Jonathan Mirsky is a historian of China and was formerly the East Asia Editor of The Times of London.
 (March 2016)

China: The Benefits of Persecution?

Chinese middle school graduates (zhiqing), 15 million of whom were ‘sent down to the countryside and up to the mountains’ to ‘learn from the peasants’ during the Cultural Revolution, aboard a Red Guard ship that was about to sail from Guangzhou to Hainan Island
During decades of reading and reviewing books on China I have learned a great deal, even from those I didn’t like. Only a few have surprised me. Mao’s Lost Children is such a book, and those like me who believe that the Mao period was bad for China and the …

The Bloodthirsty Deng We Didn’t Know

Deng Xiaoping at a military parade, September 1981
“Deng was…a bloody dictator who, along with Mao, was responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people, thanks to the terrible social reforms and unprecedented famine of 1958–1962.” This is the conclusion of Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine’s biography of Deng Xiaoping, a book that, at last, shows him …

Fighting False Words and Worlds

Sin-Lin’s mother, Lin Na, when she was the deputy director and Communist Party secretary of a new steel foundry, Fulardi, China, May 1953
The title of Sin-Lin’s moving, frightening, sometimes disappointing book is incomplete. Her story is also about the way that Chinese Communists lied to themselves while staying loyal to Stalin and Mao, no matter how badly they were treated. Such loyalties are well known, although we can never be reminded of …

Pope Francis’s China Problem

The Dalai Lama

Over the last few years, a growing number of world leaders, under pressure from China, have spurned or downgraded meetings with the Dalai Lama. But the Tibetan leader has a long history of meeting with the head of the Catholic Church. Why has Pope Francis snubbed him?

Okinawa: Why They Chose Death

A Japanese naval lieutenant surrounded by American soldiers in Okinawa, July 14, 1945

Would the Japanese have surrendered without Hiroshima? For decades the question has lingered, as historians have challenged one of the most important American rationales for dropping the bomb. It comes freshly into view in Descent into Hell: Civilian Memories of the Battle of Okinawa, a remarkable new book based on Japanese eyewitness testimony from one of the bloodiest land battles of the war.

Taking Aim at Hong Kong

Tear gas canisters raining on thousands of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, September 28, 2014

Watching tens of thousands of protesters fill the streets of Hong Kong, I have felt the same emotion I experienced on the nights leading up to the killings in Tiananmen Square on June 3 and 4, 1989. Again we are watching heavily armed police trying to disperse peaceful democracy protesters and they are possibly awaiting orders to do more than that.

Tibet Resists

The Dalai Lama and Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of Tibet’s government in exile, Dharamsala, India, June 2012
Tsering Woeser was born in Lhasa in 1966, the daughter of a senior officer in the Chinese army. She became a passionate supporter of the Dalai Lama. When she was very young the family moved to Tibetan towns inside China proper. In school, only Chinese was used, but Tibetan “became …

Tiananmen: How Wrong We Were

Pro-democracy student protesters sit face to face with policemen outside the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, April 22, 1989

A few days before the killings in Tiananmen Square, thousands of unarmed soldiers marched towards the square only to be scolded by elderly women and shamed into turning back. A column of tanks had been stalled on the edge of the city, where young men urinated on their treads while local women offered the crews cups of tea. Now we really thought the Party was finished. How wrong we were.

China: Five Pounds of Facts

Sichuan, China, 2002

No one seems to have measured how old Chinese civilization is, but Endymion Wilkinson can give a better answer than anyone else. “1.6 billion minutes separate us from the Zhou conquest of the Shang,” he informs us at the beginning of his Chinese History: A New Manual. Undaunted, he then sets out to describe everything that has happened since.

The Surprising Empress

The Dowager Empress Cixi with four eunuchs and Der Ling, a lady-in-waiting, circa 1903–1905
In the mid-1950s, when I was a graduate student of Chinese history, the Manchu Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) was invariably condemned as a reactionary hate figure; Mao Zedong was admired. In the textbooks of that time, leading American scholars characterized Cixi as cruel, imperious, and opposed to the Westernizing reforms …

Who’s Afraid of Chinese Money?

“China is what it is. We have to be here or nowhere.” Chancellor George Osborne, Britain’s second-highest official, was laying out the British government’s view last week, near the end of his trip aimed at selling Britain to Chinese companies. Western governments used to go to great lengths to say they were standing up for human rights in China. Now, trade ties with Beijing are so lucrative that Western leaders no longer need to lie: China is what it is.

Burma: The Despots and the Laughter

The Law-Yone family, 1951

It’s hard to get a handle on Burma. During a recent visit to London, Aung San Suu Kyi said, “I love the army”—the same army that had enforced her house arrest in Rangoon on and off for years. She now sits in Burma’s parliament with the generals who led that army. Golden Parasol, Wendy Law-Yone’s memoir of Burma during the years in which the country went from a British colony to a military dictatorship, suggests why the country’s ruling class may be so difficult to understand.

An American Century in Asia

South Vietnamese villagers being evacuated by US forces in an attempt to clear the area of Vietcong during Operation Cedar Falls, 1967
Michael Hunt and Steven Levine write, “We came of age, amid the ferment of the 1960s, deeply concerned with the Vietnam War. Hunt lived in Vietnam early in that decade…Levine was an activist in the antiwar and civil rights movements.” Now retired, the two were colleagues at the University of …

One Hour & Four Minutes with Mrs. Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher with, from left to right, Chinese President Li Xiannian, British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian, Beijing, December 1984
When a woman from the Cabinet Office at Number 10 Downing Street, the residence and offices of the British prime minister, told me over the phone that I was invited to the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, I immediately suspected it was a scam. I get regular calls intended to extract …

Clearing the Men’s Room for Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher with, from left to right, Chinese President Li Xiannian, British Foreign Minister Geoffrey Howe, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian, Beijing, December 19, 1984

Why was I invited to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral? I had never been a parliamentary journalist. My career was as a foreign correspondent in China and Hong Kong. Her visits to China were brief and unsatisfactory. But I did have a little history with Mrs. Thatcher, including four personal encounters. Here’s how they happened.

Tibet: The CIA’s Cancelled War

Resistance fighters on the Tibetan border during the early years of the CIA's Tibet program

For nearly two decades after the 1950 Chinese takeover of Tibet, the CIA ran a covert operation designed to train Tibetan insurgents and gather intelligence about the Chinese, as part of its efforts to contain the spread of communism around the world. Though little known today, the program produced at least one spectacular intelligence coup and provided a source of support for the Dalai Lama. On the eve of Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 meeting with Mao, however, the program was abruptly cancelled, thus returning the US to its traditional arms-length policy toward Tibet.

The Old Fears of China’s New Leaders

Students protesting in Tiananmen Square following the death of former Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang, Beijing, April, 1989

I felt a shudder of déjà vu watching the mounting protests inside China this week of the Communist Party for censoring an editorial in Southern Weekend, a well-known liberal newspaper in the southern city of Guangzhou. It is all too similar to the disciplining in April 1989 of another Chinese paper, The World Economic Herald in Shanghai, and its editor, Qin Benli—events that played an important part in the gathering unrest in Tiananmen Square.

How China Gets Its Way

The new members of China’s Politburo Standing Committee arriving to meet with the press, Beijing, November 15, 2012. From left: Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, and Zhang Gaoli.
In 1955, when I began my graduate studies of China and its language, one of my fellow students at Columbia asked our professor, Nathaniel Pfeffer, whether the United States would ever recognize Beijing instead of Taipei as the capital of China. Pfeffer memorably replied that it would take a vehement …

A Debacle That Could Have Been Avoided

Nguyen Ai Quoc (before he took the name Ho Chi Minh) at the Congress of the French Socialist Party, Tours, December 29, 1920
On September 3 of this year, an alarming headline ran across six columns of the “World” section of The Times of London: “US Suspends Police Training After Big Rise in Green-on-Blue Attacks.” The dateline was Afghanistan and the peg was that forty-five coalition troops had been killed by Afghan soldiers …

Advice for Soldiers in Vietnam: ‘The Fish is Good’

A US soldier on a routine operation in Quang Ngai, Vietnam, 1967

Most American soldiers landing in Vietnam in the 1960s were handed a ninety-three-page booklet called A Pocket Guide to Vietnam. Produced by the Department of Defense, it described how small, well-proportioned, dignified, and restrained Vietnamese people are, how the delicately-boned local women appear in their flowing national dress, how Vietnamese love tea, and don’t like slaps on the back, how they excel at cooking fish. Soldiers reading this advice could get the mistaken idea that they were going to a tourist destination with a bit of violence on the side.

News from the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama speaking at the Royal Albert Hall, London, June 19, 2012
“I told President Obama the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are missing a part of the brain, the part that contains common sense,” the Dalai Lama said to me during our conversation in London in mid-June. But it can be put back in. I am hopeful about the new …

Why the Dalai Lama is Hopeful

The Dalai Lama speaking at The Royal Albert Hall, London, June 19, 2012

“I told President Obama the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are missing a part of the brain, the part that contains common sense,” the Dalai Lama said to me during our conversation in London Wednesday. “But it can be put back in. I am hopeful about the new Chinese leadership beginning late this year. The Communist leaders now lack self-confidence, but I have heard from my Chinese friends that after a year or two the new ones will take some initiatives, so more freedom, more democracy.”

China: Politics as Warfare

Tang Xiaohe: Strive Forward in Wind and Tides (detail), 1971; from the Asia Society’s 2008 exhibition ‘Art and China’s Revolution’
Mao’s Invisible Hand is one of those books that make one feel good about scholarship. It describes inner workings of Chinese Communist society about which few nonexperts know anything—it may even surprise the experts—and it will interest anyone professionally interested in China. Its central purpose is to explain how China …

London: The Triumph of the Chinese Censors

Tibetan, Uighur, and Chinese protesters, one holding up a picture of Liu Xiaobo, at the London Book Fair, April 16, 2012
When I arrived at the London Book Fair on Monday, April 16, I saw a huge sign outside showing a cute Chinese boy holding an open book with the words underneath him: “China: Market Focus.” The special guest of this year’s fair was the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship bureau. Assisted …

The Dreams of Westy

President Lyndon Johnson reviewing troops with General William Westmoreland at the Cam Ranh Bay air base during the Vietnam War, 1966
Here is a book you can tell by its cover. In this deeply critical biography, Lewis Sorley argues that William Childs Westmoreland (1914–2005) was responsible for the American loss of South Vietnam, where from 1964 to 1968 he was the military commander. The immaculately turned-out, chisel-jawed general had been for …

Bringing Censors to the Book Fair

Tibetan, Uyghur and Chinese protesters at the London Book Fair, April 16, 2012

When I arrived at the London Book Fair on Monday, I saw a huge sign outside showing a cute Chinese boy holding an open book with the words underneath him: “China: Market Focus.” The special guest of this year’s fair was the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship bureau. What has caused a bitter public wrangle in London is that Beijing not only chose—with the full approval of the fair itself and of the British Council—which writers to bring to the fair; it also excluded some of China’s best-known writers. Among these are two Nobel Prize winners: Gao Xingjian, China’s only Literature Prize laureate, who lives in nearby Paris, and Liu Xiaobo, the Peace Prize winner who is now serving out an eleven year prison sentence.

China’s Death-Row Reality Show

Ding Yu interviewing a prisoner

Until it was taken off the air last December, one of the most popular television programs in China’s Henan province, which has a population of 100 million, was “Interviews Before Execution.” The presenter was Ding Yu, a pretty young woman, always carefully dressed with colorful scarves and blouses; in each episode, she would interview on camera a condemned murderer who was about to face a firing squad or a lethal injection.