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China Watching

In response to:

The New Two China Problem from the March 8, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

I was surprised and pleased that your journal should take note, however briefly, of a book of mine, Opposition and Dissent in Contemporary China [NYR, March 8]. I must also confess, however, to being mildly dismayed at the way in which it was treated.

Your reviewer says the book seems like an unrevised Ph.D. dissertation. I take this to mean that it is well-documented, thorough, balanced, reasoned, not shallow or journalistic. A further implication, perhaps, is that it is poorly written, although bad writing is not in itself a requirement for the doctorate. The book does deal with a very complex and ambiguous situation, and it is difficult to make the attempt to do justice to the situation read like a comic book. Given the sort of thing your reviewer seems to like, my work cannot be expected to be to his taste.

The reviewer chooses to quote a sentence of mine to the effect that the study lacks direct policy implications—and therefore, he implies, it is not worth taking seriously: mokusatsu. It is not for me to say whether or not the study has merit; but these are inexplicable grounds for finding that it does not. Had the reviewer read on, he would have found that I do say the study does have some indirect, rather innocuous policy implications. Thus, I argue the US government should not provide any direct support for Chinese dissidents; but at the same time we should avoid identifying ourselves too closely with the current Chinese regime or with whatever gang happens to be in power at any given moment. Apparently even these recommendations are less trite than I had imagined: if I am correct, we are probably making a bad mistake in our efforts to bolster the position of Teng Hsiao-p’ing.

The astonishing thing, however, is the reviewer’s failure to understand there is a distinction in function between policy studies and pure scholarship. The work to be sure has no direct, narrow policy implications—on the order, say, of whether or not we should provide air support for a communist attack on Taiwan—simply because these would not be appropriate. The demand for direct policy relevance for academic work is growing in this country, and the trend is bothersome. This is Gang of Four stuff, poisonous to serious scholarship.

To say that a work lacks policy implications is not, of course, to say that it is of no interest to policy-makers; much less is it to say it lacks political tendency. My own work, for example, is directed in part against a mind-set once prevalent among American students of China, the view that the Chinese delight in totalitarian government, that for cultural and other reasons they take pleasure in being bullied, tortured, starved, and manipulated. I cite and attempt to criticize the works of some serious scholars who tend toward seeing things this way. But a vulgar version of this “Shanghai mentality” has been popularized, by the occasional movie star, to be sure, but also by academic politicians and operators connected with the big foundations and the US government who have promoted this fallacy precisely in order to serve narrow policy ends. In retrospect, my work may have been too tendentious—simply because the behavior of the Chinese people over the past three years demonstrates the self-evident falsity of the tendency I criticize. By one of history’s cheap ironies, this tendency stands revealed naked in its moral senility precisely at the moment of its political triumph.

Peter R. Moody, Jr.

Department of Government

and International Studies

University of Notre Dame

Notre Dame, Indiana

John K Fairbank replies:

I feel indebted to Mr. Moody because his letter so neatly illustrates the trouble with his book, which is very informative and liberal-minded but lacks clarity of intellectual focus. Reading his letter I cannot tell what is directed at me and what is simply rhetorical eloquence. I am accused of liking comic books and ignoring the “distinction in function between policy studies and pure scholarship.” But do I go further and demand “direct policy relevance for academic work”? Do I moreover represent “a mind-set once prevalent…that the Chinese delight in totalitarian government…popularized…by academic politicians and operators connected with the big foundations and the US government”? While I always feel a bit guilty when accused, I am not sure whether Mr. Moody is thinking of me or of some others that he and I could agree upon. His last statement that “this tendency [presumably “the view that the Chinese delight in totalitarian government”] stands revealed naked in its moral senility precisely at the moment of its political triumph” leaves me confused. Is this recent “political triumph” the return to power of Teng Hsiao-p’ing or the achievement of normalization, or what? This eloquent obscurity of meaning is what troubled me about the book.

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