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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.

  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.

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