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The Myth of Mao’s China

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

  1. 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).

  2. 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).

  3. 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.

  4. 12

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

  5. 13

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

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