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China Perceived

In response to:

The Myth of Mao's China from the May 30, 1991 issue

To the Editors:

Jonathan Mirsky’s review of the Steven Mosher book, China Misperceived [NYR, May 30], would hardly deserve serious comment except that you elevate the Mirsky piece and the Mosher thesis to a cover headline that reads “How We Got China Wrong.” This kind of hype cannot but poison the well of rational American discourse about the China problem. And sadly, Mirsky’s review lives up to the billing.

Getting China “wrong” implies the possibility of getting China “right.” But which China and when? At what phase in modern Chinese history, pre- and post-Mao Zedong? And who are the “we” who got China wrong? Mosher and Mirsky are talking about Americans who had periodic hopes for the success of the Communist heirs to China’s twentieth-century revolutionary quest. And Mirsky, in his review, targets such American journalists as Edgar Snow and Theodore H. White and, also, especially, the Harvard historian John K. Fairbank.

But how many Chinese ever “got China right” in the past century, or in the years since 1949? How many Soviet Russians? How many Japanese—or anybody else?

The underlying problem, it seems, for both Mosher and Mirsky, is that each has been grievously disappointed by China. Mosher, an anthropologist studying rural China on the scene, got into deep trouble with the Peking authorities and his US university—and was banished by both. Mirsky, an American student of medieval China, a former Dartmouth teacher, and a sometime enthusiast of Maoism, is now a London-based journalistic critic of Peking. Both are entirely newcomers to the complex historical field of American–East Asian relations and its important scholarly literature.

Each, Mosher and Mirsky, seems to be looking back for the origins of their having been misled about the China they had hoped to admire. And each, it turns out, has found them: they were the journalists, professors, and eventually the politicians—for Mosher especially, Nixon and Kissinger—who sold them a bill of goods about the Chinese Communists. All along, these China Reds were Leninist totalitarians—and our observers, teachers, and leaders had been blind.

The problem with this kind of spiteful historical revisionism is that it derives from Newton, not Einstein. It seems to consider both bodies—China and America, also Chinese Communism and the rest of the world—as static, not moving and changing, and not influenced by other changes without or within.

On the contrary: What Mao said to Snow and others in the 1930s—or what Zhou Enlai said in Hankow and Chungking—must be as carefully related to the historical context as what John Fairbank or Richard Nixon (very odd co-targets!) said in the 1940s and 1980s. Everything is changing as everything else changes: people and policies, culturally rooted, but in motion.

Which brings us to Mosher’s central thesis, with which Mirsky seems to agree: that Chinese Communism has been on a straight and narrow success-path of hoodwinking Americans from Edgar Snow onward. The idea is demonstrably absurd. First, China’s Communist course was always riddled with zigs and zags, many unpredictable even to a host of senior Red leaders. Second, few Americans were ever hoodwinked; at worst, they saw more promise for a unified and better fed, clothed, and housed China under the Communists than what had come before. They also saw US national interests best served in a partnership with a China not dominated by the USSR—and realized well before others that Mao was no Soviet puppet.

Not mentioned in Mirsky’s review is the veteran American journalist and later MIT political scientist, Harold R. Isaacs—whose periodization of American images of China Steven Mosher briefly acknowledges but then appropriates and skews. Isaacs, like many of his fellow observers, saw no hope in the Kuomintang, viewed the Communists as a possibly viable alternative, but eventually felt alienated from both claimants to the throne. In Scratches on Our Minds (1958), he dispassionately chronicled America’s cycles of high hopes, then disillusionment, about Good versus Bad China from the eighteenth century through the Korean War. A scapegoater he was not.

The gut issue, of course, in the book and the review, is that ultimate question about Chinese Communism which will divide analysts for years to come: How Chinese is it, and how Marxist-Leninist? The Mosher-Mirsky targets are largely those who say that the problem is the Chineseness of China (China as a “special case”)—the Confucian authoritarian tradition and all that entails, going back more than two millennia. Here is where John K. Fairbank looms large in the indictment, among those who allegedly failed to warn us—ultimate crime—that these people were simply Leninists!

Where have we heard that before? Well, Mirsky does make an awkward nod toward the McCarthy-McCarran era, and suggests it was not a good thing. But it should be noted that the Mosher book, the author tells us at the outset, was inspired by William F. Buckley, Jr., an early and outspoken promoter of Senator Joe McCarthy (see his 1954 book, McCarthy and His Enemies). Buckley, while mellowing on other fronts, has never lost his fervent animus toward Communist China; and Mosher seems to be a happy acolyte.

Since Tiananmen, Communist China has become for many Americans—after Saddam Hussein—a Number One Bad Guy. And on human rights, especially, China should be held accountable under evolving international standards—no longer a special case, I would agree.

Yet it is now apparently becoming the fashion in America again to search for scapegoats about our relationship with Peking. The new question is who wrote what, said what, and when, and why, about the Red Chinese. To combine your journal’s headline with the Mirsky review, “Who Got China Wrong?” The previous question, of course, some decades ago, was “Who Lost China?”

I would argue that if we Americans pursue such questions, we will once again entirely miss the point—which is to try to understand the mainland Chinese, to cope with their unfinished revolution, and to help integrate China into the wider world. On that matter, I might add, John Fairbank remains in the forefront of exploration and wisdom.

James C. Thomson, Jr.
Professor of History and Journalism
College of Communication
Boston University
Boston, Massachusetts

Jonathan Mirsky replies:

My old friend Jim Thomson, who spent much time with journalists when he was running Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, should know better than to link a writer to the headline over his piece—in this case, as usual, it was not mine. My piece was of course about how China experts got the Chinese communists—not their country or culture—wrong. I pointed out that others, like Professor Thomson’s colleague, Merle Goldman, got them right.

In order to discredit me, Professor Thomson misleads readers about my past. It is true that almost thirty years ago, I got a Ph.D. in Tang history; after that I became increasingly interested in contemporary China and Indochina, and American foreign policy. (To have done so was not odd. Stuart Schram, the eminent Mao scholar, originally studied physics and later wrote his dissertation on French politics. E.O. Reischauer wrote about an eighth-century Buddhist monk long before he became our ambassador in Tokyo.)

What has happened to Professor Thomson’s theory of perpetual change? He seems to suggest that my original doctoral subject defines me forever as an “entire newcomer to American–East Asian relations”; but he knows that I’ve been writing on this subject since 1962. When Professor Thomson, from his offices in the State Department and National Security Council, was helping Presidents Kennedy and Johnson wage war on Vietnam, I was one of those trying to point out the official misperceptions of “American–East Asian relations” that had become ruinous. Eventually Professor Thomson changed his mind, courageously and publicly, and in his excellent article in The Atlantic Monthly, “How Could Vietnam Happen,” to which I referred twice in The New York Review of August 16, 1990—he did not then write to the editors that I was incompetent to discuss US–East Asian relations—showed how ignorant his colleagues in the government were. At a trial involving me, for which I will be forever grateful that he appeared as a defense witness, he even said that if there were ever a war crimes trial he expected to be a defendant.

Like Professor Thomson I, too, changed my mind—about Maoism, about which I was not so much enthusiastic as, literally, thoughtless. As I wrote in my review, I had begun to see things differently while I was in China in 1972, but I wrote some rubbish anyway—not unlike Professor Thomson when he was supporting the official United States position on the Vietnam War. But for many years before the events at Tiananmen Square, I believed that, on the whole, the Communists—certainly not China, a mistake of Professor Thomson’s throughout his letter—were, to use his phrase, “bad guys.”

That really is the point of my review. I criticize Mosher for his unfair and destructive attacks on China watchers and for calling Professor John K. Fairbank who, sadly, recently died, a Maoist. Like Professor Thomson I know—and noted in my review—that linking Nixon and Fairbank is absurd; they were certainly not colluding. But I think Mosher is right to observe how many American reporters, academics, and tourists, from Shirley MacLaine to J.K. Galbraith, didn’t understand what the Party had done and was doing. Such visitors have been well analyzed, as I write in my review, in Paul Hollander’s Political Pilgrims.

Fairbank himself said at the Arizona conference, to which I refer, that the China journalists in the Forties wrote very superficially, and he said as well that when he accepted Zhou Enlai’s invitation to China in 1972 he was “woefully ignorant” about Maoism and the great Party campaigns. So was I, and so was Edgar Snow when he visited China after Mao’s victory, and he remained that way into the early Seventies. His old friends in Peking, who were in prison when Snow was there, still speak bitterly of his studious determination not to know what was happening.

Already before it came to power the Party was cruelly and widely repressive; Chiang Kai-shek never had the ability, or degree of control, to do such a thorough job. In their remarkable new study of one county in north China, Chinese Village, Socialist State, Edward Friedman, Paul Pickowicz, and Mark Selden point out that “Even before 1949, a pervasive police system modeled on Stalin’s and a willingness to use force mercilessly silenced potential opponents and dissidents.” This led inevitably to the situation described by Bette Bao Lord in Legacies, which I reviewed in The New York Review on April 26, 1990, in which most Chinese could be described as being “in pain.” And that was during the hopeful period following Mao’s death, between 1985 and June 1989. In the same article I wrote about the courageous reporter and Party member Liu Binyan, who took forty years to realize that he had joined a Party “habituat[ed] to cruelty” run by “a species rare in the twentieth century” which since the Twenties had held power “immune from any supervision.” Fang Lizhi states that this Party has done, on balance, nothing for China. That is the party Mosher and I refer to—not “China.”

No review of Mosher’s book could ignore his claims about John Fairbank, and I tried to discuss them fairly. I agree that Fairbank was one of the foremost, and one of the wisest, experts in the field of Ching studies and that he has been a great leader in encouraging and improving Chinese scholarship generally. I said nothing about Fairbank having anything to do with losing China and I noted how libelous it is for Mosher to label Fairbank a Maoist. As I wrote, however, for years Fairbank tried to explain the Communist leaders to us as people following traditional Chinese patterns, although with some new techniques. More recently, and I criticized Mosher for omitting to say this, Fairbank made it clear that something much more oppressive was going on. But Fairbank criticized Simon Leys for attributing too much importance to a tiny circle of Westernized Chinese interested in human rights, and suggested that Zhou Enlai—that consummate deceiver—could put the record straight.

As I noted, Merle Goldman, in Fairbank’s own Cambridge History of China, and in two definitive books of her own, has shown just how wide the circle of Chinese demanding human rights has been. Already in the 1950s, between 400,000 and 700,000 were persecuted for doing so. To have largely ignored such a record is not what Professor Thomson mocks as an “ultimate crime”; but it is sad that Fairbank, who for years wrote with perspicacity for Americans trying to understand China, did not have more to say about it. Rather weakly, Professor Thomson concedes that “under evolving international standards” of human rights, China—I would say the Party—should no longer be considered a special case. Professor Thomson should ask himself just when, and why, “China” was entitled to special status, and how he came to think it was.

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