The old story of the blind men describing an elephant is well known. To the man who feels its trunk, an elephant is like a giant snake; the one measuring its leg says it is like a tree; the man holding its tail knows it resembles a rope; and so forth. All are correct in their way, but none understands the whole beast. Explaining China is like describing that apocryphal elephant. Different observers become familiar with different portions of its increasingly complex reality, and many also bring some preconceived notions or beliefs to their task. Thus their perceptions of China vary wildly, with accounts on offer which sometimes are so much opposed that it is hard to believe they are meant to apply to the same country. This can make life difficult for those who try to report fairly about developments within China, for there is so much disagreement about what in fact is truth in that important nation. An example appeared on these pages earlier this week; opinions in a column about the recent visit of 30 leading Hong Kong businessmen to Beijing were disputed sharply in a letter from one of those who took part. Or consider a current economic report from Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, the financial house. Its specialist concluded his ninth recent Beijing visit to declare 'the pieces are falling into place with exquisite precision' and 'China's stars have never been in better alignment.' His advice to investors: seize the day. But it would take a foolish punter to risk his savings on this account alone. Among other things, it accepts official Chinese statistics at face value, which many outside analysts decline to do. And it contains no hint of possible discrepancies between 'exquisite' declarations at the top and actual experiences in the field. Many investors, including some of the 30 SAR businessmen who met President Jiang Zemin last week, have learned the hard way. Encouraged in various projects by the leadership, some have found local graft, corruption and venality when they go forward. Even the influential Government of Singapore found itself subverted by self-serving local officials when it founded a model industrial park as urged by Beijing. But differences of view involve more than economics. Anyone who compares today's China with that of, say, 30 years ago is startled by the change. The only Mao badges that are now on view are for tourists; great social freedom has replaced the prevailing fear of the Cultural Revolution years. By comparison, China has become a relaxed place eager to provide Internet connections for all. Yet it also jails practitioners of a strange exercise regimen for having political goals which its members insist they don't pursue. And it punishes harshly anyone who dares call for an end to the Communist Party's monopoly on power by any means. So which is the real China - the one gradually loosening its controls over public life or the cruel dictatorship which crushes those with dissenting opinions? Does it seek only trade and other exchanges with its neighbours, or is it a growing military threat to their peaceful existence? Perhaps all these and many others are at least partially true, just as the blind men aren't completely wrong about their elephant. Beijing presses its own view upon the world - that of a fast-developing nation led by resolute men who enjoy great popular support at home and from right-thinking friends abroad because they are steadily improving economic, cultural and political standards. But the mission of China's press is to mislead as well as inform; its accounts face a credibility gap. Truth grows more elusive as China becomes more diverse. About the only certainty is that almost any report will be incomplete, and none will satisfy everyone.