with China - mainly because it gave me an awareness of Chinese conditions and a real concern for the Chinese people.'' But Mr. Noyes adds he is also in business to make money.

For mail order or in-store sales, China Books carries a vast array of official and unofficial books on Chinese politics, history, culture, medicine, and arts, much of it by Chinese authors or by foreigners sympathetic to the Chinese revolution. The collection also includes volumes by such top Western Sinologists as Yale University historian Jonathan Spence.

Mr. Noyes rejects any suggestion that his collection is limited by ideology. He also carries books highly critical of China, he says, such as volumes by two US journalists formerly stationed in Peking: ''From the Center of the Earth,'' by Richard Bernstein, formerly of Time magazine, and ''China: Alive in the Bitter Sea'' by Fox Butterfield of the New York Times. Mr. Noyes says he draws the line at books printed in Taiwan.

According to Mr. Noyes, the first real break for his company came in the late 1960s when the Mao cult of China's Cultural Revolution was at its height. China Books claims to have sold more than 1 million copies of the little red book known as ''Quotations of Chairman Mao.''

''It was astoundingly popular,'' Noyes recalls. He adds that the demand spilled over somewhat to other products.

The normalization of US-China relations in January 1980 opened the way for growing trade and investment ties that have increased the need for China expertise.

''The biggest change now is the number of corporations and businessmen subscribing to the People's Daily,'' Noyes says.Many are oil companies or other firms involved in China trade or investment. ''They get a daily copy and have their own translator go over it for items of interest,'' he explains. Chinese embassies and consulates order the edition printed in the US because it arrives sooner than the China edition.

Seven days a week nearly 8,000 copies of the Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper are printed and distributed from San Francisco. This US edition, which travels as second-class mail, takes one to three days to reach West Coast destinations and two to five days for the East Coast. In both San Francisco and Los Angeles the newspaper is available on Chinatown newsstands one day after the publication date.

''The People's Daily covers policy announcements, but also the discussions and meetings which lead up to them. There are letters to the editor, and even a gossip column. This is all very helpful to anyone trying to understand where China is heading,'' Mr. Noyes notes.

He maintains his business, including publication of the People's Daily, is not subsidized by Chinese money. He says it is registered as a business, rather than as a propaganda agent for the People's Republic. To maintain this status, he says, he sends the US Treasury Department a financial statement twice a year.

The San Francisco edition of the People's Daily makes a 10 to 20 percent profit, according to Mr. Noyes, who says there is enough money left over so that the People's Daily in Peking also profits from the US edition. The Los Angeles edition of China Reconstructs also aims at a profit.

The relatively fast delivery of the US edition of the People's Daily is possible because San Francisco is 16 hours behind Peking. The extra time is helpful for air-shipping from China the photographic negatives that will be used to photoengrave reproduction printing plates in the US. It accounts for much of the 24-hour delay between publication in China and publication of the US edition. The edition printed in the US is off the press on the afternoon of the date for which the China edition appears for morning sale in Peking.

The Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy ended the need for a special license to import Chinese publications. Mr. Noyes said it allowed him beginning in 1970 to forward on to China payments made by customers. Before that, money due to China would only be held in the US in a ''blocked account.''

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