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Chinese Shadows

In response to:

Chinese Shadows from the May 26, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

I am shocked by your recent articles on Vietnam and China, the likes of which one might expect to appear in Commentary or the Readers Digest. Apparently it is intellectually chic again to be anti-communist, especially in regard to third world countries.

The authors of both pieces had profound personal biases against their subjects. One of your readers has already pointed this out in reference to the Vietnamese piece (NYR, May 12). I shall therefore focus on Simon Leys’s China pieces (NYR, May 26 and June 9).

There is a proclivity among European intellectuals going as far back at least as Hegel to see China in terms of oriental despotism. It does not matter whether it is contemporary or historical China—it is all the same, there is always that terrible oriental despotism that the Chinese cannot escape. The most articulate of the twentieth-century European exponents of this point of view was Etienne Balazs. In a brilliant series of essays he argued that the Chinese had chances to escape oriental despotism through the Sung dynasty (end 1368). After that it has been all down hill. The weight of the past is such that contemporary China can in no way escape it—any revolution is a false one. Usually this view is derivative, as it was in Balazs’s case, of his own disillusionment with European politics and the left in particular. At bottom the Oriental Despotism view of China is Europe-centered. The genuine social and political revolution must come first in the West. Since it has not happened in the West, it is preposterous to talk of genuine revolution in such a place as China.

I shall be specific on three points.

1) Walls, the walls that Leys mourns so bitterly. Is it not just possible that city walls symbolize the oppression of the past to most Chinese? Both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese hid behind these walls for decades—used as bulwarks against the guerrillas in the countryside. It was their custom also to put the ordinary inmates of these marvelously walled cities up against these walls and shoot them for some crime real or imagined. The heads of dissenters were displayed on these wonderful walls. And then there was the squatter housing squashed up against Mr. Leys’s walls.

2) Wang Shi-wei, the dissident who was shot in Yenan in 1947. True enough Wang was shot in Yenan in 1947 and Mao afterwards talked about it. What Leys fails to say is that Mao considered the execution a serious error which should not be repeated. In China, as elsewhere (even Europe), dissidents are persecuted, but they are rarely executed. In the 1950s we executed the Rosenbergs and today we publicly regret it. Eisenhower advocated executing American communists and we are embarrassed. Does this mean that Stalinist purges are the rule in either China or the US?

Perhaps your readers would be interested in Mao’s full statement in 1962 about Wang Shi-wei’s execution:

There was another man called Wang Shi-wei who was a secret agent working for the Kuomintang. When he was in Yenan, he wrote a book called The Wild Lily, in which he attacked the revolution and slandered the Communist Party. Afterwards he was arrested and executed. That incident happened at the time when the army was on the march, and the security organs themselves made the decision to execute him; the decision did not come from the Center. We have often made criticisms on this very matter; we thought that he shouldn’t have been executed. If he was a secret agent and wrote articles to attack us and refused to reform till death, why not leave him there or let him go and do labor? It isn’t good to kill people. We should arrest and execute as few people as possible. If we arrest people and execute people at the drop of the hat, the end result would be that everybody would fear for themselves and nobody would dare to speak. In such an atmosphere there wouldn’t be much democracy. [from “On Democratic Centralism” in Stuart Schram, ed., Chairman Mao Talks to the People (Pantheon, 1974), pp. 184-185]

3) It is well known that the diplomatic community in China lives an isolated existence and receives formal and bureaucratic treatment from the Chinese. The ordinary visitor is received in a much more friendly, relaxed manner—and often sees much more than the cloistered diplomat like Leys did. There are other foreigners living in China as well. Teachers, students, “experts,” and writers have a much less isolated existence and often a rather integrated life among the Chinese people. Has Mr. Leys ever met Sid Engst, Jim Veneris, Israel Epstein, and others like them in China? Their perspective on the foreigner in China is rather different than Mr. Leys’s, although not without problems and barriers (see for example the excellent book by David and Nancy Milton, The Wind Will Not Subside [1976], which revolves around the foreign community in Beijing).

No doubt Mr. Leys knows all this and that is what angers. His rigid preconceptions about the nature of past and present Chinese society and politics force a level of dishonesty which is unworthy of The New York Review….

Stephen R. MacKinnon

Tempe, Arizona

Simon Leys replies:

Mr. MacKinnon’s criticism bears on four questions. Let us discuss them in succession:

—Concerning Balazs: Etienne Balazs was a great scholar and an admirable man. That Mr. MacKinnon in reading my modest little essays should be induced to compare me with him fills me with a mixture of confusion and pride. (I doubt however if Mr. MacKinnon did understand Balazs’s writings any better than mine.)

—Concerning city walls: In underlining the fact that walls can symbolize oppression and that it was therefore right to pull them down, Mr. MacKinnon raises a very interesting point. Come to think of it—is it not a shame that, in a revolutionary capital such as Peking, quite a number of other (far worse) symbols of oppression are still allowed to stand: the Imperial Palace, the Summer Palace, etc.? Actually, in this respect, too many countries are still badly in need of a big clean-up: the London Tower, the Louvre, the Escorial, the Vatican, the pyramids of Egypt, etc., etc., are all awaiting the revolutionary intervention of Mr. MacKinnon’s pickaxe. If he intends to devote his energy to such a worthy cause, he has, without doubt, a most busy career ahead of him.

—Mao’s quotation concerning Wang Shih-wei: three points

  1. Mao deplored the execution of Wang Shih-wei.” Nixon too deplored his “plumbers” initiatives at Watergate. Great leaders are so often done a disservice by clumsy underlings!

  2. Mao opposes random killings.” This in fact was the only point on which Mao significantly departed from Stalin’s doctrine. Mao always agreed with the principle of Stalinist purges; only, to his more sophisticated taste, their methods appeared rather crude, messy, and wasteful. Mao eventually developed his own theory of the efficient way of disposing of opponents—which is expressed quite clearly in the fifth volume of his Selected Works recently published in Peking: executions should not be too few (otherwise people do not realize that you really mean business); they should not be too many (not to create waste and chaos). Actually before the launching of some mass-movements, quotas were issued by the Maoist authorities, indicating how many executions would be required in the cities, how many in the countryside, etc. This ensured a smooth, rational, orderly development of the purges. Some people see in this method a great improvement by comparison with Stalin’s ways. I suppose it might be so—at least from Big Brother’s point of view.

  3. Mao said that Wang Shih-wei was a secret agent working for the Kuomintang.” And Stalin said that Trotsky was a secret agent working for the Nazis. Later on it was also said that Liu Shao-ch’i was a secret agent working for the Americans. And that Lin Piao was a secret agent working for the Soviet Union. And now we have just learned that Madame Mao had been working for Chiang Kai-shek. Why not? After all there are always people ready to believe these things—Mr. MacKinnon, for instance.

—Other foreigners living in China: I do have a wide circle of acquaintances who have been, or are still, working in China in various capacities. I do also keep in close touch with a number of Chinese friends, former citizens of the People’s Republic, who know Chinese realities from the inside, a thousand times better than either Mr. MacKinnon or myself will ever do. If it had not been for the advice and encouragement I received from those persons who kept telling me that I was right on target, I would never have felt confident enough to publish these subjective impressions of China. On one point, however, I agree with Mr. MacKinnon: I too think it most unlikely that a person living in Peking, and being employed by the Chinese government, would ever express publicly his agreement with my views (though I know some who do so in private).

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