China Misperceived: American Illusions and Chinese Reality
In China Misperceived Steven Mosher strikes back at the profession, clan, or family of China watchers that cast him out. The official reasons have never been made public, although his university, Stanford, hinted at academic misconduct when it dismissed him. It is widely believed in American and British academic circles, however, and Chinese threats gave substance to this belief, that Mosher’s real crime, publicly accusing the Chinese government of economic incompetence and forcing women to have abortions, had threatened to undermine Sino-American scholarly relations. Beijing demanded Mosher’s academic disgrace as the price for its allowing American social scientists to continue even limited research in China. Stanford has denied that this demand had a part in its decision.
Much of the whispering and backbiting has now dissipated; Mosher’s once maverick opinions have become widespread among China scholars. But only seven or eight years ago what he had to say sounded to many China specialists, especially anthropologists, like an undignified “emotional involvement with his subjects,” and reactionary nastiness.
“I heard old peasant men and women,” Mosher wrote in 1983,
their faces furrowed with the toil of years, recalling that they had eaten better in the twenties and thirties than at any time since…. In short, I heard the villagers themselves give the lie to the Communist Party’s claim of having saved the peasantry from a wretched, earthbound fate.1
Besides saying that the Chinese emperor had no clothes, Mosher also struck at the center of the academic establishment:
Harvard University historian John K. Fairbank…was able to write that “valued in the Chinese peasant’s terms, the revolution had been a magnificent achievement, a victory not only for Mao Tse-tung, but for several hundreds of millions of the Chinese people.” It would be unfair to ask how many peasants Fairbank had spoken to in coming to this conclusion, because in my year in China, literally no one had been allowed to interact freely with the Chinese peasants (except the Hong Kong Chinese, and to protect their relatives, they weren’t talking), much less take up residence in a rural community.2
The two paragraphs from which I have quoted help to explain why from 1981 Steven Mosher was a political pariah in China and for a number of years after 1983 an academic pariah in the United States. He had said the unspeakable: that the Chinese revolution had been a failure from the beginning, and that America’s best-known China expert and the founder of one of the leading schools of Chinese studies in the world—who of course had nothing to do with Mosher’s academic career—didn’t know what he was talking about.
The first charge—that the Communist party had failed China from the beginning—would nowadays fail to produce the kind of outraged reaction from the Chinese that would once have been predictable; some officials would even secretly agree, while the more devout ones would dismiss it as a typical example of “bourgeois liberal smokeless warfare” against China, and in any event…
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.