The Art of Interpreting Nonexistent Inscriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page

The Communist Party of China and Marxism, 1921––1985: A Self Portrait

by Laszlo Ladany, foreword by Robert Elegant
Hoover Institution Press, 588 pp., $44.95
Laszlo Ladany
Laszlo Ladany; drawing by David Levine

1.

In any debate, you really know that you have won when you find your opponents beginning to appropriate your ideas, in the sincere belief that they themselves just invented them. This situation can afford a subtle satisfaction; I think the feeling must be quite familiar to Father Ladany, the Jesuit priest and scholar based in Hong Kong who for many years published the weekly China News Analysis. Far away from the crude limelights of the media circus, he has enjoyed three decades of illustrious anonymity: all “China watchers” used to read his newsletter with avidity; many stole from it—but generally they took great pains never to acknowledge their indebtedness or to mention his name. Father Ladany watched this charade with sardonic detachment: he would probably agree that what Ezra Pound said regarding the writing of poetry should also apply to the recording of history—it is extremely important that it be written, but it is a matter of indifference who writes it.

China News Analysis was compulsory reading for all those who wished to be informed of Chinese political developments—scholars, journalists, diplomats. In academe, however, its perusal among many political scientists was akin to what a drinking habit might be for an ayatollah, or an addiction to pornography for a bishop: it was a compulsive need that had to be indulged in secrecy. China experts gnashed their teeth as they read Ladany’s incisive comments; they hated his clearsightedness and cynicism; still, they could not afford to miss one single issue of his newsletter, for, however disturbing and scandalous his conclusions, the factual information which he supplied was invaluable and irreplaceable. What made China News Analysis so infuriatingly indispensable was the very simple and original principle on which it was run (true originality is usually simple): all the information selected and examined in China News Analysis was drawn exclusively from official Chinese sources (press and radio). This austere rule sometimes deprived Ladany’s newsletter of the life and color that could have been provided by less orthodox sources, but it enabled him to build his devastating conclusions on unimpeachable grounds.

What inspired his method was the observation that even the most mendacious propaganda must necessarily entertain some sort of relation with the truth; even as it manipulates and distorts the truth, it still needs originally to feed on it. Therefore, the untwisting of official lies, if skillfully effected, should yield a certain amount of straight facts. Needless to say, such an operation requires a doigté hardly less sophisticated than the chemistry which, in Gulliver’s Travels, enabled the Grand Academicians of Lagado to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and food from excreta. The analyst who wishes to gather information through such a process must negotiate three hurdles of thickening thorniness. First, he needs to have a fluent command of the Chinese language. To the man-in-the-street, such a prerequisite may appear like elementary common sense, but…


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