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Getting to Know You

The New York Times Report from Red China

by Tillman Durdin, by James Reston, by Seymour Topping, with photographs and additional articles by Audrey Topping, edited with an Introduction by Frank Ching
Quadrangle Books, 367 pp., $6.95

China Returns

by Klaus Mehnert
Dutton, 322 pp., $10.00

The Revenge of Heaven: Journal of a Young Chinese

based on the journal of Ken Ling, with interviews by Dr. Ivan London, by Miriam London
Putnam, 413 pp., $8.95

The Nixon-Chou summit cannot fail because both parties are in trouble. The fact that Chairman Mao has had to get rid of his number-two man twice in succession—Liu Shao-chi’i in 1968 and Lin Piao in 1971—suggests the opposite of calm omnipotence at the top in Peking. Mr. Nixon’s troubles at home and abroad seem commensurate. They all suggest a Sino-American detente, perhaps an entente, at least an increase of contact such as a hot line and news exchanges.

As we try to break out of cold-war attitudes, what is to be our image of revolutionary China? Mr. Nixon’s drift toward a Sino-American accord has been based on a revised picture of China as not dangerously expansionist after all, only a weak rival of Moscow absorbed in its domestic problems. Since our images of distant realities change so much faster than the realities could possibly change themselves, we are left with simple logical alternatives: either we are stupid about China now or we were stupid during those long years of cold war when our allies Britain and France were less so. Mr. Nixon’s inconsistency is not unlike Mao Tse-tung’s: either Mao was naïve to trust Liu and Lin for forty years or else he is rather silly to invoke the old Chinese idea that their policy deviation could only have been due to moral depravity. Nixon and Mao were once vociferous ideological opponents so that their meeting gives us a healthy skepticism about ideology in general.

Now comes a highly skilled team of three New York Times reporters who visited China in succession between last April and August. They report in effect that the Chinese Communist revolution seems to have been a success, a good thing on balance for the long-suffering Chinese people and no particular harm to us. While our two decades of suspicion and hostility toward China will wear off only slowly, those years seem from these reports to have been still another wasted investment in the take-no-chances kind of security policy, the hyperactive defense, which our technology makes so feasible. As James Reston wrote from Shanghai in August, “The Chinese attitudes and approach to life make one wonder why Washington was so worried about an aggressive and expansionist China. They are…more inward-looking than any major nation on earth…. Long before the United States tried to ‘contain’ China, they were self-contained, quite satisfied that they had enough land, resources, and people.”

The first Report from Red China (Holt, 1945) was written by Harrison Forman, one of the war correspondents allowed to visit Yenan in 1944. Forman felt then that Mao and his colleagues had a promising future. Twenty-six years later The New York Times Report from Red China confirms the idea. “Red China” is still in red on the dust jacket, for the benefit of oldsters who haven’t caught up with the Times‘s foreign policy, but the People’s Republic is also mentioned in smaller type. The back jacket shows Scotty Reston and Chou En-lai seated side by side trading policies. Their exchange of August 9, filling twenty-six pages, is highly informative, unlike the nonreport of the twenty hours of Kissinger-Chou talks a month earlier.

This book is a persuasive argument for an independent press. It blends general conclusions with concrete illustrations in such brief compass that the reader is likely to forget the hours of careful observation and the informed comparisons that lie behind a paragraph. Tillman Durdin had fifteen years experience reporting on China before Mao came to power, and Seymour Topping saw China in World War II and after. His wife Audrey, who contributes ten of the eighty dispatches and most of the photographs, has the merit of being a daughter of the Canadian diplomat Chester Ronning and of having been in China in 1946-48 and again in 1966. Since Reston had previously talked with everybody’s leaders except the Chinese, one could hardly pick a better team for a quick appraisal.

Frank Ching, the editor, groups the dispatches into sections on Peking’s foreign policy, the transformation of China in general, “The Everyday Life of ‘Maoist Man,’ ” how China is governed (sort of), education and child-rearing, science and medicine, including the famous Reston appendectomy in Peking’s Anti-imperialist Hospital, as it was then called, and a few notes on “Culture after the Cultural Revolution.”

Tillman Durdin, comparing the new and the old like a Sinological Rip van Winkle, finds no sign of ancestor reverence or religious observances, no women using cosmetics, no old literature or drama, no gaudy weddings or funerals. “Even the manners and attitudes of the people seem changed…. People seem more direct and less polite.” Durdin reiterates that the international group of journalists that he traveled with “had no contacts with people except through interpreters on conducted tours to places regularly shown to foreigners.” On the other hand, Audrey Topping went with her father in May to his missionary birth-place Fancheng, in Hupeh province 175 miles northwest of Wuhan, and they found the population grown from 40,000 to 189,000 with some 200 factories large and small, and 38 middle schools with 13,000 students. A new China indeed.

The general impression of these highly qualified observers is of a people now mostly young and certainly self-confident, well organized and intently at work on community problems of material production, health, literacy, and technological improvement. The old core cities are shabby, the new factory suburbs very plain but more livable, the villages the main focus of concern. There Maoism is making the peasant into a citizen, politically active and responsible. Transport is still back in the railway, bus, and bicycle age. Public health programs use Western and Chinese medicine and try to reach the village masses, eliminate disease, and slow down population growth. The economic effort is to keep industry decentralized and to manufacture consumer goods as far as possible at the commune level. Building on the old market areas of groups of villages in the countryside, the present village production teams and brigades within a commune aim at local self-sufficiency as part of China’s general self-sufficiency. What was Mr. Dulles so worried about?

Before we reduce China to a non-problem let us remember that Red Guards sacked the British embassy in Peking less than five years ago, at a time when we had felt it our national interest to put 500,000 troops into South Vietnam, partly to save it from those “billion Chinese armed with nuclear weapons.” Unless our capacity for uptight stupidity has miraculously left us, when may we expect our next shift of view? How soon may either the Chinese or the Americans, or both, go on a crusading rampage again, in their respective national styles, dissipating the relatively relaxed euphoria of 1971?

A residual ambivalence underlies our post-cold-war view of China. How come these same Chinese could be such bad guys in the 1950s and such good guys today? This shift of view springs partly from our own capacity to swing from one to another interpretation of foreign reality. Our grip on reality in distant places beyond direct observation is of course weakened by the way we feel. At any given time the “truth” about China is in our heads, a notoriously unsafe repository for so valuable a commodity. The reporter is part of his report, like the historian of his history.

Ambivalence is compounded in the China case by the fact of cultural differences, a fact easier to announce than to grasp. In short, China’s long stay-at-home history and medieval flowering in material and social technology, as well as the unhappy necessity to modernize by borrowing, rather than as we did by inventing, have all created a world of values and traditions, aims and means, very different from ours. Valued in the Chinese peasant’s (not the intellectual’s) terms, the revolution has been a magnificent achievement, not just by Mao Tse-tung, who if he had never been born might have had a stand-in, but by several hundred millions of the Chinese people.

For Americans, however, the Chinese revolution hardly offers a model to follow; its methods don’t scratch us where we itch. Reston felt “constantly reminded here of what American life must have been like on the frontier a century ago…. This country is engaged in one vast cooperative barn-raising…. They remind us of our own simpler agrarian past.” This is appealing but carries little message for the American future. Evidently our two civilizations will continue to co-exist, one extolling civil liberties and the other self-sacrifice, one denouncing the police state and the other individualism. Neither the teachings of Mao Tse-tung nor those of Frank Shakespeare of the USIS can be expected to sweep both rice-paddy China and automobilized America into a homogenized new world. Americans will continue to believe in expansion—whether we call it the conversion of the world in this generation or free enterprise putting men on the moon—and the Chinese, who invented ancestor worship, bureaucracy, and the examination system so long ago, will continue to put their faith in social organization.

A firsthand appreciation of these cultural differences and before-and-after contrasts is what puts the New York Times reporters so far ahead of the United States Government in its effort to appraise China’s present realities. The counterparts of the Times‘s Durdin are the China Foreign Service officers whom Mr. Nixon led the way in purging twenty years ago—men like John Carter Vincent, O. Edmund Clubb, John Paton Davies, John Stewart Service, who had they not resigned or been dropped in mid-career could give the White House today a useful perspective not derived from studies of Europe. Since shifting to academia, Mr. Clubb has published two major works on China’s modern history, the last of which, China and Russia, The Great Game (Columbia University Press, 1971), puts Sino-Soviet relations today into the context of the long and complex relationship between the two empires.

Mr. Davies’s memoirs are in press, and Mr. Service recently published an illuminating analysis of the brief honeymoon period of first contact at Yenan in 1944, The American Papers: Some Problems in the History of U.S.-China Relations (Berkeley: Center for Chinese Studies, 1971), when Mao and Chou raised the possibility of a working relationship with the United States: in January, 1945, they even asked about coming to see FDR to plan the details of military cooperation against Japan. Grateful as we may be for these works of historical hindsight, it would be even more gratifying to have one of the authors on our team in Peking during the week of February 21. It is safe to say, for example, that no one of these officers, had he been asked in 1965, would have accepted the thesis that Asians can be judiciously bombed to the conference table.

While Durdin and the Toppings can give us before and after appraisals, the German journalist Klaus Mehnert offers a before-during-and-after view in addition to a Sino-Soviet comparison. Mehnert is in fact uniquely quadri-cultural. Born in Moscow of German parents, he spent the early 1930s in Russia, the later 1930s in Berkeley and Honolulu, marrying an American, and the early 1940s in Shanghai editing a journal. He had seen China first in 1929 and 1936, and returned again in 1957. In 1971, through the aid of his friend Prince Sihanouk, he spent a month traveling through fourteen provinces early in the year before the ping-pong breakthrough.

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