Insight and Hindsight on China

VOICES OF CHINA: THE INTERPLAY OF POLITICS AND JOURNALISM. Edited by Chin-Chuan Lee, Guilford Press, 353 pp., $40 (cloth), $17 (paper)

WERE old China hands Edgar Snow and Theodore White alive and writing today, they likely would have written accounts of post-Mao China in ``Voices of China: The Interplay of Politics and Journalism.''

But the fact that their contributions are not at all missed is a tribute to the book's editor Chin-Chuan Lee. He has managed to assemble articles from key Sinologists ranging from the rising-star academic Tsan-Kuo Chang to Middle China's leading investigative journalist, Liu Binyan.

Lee's volume, which grew out of an October 1989 conference at the China Times Center at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is a collection of 17 articles by scholars and journalists specializing in China.

Ranging from rather scholarly case studies to anecdotal musings, the assembled contributions would seem at first to have little broad appeal and even less consistency. But the package is remarkably lucid, held together with the epoxy of journalistic insight and scholarly hindsight.

The various authors dissect the reporting of both Chinese and American journalists from the 1920s to the present, with particular emphasis given to journalism during the past two decades.

Reporting on China does not take place in a vacuum, and reporters' personal and societal biases are examined in an attempt to determine whether an accurate picture is being presented of the seemingly inscrutable Middle Kingdom.

Although the interplay between governmental officials, journalists, and scholars is dealt with in depth, many of the book's contributors display a pro-scholar/anti-journalist bias. Such ivory-tower prejudices seem out of place in a book of this sort. Too, some of the authors tend to dwell on and overgeneralize from reporting by the New York Times and Washington Post, while giving relatively little space to Sino coverage by the Los Angeles Times, the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Far East Economic Review, the Associated Press, Time magazine, and The Christian Science Monitor. But on the whole, the volume is well balanced.

Various authors wade into the familiar topic of who can best report on China for an American audience. The strengths and weaknesses of ``old China hands'' vs. professional journalists vs. the so-called ``new generation'' of correspondents are presented. Various contributors, including Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury, help put recent historical events in perspective. As a result, ``Voices of China'' is appealing not only to academics and a handful of international correspondents, but also to readers curious to find out more about modern-day China.

This is not a book for the dilettante. But for news junkies eager to learn more about China, Lee's book is the finest of its kind in the past two decades.

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