China: Politics as Warfare

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 China. Its central purpose is to explain how China has escaped the disintegration of other Communist states; but the contributors to the book do not cram their research into a template that promises more coherence than Chinese realities can provide.

The big idea advanced by Sebastian Heilmann of the University of Trier and Harvard’s Elizabeth J. Perry, both well-established scholars of Chinese politics, concerns the ability of the Chinese Communist regime to adapt. Many China-watchers, they recall, predicted that the People’s Republic would collapse after Tiananmen in 1989; nowadays some maintain that the spread of the market will inevitably lead to a civil society and even some form of democracy. From the regime’s point of view, such predictions may recall the warnings of Lenin, quoted by one of the contributors to this volume, who in 1902 urged that the Party must “struggle against spontaneity” because the spontaneous impulses of the masses can result “in the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie.”

In their first chapter, however, Perry and Heilmann contend that the post-Mao regime has “become increasingly adept at managing difficult challenges ranging from leadership succession and popular unrest to administrative reorganization, legal institutionalization, and even global economic integration.” Yet there is no implication anywhere in this book that the editors and their colleagues approve of the regime’s strategies; they are concerned to show how they evolved and actually work.

They state that the regime’s “staying power” is observable “up to this point” and has very dark sides: official corruption, the ruin of the environment, and no civil liberties. “Up to this point,” as is usual with volumes based on conferences, can mean some years ago. Right now is an even worse time for Chinese civil liberties, with the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo behind bars, many of his supporters and human rights lawyers detained, and the arrest in 2011 and release eighty-one days later of the now largely silenced artist Ai Weiwei—to name only two of the nonviolent dissidents who have been subject to repression. Chen Guangcheng has made it to NYU but his wife and associates have been treated brutally.

The editors and contributors agree that Mao’s successors have retained, although in often-changed form,

a signature Maoist stamp that conceives of policy-making as a process of ceaseless change, tension management, continual experimentation, and ad-hoc adjustment.

The editors insist this has been a relatively recent development in governance that is understood neither by political science nor theories of modernization. China’s record poses a paradox for those convinced that deviations from the standard modern assumption about progress—that economic development will lead to more open societies—must fail. The Maoist strategy, the authors write, began during the thirty-year period starting in the early 1930s when the Party was driven out of the cities into the countryside and the Long March of 1934–1935 took place from south to north China, with guerrilla headquarters being established at Yan’an in 1936.

This meant surviving in some of China’s poorest hinterlands and relying on improvisation. The authors of Mao’s Invisible Hand argue that China’s post-Mao leaders, especially those like Deng Xiaoping whose memories reached back to the darkest days before the 1949 revolution, similarly used new ideas and techniques for purposes that Mao would have condemned, especially for reforming the economy, but that reflect his unpredictable and experimental approach.

* * *

Roderick MacFarquhar calls this “guerrilla-style policy-making,” a term used throughout the collection; that notion animated Mao throughout his career and long after the Communist victory in 1949. It could be disastrous, as with the Great Leap Forward of 1958–1961, which led to the worst famine in Chinese, if not human, history. But such an approach “proved highly effective when redirected to the economic modernization objectives of Mao’s successors.” The Maoist elements, which the book’s contributors underline, “encourage decentralized initiative within the framework of centralized political authority….”1

Central to understanding this sometimes disastrous, sometimes successful “guerrilla policy,” the editors emphasize, are its resilience and adaptability. Resilience means absorbing shocks when things go wrong; adaptability is the capacity to find ways of being what they call “proactive,” “reactive,” and “digestive,” together with the determination to try something new, thus making use of fresh challenges and opportunities. What Mao’s successors have always held in reserve is their power to crush those who stray from what Maoists call “the commanding heights” of priority and command.

The editors, and for the most part their contributors, do not duck the fact that many of the “grievous and growing social and spatial inequalities” attendant on guerrilla policymaking “would surely have undone less robust or flexible regimes.” They describe, too, vast upheavals like the hundreds of uprisings in the spring of 1989 that the leadership violently repressed. Decades earlier, as they dealt with civil war, Japanese occupation, and leadership divisions within the Party, “Mao and his colleagues had come to appreciate the advantages of agility over stability,” although, I would add, stability is exactly what they invariably claim to be preserving no matter what changes they make.

Mao’s closest comrades, including Deng and Hu Yaobang, absorbed the chairman’s “work style,” which the editors, brilliantly, in my opinion, sum up as marked by “secrecy, versatility, speed, and surprise”—in short, politics as warfare. The leaders carefully keep for themselves the power to make decisions about strategic policies and the overall direction of the economy; but they encourage much local initiative—unless it goes wrong or goes too far astray. In that case all alliances can be broken or newly reestablished. The guerrilla style means maximizing the leaders’ choices and initiatives “while minimizing or eliminating one’s opponents’ influence on the course of events.” In the face of most informed opinion at the time, including mine, this is what enabled Deng and his colleagues, as they dismissed in 1989 their high-ranking, long-term comrade Zhao Ziyang, not only to survive Tiananmen but to emerge tougher and more successful than ever, in part, as this book shows, by buying off some of their severest critics.

Perry and Heilmann characterize this style of policy as “fundamentally dictatorial, opportunistic, and merciless.” Scholars of modernization will have to consider, as a result of this book, what many may find discouraging, or even gloomy:

The adaptive capacity of China’s non-democratic political system offers a radical alternative to the bland governance models favored by many Western social scientists who seem to take the political stability and economic superiority of capitalist democracies for granted…. [These social scientists should take] a sober look at the foundations of innovative capacity displayed by non-democratic challengers such as China.

A capacity, the editors point out, that can also be damaging and dangerous for large parts of China’s population.

* * *

Tracing the origins of the Maoist experimental method, the contributors—astonishingly, at least to me—reach back to John Dewey, whom Mao heard lecture. They go on to describe Mao’s involvement in rural health care, the function of unofficial or voluntary organizations, the uses of the law and the press, and the methods of local administration. In every case we see two things at work: local or at least noncentral bodies trying things out, being observed or finally noticed at the center; and central control then being brought to bear, including or adapting some of the bottom-up ideas and actions, while snuffing others out.

According to Heilmann, a strategy Maoists called “proceeding from point to surface” meant that a local initiative, if encouraged from the center, could become a “model experience” and then national policy. Such procedures appeared as early as 1928, during the years when Communist forces were active in the countryside and long before Mao rose to supreme power inside the Party. “In sum,” writes Heilmann, “experimentation has been a core feature of the Maoist approach to policy-making since revolutionary times.”

These experiments may have begun with another Party member, Deng Zihui, who consulted local people about their ideas on land reform. Mao, working elsewhere, was impressed by Deng’s findings (although in 1955 he characteristically attacked Deng’s rural experiments as “right opportunism”). After the establishment of the remains of the Party at Yan’an in 1936, local Party activists at a “base area” some distance away were instructed to become “labor heroes” in experiments with land reform. One of the leaders of such efforts was Deng Xiaoping, and Heilmann suggests that the “active experimentation…may have exerted considerable influence on his approach to policy-making in the later stages of his political career.” Mao would declare such experimentation to be “much closer to reality and richer than the decisions and directives issued by our leadership organs” and that, as Heilmann writes, it “should serve as an antidote against tendencies towards ‘commandism’ within the party.”

This statement strikes me as ironic when we consider Mao’s early violence against those who appeared to defy him.2 Indeed, the Party’s basic position, which is to eliminate its enemies, is a weapon he handed down to all his successors. The perception that enemies, including fellow Party members, must be destroyed appeared as early as 1930 when Mao, still only a senior Party member, began the “AB”—the “Anti-Bolshevik”—campaign that led to the executions of some thousands of Party followers he deemed “objectively counterrevolutionary.” After 1949 this violence intensified.

Such brutality was characteristic, too, of Deng Xiaoping, who as Party general secretary oversaw the 1957 anti-Rightist campaign, resulting in the purge of hundreds of thousands, and who, in 1989, ordered the internal exile of the Party’s general secretary Zhao Ziyang and the Tiananmen killings. In 2010 Deng’s successors perceived the wholly nonviolent Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, as a danger to their rule and, with considerable success, threatened foreign ambassadors who had been invited to Oslo to see the prize awarded to Liu in absentia, discouraging several from attending.3 This was not experimentation, but Maoist-style paranoia and persecution.

Even without violence, as Heilmann observes, “The party center always reserved, and regularly exercised, the power to annul local experiments or to make them into a national model.” By the 1950s, moreover, experimentation was weakened by the spread of central directives, especially during the ill-fated Great Leap Forward and the decade of the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. After Mao’s death in 1976, top-level backing for experimentation, always under central supervision, resumed.

While Party historians attribute the notion of learning from local experiments to the chairman, Heilmann insists that this is not the case. It was, he says, John Dewey’s pragmatist philosophy, especially his emphasis on “intentional anticipation instead of…blind trial and error,” that had a great impact in China. Mao attended a lecture by Dewey in 1920, read one of his books, and had it stocked in the bookshop he opened that year. Dewey’s notions attracted open-minded Chinese thinkers like Hu Shi and James Yen—a Yale graduate—whose ideas were to influence the Communist plans to select rural districts for “intense and extreme experimentations.”

* * *

In her chapter on a possible civil society in China, Harvard’s Nara Dillon discusses China’s hundreds of thousands of “voluntary associations, non-profits, and other kinds of intermediate organizations,” such as charities, trade associations, and scholarly and recreational groups, including, for example, the Chinese Shakespeare Association. Dillon quickly observes:

Since few, if any, of China’s new voluntary associations and nonprofits are truly autonomous from the state, characterizing them as civil society seems premature. Indeed, many question whether China has ever had anything approaching a civil society.

Voluntary groups, she writes, existed in large numbers in the Republican period of the late 1920s and early 1930s, when their activities were circumscribed by numerous regulations. Those strictures were loosened in the United Front period during the anti-Japanese war. After the Communist victory in 1949, a series of “anti-corruption” campaigns attacked voluntary associations. For a time only “state-sponsored groups such as the official labor union and the Red Cross remained.” In the 1990s, a more relaxed attitude emerged, leading to the vast expansion of voluntary organizations, always closely observed by officials from the center.

Such organizations are part of a hierarchy determined by the degree of approval they receive from the state, with the women’s federations, youth leagues, and trade unions at the top. Always suspect, religious associations come next, and are under much firmer control, Dillon writes, than the groups in the first category. Finally, there are large numbers of informal and potentially illegal groups. Recently, a man was imprisoned for attempting to organize a group protest against the contamination of powdered milk, which had caused a few deaths and the illness of many thousands of children. Also placed under scrutiny—and in some cases detained for questioning—were hundreds of the signers of the manifesto Charter 08 calling for basic democratic freedoms, which led to the eleven-year imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo.

Indeed, as Dillon goes on to say, new regulations issued after Tiananmen in 1989, including the dismantling of even the Chinese Shakespeare Association, “suggest that one of the Chinese Communist Party’s…goals is to prevent the voluntary sector from turning into a civil society, and ultimately a force for further political reform.” Rather unconvincing, I fear, is her suggestion that “even if a democratic civil society does not appear to be on the horizon,” the voluntary organizations have “the potential to lead to more fundamental change.” In an otherwise excellent chapter, this hope, in 2012, sounds hollow. (The Party, for example, has recently warned “independents” not to run in grassroots elections.4)

* * *

Columbia Law School’s Benjamin L. Liebman, in his chapter on populist legality, states from the outset that “legal reforms have not imposed significant restraints on the party-state.” In 2012, the evidence for this view is only too stark. Legal reforms, Liebman continues, are used to serve state policies rather than to limit state powers and increase individual rights and interests. Nonetheless there has been an expansion of administrative law that stipulates how official bodies should act—although, Liebman adds, there is little enforcement of such regulations. Those seeking justice, he makes plain, “must do so strategically and within the framework of party-state leadership.”

In what may be a concession to optimism, Liebman suggests that legal experimentation “may lead to more robust legal institutions”—but may also “be an example of the arbitrary way in which law is often implemented in China.” Echoing the warning to mainstream scholars in Perry and Heilmann’s stimulating introduction, Liebman’s chapter shows that

China’s legal reforms have confounded those who argue that significant [legal] reform will necessarily give rise to political challenges to the state or that the party-state is not serious about such reforms other than as a tool for policy implementation.

While he is right to say that legal reform has aided economic development, for example, in improving conditions for trade and entrepreneurship, it is puzzling to say that because “the formal powers of the courts are weak,” the contemporary legal system is flexible, informal, and responsive to public opinion. As he himself writes, those seeking justice will find it not in the courts but, if at all, somewhere within the party-state. This seems hardly a “legal system.”5 Stanley Lubman of the law faculty at Berkeley has recently written:

It would be a mistake to think of China’s legal institutions as a “legal system.” Legal institutions in China, especially the criminal law, are part of a political system that ultimately directs their application and their use. They are essentially grounded on the dominant notion that law is to be used to keep the Party in power.

As The New York Times recently reported:

There are also growing concerns that a culture of nepotism and privilege nurtured at the top of the system has flowed downward, permeating bureaucracies at every level of government in China. “After a while you realize, wow, there are actually a lot of princelings out there,” said Victor Shih, a China scholar at Northwestern University near Chicago, using the label commonly slapped on descendants of party leaders. “You’ve got the children of current officials, the children of previous officials, the children of local officials, central officials, military officers, police officials. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people out there—all trying to use their connections to make money.”

* * *

Yuezhi Zhao, who teaches at Simon Fraser University, includes in her chapter on the mass media an account of how retired high-ranking revolutionaries use the press, radio, television, and the Internet to lambaste the Party for abandoning its Maoist ideals. An Internet site was temporarily closed down in 2007 for posting “an open letter by seventeen former…officials and Marxist academics accusing CCP polices of making a mockery of Marxism and taking the country ‘down an evil road.’” We shouldn’t underestimate “the repressive and rigid nature of the CCP’s market authoritarianism,” Zhao warns, nor should we “exaggerate the significance, let alone idealize the democratic nature, of what has been described as the unfolding Internet-led ‘second cultural revolution.’” The thesis of Zhao’s chapter is summed up in this sentence:

The maintenance of a Leninist disciplinary core in the media system during a process of rapid commercialization ensures the media system’s continuing subordination to the CCP’s ideological objectives.

This was made all too evident by the treatment of the relatively moderate Hu Yaobang, an old comrade of Chairman Mao, who was purged as general secretary of the Party for his relative moderation in 1987, and whose death in 1989 set off the Tiananmen uprising. In 1985, two years before he was purged, Hu stated, in Zhao’s formulation, that “the CCP’s mouthpieces [i.e., in the mass media] are ‘naturally’ also the mouthpieces of the government and the people.” Hu said:

No matter how they [other businesses] are to be reformed…it is absolutely impossible to change the nature of party journalism in the slightest sense and change its relationship with the party.

I remember what must have been one of the Party’s ultimate nightmares when in May 1989 the staff of the official People’s Daily and their colleagues marched into Tiananmen carrying an enormous horizontal banner reading “No More Lies.”

* * *

I can’t think of anything gloomier—and, regrettably, accurate—than the conclusions of the Oxford scholar Patricia M. Thornton in her chapter “Retrofitting the Steel Frame” on the way the Party maintains its control. Mao’s Invisible Hand shows conclusively and thoughtfully how, since Mao’s day, this has been achieved by allowing experiment but never letting slip the reins of power. Remembering Lenin’s warning that the Party must “struggle against spontaneity,” Thornton contends that it is indeed “remarkable” how quickly the party-state rechanneled the energies of the Tiananmen generation into economic modernization. What has this produced, Thornton asks? Following Zygmunt Bauman, she sees “a sea of suppressed anxieties, personal inadequacies, and longings that serve to lubricate the global machinery of capitalism.”

Behind these economic blandishments lies Mao’s invisible hand, the inspiration and justification for those who, in June 1989, ordered the murder of the students and workers in Tiananmen Square who had the temerity to shout “Down with the Party!” and “Down with Deng Xiaoping!” As so often in Party history, the Beijing spring was an experiment that had fatal consequences and is worth keeping in mind when we hear of the experiments undertaken within the party-state.

  1. Perry makes much the same points in her chapter “Sixty Is the New Forty” in The People’s Republic of China at 60: An International Assessment, edited by William C. Kirby (Harvard University Asia Center, 2011).
  2. Mao expanded this violence from the first years of his rule. See Klaus Mühlhahn, “‘Turning Rubbish into Something Useful,’” in Kirby, The People’s Republic at 60.
  3. Perry Link, “At the Nobel Ceremony: Liu Xiaobo’s Empty Chair,” NYRblog , December 13, 2010.
  4. See Chris Buckley and Michael Martina, “China Warns ‘Independents’ Challenging Party-Run Legislatures,” Reuters, June 9, 2011.
  5. For a comprehensive survey of the silencing of China’s human rights lawyers, see Jerome A. Cohen, “Turning a Deaf Ear,” South China Morning Post, June 7, 2011; for the retreat from earlier legal reforms, see Ong Yew-kim, “Ruling with an Iron Fist,” South China Morning Post, June 10, 2011.
Jonathan Mirsky was born in New York in 1932 and educated at Columbia University, Cambridge University, and the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught Chinese and Vietnamese history, Comparative...
Reviewed in This Article

Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China
edited by Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth J. Perry
Harvard University Asia Center, 320 pp.

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This article was first published in the June 21, 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...