Foreign affairs lite, with added Buruma. Richard Gott on the latest book from a mandarin journalist who wanders the world delivering Olympian opinions on all the major issues. But what has he got to add?

Bad Elements: Chinese rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing

Ian Buruma <em>Weidenfeld, 384pp, £20</em

The New York art world revives itself periodically by promoting the work of artists from distant locations, from Korea, say, or Japan. These are people who have gone to live in the United States and are familiar with its art practice, yet retain something of the "otherness" of their country of origin. Their work often receives critical acclaim for its "originality".

Ian Buruma is a comparably exotic figure. A writer given space in the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker - and who now lives in London - he comes from a background that includes the Netherlands as well as Japan and China. He is not particularly radical in outlook, but he introduces ideas and concepts into his reporting that are culled from a far wider range of sources than is usually made available to western readers. The simple characteristic of having a foot (and a mind) in two or three different places of origin (experience doubtless with difficulty acquired) gives him an original voice in the mediocre and often colourless print media of today. His writing on Japan has been especially memorable.

Yet, like many of the unusual foreign artists who make their reputation in New York, Buruma has been tamed by the bland and uncritical environment in which he now works. He writes most elegantly, but does so in the style familiar of the paid intellectuals of the Anglo-American establishment. He often appears in the same arena as the likes of Timothy Garton Ash, Michael Ignatieff, William Shawcross, and other members of the transnational literati, who seek to give a pseudo-progressive and internationalist flavour to the prevailing neoliberal agenda of globalisation. "Foreign affairs lite," the legend on the soft-drinks can might read, "with added Buruma".

His latest book, which returns to his old haunts, concentrates on China and the Chinese. It is written in the shadow of the student uprising of 1989, symbolised by the occupation of Tiananmen Square and the subsequent slaughter, and the emergence in the 1990s of the Falun Gong, perceived as a millenarian cult with a regime-threatening capacity. Although Buruma has greater ambitions, this is just another of those triumphalist post-1989 books about the imminent end of communism. I have on my desk a mountain of such titles about Cuba: Castro's Final Hour, or Fin-de-siecle a La Havane. More than a decade later, these prophecies look rather premature. It is strange to recall that in January 1989, no one was predicting the end of communism, but by the end of December, the entire world regarded it as a common-place probability.

Buruma senses the particular Chinese phenomenon in his nostrils. While travelling, between 1996 and 2001, he found that "there was an unmistakable stink of political, social and moral decay in the People's Republic, the smell of a dynasty at the end of its tether". Powerful stuff, which maybe will turn out to be true. Yet it is also possible that China, like Cuba, is made of more durable material. Dynasties are measured in centuries, not decades.

Emerging from the populist imprint of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Buruma's book serves both to fuel and assuage our western guilt. For we know that China is an important country and that we ought to know more about it, and then along comes Buruma with an easy, intelligent read. Part travelogue and part reportage, the book draws on many years working for the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong, as well as more recent trips through the Chinese world. If China's communist government collapses in the near future, we will need to know more about it; here, Buruma introduces us to people with whom we are meant to feel we have an immediate rapprochement: the dissidents, the "bad elements" of the title, in the name given to them by the regime.

Yet there is a difficulty with this approach, as Buruma soon finds out and is honest enough to reveal immediately (well, in truth, he knew it already): the Chinese dissidents are not a very likeable bunch, far from homogeneous, given to fratricidal disagreements, often immersed in depression and self-pity. This collective portrait of these people would gladden the heart of any Beijing secret policeman. The rebirth of a post-communist China may eventually come, but it is certainly not to be looked for in this direction.

Ten years ago, Timothy Garton Ash managed to romanticise the eastern European dissidents who paved the way for the mafia-style regimes that now prevail in much of the old communist world. Buruma is obliged to be more realistic about their Chinese counterparts. Many of the people who moved the outside world in 1989, with their brave, imaginative and ultimately foolhardy attempt to change the history of their country, ended up in Paris or California as joyful exponents of capitalist excess. Chai Ling, the minuscule girl with a megaphone who rallied the young crowds in Beijing with her tearful appeals to sacrifice, ended up as the boss of a computer software company in Massachusetts. Her case is by no means exceptional. Defeat and exile can do almost as much spiritual damage as prison and torture.

Buruma is not daunted by this problem. He looks beyond the apparent betrayal, and seeks instead to explain the motivations of the reforming Chinese, to examine the difficulties that they once faced, and continue to face. Betrayal, after all, is common to all societies, as the number of Europe's complacent former Trotskyists from 1968, many of them now in high places (and not just in new Labour), bears witness.

Buruma makes no judgement on the dissidents-turned-capitalist-roaders. He labours to explain their behaviour by describing the indignities of imprisonment and torture that many of them have endured and survived. He is concerned not so much with the problem of failed dissidence as with the more particular difficulty of being Chinese, of bearing that degree of historical weight on your shoulders. Sometimes this may take the form of exaggerated patriotism. At other moments, Buruma makes us aware of the phenomenon of "cultural self-loathing", the sheer "despair at being Chinese".

To be Chinese is to inherit a secular faith, a belief - by no means incorrect - in the existence of China as the most significant civilisation in the world, and in the duty of its citizens to play their part in the development of its history. Wu'er Kaixi, one former leader of the Tiananmen rebels interviewed by Buruma, speaks of the "old Chinese intellectual tradition of being responsible for the nation. We thought we could save China."

This patriotic view is still held by many Chinese migrants who, like the adherents of Islam, are to be found all over the world. Much of the originality of Buruma's book lies in his engagement with Chinese dissidence, not just in what used to be called "mainland China", but in the many other Chinas that exist today - in the city-states of Hong Kong and Singapore, and in Taiwan and California. Buruma treks through these different Chinas to seek enlightenment. In the United States, he finds Chinese exiles who have become Christians; in Singapore, he meets dissidents who have taken on the oppressive regime of Lee Kuan Yew; in Taiwan, he encounters people who have campaigned for democracy and independence and been imprisoned for their pains; and in Hong Kong, he talks to Emily Lau and Martin Lee, the two opposition figures familiar to British readers for their support for British-style democracy in the colony in the period leading up to July 1997 and the problematic "return" to China. All these very different groups of people have conflicting attitudes towards democracy; they also have differing views about their relationship with China itself.

Buruma, it must be said, is always rather more illuminating about culture than politics. Bad Elements is a brave effort to deal with a difficult subject but, in the end, this book is not very satisfactory. It wanders around China's periphery for too long. Too much irrelevant material is culled from old notebooks, too many unfamiliar characters are hurried briefly on to the stage, and not enough attention is paid to addressing a central theme. The Chinese dynasty may be collapsing (or not), but Buruma leaves us feeling none the wiser about the forces that are bringing about its downfall, or about those that will replace it.

One of the peculiarities of the Chinese dissident outlook - startlingly obvious in the comments that Buruma's interviewees come up with, but unremarked by the author himself - is the complete absence of any reference to caste or class. The Chinese in this book nearly always refer to "the Chinese", rarely to the workers, the poor, or the peasants. Former generations in Chinese history were similarly oppressed by the weight of the past, but some of them, not least Mao Zedong, tried to understand which elements in the Chinese present might be mobilised to overthrow the ancien regime. The political opponents of the decaying corpse of Mao's revolution, in Buruma's account, seem simply to hope that it will implode of its own accord. A liberal democracy is unlikely to be constructed on such ruins.

Richard Gott is researching a book on imperial rebellions