The Beginning of the End

The Beginning of the End

Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing Spring, which ended in the so-called Tiananmen Massacre of June 1989. “Moderate” students and intellectuals blame other, more “radical” students for the bloody conclusion. Veterans of the square, as the authentic “freedom fighters” (their words), look down on those who were overseas at the time. Activists who stayed in China after June 1989—often in jail—dismiss the exiles. And the exiles, mostly in France and the US, have splintered into groups of reformists, cultural chauvinists, democrats, neo-Confucianists, soft-authoritarians, and so on. Some thrive in the West, making money, trading on fame; others, less adept in the ways of the marketplace, sulk in regret, chilled by the loneliness of freedom, and dream of returning to the stifling embrace of China.

Two new documentary films about the events in Tiananmen Square have brought these internecine battles to wider public attention. Both are partisan. The first, Moving the Mountain, tells the story of 1989 from the perspective of a student “radical” who was at the square, managed to escape to the West—and is thriving. It is a propaganda movie for what its main hero calls a democratic revolution. The other film, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, argues the case for moderation, compromise, and slow reform, and takes the radicals to task for harming the reformist cause by pushing the protest movement too far.

Near the beginning of both movies we are shown the famous image of a young man defying a tank. Millions watched this small, defenseless figure as he refused to budge, while the tank swerved furiously this way and that. Here was a great twentieth-century drama neatly compressed in one photographic image, to be dissected, mulled over, celebrated, and deconstructed by journalists, academics, writers, filmmakers, and other interested parties all over the world. But not everyone read the picture in the same way. The young man, so tiny, so vulnerable, could be seen as a tragic figure, a symbol of the futility of empty-handed opposition to brute force. But he could also serve as a heroic model for future resistance. The Chinese government took another view: the incident was proof of the sweet tolerance of the People’s Liberation Army. After all, the tank could simply have flattened the boy.

* * *

While The Gate of Heavenly Peace tends toward the tragic view, Moving the Mountain is more in the heroic mold. The main character is Li Lu, a student from Nanjing who came to the protest movement relatively late. The movie has the air of a political bio-pic, shot in the snazzy, exotic style of an Asian airline commercial. For atmosphere there is an intrusive sound track of loud, portentous music (by Liu Sola) that drones on without respite. The narration is by Li Lu himself. His development in the film is remarkable. The hero’s early life, as a bullied young bourgeois class enemy who finds his manhood (after overcoming his terror of lizards), is reconstructed in dramatic black-and-white images. This fictionalized Li Lu is followed by real shots of the hero as an obscure firebrand in Tiananmen Square—“We have to take it to extremes,” he says at one point. Then he reappears in a tuxedo, arguing for democracy in fluent English at the Oxford Union, and finally we see him hard at work as an MBA and law student at Columbia University. In his own words, Li Lu is sure to be “summoned by history” again. His only worry is that “time won’t be enough to be prepared when the time comes.”

Chai Ling, the former “commander-in-chief” of the Protect Tiananmen Headquarters (Li Lu was her “deputy”), is also featured in the film. She, too, speaks excellent English, and her development has been no less extraordinary. From the gaunt, sometimes hysterical, but undeniably effective student activist, she has been transformed into someone altogether more polished. While studying at Princeton, she traveled the world in search of encouragement, prizes, money, and support for her cause. She now works for a consultancy firm in Boston and is an active lobbyist for Chinese democracy. More than any other former student leader, it is Chai Ling whom moderates and so-called reformists blame for the debacle in Beijing. Called the “goddess of democracy” by some of her supporters, she is the arch-extremist to her opponents—a fighter against communism with the mind of a Red Guard. But in the film she speaks eloquently about having fought in Tiananmen Square “for our basic right to the freedom of speech guaranteed under the Chinese constitution.”

There are others. Wu’er Kaixi, the cherubic protester who behaved like a rock star after escaping to the US—girls, much swagger, big bills—has calmed down and is more reflective about past mistakes and less glib than Li Lu. Wang Dan, always the most moderate and soft-spoken among the student leaders, speaks in Beijing about the need for the exiles to return to China if they still want to play a constructive role. Then there is Wang Chaohua, who no longer believes in political activism. Shocked by the bloodshed, for which she still holds herself partly responsible, she has retreated into American academic life. She blames the students for self-aggrandizing naiveté. Listening to Chai Ling talking about her struggle for democracy, she half snorts, half sobs: “Thinking you could change China. I don’t really…well…never mind.”

Finally, there is Wei Jingsheng, veteran of the 1970s’ Democracy Wall movement. He wrote the famous wall poster in 1978, demanding democracy as a fifth modernization, apart from Deng Xiaoping’s promised four. What is democracy? he asked. “It means the right of the people to choose their own representatives.” For this Wei spent more than ten years in jail. The protest movement of 1989 began with a petition by Chinese intellectuals for his release. He was freed briefly two years ago. The filmmakers managed to catch him before he disappeared into the Chinese gulag once more. About the Tiananmen massacre Wei observed that mistakes had been made by the students as well as the government, but that only the government should be blamed for the killings.

The differences among former student leaders are barely concealed in the movie. Wang Chaohua’s contempt for Chai Ling is not concealed at all. But the rifts that already existed in 1989 erupted into a furious row after Moving the Mountain opened very grandly earlier this year in New York, with Madonna, Richard Gere, and other stellar philanthropists in attendance. Wu’er Kaixi criticized Chai Ling and Li Lu for their irresponsible radicalism. By “sabotaging” an agreement reached among student leaders and intellectuals to leave Tiananmen Square, he said, the radicals shared responsibility for the bloodshed that followed. This echoed similar accusations by reformist intellectuals in China. The journalist Dai Qing wrote that Chai Ling was guilty of a serious crime, and wondered if she should not be arrested “for organizing the students to occupy the square.”1 These remarks refer to a decision made in May to remain on the square until June 20, after a committee of student leaders and intellectuals had voted to withdraw on May 30. Since it is crucial to the Tiananmen debate, I shall return to this sequence of events later.

* * *

Of the two documentaries, The Gate of Heavenly Peace is by far the better-made film. There is nothing slick about it. The filmmakers have gathered extraordinary footage, not only of spring 1989, but of the student protests of May 4, 1919, the founding of the PRC in 1949, the Cultural Revolution, and much else. The atmosphere of the Beijing Spring is conveyed beautifully in all its pathos, drama, hope, craziness, poetry, and violence. Both Hinton and Gordon known China very well—Hinton grew up there, the daughter of William Hinton, author of Fanshen, a well-known documentary study of revolution in a Chinese village. Backed by a team of experts, including Jonathan Spence, Andrew Nathan, and Geremie Barmé, they have put the Chinese democracy movement in a cultural and historical setting. One could not wish for a better example of an expert’s view of Chinese history. If Moving the Mountain is hagiography, this movie is meant to put the record straight. “We’re not promoting a particular cause or a particular leader,” said Hinton to The Washington Post. “We want to portray the student movement in all its complexity and contribute to a more healthy discourse over what occurred.”2

In fact, however, the movie does promote a cause. It is the cause of moderation and reform, personified by Zhao Ziyang, who lost his position as General Secretary of the Communist Party after the crackdown on June 4, and has been living more or less under house arrest ever since. The film judges the radicals, and Chai Ling in particular, harshly. This is done through deft editing and a vaguely historicist approach. In the movie’s effort to correct the sentimental outsider’s view that the Tiananmen demonstration was about democracy, the student activists are placed in a particular historical frame of revolutionary protest.

* * *

The story as told by Hinton and Gordon goes something like this: Tiananmen Square was once the heart of the Chinese empire, the seat of imperial government. On May 4, 1919, eight years after the empire had fallen, patriotic students protested on the square against a corrupt Chinese government, for allowing chunks of the country to be given away to foreign powers at Versailles. Science and democracy were to cure China of its decadence. The narrator in The Gate of Heavenly Peace gives the following, entirely accurate explanation:

In official Communist Party history the student protests of 1919 were but a prelude to the revolutionary makeover of China. But in fact many of the leading voices of the May 4 era spoke not for revolution but for democratic reform. After their days of street protests many students went back to school, took up various professions, and continued to work for social change. Those who saw no hope for reform joined the Communist Party to fight for an ideal society. Over the decades the voices championing gradual change were stifled by conservative power-holders or drowned by cries for revolution. By marching into Tiananmen Square, the students of 1989 were saying to the Party: we are the true inheritors of the May 4 movement. But the May 4 spirit they were most familiar with was the one the Party had taught them.

On the anniversary of May 4, in 1989, Zhao Ziyang made conciliatory noises. Contrary to the Party line, he did not brand the student demonstration “turmoil.” He proposed a dialogue to resolve the tension between students and government. The students debated what to do. Reformists and moderates advised them to return to their campuses and build democracy there. Some intellectuals had ties to the reformers inside the government. Others were afraid of the consequences if the confrontation went too far. But since Zhao did not speak to the students directly, the radicals decided to push harder. After a week of debate on the square and at university campuses, a hunger strike began, and Chai Ling and her supporters took the upper hand. This is when Li Lu talked about going “to extremes.”

* * *

iconCatherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images
A student from Beijing University sits cross-legged on May 14, 1989, one of several hundred students staging a hunger strike at Tiananmen Square as part of the pro-democracy protests against the Chinese government.
Craig Calhoun, an American sociologist who was teaching in Beijing at the time, has written a sympathetic but not uncritical account of the Beijing Spring. The hunger strike, he writes, “was an emotion-charged, highly public declaration that existing conditions were intolerable, that reform was occurring so gradually as to put off democracy and freedom to the far distant future. The strikers’ statement was simple: We cannot afford to wait.”

This view might strike a person who knows little about Chinese history as reasonable. Why should people not rebel against a corrupt regime which denies them their constitutional rights? In fact, despite much rhetoric about dying to save the nation, the students’ demands were not revolutionary. They wanted the government to promptly engage in a serious dialogue with the Beijing Students Dialogue Delegation, and they wanted the student movement to be recognized as a patriotic democratic movement. The last demand was important, since on April 26 the official People’s Daily newspaper had denounced the students as counterrevolutionary rioters. To be called that was not only dangerous, but an insult to young people with a heated sense of patriotism.

The Gate of Heavenly Peace, however, from its deeper historical perspective, puts a more sinister spin on some of the students’ actions. Again and again parallels with May 4 and the Communist Revolution are drawn. Leaders like Wang Dan, who wanted to call the demonstration off after Zhao’s promise of a dialogue, are cast in the role of the moderates who returned to their universities in 1919. Those such as Chai Ling, who elected to stay, are the heirs of the fanatics who drowned out the moderate voices with their cries for revolution. “If democracy came to China,” says the narrator’s voice, as we see the huge white Goddess of Democracy being erected opposite the portrait of Mao on Tiananmen Square on May 30, 1989, “what would it look like? Whose features would it wear?” The camera cuts to the marzipan features of the Great Helmsman: “There seems a chance at least that the face would look all too familiar.”

This point is driven home by a skillful use of interviews. The crucial witness for the prosecution is Chai Ling herself. The filmmakers have used a notorious interview she gave to an American reporter in his hotel room on May 28. Snippets of this interview are scattered through the film as evidence of her thirst for blood. It was taped on the day that protesters on the square had refused to retreat. Chai Ling was in a state of physical and mental exhaustion. She made some very damning remarks:

My fellow students keep asking me, “What should we do next? What can we accomplish?” I feel so sad, because how can I tell them that what we are actually hoping for is bloodshed, the moment when the government is ready to brazenly butcher the people. Only when the square is awash with blood will the people of China open their eyes. Only then will they really be united. But how can I explain any of this to my fellow students?

There is some room for ambivalence here. The word qidai usually means “to hope for,” but can also mean “to expect.” Chai Ling might have meant the former, but the latter would also make sense. She had uttered sacrificial sentiments before. But her immediate problem was that she saw no way to clear the square, even though she knew that a violent crackdown was more than a possibility. Chai Ling still maintains that she meant “to expect.” But her tearful rambling about blood, death, resisting “traitors,” and wanting to “overthrow” the government, was not a sign of moderation.

* * *

Since she refused to be interviewed for The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Chai Ling could not offer her own thoughts in hindsight. I spoke to her on the phone. Of course, she said, she would not use similar language now. But one had to understand the atmosphere in Beijing then. Her words had reflected the sentiments of many people at the time. The protesters were scared. Talk about dying for the nation was a way to conquer their fears. Why then had she refused to be interviewed by Hinton and Gordon? She said there had been some misunderstanding. Later she called back to say she was afraid that such an interview would be selectively used against her.

Cutting in and out of Chai Ling’s recorded hysteria are the voices of such people as Liu Xiaobo, the literary critic, of Wang Dan, Dai Qing, and Wu Guogang, one of Zhao Ziyang’s former advisers. None of them was in favor of the hard-liners in the government. All except Wu, who was in the US, were detained at one point or another after the massacre. All had sympathy for the students on Tiananmen Square; Liu Xiaobo even went on a hunger strike two days before the crackdown. And yet they are all critical of Chai Ling’s do-or-die approach.

Liu Xiaobo describes some of the students as “children playing at war.” About her own failure to persuade the students to compromise and leave the square, Dai Qing says: “We intellectuals were caught between an irrational government and irrational students.” Like other liberal intellectuals, Dai Qing, herself the daughter of a PLA general, had looked for a “third way” which would have allowed Zhao Ziyang and his reformers inside the party to slowly liberalize China. The reformers, she explains in the film, needed social stability. The hard-liners used all manner of tricks to set Deng Xiaoping against the reformers. Student radicalism, she said, gave them the perfect tool. For if the students proved intractable, the government would have to get tough, and the reformers would lose their authority. So the reformist intellectuals acted as increasingly desperate mediators between the students and the Communist reformers.

It was an impossible part to play. For the intellectuals often ended up preaching to students who were rapidly losing control. Li Lu, who hardly features in The Gate of Heavenly Peace, was right in saying that the hunger strike of May 13 changed the whole picture. The student movement became a popular movement. Students, especially Beijing students, are commonly regarded as spoiled brats (which they often are). But the hunger strike galvanized workers, journalists, doctors, nurses, bureaucrats, professors, merchants, and even some soldiers and policemen. Reporters from the People’s Daily appeared on the square to apologize for having printed lies. They demonstrated for press freedom. Workers formed an independent union. They wanted better working conditions. Peasants marched in from temporary building sites. They wanted a better deal.

* * *

When the government declared martial law on May 20, defiance only increased in Beijing. Whenever troops from the People’s Liberation Army tried to advance toward the square, they were pushed back by crowds of Beijing citizens. And whenever students on the square talked about withdrawal, workers or new arrivals from the provinces shouted them down. On May 15, for example, the day of Mikhail Gorbachev’s arrival in Beijing, a student leader named Shen Tong called for a tactical retreat from the square—to give the government “face” and give Zhao Ziyang some room for maneuver. A worker yelled at him: “Are you worthy of being a student leader? You’re letting all of the people of Beijing down. You’re letting the workers down. To say you want us to leave makes you a traitor to the movement.”

The problem, in short, was that no one, not Chai Ling, not Dai Qing or Liu Xiaobo, not Wang Dan, or anybody else involved in the movement had the authority to tell the protesters what to do. Much is made in The Gate of Heavenly Peace of the fact that Chai Ling was not elected as a leader, unlike representatives of more moderate student associations. That is correct. But elected student representatives had no more authority on the square than Chai Ling. This was a protest movement, not a constitutional democracy. Chai Ling had power, to be sure, but it was based on rhetoric, not coercion. As long as she could ride the emotions of the crowds, they would listen to her. And this was a role to which she was particularly well suited. Chai Ling had the makings of a first-rate demagogue. But that is all she was; there was never any question of using force.

There were many critical moments during the month and a half on Tiananmen Square: the memorial service for Hu Yaobang, the deposed reformist leader, on April 22; the People’s Daily editorial on April 26 describing the students as counter-revolutionary rioters; the hunger strike demanding talks with the government on May 13; martial law on May 20; and perhaps most fateful of all, the decision on May 28 to stay in the square. That day the dilemma faced by the student leaders, especially Chai Ling, came to a head. The Gate of Heavenly Peace gives one version. Chai Ling gives another. Moving the Mountain skips this crucial event altogether.

* * *

The Gate of Heavenly Peace first: On May 27 there was a meeting of students and intellectuals, collectively known as the Alliance to Protect the Constitution. Chai Ling reported on conditions in the square. Hygiene was terrible, the mood fractious. All present voted to withdraw on May 30. Wang Dan’s announcement of the decision at the square is recorded on film. It is a telling image: the glum, sour faces of the crowd, the slim, elegant figure of Wang, speaking calmly, almost quietly through a megaphone, a young Beijing intellectual addressing a crowd of workers and provincial students. What followed is not shown in the film, but narrated. Li Lu objected to the decision and Chai Ling backed him. On April 28 the radicals vetoed the plan. They would stay until June 20, when the National People’s Congress was scheduled to convene.

Chai Ling herself gave me the following account: on May 26 three hundred representatives of the people in the square took a vote. Eighty percent chose to remain indefinitely. The next day, she attended the meeting with the Alliance intellectuals. All voted to stay until June 20. But after she reported that conditions were bad and money was running out, a “purely technical” decision was made to withdraw on May 30. She returned to the square and told Li Lu. He was furious. The government had been making deals with some students to retreat, he said. There were secret government agents about. A plot was being hatched. So they had to stay.

There are other variations. Craig Calhoun reports that Chai Ling “was ambivalent, alternately denouncing all attempts to withdraw as ‘capitulationist’ and expressing her own fears and desire to pull back.” But all accounts agree that the decision to stay accorded with the mood on the square itself. Those who wanted to leave had already left. Those who had arrived recently from outside Beijing wished to remain. As the narrator of The Gate of Heavenly Peace says, the vote to stay was never less than 80 percent. Not the elite students and intellectuals of the capital had prevailed, but the provincials, backed by the workers, many of whom were scared to return to their schools and workplaces. Whatever Chai Ling may have thought or said, there is nothing much she could have done at that stage to affect the outcome of the movement she had done so much to continue.

* * *

The Gate of Heavenly Peace is a valuable cultural document. It adds a great deal to our understanding of Chinese class tensions, political factions, historical references, intellectual currents, and even artistic trends. It makes the point forcefully that many students in China were so warped by Communist education and a more traditional kind of romantic idealism that democratic ideas often got drowned out by talk of “blood sacrifice” and “saving China.” But by spending so much effort interpreting and denouncing the often childish rhetoric of Chai Ling, the film ends up being a bit warped too. For it leaves the impression that the Beijing Spring revolved entirely around Chai Ling’s demagoguery. More than that, it suggests that because Chai Ling and her friends had a shaky grasp of democracy, the movement itself was not democratic. The question left dangling is whether slow reforms, negotiated between intellectuals and Communist officials, are more likely to result in a democracy than sustained popular protest. Or to rephrase the question: Were Chai Ling and her supporters, however overheated their rhetoric, wrong to keep the protest movement going?

Remember that the student protesters refused to use violence until the end. This made them quite different from the Red Guards, to whom they have been compared. Remember, too, that their stated demands were not revolutionary. They did not demand the overthrow of the government. The protest started with a petition to release political prisoners. Then, on April 22, mimicking the deferential gestures of imperial China, the students begged Li Peng on their knees to end corruption, to recognize their right to form an independent student union, and to hold a dialogue on equal terms. On May 4, Wu’er Kaixi announced that the student movement wished to promote “freedom, human rights, and rule by law.” On June 1, the three main student groups, including Chai Ling’s Protect Tiananmen Head-quarters, had four demands: an end to martial law, withdrawal of occupying troops from Beijing, an end to news censorship, and a guarantee that student protesters would not be punished.

People who claim to know China often say that Chinese students have little idea of what democracy means, whatever their fine phrases. After all, they say, China has no tradition of rule of law. And “ordinary” people are more interested in ending corruption than in establishing democracy. Perhaps so. But everyone in China knows what it feels like to be subjected to arbitrary rule. The lower your social status, the more you feel it. Traveling through China I have often found that “ordinary” people wanted to talk about rights and the need for a better legal system, whereas people with higher connections were more likely to explain that such things were not really so important in China, that Chinese had their own ways. The traditional way to cope with arbitrary rule is to cultivate good relations with officials, whether they be hard-line or reformist. The students were surely right to insist that freedom of speech, rule of law, and the right to form independent institutions are better ways. And what are these, if not conditions for democracy?

* * *

In any event, none of the students’ demands was ever granted. Government leaders did see the students, but to lecture them, not to hold dialogues. Reformists, including Zhao Ziyang, promised that, given enough time, they would sort things out. But when Zhao met students in the square on May 15, he was in tears and said it was “too late.” Perhaps more could have been accomplished if communications between the reformist officials and the students had been better; but to insist on that is to miss the point of the protest, which was to avoid playing politics with one faction in the Communist Party or the other. Tiananmen Square, as it were, had declared independence.

The most moving aspect of the Beijing Spring was the failure of the government to intimidate. The more the government threatened to use force, the larger the crowds and the greater their resolve to stand firm. Calhoun rightly stresses the “sense of inspiration,” which “seemed set against a background of shame about the passivity of the Chinese people in the face of repression.” Patriotic sentiments often sounded overwrought, but watching the events on television in 1989, I was reminded of the Philippines three years before, when people finally stood up to Marcos and proclaimed themselves “proud to be Filipino.” Dictatorship, like a foreign occupation, is above all humiliating. It forces people to behave like slaves. To have withdrawn from the square, then, however expedient for factional politics, would have perpetuated the humiliation.

This is why I find it hard to fault Chai Ling, or Li Lu, or any of the other people who refused to appease the government. Rather than comparing them to Red Guards, or to European and American students in 1968, it might be more accurate to think of them as resistants in a country under occupation. In an occupied country, reasonable, moderate members of the elite often think it best to cooperate with the more moderate types in the occupation government. That way they might actually improve life a little, prevent the worst from happening, protect some victims, make the best of things. Resistants, on the other hand, are frequently hotheads, adventurers, fanatics, nationalists, and so on. They like to talk about sacrifice and saving the nation. Their actions often cause many innocents to die. But their effect on morale is incalculable.

Feng Congde was Chai Ling’s husband at the time of the protest. He told the makers of The Gate of Heavenly Peace why he stayed in the square: “We were telling people throughout the country that there were still people who dared to fight back.” That is why the boy who defied the tank inspired not only Chinese but millions in Eastern Europe. Once people have dared to fight back, no dictatorship can ever be sure of its power again. In that respect, if in no other, the protest in Tiananmen Square was the beginning of the end of Communist Party rule in China.

  1. Quoted from the Chinese-language paper Xingdao ribao in an essay by Ming Ruan, entitled “The Gamble Before the Last Judgment.”
  2. Washington Post, June 4, 1995, p. C3.
Ian Buruma was educated in Holland and Japan, where he studied history, Chinese literature, and Japanese cinema. In the 1970s in Tokyo, he acted in Kara Juro’s Jokyo Gekijo and participated in...
Reviewed in This Article

Moving the Mountain
a documentary film directed by Michael Apted, produced by Trudie Styler

The Gate of Heavenly Peace
a documentary film directed and produced by Carma Hinton, by Richard Gordon

Neither Gods nor Emperors: Students and the Struggle for Democracy in China
by Craig Calhoun
University of California Press, 333 pp.

Go to the homepage

To subscribe, click here.

This article was first published in the December 21, 1995 issue of the New York Review of Books.



China: Inventing a Crime


In late January, Chinese authorities announced that they are considering formal charges against Pu Zhiqiang, one of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers, who has been in detention since last May. Pu’s friends fear that even a life sentence is possible. The crime? “...

How to Be a Chinese Democrat: An Interview with Liu Yu


Liu Yu is one of China’s best-known America-watchers. A professor of political science at Tsinghua University, she lived in the U.S. from 2000 to 2007 and now researches democratization in developing countries, including her own. The thirty-eight-year-old became famous in China...

China’s Brave Underground Journal—II


In downtown Beijing, just a little over a mile west of the Forbidden City, is one of China’s most illustrious high schools. Its graduates regularly attend the country’s best universities or go abroad to study, while foreign leaders and CEOs make pilgrimages to catch a glimpse...

Pope Francis’ China Problem


China-watchers, friends of Tibet, and admirers of Pope Francis were amazed and disappointed last week when the Pope announced he would not be meeting the Dalai Lama during the Tibetan leader’s visit to Rome. The Dalai Lama was there with other winners of the Nobel Peace Prize,...

China’s Brave Underground Journal


On the last stretch of flatlands north of Beijing, just before the Mongolian foothills, lies the satellite city of Tiantongyuan. Built during the euphoric run-up to the 2008 Olympics, it was designed as a modern, Hong Kong–style housing district of over 400,000 people, with...

China’s Unstoppable Lawyers: An Interview with Teng Biao


Teng Biao is one of China’s best-known civil-rights lawyers, and a prominent member of the weiquan, or “rights defenders,” movement, a loosely knit coalition of Chinese lawyers and activists who tackle cases related to the environment, religious freedom, and freedom of...

China Strikes Back!


When Deng Xiaoping arrived at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington in January 1979, his country was just emerging from a long revolutionary deep freeze. No one knew much about this 5-foot-tall Chinese leader. He had suddenly reappeared on the scene after twice being...

Taking Aim at Hong Kong


A surge of emotion washed through me on Sunday night as I watched tens of thousands of protesters fill the streets of Hong Kong on television. It was the same feeling I had in Beijing on the nights leading up to the killings in Tiananmen Square on June 3 and 4, 1989. Once more we...

The Chinese Invade Africa


In early May, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, made a trip to Africa that raised a central question about China’s rise: What effect will it have on the world’s poorer countries? As a big third-world country that has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in just a few...

‘They Don’t Want Moderate Uighurs’


In my series of interviews with Chinese intellectuals, there is an empty chair for Ilham Tohti, the economist and Uighur activist. It’s not that I hadn’t heard of him or hadn’t been in China long enough to have met him before he was arrested earlier this year. I had, but...

Sex in China: An Interview with Li Yinhe


Li Yinhe is one of China’s best-known experts on sex and the family. A member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, she has published widely on sexual mores, women, and family issues. Li also runs a popular blog, where she has advocated for same-sex marriage and loosening...

From China to Jihad?


It’s a very long way from China’s arid Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in the country’s far northwest to its semi-tropical borders with Vietnam, Laos, and Burma in the south, and then it’s another precarious distance from there, down rivers and across fortified borders...

Wang Lixiong and Woeser: A Way Out of China’s Ethnic Unrest?


Woeser and Wang Lixiong are two of China’s best-known thinkers on the government’s policy toward ethnic minorities. With violence in Tibet and Xinjiang now almost a monthly occurrence, I met them at their apartment in Beijing to talk about the issue. In part one of our...

Beyond the Dalai Lama: An Interview with Woeser and Wang Lixiong


In recent months, China has been beset by growing ethnic violence. In Tibet, 125 people have set themselves on fire since the suppression of 2008 protests over the country’s ethnic policies. In the Muslim region of Xinjiang, there have been a series of attacks by militants...

He Exposed Corrupt China Before He Left


In the late 1970s, when the passing of Mao made it possible for foreign journalists to work in China for the first time in three decades, the first reporters to get in wrote wide-ranging books that addressed nearly everything they could learn.1 Later books by journalists tended...

Hong Kong Rising: An Interview with Albert Ho


The former British colony of Hong Kong reverted to China on July 1, 1997, and on every July 1 since then Hong Kong citizens have marched in the streets asking for democracy. The demonstrations on this year’s anniversary, however, were on a much larger scale. According to the...

Tibet Resists


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 “...

The Ghosts of Tiananmen Square


Every spring, an old friend of mine named Xu Jue makes a trip to the Babaoshan cemetery in the western suburbs of Beijing to lay flowers on the tombs of her dead son and husband. She always plans her visit for April 5, which is the holiday of Pure Brightness, or Qingming. The...

The Tanks and the People


Twenty-five years ago, before the Tiananmen massacre, my father told me: “Son, be good and stay at home, never provoke the Communist Party.”My father knew what he was talking about. His courage had been broken, by countless political campaigns. Right after the 1949 “...

‘You Won’t Get Near Tiananmen!’: Hu Jia on the Continuing Crackdown


Hu Jia is one of China’s best-known political activists. He participated in the 1989 Tiananmen protests as a fifteen-year-old, studied economics, and then worked for environmental and public health non-governmental organizations. A practicing Buddhist, Hu spent three and a half...

The Smooth Path to Pearl Harbor


1.In mid-February, as part of the plans for his official visit to Germany, Chinese President Xi Jinping asked to visit one of Berlin’s best-known sites: Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The request was declined when it became clear that Xi wanted to...

Tiananmen: How Wrong We Were


Twenty-five years ago to the day I write this, I watched and listened as thousands of Chinese citizens in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square dared to condemn their leaders. Some shouted “Premier Li Peng resign.” Even braver ones cried “Down with Deng Xiaoping and the Communist...

China: Detained to Death


On May 3, fifteen Beijing citizens—scholars, journalists, and rights lawyers—gathered informally at the home of Professor Hao Jian of the Beijing Film Academy to reflect on the 25th anniversary of the 1989 June Fourth massacre in Beijing. Two days later, five of the...

The China Challenge


In 1890, an undistinguished U.S. Navy captain published a book that would influence generations of strategists. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 posited that great nations need potent, blue-water navies backed by far-flung naval bases...

Solving China’s Schools: An Interview with Jiang Xueqin


In December, China stunned the world when the most widely used international education assessment revealed that Shanghai’s schools now outperform those of any other country—not only in math and science but also in reading. Some education experts have attributed these results...

Chinese Atheists? What the Pew Survey Gets Wrong


Earlier this month, I came across a fascinating opinion survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. The report asked people in forty countries whether belief in God is necessary for morality. Mostly, the results aren’t surprising. In advanced democracies,...

Paddling to Peking


For Richard Nixon’s foreign policy, 1971 was the best of years and the worst of years. He revealed his opening to China, but he connived at genocide in East Pakistan. Fortunately for him, the world marveled at the one, but was largely ignorant of the other.The two events were...

The Brave Catholics of China


Like most pilgrimage sites in China, the shrine in the village of Cave Gulley in Shanxi province is located partway up a mountain, reachable by steep stairs that are meant to shift worshipers’ attention from the world below to heaven above. Thousands make the journey each year...

China’s Way to Happiness


Richard Madsen is one of the modern-day founders of the study of Chinese religion. A professor at the University of California San Diego, the seventy-three-year-old’s works include Morality and Power in a Chinese Village, China and the American Dream, and China’s Catholics:...

China: Reeducation Through Horror


Here are two snippets from a Chinese Communist journal called People’s China, published in August 1956:In 1956, despite the worst natural calamities in scores of years, China’s peasants, newly organized in co-operatives on a nation-wide scale, produced 2,740 million Yuan’s...

China: Five Pounds of Facts


No one seems to have measured exactly how old Chinese civilization is, but Endymion Wilkinson can probably give a more precise 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...

The Surprising Empress


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,...

Dreams of a Different China


Last November, China’s newly installed leader, Xi Jinping, asked his fellow Chinese to help realize a “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation. In the months since then, his talk has been seen as a marker in the new leadership’s thinking, especially as Xi has pursued a...

How to Deal with the Chinese Police


A casual visitor to China today does not get the impression of a police state. Life bustles along as people pursue work, fashion, sports, romance, amusement, and so on, without any sign of being under coercion. But the government spends tens of billions of dollars annually (more...

Unhinged in China


In one of the central scenes in Jia Zhangke’s new film, a young man working in the southern Chinese manufacturing city of Dongguan goes to an ATM and finds that he’s broke. He’s just spent the past month betraying his friends and hopping from job to job, including one as a...

China: “Capitulate or Things Will Get Worse”


The massacre of protesters in Beijing on June 4, 1989, and the harsh repression during the months immediately following put China into a foul mood. Among ordinary Chinese, the prestige of the Communist Party, whose leaders had ordered the brutal assault, fell to a new low....

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...

Old Dreams for a New China


Ever since China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, first uttered the phrase “China Dream” last year, people in China and abroad have been scrambling to decipher its meaning. Many nations have “dreams”; in Canada, the country’s most prominent popular historian used the word to...

China: When the Cats Rule


In the Northwest corner of Beijing’s old city is a subway and bus workshop. It was built in the early seventies on the site of the Lake of Great Peace, which was filled in as part of a plan to extend the city’s subway system. In the bigger picture of the destruction of old...

The Man Who Got It Right


1.Near the beginning of Simon Leys’ marvelous collection of essays is an odd polemic between the author and the late Christopher Hitchens, fought out in these very pages. Leys takes Hitchens to task for attacking Mother Teresa in a book entitled The Missionary Position. He...

Censoring the News Before It Happens


Every day in China, hundreds of messages are sent from government offices to website editors around the country that say things like, “Report on the new provincial budget tomorrow, but do not feature it on the front page, make no comparisons to earlier budgets, list no links,...

Faking It in China


One of the most striking features about daily life in China is how much of what one encounters has been appropriated from elsewhere. It’s not just the fake iPhones or luxury watches—pirated consumer goods are common in many developing countries. In many Chinese cities,...

Chen Guangcheng in New York


Following are excerpts from a recent conversation among Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist who was recently permitted to leave China and is currently a distinguished visitor at New York University School of Law; Jerome A. Cohen, Professor of Law and Co-Director of the US-...

The ‘Breaking of an Honorable Career’


1.In the 1950s, the late John King Fairbank, the dean of modern China studies at Harvard, used to tell us graduate students a joke about the allegation that a group of red-leaning foreign service officers and academics—the four Johns—had “lost” China: John Paton Davies,...

Who Killed Pamela in Peking?


An ordinary winter evening in the Legation Quarter of Peking, where foreign embassies and consulates were located, January 7, 1937. Cold. The heavy sound of Japanese armored cars, out on patrol down the busy shopping streets that flank the Forbidden City. (Japan would occupy the...

Dancing in Empty Beijing


The Lunar New Year began last week as it always does, with a new moon. The empty sky seemed to empty Beijing of up to half its residents—authorities estimate that an incredible nine million people left the city, which usually has a population of eighteen to twenty million. This...

The New Chinese Gang of Seven


In traditional Chinese religion, a fashi, or ritual master, will recite a set of phrases to turn an ordinary space into a sacred area where the gods can descend to receive prayers and rejuvenate the community. The ceremony can last days, with breaks and feasts, until the rites...

Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?


On October 11 Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 will go to the fifty-seven-year-old Chinese writer Guan Moye, better known as Mo Yan, a pen name that means “don’t talk.” (The name is...

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined


Last summer I took a trip to Xinyang, a rural area of wheat fields and tea plantations in central China’s Henan province. I met a pastor, a former political prisoner, and together we made a day trip to Rooster Mountain, a onetime summer retreat for Western missionaries and...

Who Was Mao Zedong?


In Kashgar’s largest bazaar a few years ago, I spotted a pencil holder sporting an iconic Cultural Revolution image: Mao Zedong and Marshal Lin Biao smiling together. But Mao’s personally chosen heir apparent had been a nonperson since 1971, when he allegedly godfathered an...

An Honest Writer Survives in China


A little over a year ago, I went with the Chinese writer Yu Hua to his hometown of Hangzhou, some one hundred miles southwest of Shanghai, and realized that his bawdy books might not be purely fictional; their characters and situations seemed to follow him around in real life too...

China’s Lost Decade


It’s hard to believe, but just twenty years ago China was on the verge of abandoning the market reforms that have since propelled it to its current position as a world power. Conservatives had used the 1989 Tiananmen massacre to reverse the country’s economic direction. Many...

News from the Dalai Lama


“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 Chinese...

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions


The Chinese Communist Party has always put great emphasis on smooth surfaces, maintaining political “face” through a decorous exterior. Men at the top dye their hair black and every strand must be in place. But sometimes there are cracks in the smoothness and outsiders are...

The People’s Republic of Rumor


A group of people the other day were at the large shopping mall at a place called Shuangjing, just inside Beijing’s Third Ring Road, looking at their cell phones and comparing notes. “Don’t go to Sina Weibo—it’s too famous,” one person advised, referring to the...

‘Pressure for Change is at the Grassroots


The Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States last month following top-level negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials. Several weeks earlier, Chen had dramatically escaped from house arrest in his village in northeast China by jumping over a wall...

China: Politics as Warfare


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...

A Chinese Murder Mystery?


Roughly every decade, China’s political system cracks, its veil is rent, and its inner workings are laid bare. 2012, the Year of the Dragon, is turning out to be one of those periods when the country’s high priests can’t quite carry out their rituals as planned.The...

On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)


Fang Lizhi, a distinguished professor of astrophysics, luminary in the struggle for human rights in contemporary China, and frequent contributor to The New York Review, died suddenly on the morning of April 6. At age seventy-six he had not yet retired, and was...

Debacle in Beijing


The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders...

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi?


The Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, blind since childhood, self-taught in the law, defender of women’s rights to resist forced abortion, thorn in the side of local despots in his home district of Linyi in Shandong province, veteran of a four-year prison sentence on the spurious...

A Master in the Shadows


How should one assess the best ways to survive in a revolution? What exactly is the tipping point between obedience and outright sycophancy? When does one try to hold on to the values that gave meaning to one’s upbringing, and when is it best to just let it all go? When does...

China’s Falling Star


In China, the year is traditionally divided into periods based on the moon’s orbit around the earth and the sun’s path across the sky. This lunisolar calendar is laden with myths and celebrated by rituals that allowed Chinese to mark time and make sense of their world.So too...

The Chinese Are Coming!


The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on how little credit the West...

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny


Better than the assent of the crowd: The dissent of one brave man!—Sima Qian (145–90 BC)Records of the Grand HistorianTruth will set you free.—Gospel according to JohnThe economic rise of China now dominates the entire landscape of international affairs. In the eyes of...

The New York Review of Books China Archive

Welcome to the New York Review of Books China Archive, a collaborative project of and The New York Review of Books. In the archive you will find a compilation of full-length essays and book reviews on China dating from the Review's founding in 1963. We encourage you...

China Gets Religion!


This autumn, China has been marking the one hundredth anniversary of the collapse of its last imperial dynasty, the Qing, with a series of grand celebrations. The government has released an epic film showing how the revolution of 1911 prepared the way for the Communists’...

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds


Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week rampage, looting, murdering, and raping large...

The High Price of the New Beijing


One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye Olde Pekinge-type street: its...

The Past and the Future


Concerning the Past:I have maintained that China should move forward with the reform of society. In many speeches before 1988, I openly expressed my advocacy of reform in China.I acknowledge that the following are my principal views:Marxism—whether viewed as a philosophy, a...

Kissinger and China


It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and a...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?


On March 10 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made front-page news throughout the world by saying,As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put...

Quality of Life: India vs. China


1.The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10 percent growth rate. Despite...

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever


When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had few inhibitions about studying...

China: From Famine to Oslo


1.Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy vegetables, or to do...

How Reds Smashed Reds


July and August 1966, the first months of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, were the summer of what Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, calls “The Maoist Shrug.” Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, told high school Red Guards, “We do not advocate beating people, but...

The Question of Pearl Buck


The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by the academy of an American writer...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful


In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth of humanity. Most China watchers will...

The Message from the Glaciers


It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only the most intrepid adventurers were...

The Triumph of Madame Chiang


Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a Coast Guard cutter, was baptized...

Specters of a Chinese Master


1.Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the...

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai


Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out...

The Passions of Joseph Needham


It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics


The IncidentOn a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus pistol, and killed Professor...

Casting a Lifeline


Sixty pages or so into Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, the hero, Dai Wei, is troubled by the memory of a harrowing anatomy lecture that he attended as a university student. Taught by “a celebrated cardiovascular specialist,” the class observed the dissection of the fresh...

Sentimental Education in Shanghai


1.In April 1924 Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity, lecturing to packed audiences from Japan to Argentina. His message—that...

The Quiet Heroes of Tibet


Earlier this year, shortly before boarding the new Chinese train from Beijing to Lhasa, I met Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist (she uses only one name). Unusual among Tibetans in China, who tend to avoid talking to foreigners, she spoke frankly about Chinese rule over Tibet....

Mission to Mao


“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto, the Soviet Union and...

China’s Great Terror


Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own...

‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise


The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of Department 1 of the Beijing...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)


Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the trait that most determined his...

On Leaving a Chinese Prison


Jiang Qisheng, a former student of philosophy and a human rights activist, was arrested in 1999 for commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. After four years in prison, he was recently released. He wrote the following statement upon accepting the Spirit of...

A Little Leap Forward


The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a question about the hard-line...



1.To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—...

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier


In China’s Mao years you could be detained and persecuted for talking with your neighbor about your cat. The Chinese word for “cat” (mao, high level tone) is a near homonym for the name of the Great Leader (mao, rising tone), and a tip to the police from an eavesdropper who...

Found Horizon


1.Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily...

East Is West


Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known...

Divine Killer


“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’ “Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.” —From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by...

China in Cyberspace


1.It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery


1.Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan


Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong


1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong


1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment


The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

In China’s Gulag


Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster


In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

History on the Wing


Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American relations during the golden...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping


When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study...

The Last Days of Hong Kong


1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.”—Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in...

Keeping the Faith


On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age


Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy


To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their students like enemies when in our...

The End of the Chinese Revolution


When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan


Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Roots of Revolution


The books by Frank Ching and Zhang Xianliang are vastly different in content, aim, and style, as opposite as yang and yin. Yet each casts light on the Cultural Revolution. Considered together, they may even begin to explain it.Mao’s venomous “class struggle” against his own...

Passing the Baton in Beijing


Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

Our Mission in China


This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30...

China: How Much Dissent?


In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked...

Sitting on Top of the World


Remoteness is often a condition of status and an attitude cultivated by parties to inequality. Chinese peasants, for more than twenty centuries subjects not citizens of the realm, were being literal when they said, “Heaven is high and the emperor far away.” Their world was...

Rules of the Game


On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Bringing Up the Red Guards


Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier


In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a trainload of forty-two...

Still Mysterious


Within mainland China today the ratio of Westerners to Chinese is probably no greater than it was in Marco Polo’s time seven hundred years ago. Sino-foreign contact is so minimal that it almost meets the old Taoist stay-at-home ideal, “to live hearing the dogs bark in the...

A Mao for All Seasons


A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...

The Great Wall


China is so distant, big, and complex that each Marco Polo nowadays tells a different tale. The authors of the three books under review—a cool Swedish journalist, a passionate Chinese true-believer, and a philosophical Frenchman—give very different impressions of Chairman Mao...

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution


The Vietnam debate reflects our intellectual unpreparedness. Crisis has arisen on the farthest frontier of public knowledge, and viewpoints diverge widely because we all lack background information. “Vietnam” was not even a label on our horizon twenty years ago. It was still...