It may be that Zhu Rongji is the most important Chinese political figure since the death of Mao Zedong’s relatively enlightened successor Deng Xiaoping, I don’t know. As China’s previous premier (number two of the whole place) he was certainly the key technical engineer of China’s audacious and epochal move into the World Trade Organization.

He gave the most interesting press conferences of any Chinese leader in anyone’s memory, and he certainly was able to keep his cool: As troops were entering Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 ready to bash heads, they were doing no such thing in Shanghai, even though the streets were also jammed with protesters.

That was because Zhu, at that time Shanghai’s mayor, took to the city’s loudspeaker system to appeal for calm. Because of his enormous credibility, not to mention popularity, the appeal, even though from a high government official, was accepted. There was calm. That was Zhu.

This special and telling moment is well recounted in the appealing titled “China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom,” just published by the University of Washington Press. In this fine memoir professor Richard Baum reminds us of many events, truths, themes and insanities over his four decades of visiting, studying and writing about China as an exceptionally well-traveled academic.

He writes nicely, though not so slickly that you are made to wonder why he isn’t struggling harder to understand China (he believes understanding China is a terrifying constant struggle, even for so-called experts), and he thinks deeply, though without the unnecessary density common to academic studies that have very little to say and — tragically — a whole of space in which to say it.

Over the years, Baum, who teaches in the Division of Social Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, transformed himself into something of a public resource. Because of his ability to break down complexity into language most people could understand, he became one of America’s most quoted and most requested China experts. He has been all over the world media as an instant commentator and has written articles for almost everybody. The label I would throw on him is that of the scholar-explainer.

These relatively rare individuals are sometimes put down by their colleagues as all too glib merchants of mediocrity, and in some cases the put-down is perhaps true. But in the instance of Baum and some others like him, the scholar-explainer becomes a huge civil asset, educating not only students in the classroom but the rest of us citizens who want to understand what is going on with China.

It, after all, is only the world’s most populous country, with the fastest growing economy. So you struggle to get a handle on the latest feral contretemps: China’s “undervalued” currency? What does that mean and why won’t Beijing just fix it? And what also is up (for Marx’s sake) with the censorship clash with Google, who never did anyone any harm? We all thought China was opening up to the world, not trying to close things down again.

Scholar-explainer Baum helps us put these issues in context by taking us by the hand and walking us through China’s modern history — jumping the barriers of complexity with a well-chosen anecdote, explaining the Chinese “mentality” without remotely coming across as an abject apologist for the worst excesses of Beijing’s blind-side.

His memoir underscores how in China there is no free lunch, as the saying goes: Generosity leads to obligation, so take a favor from China only if you dare. He writes how many Chinese remain in denial about the awful Cultural Revolution, so be forewarned that almost any positive story about that terrifying and tragic meltdown is invariably “stereotyped, melodramatic and almost certainly untrue.”

Even today, he concludes, China suffers from “post-Tiananmen stress disorder.” Meaning? Authorities fear any serious loosening up of control will bring Tiananmen back all over again. So file the unseemly dustup with Google as the time-honored Chinese authoritarian tactic of “killing a chicken to scare the monkeys.” As you can sense, the book is a wonderful way to get a handle on the current situation between China and the United States without losing your mind or your composure, or falling asleep.

One final note: In the last year or so, California budget cutbacks have been devastating to the University of California system of higher education. The cutbacks are nothing less than tragic. Public education in America has been a model for the world and central to our success as a superpower. Exceptional professors like Baum (and there are many of them at UCLA) do not come cheap, and the value of the best ones can hardly be quantified. I left UCLA as an adjunct professor in August of 2008, just before the short-sighted funding-collapse tsunami hit. But even now, a year and a half later, I can feel the university’s pain. One wishes there were some magic answer. I, for one, wish I had one.

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate’s book “Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew” will be published by Marshall Cavendish in May. © 2010 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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