The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
Six years ago Richard Nixon paid his first visit to the People’s Republic of China. His handshake with Mao Tsetung—the two men profiled by the photographer’s flashbulb against the door of the Chairman’s book-lined study—set the seal on a new era in Sino-American relations.1 In 1960, during his televised debates with John F. Kennedy, Nixon had warned his “fellow Americans” that China’s appetite for global conquest was insatiable.
What do the Chinese Communists want? They don’t want just Quemoy and Matsu. They don’t want just Formosa. They want the world.
Now, almost overnight, an entirely different message was to be broadcast to the American public. While the Sino-US joint communiqué called in carefully chosen words for the “normalization” (cheng-ch’ang-hua) of diplomatic relations and for the development of scholarly and cultural exchanges, the television images that were flashed by satellite to America transmogrified the Chinese hordes that had in “human waves” overwhelmed MacArthur’s troops into a friendly population of hard-working peasants, cheerful schoolchildren, and benign officials all eager to improve their own relations with the people of the United States.
As opportunities for travel to China expanded in the months and years after the Nixon visit, this new beneficent image of the Chinese was reinforced even more. Celebrities accompanied by camera crews reported back on prime television time about the congeniality of the Chinese, praising their orderly civic devotion, their public-spirited commitment to collective welfare, and their extraordinary sexual and social egalitarianism. Our own kind of social idealism was almost instantly projected upon the Chinese, exotic though they remained,2 by delegations of loosely categorized “friends of China.”
During that honeymoon period of Sinophilia many Chinese specialists in the United States felt, I think, profoundly uneasy. Partly this may have been because of their fear that somehow the pendulum of American opinion had swung too far in the direction of idealization. For over twenty years most Americans had thought of China as an implacable communist enemy—a “Slavic Manchukuo,” as Dean Rusk once put it. The public image of China was altogether portrayed in lurid primary colors: a red nation of blue ants programmed to sweep over the world like a yellow peril. Most American specialists on Chinese affairs had tried to correct this distorted caricature, or at least shade it more subtly, but progress had been slow. It was with just a touch of proprietary envy, then, that Sinologists watched television commentators throw China open to the public and in a matter of days knock down stereotypes that academics had combated for years. But how could the Chinese ever live up to the new images that were emerging during this period of adulation? And when the public discovered that China was not a social paradise, would Americans, in jilted disappointment, resort again to those earlier demonic caricatures?
For there was no question but that the surface of Chinese society was going to be sharply disturbed during the succession crisis that was sure to erupt when Mao Tse-tung…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.