China’s Lost Decade

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 felt that China needed to return to a more Soviet-style economic system, with stronger central planning and tighter regulation of people’s personal lives.

But China had a first-among-equals, Deng Xiaoping, who would have none of it. Although already an old man—he would die five years later aged ninety-two—he launched a brilliant guerrilla campaign. Almost surreptitiously, he left the capital in early 1992 for China’s freewheeling south, making speeches that extolled reforms. He declared that China’s biggest threat was from the left, not the right, and is credited with uttering the credo of China’s early reform era: to get rich is glorious. When conservatives blocked official media from carrying his remarks, he used his influence to publish his pro-reform message in regional newspapers. Eventually, the center’s resistance crumbled and Deng put economic reformers in key positions of power, unleashing a twenty-year boom. Political change remained off-limits, but almost anything else went; and it is defensible to say that China was freer and more dynamic than at any point in its modern history.

All of which brings us to today. Economic and political reformers are again on the defensive, with the economy increasingly dominated by pro-state forces that are squeezing private enterprise. The economy is slowing, with housing prices falling, foreign investment down, and consumer sales sluggish. Many economists advocating reforms of Chinese statism have been stifled—censors have banned the press and television from using the word “monopoly” in describing state enterprises. Socially, rising expectations mean people aren’t as easily satisfied with the Deng-era emphasis on achieving prosperity and enlarging personal opportunities; many also want to have more say over how their lives are shaped. But calls for political or social reform are blocked by a sophisticated “stability-maintenance” apparatus that keeps a lid on the tens of thousands of protests that beset the country each year and punishes outspoken critics of the regime.1

* * *

The new group of leaders, which takes over later this year, might have a raft of reforms in mind, but optimists are wary. Ten years ago most China experts proclaimed the incoming team of Party Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to be laden with reformers; they turned out to be technocratic caretakers.

The difference between the stasis now and then is that China lacks a paramount leader like Deng who can challenge the logjam of competing interests, bureaucracies, and regions. Lacking the legitimacy that would be conferred by democracy or tradition, China’s current rulers must seek consensus, leaving them unable to challenge entrenched interests. Today’s China features Deng’s political repression but without his era’s dynamism—a country still hurtling forward, but its speed slowing and direction unclear.

Stagnant China? This isn’t the story that became accepted over the past decade. No country growing at double-digit rates could be thought of as declining; surely the label better describes sclerotic Europe or the politically paralyzed United States. The past ten years have seen a constant drumbeat of stories about China—either as the world’s next great thing or the next great enemy—but all repeating the mantra that China is changing, as if this were unique among the world’s nations. China fever peaked in 2008, first with Beijing hosting the summer Olympics and, after the global economic crash later that year, with China as the last bastion of global economic growth. Few then described it as beset by structural issues that would seriously hobble its rise.2

And yet this view is now widespread inside China, even at the highest echelons. Top leaders regularly invoke the need for systemic reforms, while Chinese economists say the next decade will be more important than the past three, when reforms were launched and China took off. The topic is also slated to be discussed at the upcoming Party congress, when China’s leadership for the next decade is to be appointed. A recent study by the World Bank and the Chinese government’s Development Research Center declared in uncharacteristically bold language that China risked crisis if it didn’t reform its system, adding that “calls for reform within the country have never been louder.”3

How China got to this point is the subject of three new books focusing on economics and business. All are written by highly qualified observers eager to make sense of China’s growing malaise. They come at it from different angles—one is a leading American essayist and journalist, another a Chinese government insider, and the third works at a Washington think tank—but their conclusions are strikingly similar: China needs more than a few tweaks to regain the dynamism of past years and reach a new level of development. All implicitly or explicitly make clear that most of all, China’s economic challenges are political.

* * *

The most ambitious of the three is James Fallows’s China Airborne. That might seem odd because Fallows focuses on one particular industry, aviation. But he uses it as a window on China’s effort to change its economy, something it must do during its next phase. Aimed at a general audience, it eschews many of the technical arguments found in the other two books, but for most readers it is an excellent one-volume look at the economic and political challenges of the post–China fever era.

One of Fallows’s great strengths is his impartiality and fair-mindedness. He starts out with sensible caveats, which too many—even those of us living in China—forget when speaking of this vast country of 1.3 billion. He says that what struck him most about living in China is how diverse it is, with regions as different from each other as many countries:

Such observations may sound banal—China, land of contrasts!—but I have come to think that really absorbing them is one of the greatest challenges for the outside world in reckoning with China and its rise.

His focus on aviation stems from his passion for flying—an earlier book of his discusses the aviation industry’s mess.4 This leads him to experience firsthand many memorable scenes. In one, he copilots a Cirrus propeller plane from an inland province to the coast. In between is a mountain range but air traffic controllers don’t respond to their requests to change altitude—a good example of the poor training and low standards that still are widespread in many professions. (Eventually, a commercial jet heard the pleas and relayed them to the controllers, who finally responded.)

Chinese aviation is a particularly telling subject. The country’s current five-year economic plan, which started in 2011, has China spending the equivalent of $200 billion on new airports, navigation systems, and planes. The country’s fleet is to increase to 4,500 planes from 2,600—representing half of new passenger plane sales in the world. The need is equally great: China has only 175 airports, compared with one thousand commercial airports in the United States, not to mention four thousand airstrips for enthusiasts and private pilots.

And here we begin to see China’s problems. China has a stunted civil aviation sector, not so much because of its level of development, but because of its authoritarian political system. Airspace is controlled by the military, with small corridors doled out to civilian use. In 2006, the military ordered Shanghai’s Pudong airport to shut down for several hours with no reason given—analogous, he says, to the US Air Force arbitrarily ordering Los Angeles’s LAX closed. The corridors are so narrow that flights pile up, while military restrictions force planes to fly at fuel-wasting low altitudes. This is a leading reason why Chinese domestic flights use twice the fuel per kilometer than the international standard, meaning that China could double its air traffic at no additional environmental cost if it simply adopted international norms. It’s one of the many fascinating facts that Fallows reveals, capturing at once the country’s hobbled civil society but also the opportunity for improvement.

* * *

Fallows also dissects China’s quest to build a passenger jet. The only manufacturer, the Commercial Aircraft Group of China, is in government hands. It has produced two models, mostly based on foreign technology, but neither is commercially usable, owing to their cost and weight. The lay reader may wonder why China can’t pirate a Boeing 737—an older model that is still a workhorse for many airlines. Fallows explains this by showing how much of China’s economic prowess is due to customers being “happy with crappy”—most don’t care that China’s products aren’t first-rate because they’re much cheaper. In the aircraft industry, this is less workable—how many airlines buy cheap but unreliable Russian planes?

China’s production methods are also unsuited to building ultra-complex machines: when assembling an iPad or a running shoe or even a car, if the first batch is defective, the manufacturer can adjust the production line and toss out the lemons. This works for much production in China but, obviously, wouldn’t work with aircraft. That leads Fallows to another memorable quote: “The Chinese can go to the moon long before they build an airliner.” A moon shot is a one-time event and requires brute engineering, while a jetliner is an immensely sophisticated amalgam of hardware and software that has to work flawlessly for decades.

Fallows argues that achieving this level of competence isn’t a given. To explain why, he detours to China’s education and political systems. Like the United States for many years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, today’s China is in a state of “permanent emergency,” in which the security apparatus is constantly cracking down. A string of events have convinced authorities that they are under siege: the 2008 Tibet and 2009 Xinjiang riots, the award of the Nobel Prize to Liu Xiaobo in 2010, last year’s Arab Spring, and now the leadership transition. Although many—probably most—Chinese remain happily ignorant of China’s parallel society of jails and guobao (secret police) agents, they sense it indirectly. Access to foreign websites in China, for example, is painfully slow because of the regime’s filtering software—a far cry from the 1990s, when China was ahead of the United States in cell phone networks, the then-cutting-edge telecommunications infrastructure. Once they are on the Internet, users will find that almost all foreign social media sites are banned.

Not getting onto Facebook might seem trivial, but it is a reminder to many Chinese—especially those educated abroad who might return home—that China is one of a handful of countries (the others are Iran, North Korea, and Syria) that permanently block this site, as well as YouTube and Twitter (most Google sites are accessible but often subject to cyber-harassment, such as slow loading speeds). The upshot, Fallows says, is that entrepreneurs will come to China to make money in such industries, but “this is not the place you’ll want to work if you want to be competing with the best.” And indeed most of China’s Internet platforms—Baidu, Weibo, Youku—are copycats of Western sites that are banned or hobbled in China. They are big and mostly profitable but not innovative.

As for China’s universities, they get high rankings in surveys that apparently don’t value academic freedom.5 But Fallows notes that few in the country who have a choice—not even Politburo members—want their kids educated there; if they can, they send their children abroad, especially to the United States. Meanwhile, a decade after joining the World Trade Organization, the country makes only minimal efforts to protect intellectual property, while the rule of law is often ignored. His conclusion: “A China capable of creating its own Boeing, its own Airbus, would have to be a transformed China from the one we know now.”

That isn’t the government’s view, of course. Along with energy, telecommunications, and defense, aviation is a sector over which the government has announced it will maintain “absolute control.” (It also says the state will maintain “strong influence” over automobiles, machinery, information technology, steel, metals, and chemicals.) In most of these sectors, state-owned firms enjoy monopolistic or oligarchic positions. Private firms, if they exist, face significant discrimination.

* * *

Such state planning has a long history in China, which we are reminded of when reading Justin Yifu Lin’s Demystifying the Chinese Economy. Born and raised in Taiwan, Lin is probably China’s most famous economist. For reasons still unclear, he swam over to China from a nearby island controlled by Taiwan in 1979 and was feted as a patriot. (In Taiwan, where he had been on military service, Lin is still officially a deserter and cannot return without facing arrest.) He became an advocate of market reforms and cofounded a research center at Peking University. He recently retired as the World Bank’s chief economist.

Lin’s book requires a fair amount of patience, not because it is particularly technical but because one has to plod through pages of politically correct mumbo-jumbo to get to the interesting bits. The history section is all but useless; his explanations are so flawed as to be interesting only if one wants to be reminded how official Communist historiography is a sequence of gloss-overs and half-truths. We learn nothing about land reform or Mao’s disastrous decision to emulate the Soviet economic model. Instead, Lin blithely concludes that “copying the Soviet model was a smart and practical option.” Even though the book is based on his lecture notes at Peking University, he pulls more punches than most economists inside China. At least for a foreign reader, the book comes across as painfully circumspect.

But another way of looking at his book is that—even though published by a prestigious academic publishing house—it isn’t meant to be a rigorous study; instead it’s to be read between the lines. And indeed with the help of a bit of Pekingology, it has value. His main point is that China first followed a “Comparative Advantage Denying” strategy but under Deng began to follow a “Comparative Advantage Following” strategy. This is Lin’s code for rejecting and then embracing market economics. It’s only toward the end that Lin gets to his point:

Since 2003 the Chinese government has been using macro controls to cool the economy, but it has not worked. Why? For a simple reason: the government failed to take radical action to tackle the cause, the increasingly inequitable distribution of income in recent years.

That has led to a wealth gap that is among the largest in the world, “with the unemployed and retired left behind.” The result is that “discontentment and grievances have begun to simmer in the community.” Policies over the past decade, he implies, have been of the old “Comparative Advantage Denying” variant; in other words, a turning back of the clock to state control.

After making these refreshingly clear statements, Lin then meekly prescribes a few general fixes without discussing the political implications—essentially begging the question of why these issues have languished for a decade. His main prescription is that state enterprises need to be privatized once they are “viable,” although he doesn’t say if most state enterprises are or when this might happen. He has nothing to say about fostering creativity or innovation.

* * *

Far more vigorous and systematic is Nicholas Lardy’s take on the past four years. Lardy, one of the preeminent economists working on China and a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, has written a fairly technical book aimed at people who really care about the Chinese economy. Like Fallows, Lardy ends up pointing to the country’s political dysfunctionality.

Lardy starts by praising Premier Wen’s team in an opening chapter that will give pause to many China skeptics. He takes aim at foreign criticism of China’s 2008–2009 stimulus package, calling it “early, large, and well designed.” China rolled out a $586 billion stimulus in 2008, months before the Obama administration’s measures were passed into law. He notes approvingly that it was relatively much larger: the US package was $787 billion but for an economy two and a half times larger than China’s. Also, the Chinese plan almost completely focused on infrastructure projects—James Fallows’s airports, for example. By contrast, a third of the US stimulus measures were in the form of tax cuts, which households predictably put toward paying down debt—sensible for individuals but ineffective in stimulating demand. The result is that while the US and the rest of the world plunged into recession, China’s economy chugged along, somewhat slower but avoiding catastrophe.

China was better able to afford its hefty stimulus, he argues, because it had low levels of debt. Households and enterprises hadn’t been sucked into dangerous debt quagmires because China resisted Western advice to introduce fancy derivatives and other poorly understood financial products. Derided as too cautious, China’s mandarins began to look pretty smart—something worth keeping in mind when considering today’s predictions of doom.

Having praised China’s economic policymakers, Lardy proceeds to damn them. He writes that China’s leaders are aware that their policies are unsustainable. In 2007, Premier Wen told parliament that “China’s economic growth is unsteady, imbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable.” But it was precisely during Wen’s time in office that China’s economy went awry. Lardy points to political reasons: the leadership, he writes, is “focused on maintaining political stability by keeping inflation low and ensuring steady growth of nonagricultural employment.” These aren’t bad goals but instead of achieving them through reforms, Wen and his advisers resorted to sleights of hand.

Shortly after Wen took office in 2002, for example, China began holding down the rates paid on bank deposits, which kept credit cheap for the state-owned enterprises that get most bank loans. In addition, the exchange rate was held artificially low. Although the yuan has appreciated against the dollar in recent years, on a trade-weighted basis it only moved slightly.

From the government’s perspective, these policies funneled cheap capital (not to mention subsidized power and land) to state enterprises, which kept employment up and prices down. They also had the benefit of solidifying the role of state enterprises in a broad array of industries, which made conservative planners happy. The low exchange rate benefited export industries, which are located in China’s wealthy and politically powerful coastal provinces. This allowed China’s factories to hire the surplus labor that flows out of the countryside each year. All of this was designed to tamp down social unrest.

* * *

But as Lardy shows, these policies had many serious costs. Households began to earn an ever-shrinking share of China’s economic output. The low interest rates alone, he estimates, cost Chinese families the equivalent of $100 billion between 2002 and 2008. Unable to earn much by keeping money in the bank, many Chinese put their money in real estate, causing a huge property bubble that has yet to deflate. Other assets, from Yunnanese tea to contemporary art, also exploded in value, rippling across global markets.

Some government measures tried to help households. Over the past decade, China has set up a welfare and health insurance system and abolished many rural taxes that caused local unrest. But he shows that much of this has been eaten up by a “repressive” banking system and is too limited in scope. These measures were politically easy ways to spend money because they did not challenge vested interests.

If policymakers knew these problems were brewing, why didn’t they take course corrections? Lardy is typically succinct:

The emergence of a collective leadership system and the rise of special interest groups is a much more compelling explanation of China’s failure to pursue economic rebalancing policies more aggressively since 2004.

And yet the implication of this statement is bleak: surely no one can wish strongman rule on China. Perhaps, one wonders, the looming crisis may focus minds? These books were written before the current political crisis, when a member of the Politburo was suspended and his wife held on suspicion of murdering a foreign businessman. This Chinese leader, Bo Xilai, symbolized the confluence of statist economics and repressive social politics. In theory, his removal could weaken those forces, allowing the incoming leadership team of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang to push through a Deng-style revolution. It is possible, but it is equally likely that Bo’s removal will force the new leadership to placate leftists. Already, state propagandists have hit back at economists who propose reforms. That many of them are politically liberal is no coincidence.

Fallows’s book provides an example of what could happen in China if it tries to muddle through. Instead of Boeings or Airbuses, China could produce the equivalent of Russian Tupolevs—second-rate airplanes that will only sell among captive customers at home or client states abroad. Is this China’s fate? Taking the long view, Fallows reminds us that we’ve been asking this question for decades:

The contradictory signals from China…make us eager for the choice to emerge, clearly and definitively, to end the suspense that has been building for forty years, since Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit, so we can know whether to regard China as friend or foe.

Wisely, he refuses to predict.

  1. The exact numbers are impossible to ascertain but one estimate, by the Chinese scholar Sun Liping, puts the total number of “mass incidents” at 180,000 in 2010. This does not mean that China has five hundred riots a day, but it does mean that disturbances are widespread and, compared to previous estimates, that the number has increased significantly.
    The country’s stability and security apparatus costs in excess of $100 billion, according to government figures, slightly more than the defense budget.
  2. Two notable exceptions are Gordon G. Chang’s The Coming Collapse of China (Random House, 2001) and Minxin Pei’s China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy (Harvard University Press, 2006).
  3. China 2030: Building a Modern, Harmonious, and Creative High-Income Society (World Bank, 2012), p. 65.
  4. Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel (PublicAffairs, 2001).
  5. See, for example,….
Ian Johnson is a Beijing-based writer who specializes in civil society, culture, and religion. For thirteen years, Johnson worked at The Wall Street Journal, where he was a page-one feature writer...
Reviewed in This Article

China Airborne
by James Fallows
Pantheon, 268 pp.

Demystifying the Chinese Economy
by Justin Yifu Lin
Cambridge University Press, 311 pp.

Sustaining China’s Economic Growth After the Global Financial Crisis
by Nicholas R. Lardy
Peterson Institute for International Economics, 181 pp.

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This article was first published in the September 27, 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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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...

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...

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...