The Myth of Mao’s China

China Misperceived: American Illusions and Chinese Reality

by Steven W. Mosher
A New Republic Book/Basic Books, 260 pp., $19.95

In China Misperceived Steven Mosher strikes back at the profession, clan, or family of China watchers that cast him out. The official reasons have never been made public, although his university, Stanford, hinted at academic misconduct when it dismissed him. It is widely believed in American and British academic circles, however, and Chinese threats gave substance to this belief, that Mosher’s real crime, publicly accusing the Chinese government of economic incompetence and forcing women to have abortions, had threatened to undermine Sino-American scholarly relations. Beijing demanded Mosher’s academic disgrace as the price for its allowing American social scientists to continue even limited research in China. Stanford has denied that this demand had a part in its decision.

Much of the whispering and backbiting has now dissipated; Mosher’s once maverick opinions have become widespread among China scholars. But only seven or eight years ago what he had to say sounded to many China specialists, especially anthropologists, like an undignified “emotional involvement with his subjects,” and reactionary nastiness.

I heard old peasant men and women,” Mosher wrote in 1983,

their faces furrowed with the toil of years, recalling that they had eaten better in the twenties and thirties than at any time since…. In short, I heard the villagers themselves give the lie to the Communist Party’s claim of having saved the peasantry from a wretched, earthbound fate.1

Besides saying that the Chinese emperor had no clothes, Mosher also struck at the center of the academic establishment:

Harvard University historian John K. Fairbank…was able to write that “valued in the Chinese peasant’s terms, the revolution had been a magnificent achievement, a victory not only for Mao Tse-tung, but for several hundreds of millions of the Chinese people.” It would be unfair to ask how many peasants Fairbank had spoken to in coming to this conclusion, because in my year in China, literally no one had been allowed to interact freely with the Chinese peasants (except the Hong Kong Chinese, and to protect their relatives, they weren’t talking), much less take up residence in a rural community.2

The two paragraphs from which I have quoted help to explain why from 1981 Steven Mosher was a political pariah in China and for a number of years after 1983 an academic pariah in the United States. He had said the unspeakable: that the Chinese revolution had been a failure from the beginning, and that America’s best-known China expert and the founder of one of the leading schools of Chinese studies in the world—who of course had nothing to do with Mosher’s academic career—didn’t know what he was talking about.

The first charge—that the Communist party had failed China from the beginning—would nowadays fail to produce the kind of outraged reaction from the Chinese that would once have been predictable; some officials would even secretly agree, while the more devout ones would dismiss it as a typical example of “bourgeois liberal smokeless warfare” against China, and in any event the sort of charge that “counterrevolutionary” dissidents like Fang Lizhi regularly make, especially since the Tiananmen events.

The second, against Fairbank, now would be seen as striking legitimately above the belt, and Fairbank himself would not regard it as wholly unfair. Indeed, at the University of Arizona, in 1982, when the surviving journalists of the American press corps in China during the late Thirties and early Forties gathered to recollect and re-evaluate their experiences, Fairbank, who had been an important civilian official of the US Mission in China during the anti-Japanese war, criticized the very reporting which most of the reporters present were still proud of:

Our reporting was very superficial. As has been pointed out it was mainly through the English language, it was seldom from a village, and I don’t recall ever talking to a peasant in the three or four years I was in wartime China.3

Fairbank would probably agree, too, that during his trips to China since 1972 he has spoken with few peasants whose comments were not monitored by an official.

China in 1983, however, was not the country that Sinologists continue to treat with some coolness almost two years after the Beijing killings of June 1989. Eight years ago China was still in the post-Mao golden era of Deng Xiaoping, and academics were eager to spend a year or two doing research there. One of the few who had actually made it into the field was Steven Mosher, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate in anthropology, who, in the eyes of many of his colleagues, came close to ruining the prospects of research for everyone else.

Mosher spent nine months in 1979–1980 in Starwood village in south China’s Guangdong province; he had been granted this opportunity because he could speak both Cantonese and Mandarin, and because his Hong Kong born wife’s ancestors originally came from Starwood. After nine months he produced unique findings, but not of the sort expected of doctoral students.

In his previous books about his experiences, Broken Earth: The Rural Chinese and Journey to the Forbidden China, and in his new one, China Misperceived, Mosher says that like other American students he had gone to China favorably disposed to what he would find there, but discovered, behind a façade of carefully contrived masks, a society that was dominated by an oppressive and omnipresent Communist party. Eventually he became aware that, as part of its campaign to limit each family to one child, a principal element in Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform, the regional Party was requiring women pregnant for the second or third time to have abortions.

This revelation led to Mosher’s professional undoing. Shocked by what he saw of the system of forced abortion, he became emotionally involved with the peasants of Starwood village. The director of the local clinic had described to him his treatment of women in their seventh or eighth month of pregnancy who had succumbed to the heavy official pressure to have an abortion: “We begin by injecting Rivalor, an abortifacient, into the uterus to destroy the fetus and cause birth contractions. The fetus usually expires within twenty-four hours and is expelled on the second day.”4 Mosher became convinced, largely because of what he had seen of the lives of the women in Starwood, that “few countries so thoroughly enmesh their people in a web of economic, political, and social controls, and fewer still presume a right to dictate not only behavioral norms but also personal values.”5

By the mid-1980s, the officially enforced abortions impelled many parents, who wanted the one child permitted them by the government to be a boy, to kill their first-born infants if they were girls.6 But in 1980 first-hand information about abortion was rare indeed. That was when Mosher went to Taiwan, where he wrote a series of articles in Chinese about the Guangdong abortions for the China Times Weekly, using only his first and middle names. The articles were accompanied by photographs of women forced to undergo sterilization and, in their third trimester, forced abortions.7 According to Mosher, whom I talked to in April, Stanford had charged that the photographs “violated anthropological ethics, specifically the requirement to obtain the informed consent of those interviewed and photographed.” Mosher claims that he told his university that local doctors had permitted him to take the pictures, because they, too, “were appalled at these violations of human rights.” He adds that forced abortion was found to be a crime against humanity at Nuremberg, and wonders whether Stanford’s president Donald Kennedy would have argued “that photographs of victims of the Holocaust should not be published unless they had first signed a written release?”

Mosher does not appear to understand, moral though his concerns were, that publishing such material in what the Beijing government regarded as a leading enemy newspaper could be used against the women themselves. From what he says they had not given informed assent to publication in Taiwan and could have been charged with complicity with Mosher and Taiwanese agents. Even if they had given their explicit assent they could hardly have anticipated the use to which the pictures were put.

Beijing accused Mosher of smuggling state secrets and gold out of China, bribing officials, and driving his van into closed areas—the subject of Journey to the Forbidden China. The Chinese urged Stanford to “deal with this matter severely”; it was understood that the entire Sino-American exchange program was under threat and that American social scientists could find themselves barred from the Chinese countryside. Stanford, which was to deny that Chinese pressure influenced its eventual decision, considered the matter and in 1983 expelled Mosher from its Ph.D. program for “unethical conduct.” Its forty-seven-page report has remained confidential, although Mosher has seen it.

In 1983, while writing a piece about this affair for The Times of London, I called several of the leading American and British anthropologists interested in China, all of whom knew about the case. Without exception they supposed that Mosher had been sacrificed to save the exchange program; none, however, would allow me to use his name. Mosher himself said at the time,

It’s a measure of my success that the Chinese communists are so anxious to discredit me. I’m being thrown to the wolves. Peking has said that unless I’m dealt with, the scholarly exchange with the US will suffer. The heat was on and lots of people here are less concerned with the truth than with placating Peking. If they can increase their opportunities by offering the Chinese my head on a silver platter, they’ll do it.8

Now, in China Misperceived, Mosher, who is director of the Asian Studies Center at the Claremont Institute, attacks most of the American experts on China, whether academic, journalistic, or diplomatic, for failing to expose the injustice and oppression of the Chinese Communists. The book is severe in its criticism and sometimes painfully accurate; it can be vulgar, unfair, and evasive, and it is also sometimes wrong.

Mosher writes that William F. Buckley had suggested to him that someone should investigate why the journalists accompanying Nixon to Beijing in 1972 “had fallen all over themselves praising one of the most despotic regimes ever known to man. I decided to take up Buckley’s challenge.” Mosher gives us a taste of his use of innuendo by saying that Nixon, Beijing, and the China journalists and academics he calls China watchers—not “some” of the China watchers—“might have been working for years to mask the cruelty and violence of the Cultural Revolution.”

But there was more at work, he observes, than pro-Chinese bias, and here he must be taken seriously, although his ideas are not new:

American perceptions of China had been oscillating between poles of attraction and repulsion for decades. It was necessary to trace this larger cycle of hostility-admiration-disenchantment-benevolence.

For example, when Nixon, the arch-Red-hater, went to China, Chinese tyranny, which had been much condemned since the Korean War, had, in Mosher’s words, to be “gilded.” This resulted in Nixon’s avoiding the use of the word Communist whenever possible, and while in China using every opportunity “in front of the camera to utter sound bites of reassurance to domestic audiences that the Chinese Communists weren’t such bad fellows after all.” Mosher might have added that the Chinese were also busily toning down their own ideological language; I realized in Beijing after Nixon’s visit that the epithet “Anti-imperialist,” often used for place names, had been changed sometimes to “Friendship,” as with the airport where the President landed and was welcomed by Premier Zhou Enlai.

And American reporters, keen to reflect the new era of good feelings, Mosher says, and anxious to be invited back, sent off dispatches that my profession should remember with shame. Largely on the basis of Chinese assurances, they extolled the Cultural Revolution, the eradication of venereal disease, crime, and vice generally, and praised the universal enthusiasm, openness, and friendliness of the population, with whom few of the reporters could directly communicate. Even Buckley, Mosher notes, “erred on the side of optimism,” although he had noticed the humiliation of Zhou Peiyuan, once the president of Beijing University (who had been trained in physics in the Twenties at the University of Chicago), when he was forced to tell the reporters how much his university had benefited from the Cultural Revolution. I remember a later meeting with Zhou where all of us present failed to see how excruciating the event actually was for him.

But Mosher does not blame Nixon for creating the new popular image of China, which after the Beijing visit the Gallup poll discovered had changed from “warlike,” “sly,” and “treacherous” to “hard-working,” “intelligent,” “artistic,” and “progressive.” Although these new images were essential to the success of Nixon’s new détente with China, and the “ultimate” source was Beijing’s own self-promotion, the “proximate” cause of pro-Chinese perceptions—and this is Mosher’s central point—was “an informal coalition of disaffected intellectuals, liberal scholars, and foreign policy experts….” According to Mosher the “coalition” included Henry Kissinger, John Fairbank, and Edgar Snow. This is typically overstated—surely “coalition” denotes a conscious joining together. But Mosher’s claim is that this coalition concocted a myth that even William Buckley swallowed: “that the Cultural Revolution had successfully molded a new Maoist man.”

Not until the killings in June 1989 of the Tiananmen demonstrators was it at last apparent even to most of the Mao apologists that, despite the coalition’s claims, large numbers of Chinese wanted a society based not on “radical egalitarianism, but upon a respect for individual human dignity and rights.”

According to Mosher, in addition to the unlikely coalition, there were other groups or people, some China-lovers, others anti-Communist, whose opinions, between 1949 and the Tiananmen events, were “unblurred by doubt and unshaken by conflicting information.” These were “the culture brokers”—missionaries, journalists, tourists, scholars—“New Agers, and Marxist revolutionary activists,” who transmitted to the US knowledge about China characterized by Mosher as “utilitarian, relativistic, or romanticized.”

Of all these informants about China, Mosher especially condemns Harvard’s John King Fairbank, whom at one point he inaccurately calls a Maoist, although he exhibits scorn as well for certain “tourists,” such as Shirley MacLaine, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Harrison Salisbury. He especially admires Pierre Ryckmans, who writes (often in these pages) under the name Simon Leys. Orville Schell, in Mosher’s view, moved from “political fancy to political fact…a popular trajectory for China watchers of the eighties….”

Mosher tells us that “my own views on China’s long—and not yet completed—evolution from feudal despotism through bureaucratic totalitarianism to modern democracy” resulted from his graduate study at Stanford, and residence in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and in the People’s Republic. His teachers at Stanford he describes as remote from China in both experience and attitude, preferring abstraction to “flesh and blood trauma”; while vague about Mao’s cruelty, ensuring that “reports of his success did [come through], loud and clear, in the idealistic accounts assigned as reading.”

Mosher’s year in China “proved an effective antidote to the opinions I had imbibed at Stanford….” He concluded (quoting himself in 1983), “For the 400 million peasants of the South China heartland, the liberation has probably proved to be an empty, undigestible myth.” Now, more than ever, Mosher says, he is sure that capitalism in most countries provides “a full range of political, civil, and religious rights” to their citizens, together with the greatest economic growth. He says nothing of his dismissal from Stanford, which, in view of his attack on those who taught him there, is a striking omission, especially because he has already described himself publicly as having been thrown to the wolves by his old teachers. (He told me this spring that he has been warned to avoid what could be construed as a libel.)

Stanford apart, one of Mosher’s main targets is the journalists, such as Edgar Snow, who reported on China during the anti-Japanese war. He despises them as a group as much as he despises the academics represented by John K. Fairbank; a good deal of what he says of them is justifiable—Fairbank himself, as noted above, has described the China reporting of the late Thirties and early Forties as superficial. Of the journalists assigned to China during what he calls The Age of Infatuation (the 1930s and 1940s) Mosher writes:

The exact role their reports played in delaying and diminishing US aid to the Nationalists, and otherwise enhancing the fortunes of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) is beyond the scope of this book. What I will show is that, with few exceptions, they solidly aligned themselves on the side of the Progressive Forces, saw US support for the Nationalists as merely delaying their certain defeat, and won over to their point of view important segments of US public opinion.

This, especially the word “exact,” could be interpreted as a smear, a variation of Joseph McCarthy’s claim that subversive US officials “lost” China, as if China was actually America’s to lose. Yet Mosher never seriously considers the vicious lies of McCarthy and his allies and their effects on American attitudes toward China. (The name McCarthy does not appear in Mosher’s index, and McCarthyism is mentioned only once in a reference, in someone else’s quotation, to “Marxist McCarthyism” in Mao’s China.) While Mosher fails to deal with the effects of McCarthyism, however, he is not charging anyone with having lost China; he apparently sees that this assertion is a dead duck, even among the former China lobbyists.9

He is raising, however, a painful question: How was it possible to overlook the reality of the Chinese Communists, a reality that should have been apparent from their own statements? They said plainly that they were dedicated Marxist-Leninists, devoted to the Soviet model of government, opposed to ideological dissent or multiparty politics. The Communist leaders often stated that there was little to choose between German and Japanese fascism on the one hand and Western capitalism on the other. The American misunderstanding of the aims, beliefs, and behavior of Mao’s Communists, Mosher says, re-emerged in the favorable judgments on them in the Sixties and Seventies, showing how once again many of the liberal China experts had been heavily influenced by the manipulative skills of the Communists.

At the Arizona conference in 1982 Tillman Durdin, a New York Times reporter in China during the late Thirties, described the ideological preferences of what the organizers of the meeting called the “Hankou Gang—after China’s temporary capital where they first worked as competitors and colleagues.” “At Hankou,” Durdin said,

we had a large number of people who had had some experience of the Spanish Civil War and who had been in Moscow. They brought with them very worldly political points of view. They felt at home in China because she, too, was fighting a just war like the one they had been pushing, observing, and covering in Spain on the Republican side. They were also great believers in the Russian Revolution. So at Hankou, with their presence, we had become part of the world scene.

Mosher’s contempt for the correspondents in Hankou could not be greater. They fed, he writes,

on one another’s perceptions like a snake devouring its own tail. In the end their views no more resembled Chinese reality than the bloated and fly-blown carcass of a dead animal resembles its still-living relative. In their view…[o]nly the Chinese Communist party could throw off the heavy mantle of China’s feudal past and liberate the peasants….

This was the super story the correspondents concentrated on justifying, or at least not contradicting.

Central to this story, says Mosher, and the correspondents at the Arizona conference bear him out, were the differing personalities on the two sides. The Nationalist leaders, they said, were dreary fellows compared to the suave and charming Zhou Enlai and the charismatic Mao, who had what Edgar Snow described as “that calm confidence of a Christian with four aces.” (But Agnes Smedley, for her part, found the Chairman “physically repulsive.”) Mosher quotes Arch Steele, of the New York Herald Tribune, the most senior of the reporters, who remembers how difficult it was in Chongqing, the official wartime capital, to extract information from the Nationalists and how easy it was to go down the road to the Communist office where no less a person than Zhou Enlai gave out what sounded like the truth. “It was very tempting indeed to give considerable prominence to the detailed version and very persuasive words we got from Zhou and to more or less ignore…the Nationalists’ communiqués.”

The problem, Mosher says, was simple. As a Confucian patriarch Chiang Kai-shek was reluctant to tell foreigners the details of the Kuomintang’s internal wrangling; this left the field to Zhou’s version of the events, while the Communists never had to account for what happened on their side because the correspondents could only visit their headquarters at Yanan for brief periods, which the Communists skillfully stage-managed, creating what Mosher calls “Camelot in North China.” Edgar Snow first publicized the Camelot myth, Mosher says, and his account in Red Star Over China influenced foreigners’ opinions of Mao in particular for years. Snow became a model for other reporters, and had quasi-official status as China’s best foreign friend into the early Seventies, when Mao used him to relay China’s invitation to Nixon. Mosher is very hard on Snow, but, in my opinion, he is not unfair.10

Snow’s successors at Yanan are also quoted, from the Arizona meeting, to devastating effect: Arch Steele, for example, admits that it was difficult to say straightforwardly that the Chinese Communists were indeed Communists “because that would go against the American grain.”11 Mosher comments, “This sleight of hand raises serious questions of ethics: How can a journalist, for whatever reason, consciously conceal a central truth about a highly controversial subject?”

Mosher himself is sometimes less than fair. He claims that the journalists were impressed by Communist land reform, tax reduction, and by the good behavior and austerity of the army. He doesn’t say these things did not exist; only that the Communists were “making a virtue out of necessity” because the Kuomintang and Japanese blockade forced them to adopt such policies. But this does not make the policies unworthy ones or the reporters wrong.

He also returns to the old charge that the journalists thought the Communists were merely “agrarian reformers,” but employs the weasel word “apparently” when accusing Theodore White of using this phrase—the source being an allegation by Whittaker Chambers, an editor of Time when Theodore White was a Time reporter there. Mosher hasn’t thoroughly investigated this matter. As Kenneth Shewmaker of Dartmouth showed conclusively twenty years ago, “The notion that the agraian-reformer myth was a strategem devised by Chinese Communists and disseminated by a captive group of Far Eastern journalists is rooted in a lack of familiarity with the Western literature on communism in China.”12 On this particular issue Shewmaker demonstrates that the Chinese Communists themselves made no such claim, and praises the realism of Edgar Snow and Theodore White, who although they occasionally wavered, consistently maintained their original view that Mao and his colleagues were authentic Marxist-Leninists. But other enthusiasts, while agreeing that Mao insisted that his movement was Communist, emphasized that this was really a distant goal. “The Chinese Communists are not Communists,” wrote Harrison Forman of the New York Herald Tribune and NBC in 1947. “They are no more Communistic than we Americans are.”13

Mosher acknowledges that the Nationalist government “was hardly a liberal democracy” and that during the 1940s it “governed China with an increasingly heavy hand. Fighting a war on two fronts is not conducive to democracy.” But he points out, fairly, that the KMT, oppressive though it was, allowed more pluralism than the Communists, with, for instance, vigorously critical newspapers, which one of the Arizona journalists, Phil Potter, from the Baltimore Sun, said contrasted with the monolithic press in the Communist areas. This free press, Mosher adds, was actually a handicap to the Nationalists when it exposed what the American reporters saw as their fascist behavior. “The idiocies, the mistakes, in the KMT areas were pushed upon you every day,” Mosher quotes Peggy Durdin as saying. “On the revolutionary side we knew very little and certainly not the seamier side of the factional fights.”

Mosher suggests that even if the reporters had spoken Chinese, which most of them didn’t (they claimed at the Arizona conference that it had made no difference), they would not have been able to see through the Communist propaganda which screened “the intraparty struggles, the purges, the executions [which]…were conducted out of the public eye.” This is true enough and especially unfortunate: the purges of intellectuals after 1949 were prefigured at Yanan.

Few American editors, Mosher claims, despite what Arch Steele said about the popular American fear of communism, blocked what their reporters in the field were saying about the Communists. Prominent among the editors who did interfere was Whittaker Chambers, who became the foreign news editor at Time magazine in 1945. Chambers was remembered at Arizona as having mutilated the dispatches of Theodore White and John Hersey (who was writing from Moscow; Mosher misspells his name). Mosher insists that Chambers did excellent work here: “With a certainty born of his twelve years as a member of the Communist party, he rewrote White’s dispatches to reverse the anti-KMT, pro-CCP spin.” If only other editors had done the same, Mosher notes, “reportage of the China situation would have dramatically improved.” Although I am amazed that reporters continued to write for Luce’s papers while Chambers was hacking up their copy, it is possible, as Mosher suggests, that as an ex-Party member he perceived, from afar, the nature of the Chinese Communists and recognized the way they were disguising themselves for foreign observers by telling them what they wanted to hear and showing them what they wanted to see.

Mosher concedes that while Steele and his colleagues were for the most part neither “crypto-Communists nor fellow travelers,” as both Senator McCarthy and Whittaker Chambers claimed, they were, he insists, trapped by the Communist line and forty years later, in Arizona, they were still sure they had done well. These reporters, Mosher says, had exaggerated the Party’s successes, and minimized its totalitarian nature and behavior because they wanted to believe that they were dealing with democrats. They ignored

numerous portents of postrevolutionary disaster…[which would result in] a thirty-year nightmare of purges and political campaigns, culminating in the Cultural Revolution, which caught up tens of millions of ordinary Chinese in the party’s cruel nets…. Instead of offering a collective mea culpa, they took turns preening themselves on the “pretty goddamn good job” they had done in reporting from China in the 1940s.

All this constitutes a rather bizarre omission, like recalling the cute lion cub you once reared without mentioning that it grew up to devour your children.

Mosher mentions briefly, and with some disapproval, the American foreign service officers, such as John K. Emmerson, John P. Davies, Jr., and John S. Service who had reported from China during the same years, most of whom paid a heavy price during the McCarthy purges of the early Fifties. Their dispatches are included in Acheson’s White Paper. Davies’s dispatch of November 7, 1944, can stand for the approach for which they were to be condemned, together with academics like Owen Lattimore, as “crypto-communists.”

The Communist governments and armies,” Davies wrote, “are the first governments and armies in modern Chinese history to have positive and widespread support. They have this support because the governments and armies are genuinely of the people.”14 It must be said that in retrospect this is so broadly stated that it sounds like propaganda. Later commentators on the People’s Republic used much the same language—as earlier ones had of the Soviet Union.

Here again, however, Mosher omits a central fact about American reporting of China, put well by E.J. Kahn, Jr., in his comprehensive and moving The China Hands: America’s Foreign Service Officers and What Befell Them. What men like Service and Davies were saying, Kahn observes, was that “no matter what hopes they or anybody else entertained about China’s future, and no matter how much they or anybody else might wish to see Chiang Kai-shek retain control of a unified China, in the struggle between the Generalissimo and the Communists, Chiang was sure to lose.”15

But like the reporters who gathered to congratulate themselves in Arizona, the foreign service officers also wrote reports that, reread today, show how little, despite their backgrounds in China and their excellent command of Chinese, they, too, understood with whom they were dealing. The Communists were bound to win, as they said, and the KMT to lose, but with what effects on the lives of most Chinese?

Much of the eye-witness reporting by Edgar Snow, Jack Belden (China Shakes the World), Graham Peck (Two Kinds of Time), and Annalee Jacoby and Theodore White (Thunder Out of China) was often quoted in the Sixties and early Seventies to show how fortunate it was that the Communists had won. The reporters had observed the suffering of the Chinese during the anti-Japanese war and during the struggle between the Kuomintang and the Communists, and they assumed much too quickly that the Communists would behave better than their enemies. “Perhaps the very realities of this China defy description,” wrote James Peck, a China expert who was active during the 1960s in the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, in an essay I used to quote with enthusiasm to my students at Dartmouth.

How is one to describe the millions and millions of deaths, the staggering suffering of the poor, their lack of hope, and complete destitution…. Here was a new China. Its story remains captured in the titles of the three greatest writings of the time—from Red Star Over China (1937), to Thunder Out of China (1946), to China Shakes the World (1949)…. Yenan, moreover, seemed the fountainhead of an immense revolutionary force, one which held genuine promise of justice for the peasants. Concluded Theodore White, “There is only one certainty in Communist politics in China: the leaders’ interests are bound up with the masses of poverty stricken, suffering peasants, from whom they have always drawn their greatest support. They and they alone have given effective leadership to the peasant’s irresistible longing for justice in his daily life.”16

Here we must recall John Fairbank’s comment at Arizona: the reporting of this period, he said, was very superficial, and none of the reporters had any knowledge of the life of the ordinary people. Even the Communists, Fairbank noted, didn’t have much. They were trying to find methods of organization and violence and of indoctrination that would work, but it wasn’t on the basis of knowing all the facts.17

White himself later spoke critically of what he had written in 1946. He wrote to the Arizona conference that

we were all very young men, ignorant men, unskilled men. China was a mystery to all of us, as it remains to this day a mystery to the most learned scholars. We never knew who was doing what to whom or why. We could not penetrate Chinese politics.

James Peck respectfully quotes from Jacoby and White’s Thunder Out of China, but he fails to mention White’s introduction to his 1961 edition, in which he says of Mao that

he spoke dogma—he spoke always in the most rigid Marxist terms…. His ideas seemed so unrealistic and orthodox that I found them not worth the reporting; they were too simple to be taken seriously…. Nor could one foresee how the rigid, dogmatic fancies of this Yenan leadership, so curiously charming in the hills, could become such a terrifying policy and practice fifteen years later…. For what they [the Communists] achieved in their lust to apply a logic of government to the anarchy of China was to make all China a prison.

White describes the Communists success as being the result of having “seduced” the Chinese into believing that the Party was offering government and order.18

Could anyone have known at the time what the Communists’ were really like? They had compiled many writings in publications that were available in the Chinese cities; but John Carter Vincent, counselor at the embassy in 1942-1943 and chief of the Division of Far Eastern Affairs from 1945 to 1947, told a congressional committee that he had read little or no Marx, Engels, Lenin, or Stalin, and nothing by Mao, or any other Chinese Communist leader.19 This was a pity. As the University of Chicago Professor Tang Tsou pointed out in his study of Chinese Americans relations during the 1940s, had anyone bothered to read Mao’s writings from the early Thirties, or bothered to follow his line on the twists and turns of Soviet policy, such as the pacts with Hitler and the Japanese, the actual nature of the Communists would have become plain enough. The same could be said of their purges in 1942 at Yanan of writers such as Ding Ling and of the execution of Wang Shiwei, another writer who complained of Party hypocrisy and authoritarianism.

But the Foreign Service officers and many reporters, Tang says, described the Communists as democrats because they believed that a government that had popular support and promoted the interests of the majority was a democracy. John Service, another of the most distinguished Foreign Service officers in China, spoke of the democratic character of the Communists’ policies and methods.20 What Tang says of Service and the other diplomats who insisted on the Communists’ popularity also applies, I believe, to many of the journalists of the time and to academics who were later to study the Communist movement: they failed to understand the Communists because like many Americans they were ignorant of the power and meaning of ideology, and they did not understand, as Tang puts it,

that a totalitarian movement or government can sometimes stir up intense popular enthusiasm and serve the interests of the majority and that a system of elections can be nothing more than a tool to foster a sense of participation among the masses.21

Tang attacks the McCarthy witchhunt as stupid and harmful, but he is right to show that ignorance and wishful thinking pervaded much of the early reporting on the Chinese Communists, and blinded the China watchers to the manipulative nature of the Communists’ friendliness toward American visitors. Mosher sums up this period by saying that “History has not been kind to those who like A. T. Steele thought that a Communist victory would open the way to a new day in China.”

During what Mosher calls “The Age of Hostility,” between 1949 and 1972, the Chinese once again became Yellow Devils for many Americans. First more than a million people were killed in the land reform terror that began in 1949; then the Chinese entered the Korean War, and soon after it, they sponsored attacks on intellectuals in which many thousands were purged during the anti-Rightist campaigns and the crushing of the Hundred Flowers movement, and, during the Sixties, the beginnings of the Cultural Revolution. Americans marveled as well at the enormous energy—now the Chinese were Blue Ants—which Mao had unleashed in huge public works projects. It was in this period, too, Mosher notes, that many Americans believed in a Sino-Soviet ideological crusade, although the Moscow–Beijing split was already serious by the late Fifties.

But many liberals who hated Chiang Kai-shek could not accept the domestic critics of China in those days, especially some of those now praised by Mosher—who, as I have noted, omits mention of Senator McCarthy—such as the Catholic priests and nuns who spoke of their imprisonment in China and the persecution of their converts after the Communist takeover. Later, when scholars like Ivor and Miriam London provided information about violence during the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, their work, as Mosher shows, was criticized because it was based on refugee sources. As was to happen later during the Indochinese war, it was always possible for such liberals as Belden, White, and Snow to console themselves with Mao’s observation that revolutions are not tea parties. James Peck would write, “The key word is liberation.”

Between leaders and led, in short, there seemed to be a relationship of mutuality, identification, and co-performance that released the creative energies and rage so essential for revolutionary struggle and increased political consciousness…the peasants had to participate fully, speak out, rid themselves of all the internalized repression.

This was made especially appealing when one could refer, as Peck did, to Jack Belden’s Communist heroes who were called Scarface, Crooked Head, and Lop Ear—“the number of these nameless creatures was legion in the land.”22 And if these nameless creatures killed more than a million landlords and other “class enemies,” how could Westerners object without appearing to be anti-People or counter-revolutionary?

Even in these years of official antagonism to Chinese communism, therefore, there was already a growing feeling among some China watchers, Mosher says, that if China was developing industrially, the fact that the Chinese were denied human rights should not be counted heavily in judging them. Here Mosher, in my opinion, is deadly but right, although scholars like Roderick MacFarquhar, Merle Goldman, and Tang Tsou were among those who were not taken in. Throughout the Sixties and early Seventies many American China specialists looked away from the Chinese realities, as did many of the enthusiastic and self-blinkered tourists who toured China after Nixon’s visit.

China’s famine between 1959 and 1961 was perhaps the worst on record. The Chinese themselves have admitted that 16 million died, and Liu Binyan, once the country’s best-informed journalist, now living in the US, claims the regime’s own experts estimated that 50 million people died. I have written about Edgar Snow’s willful blindness to the famine in this journal.23 Snow’s view, although he was actually in China in 1960, was that the famine did not exist; his friends Zhou Enlai and Rewi Alley had assured him that while food was short, there was no famine. Yet in Hong Kong, at that very time, post offices were crowded with Chinese sending food to their relatives across the border. Mosher shows that the press—for instance the wire services, The New York Times, and US News and World Report—reported what was going on, but he claims that academics such as John Fairbank either ignored or barely mentioned the famine, although in 1962 Liu Shaoqi had conceded—perhaps, as Mosher suggests, to embarrass Mao—“the masses [have] starved for two years.” Those who turned their attention away from the famine, Mosher says, were convinced that “in modernizing communist China, death by starvation was a thing of the past.”

The economist John Gurley of Stanford had such a conviction. In 1969 he wrote,

The truth is that China over the past two decades has made very remarkable economic advances…. The basic, overriding economic fact about people in China is that for twenty years they have all been fed…. Millions have not starved….

Gurley concluded his essay by saying that if the Maoists are right about economic development, “it would take a bunch of absolute dunces on this side of the Pacific to ignore them.”24

Contrast this with the testimony in 1979 of Wei Jingsheng, now in the twelfth year of his fifteen-year sentence for telling the truth at Beijing’s Democracy Wall—a source surprisingly unmentioned by Mosher, who could have quoted Wei to great effect. In 1968 Wei, a disillusioned Red Guard, returned to Anhui, his home province, where he learned what had happened there during the famine years.

To keep death at bay, families exchanged babies, to eat. These people were not executioners, but Mao Zedong’s policies had forced them to batter children to death with hoes that they themselves might live…. Now at last I could see why the peasants had come to hate “communism.”25

The melange of idealism, anti-imperialism, hypocrisy, middle-class guilt, fantasies about People’s Democracies briefly visited, and vaguely pro-People sentiments that provoked misreporting and skewed analysis has been impressively discussed in Paul Hollander’s Political Pilgrims, a much wittier, less spiteful, and therefore more effective book than China Misperceived. But in his own often leaden-footed way Mosher repeatedly hits his targets. It is painful to recall how many China specialists resisted allegations like Mosher’s—and Wei Jingsheng’s—that millions had died of hunger in China, or been tortured and killed, or forcibly aborted. Nowadays, when Fang Lizhi says that the Party has not made a single lasting contribution to Chinese well-being, we say, “He ought to know.” When Mosher described peasants in his village saying much the same thing, he was regarded by many as a crank or even a liar.

Although I am not mentioned in his book, I could have been. In 1979 I recorded in The Observer the comment of a young Party member I had just re-encountered in Hangzhou who had taken me around China in 1972: “We wanted to deceive you. But you wanted to be deceived.”26 In 1972 I had been one of a small group of academics from the Concerned Asian Scholars Committee (Mosher is cruel but essentially right about us in China Misperceived) invited to the People’s Republic, where as “foreign friends” who were against the Vietnamese war, we had a free six-week guided tour just after Nixon left. Although I was increasingly aware that we were being manipulated, and at one point had to be persuaded not to leave China by my traveling companions because it would have made our anti-Chinese colleagues at home happy, I listened to a great deal of cant with few reservations.

Like William Buckley earlier, I was part of a group assembled to hear the unfortunate Professor Zhou Peiyuan, the Chicago-educated physicist and former president of Beijing University. In 1972, for the purpose of impressing foreign intellectuals, he was appointed the vice-chairman of the university’s Revolutionary Committee, the largely nonacademic but politically correct group which it was said—after Mao’s death—almost destroyed the institution as a center of learning. Poor Zhou had to say things like “Intellectuals are servants of the ruling class. Only in your country the ruling class is the big bourgeoisie who set the standards. Here it is workers and peasants.” We listened to speeches like this for six weeks without gagging or raising our eyebrows at each other, and I quoted them, as if they were sincere, when we returned to the US.27

In the early and middle Seventies, the period Mosher calls “The Selling of China,” many Western academics and China experts said things that must make them squirm today—as I do. There were honorable exceptions, such as Roderick MacFarquhar, now at Harvard, Lucian Pye at MIT, and Simon Leys, some of whom are mentioned by Mosher and Hollander. (At least one of Mosher’s heroes, Karl A. Wittfogel—whose name he misspells—was a McCarthyite hit man who made life hell for his old colleagues Owen Lattimore and Herbert Norman.)

Michel Oksenberg, now at the University of Michigan, suggested in 1973 that America’s “dreary list of domestic problems: racism, bureaucratism, urban decay” etc., might be solved by adopting the Chinese model. “The Chinese dedication to building a more decent, just society might also spur us.” John K. Fairbank wrote in 1972 that “Americans may find in China’s collective life today an ingredient of personal moral concern for one’s neighbor that has a lesson for us all.”

As I have noted, Mosher fires some of his most powerful broadsides at John King Fairbank, whom he calls a “Maoist,” which might be a libel were it not absurd. As Fairbank notes in his autobiography, “In 1977 I was excluded from the PRC with stony silence and greeted in Taiwan by a vociferous press attack. Obviously both Chinas were trying to tell me something.”28 Fairbank had irritated Taiwan by visiting the mainland and making some favorable remarks about it. Beijing was annoyed by what he calls “one overt act of a non-friend” after he had returned from China where he had gone at Zhou Enlai’s invitation. The act, according to Fairbank, was his review in these pages (November 1, 1973) of Prisoner of Mao by Jean Pascalini, a French citizen with a Chinese mother who had spent seven years from 1957 in labor camps. Fairbank made it clear that Pascalini had been arbitrarily arrested and badly treated. But he also compared the Chinese and Russian gulags and found the comparison “was to China’s credit.”29 The Chinese ambassador in Washington told him that his review was an unfriendly act.

This was the same period when Fairbank came under attack by the Concerned Asian Scholars; as Mosher himself notes, he was accused by James Peck, his former student and later the Asia editor of Pantheon publishers, of “the internalization of the rightist world view, that is the surviving legacy of McCarthyism…[and] prov[iding] the sophistication and complexity for the rigid and confining outlooks of the Cold War”—which was equally simple-minded. That he calls Fairbank a Maoist permits some critics of China Misperceived, such as Marilyn B. Young of New York University, to question Mosher’s judgment; and after her review appeared, and while I was writing my own, he told me that he regrets it.

But much of what Fairbank has written to explain Communist China now seems like bending over backward to avoid making a judgment. In 1984, five years after the trial of Wei Jingsheng, he observed in this journal that individual human rights in China were a Western concern, of interest mainly to the educated Chinese elite, and that “as in this country we try to defend ourselves against the computer, we can feel we have something in common with the Chinese.”30 I think that few Chinese who have visited the United States would agree with the comparison. And if one looks at the work that Fairbank’s colleagues Merle Goldman and Roderick MacFarquhar have done on the Hundred Flowers period during the late Fifties, to take only one example, it is apparent that given the chance many Chinese did demand human rights.

In that same issue of The New York Review Fairbank, a first-class historian who wanted Americans to stop being culture-bound in their judgments on China, repeated one of his main themes: “When the record is mastered, I suspect it will be evident that what Mao attempted was in the spirit of many predecessors [i.e., Chinese emperors], and that he often used their methods—except that Mao had some new devices and was in more of a hurry.” In 1976 he wrote that “today’s bureaucrats, as inheritors of the world’s oldest bureaucratic tradition have organized party and government to accomplish modern tasks, maximize production, and lift China out of weakness and poverty.”31 Yet Fairbank admits in his autobiography that, as late as 1972, when he had been invited to China by Zhou Enlai, he was “woefully ignorant about Mao’s thought and the great ideological campaigns of the revolution.”32

Earlier ignorance of Communist persecution in the years before and just after Mao’s victory in 1949 permitted Fairbank to say in 1950 that it was a “fact of life” that “Communists could seem good in China though bad in America.”33 This seems a selective judgment; Fairbank must have known already what was happening to Mao’s “class enemies.” Was this a regime he would have approved of if he knew that eventually—as he wrote in his autobiography—his own Chinese friends would suffer at its hands?

By the early Eighties, however, Fairbank wrote that what was going on in Communist China had to be sharply distinguished from the old imperial system: “the state power, formerly superficial and unobstrusive in the village, now reaches through the Party to affect even the villager’s ducklings.”34 Or, “Rule by a dynastic family has given way to party dictatorship, which has brought modernized indoctrination, surveillance, and intimidation into every village and every urban family.”35 Mosher does not acknowledge these more recent views.

But he takes Fairbank to task for projecting a future China in which only a relatively small number of Westernized intellectuals were longing for democracy and human rights. In an essay in which Fairbank simultaneously praises Simon Leys, one of the most stinging critics of the Chinese Communists over the last twenty-five years, while implying he takes a narrow view, Fairbank describes him as one of a group of outsiders who make friends with their Chinese counterparts, resent “bureaucratic callousness towards the arts and letters, and offer Western-style criticisms that in Chinese politics would constitute traitorous defiance of the regime.”36

Bureaucratic callousness” hardly describes what has been happening to Chinese artists and writers since 1944 at Yanan when Mao, five years before he took national power, began purging them. According to Merle Goldman of Boston University, in Volume 14 of The Cambridge History of China, of which Fairbank is one of two editors, 400,000 to 700,000 “Rightists” were persecuted during the late Fifties,37 and many more suffered in the Cultural Revolution. This is not callousness toward the circle of Leys’s friends. Yet Leys, Fairbank said, “accounts for this tragic story of anti-intellectualism only in the pessimistic terms used by Orwell and Lu Xun” (China’s great satirist of the Thirties). Fairbank further suggested that “if Zhou Enlai were alive…. He would not be pessimistic and neither should we.”38 I don’t understand Fairbank’s view of Zhou Enlai here. As the late Hong Kong China-watcher Father Ladany acutely noted, “Zhou Enlai was one of those men who never tell the truth and never tell a lie. For them there is no distinction between the two.” The Premier lied to a group I was with on various matters when we saw him in Beijing in 1972, and he concealed the famine between 1959 and 1961 from Edgar Snow.

Mosher himself is romantic about ordinary Chinese, as when he talks about how well they were described by Marco Polo and Pearl Buck. He says they are a “highly intelligent, persistently industrious, and cheerfully stoic people.” Of what nationality is this not partly true? For that matter, the Chinese—also like other nationalities—are also violent, superstitious, sexist, and capable of indifference to suffering strangers. Such generalizations don’t tell us much.

Still, Mosher is right to say that before the Tiananmen events America’s most professional China watchers failed to be alert to the popular mood in China. By the Eighties, he says, the voices of Chinese students, essayists, novelists, journalists, and film directors were no longer muted. It is not only the liberal academics, Mosher observes, who misled Americans about China. Nixon and Kissinger, too, “by their moral neutrality, taught Americans that the People’s Republic was the exception to the rule that totalitarian methods are abhorrent.” He could have included George Bush and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. Had the voices of those yearning for liberty been heard, Mosher says, and had recent Chinese history been properly understood—he means its “totalitarian” quality so poignantly described by Wei Jing-sheng—the willingness of China’s leaders to “defend their life’s work, or equivalently, to liquidate their political opposition, would not have come as such a shock.”


China Perceived November 7, 1991

  1. 1

    Mosher, Broken Earth: The Rural Chinese (The Free Press, 1984), pp. 303–304.

  2. 2

    Mosher, Broken Earth, p. 299.

  3. 3

    Stephen R. Mackinnon and Oris Friesen, China Reporting: An Oral History of American Journalism in the 1930s and 1940s (University of California Press, 1983), pp. 183–184.

  4. 4

    Mosher, Broken Earth, p. 252.

  5. 5

    Mosher, Broken Earth, p. 248.

  6. 6

    The single-child family has been deemed the most unpopular policy introduced into China over the past five years,” wrote Elisabeth Croll of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies in 1985. See China’s One-Child Family Policy, edited by Elisabeth Croll, Delia Davin, and Penny Kane (London: Macmillan, 1985), p. 33. For voluminous references see also John S. Aird, Slaughter of the Innocents: Coercive Birth Control in China (The AEI Press, 1990).

  7. 7

    He subsequently published a similar article, under his full name, in Asian Survey, Vol. 22, No. 4 (April 1982), pp. 356–368.

  8. 8

    The Times, April 9, 1983.

  9. 9

    United States Relations With China: With Special Reference to the Period 1944–1949, Department of State Publication 3573, Far Eastern Series 30 (August 1949), p. xvi. The literature on the civil war is large. Much of it is summarized and cited in The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 13, Republican China, 1912–1949, Part 2, edited by John K. Fairbank and Albert Feurwerker, especially chapters II (“Nationalist China during the Sino-Japanese War, 1937–1945,” by Lloyd Eastman), 12 (“The Chinese Communist movement during the Sino-Japanese War, 1937-1945,” by Lyman Van Slyke), and 13 (“The KMT–CCP conflict, 1945–1949,” by Suzanne Pepper).

  10. 10

    I have explored Snow’s biases in my review of John Maxwell Hamilton’s biography Edgar Snow (The New York Review, February 16, 1989).

  11. 11

    Mackinnon and Friesen, China Reporting, p. 154, quoted in Mosher on p. 63, although part of what Mosher quotes, Steele’s “One possible stratagem was to deny that the Chinese Communists were ‘real Communists,’ is actually to be found elsewhere in Mackinnon and Friesen, on p. 6.

  12. 12

    Kenneth E. Shewmaker, Americans and Chinese Communists, 1927–1945: A Persuading Encounter (Cornell University Press, 1971), p. 260.

  13. 13

    Tang Tsou, America’s Failure in China, 1941–1950 (University of Chicago Press, 1963), p. 224.

  14. 14

    United States Relations With China, p. 567.

  15. 15

    Viking, 1975, p. 6.

  16. 16

    Peck, “America and the Chinese Revolution, 1942–1946: An Interpretation,” in Ernest R. May and James C. Thomson Jr., American–East Asian Relations: A Survey (Harvard University Press, 1972), pp. 335, 336, 337.

  17. 17

    Mackinnon and Friesen, China Reporting, pp. 182–183.

  18. 18

    Thunder Out of China (Apollo Editions, 1961) pp. xiii, xiv.

  19. 19

    Tang, America’s Failure in China, 1941–1950, pp. 221–222.

  20. 20

    Tang, pp. 204–205.

  21. 21

    Tang, p. 205.

  22. 22

    Peck, “America and the Chinese Revolution,” in May and Thomson, pp. 338–339.

  23. 23

    The New York Review, February 16, 1989; see footnotes 12–14 in that article for documentation.

  24. 24

    John G. Gurley, “Capitalist and Maoist Economic Development” in America’s Asia, edited by Edward Friedman and Mark Selden (Pantheon, 1969), pp. 345, 351.

  25. 25

    Roger Garside, Coming Alive: China after Mao (André Deutsch, 1981), p. 275.

  26. 26

    The Observer, October 28, 1979. Emphasis in original.

  27. 27

    See for instance “China after Nixon,” in China in the World Today, edited by Richard. Lambert (Philadelphia: The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1972). For Zhou’s remarks see pp. 88–89.

  28. 28

    China Bound (Harper and Row, 1982), p. 434.

  29. 29

    Fairbank, China Bound, p. 438.

  30. 30

    The New York Review, January 19, 1984.

  31. 31

    Fairbank, China Watch (Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 106–107.

  32. 32

    Fairbank, China Bound, p. 416.

  33. 33

    Fairbank, China Bound, p. 342.

  34. 34

    Fairbank, China Watch, p. 176.

  35. 35

    Fairbank, China Watch, p. 187.

  36. 36

    Fairbank, China Watch, p. 180.

  37. 37

    Cambridge History of China, Vol. 14, p. 257.

  38. 38

    Fairbank, China Watch, p. 182–183.