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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 half millennia, and to bring China’s past full circle in order to illuminate the present. In form, the book is highly idiosyncratic, for it is not exactly a memoir, or a monograph, or an autobiography; rather it is part reminiscence, part reflection, part history, and part intuitive exploration.

To borrow a current phrase, it is a “hybrid vehicle,” and a more accurate title, it seems to me, would have been something like Variations on a Theme in China. If we keep that in mind as a working subtitle, then we can see how the book follows six sequential themes: China’s early history, China’s inadequate attempts to modify the imperial system of the later dynasties, the formative years of Maoist consolidation, Kissinger’s own experiences while orchestrating President Nixon’s 1972 China visit, China’s later cycles of “opening up” and repression under Deng Xiaoping, and a surprise final section that ingeniously links pre–World War I British and German expansion to some of the current problems facing the United States and China today.

For Henry Kissinger, ancient China was a subtle place. That in turn led to its special resonance in the present: “In no other country,” he writes, “is it conceivable that a modern leader would initiate a major national undertaking by invoking strategic principles from a millennium-old event,” as Mao often did in discussing policy matters. And Mao “could confidently expect his colleagues to understand the significance of his allusions.” How could it not be so? For “Chinese language, culture, and political institutions were the hallmarks of civilization, such that even regional rivals and foreign conquerors adopted them to varying degrees as a sign of their own legitimacy.” “Strategic acumen” shaped China’s earliest international policies; and to support its central position it could call on a remarkable series of potential followers and aides.

A good example was the Chinese scholar known in the West as Confucius, who taught by citing examples to a small group of loyal and dedicated students. They reciprocated by drawing on their conversations for practical examples that could create a legacy on his behalf—forming a canon that Kissinger describes as “something akin to China’s Bible and its Constitution combined.” Whereas in the Western world “balance-of-power diplomacy was less a choice than an inevitability,” and “no religion retained sufficient authority to sustain universality,” for China foreign contacts did not form “on the basis of equality.”

Kissinger’s reflections about the Western and Chinese concepts of strategy lead him to posit a stark distinction, one in which “the Chinese ideal stressed subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage,” while “the Western tradition prized the decisive clash of forces.” It is a good way for Kissinger to prepare the reader for a dualistic approach to two vast philosophical and military traditions, which he begins by summarizing the key differences between the Chinese players of the board game weiqi (the Japanese go) and those favoring the contrasting game of chess. While chess is about the clash of forces, about “decisive battle” and the goal of “total victory,” all of which depend on the full deployment of all the pieces of the board, weiqi is a game of relative gain, of long-range encirclement, which starts with an empty board and only ends when it “is filled by partially interlocking areas of strength.”

Teachers and practitioners of grand strategy have studied these contrasts between the two for many centuries. The principles of weiqi are echoed in the haunting text known as The Art of War, by a certain Master Sun, writing around the same time as Confucius. Kissinger quotes Sun at some length, drawing especially on his insights into the concepts of “indirect attack” and “psychological combat.” (“One could argue,” says Kissinger, “that the disregard of [Master Sun’s] precepts was importantly responsible for America’s frustration in its recent Asian wars.”) As the talented translator of classical Chinese John Minford renders one of the maxims by Master Sun quoted by Kissinger:

Ultimate excellence lies
Not in winning
Every battle
But in defeating the enemy
Without ever fighting.

Master Sun succinctly lists his favored tactics for success in order of their priorities and effectiveness: first on the list is an all-out attack on the enemy’s strategy, second comes an attack on his alliances, then comes an attack on his armies, followed by an attack on his cities. “Siege warfare,” says Master Sun, “is a last resort.”

* * *

How then did this subtle and complex China collapse as completely as it did, left to flounder, apparently helpless, in the vicious currents of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? In what I would call the second section of his variations, Kissinger gives a partial answer, one that focuses on the various cultural, economic, and political blows that hit China in numbing succession, from the arrival of Lord Macartney’s mission in 1793, seeking expanded trade and residence rights, to the opium wars, the internal rebellions, the Christian sectarians, down to the Boxers of 1900 and the collapse of the imperial regime itself. Somewhat undercutting his previous discussion, Kissinger suggests that “centuries of predominance had warped the Celestial Court’s sense of reality. Pretension of superiority only accentuated the inevitable humiliation.”

At the same time some of those weiqi pieces were still in play: “Chinese statesmen played their weak hand with considerable skill and forestalled what could have been an even worse catastrophe,” defying the basic rules of balance of power politics. Rapidly sketching some of the survival strategies of Chinese political realists in the nineteenth century, Kissinger argues that “the rearguard defense to maintain an independent Chinese government was a remarkable achievement.” In the later nineteenth century, he writes, the Chinese scored some real successes against Western aggression by using those tried and true methods of pitting enemy against enemy, with one central irony being that the fading government expected its most skillful officials to “gain time without a plan for using the time they gained.” He recognizes that resorting to appeasement of major powers like Russia and Japan made sense in a situation where “some degree of conciliation [was] the only prudent course,” given the fact that a rapidly weakening China was no longer in a position “to make its defeat costly beyond the tolerance of the stronger.”

The narrative becomes somewhat blurred here, owing to the remarkable confluence of events in China’s quest for a new order. Rebellions, military modernization, transformative education, assertive foreign powers demanding ever fresh “concessions”—all overlapped, compounded by the swift rise of Japan, which between 1894 and 1905 defeated the fleets and the land armies of both China and Russia. With the coming of the New Culture Movement in 1919, the activities of the Third International (the Comintern), and the 1921 founding of the Chinese Communist Party, Kissinger appears somewhat overwhelmed, and the reader might perhaps be wise to skip to what I see as the third of the main variations, where the chapter title “Mao’s Continuous Revolution” signals to the reader that Kissinger is approaching the areas of his analytical expertise as a China-watcher and professional diplomat.

* * *

In describing the early years of the Communist revolution in China, Kissinger tells us plainly where he stands emotionally. As he phrases it, “at the head of the new dynasty that, in 1949, poured out of the countryside to take over the cities stood a colossus: Mao Zedong.” He shifts the image but not the cosmic idea when he tells us that Mao lived “a lifetime of titanic struggle.” Despite these awesome attributes, Kissinger also admits that the main years of Mao’s power proved that it was “impossible to run a country by ideological exaltation.” The attempt to do so ended by making tens of millions of Chinese lives almost unbearable—one might be tempted to say “inconceivable,” while “millions died to implement the Chairman’s quest for egalitarian virtue” in the famine between 1958 and 1962.

Kissinger notes that the famine was “one of the worst” in human history and assesses the deaths at over 20 million (some scholars recently have estimated twice that number as probable1). As to the Cultural Revolution toll between 1966 and 1969, he gives no estimates, but accepts the current judgment that “the result was a spectacular human and institutional carnage,” one primed by “the assaults of teenage ideological shock troops.” Yet it was the Chinese people themselves who gave Mao’s impossible challenges a kind of foundation because of “his faith in [their] resilience, capabilities, and cohesion.” “And in truth,” says Kissinger, “it is impossible to think of another people who could have sustained the relentless turmoil that Mao imposed on his society.”

The remark is close to harsh in its moral judgment of the Chinese population as a whole. Why did the Chinese even try to “sustain” this “turmoil”? Was it out of fear? Or out of the same kind of unwavering faith in transformation that Mao had been preaching since the Teens of the twentieth century? By way of explanation, Kissinger repeats that “only a people as resilient and patient as the Chinese could emerge unified and dynamic after such a roller coaster ride through history.”

Thinking about Mao in power gives Kissinger the chance to circle back to some of the themes with which he opened his variations. “No previous Chinese ruler,” we are told,

combined historical elements with the same mix of authority and ruthlessness and global sweep as Mao: ferocity in the face of challenge and skillful diplomacy when circumstances prevented his preference for drastic overpowering initiatives.

Mao’s flamboyant rhetoric certainly made plenty of noise in the four-year Chinese civil war (1945–1949) that followed the defeat of Japan, but it was not necessarily a match for Stalin’s canniness, as could be seen at the time of the preliminary sparring between Stalin and Mao at the very beginnings of the Korean War: the Russian response to North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, both approving an invasion of the south and refusing to provide assistance (“If you should get kicked in the teeth, I shall not lift a finger. You have to ask Mao for all the help”), “was authentically Stalin,” writes Kissinger: “haughty, long-range, manipulative, cautious, and crass.”

Indeed, as Kissinger’s absorbing chapter on the Korean War shows, Mao was by no means always successful when dealing with the master manipulator himself. “The trouble with policy planning,” Kissinger notes, in a passage that suggests both his lifetime of diplomacy and its attendant travails, “is that its analyses cannot foresee the mood of the moment when a decision has to be made.” Or, to put it another way, in Korea “a Chinese offensive was a preemptive strategy against dangers that had not yet materialized and based on judgments about ultimate American purposes toward China that were misapprehended.” The confrontations were compounded by the fact that not one “of the many documents published to date by all sides reveals any serious discussion of a diplomatic option by any of the parties.” Overall, Kissinger concludes, in his detailed coverage of the Korean War, Stalin was the biggest loser, and the PRC achieved “something more than a draw…. [The war] established the newly founded People’s Republic of China as a military power and center of Asian revolution,” and showed that China was “an adversary worthy of fear and respect.”

* * *

With the fourth of the variations, “The Road to Reconciliation,” On Chinamakes a major shift in mood and content, becoming in part a first-person narrative, as Kissinger himself enters the story as President Nixon’s national security adviser during the bold and ultimately successful quest to arrange a meeting between Mao and Nixon in Beijing, with an accompanying account of diplomatic exploration of the science of the possible. Readers seeking to find chapters on the Vietnam War as detailed as those on the Korean War will be disappointed—Kissinger remains muted on many aspects of the Vietnam war as it was viewed in the United States, and links the war to his earlier patterns of historical thinking, claiming:

When the US buildup in Vietnam began, Beijing interpreted it in wei qi terms: as another example of American bases surrounding China from Korea, to the Taiwan Strait and now to Indochina…. Hanoi’s leaders were familiar with Sun Tzu’s Art of War and employed its principles to significant effect against both France and the United States. Even before the end of the long Vietnam wars, first with the French seeking to reclaim their colony after World War II, and then with the United States from 1963 to 1975, both Beijing and Hanoi began to realize that the next contest would be between themselves for dominance in Indochina and Southeast Asia.

Although much of the Nixon visit to China has been covered by the principals themselves in their published memoirs, the bibliography and notes to On China give helpful leads to many other sources. They enable Kissinger to recall the work of his advance team—and then the President’s February 1972 visit to Mao—in a sustained narrative that neatly blends the personal with the national sides of the story. Kissinger obviously derived immense pleasure from negotiating this China trip and from all his other visits at the highest levels—fifty or more, according to his own calculation—that came afterward.

Even if Mao was a somewhat tarnished colossus by this time, there is also Zhou Enlai to continue the tale, and then later Jiang Zemin, Deng Xiaoping, and other ministerial-level Chinese officials. Cumulatively these transcribed minutes help us to see the gradual changes in policy when both sides were willing to risk rebuff. Reprising his first variation, Kissinger reflects on how, from 1972 onward, “what we encountered was a diplomatic style closer to traditional Chinese diplomacy than to the pedantic formulations to which we had become accustomed during our negotiations with other Communist states.” Here, to his obvious delight, “was a diplomacy well suited to China’s traditional security challenge,” preserving a “civilization surrounded by peoples who, if they combined, wielded potentially superior military capacity.” China, Kissinger observes, prevailed by “fostering a calibrated combination of rewards and punishments and majestic cultural performance. In this context, hospitality becomes an aspect of strategy.”

As an added plus, there was the chance to get to know Zhou Enlai, a consummate courtier, politician, and diplomat, who “dominated by exceptional intelligence and capacity to intuit the intangibles of the psychology of his opposite number.” In a nicely constructed summary of the two main Chinese leaders, Kissinger writes of their special attributes:

Mao dominated any gathering; Zhou suffused it. Mao’s passion strove to overwhelm opposition; Zhou’s intellect would seek to persuade or outmaneuver it. Mao was sardonic; Zhou penetrating. Mao thought of himself as a philosopher; Zhou saw his role as an administrator or a negotiator. Mao was eager to accelerate history; Zhou was content to exploit its currents.

The subsequent leader-to-leader meetings in Beijing went well and it may very well be true, as Kissinger writes, that the Nixon trip was “one of the few occasions where a state visit brought about a seminal change in international affairs.”

* * *

How swiftly, nevertheless, things could change: the Watergate crisis and the resignation of President Nixon on August 8, 1974, led, in Kissinger’s words, “to a collapse of congressional support for an activist foreign policy in the subsequent congressional elections in November 1974.” This was accompanied by an “enfeebling [of] the American capacity to manage the geopolitical challenge,” which in this situation meant above all a policy by which the US would weaken the Soviet build-up on China’s borders.

Kissinger tells us that “the destruction of the President who had conceived the opening to China was incomprehensible in Beijing,” though one might question whether Mao and Zhou were genuinely so astonished. Watergate was surely no more harmful and unanticipated than the sudden destruction of Mao’s selected successor, the minister of defense and army marshal Lin Biao. Lin was accused of trying to kill Mao in a 1971 coup, and subsequently was himself killed when the plane in which he was trying to escape to the Soviet Union, along with several of his family members, crashed in Mongolia. Even after this long passage of time, Kissinger carefully refers to the drama as being “reportedly an abortive coup.”

Mao himself jocularly noted in an aside to Nixon that

in our country also there is a reactionary group which is opposed to our contact with you. The result was that they got on an airplane and fled abroad…. As for the Soviet Union, they finally went to dig out the corpses, but they didn’t say anything about it.

Each side could (and did) exaggerate the subtlety of the other. Mao felt no hindrance to “defying laws both human and divine” or—as Kissinger glosses Mao’s use of the familiar Chinese idiom—”trampling law underfoot without batting an eyelid.”

Equally hard to predict were the astonishing changes brought to China after Mao’s death in 1976, and the return to power of the thrice-purged Party veteran Deng Xiaoping, which provides the setting for the fifth variation. In his 1979 visit to the United States, which Kissinger labels “a kind of shadow play,” Deng made a dramatically favorable impression. Like the earlier Chinese strategists admired by Kissinger, Deng could pursue contrasting policies at once: thus in early 1979, for instance, while he was charming his hosts in the United States, he not only also ordered Chinese troops into Vietnam, to counter Soviet influence there, but also arrested and ordered harsh prison sentences for many of the Chinese artists and writers who had been participating in the short-lived flourishing of demands for more freedom of expression known as “Democracy Wall.”

It now seems inevitable—though it was not—that Deng’s ten years of close to absolute power after 1979 must have led inexorably to the immense demonstrations and subsequent massacres of 1989 in Tiananmen Square. We can note the caution of Kissinger’s language, as he writes that the events of spring 1989 were not due to a single cause, but that “it was the unprecedented confluence of disparate resentments that escalated into upheaval.” More simply put, “events escalated in a manner neither observers nor participants thought conceivable at the beginning of the month.”

Recent events in North Africa and the Middle East may help to underline Kissinger’s sardonic reflection that “the occupation of the main square of a country’s capital, even when completely peaceful, is also a tactic to demonstrate the impotence of the government, to weaken it, and to tempt it into rash acts, putting it at a disadvantage.” As to the “harsh suppression of the protest,” writes Kissinger, that was “all seen on television.” In fact, I believe it is still accepted by most analysts in the West that the television lights were turned out on the square, and much of the killing took place in darkness—hence the great disparity in reports of what happened where, and when, and of how many fatalities there really were. Such figures are needed if one is to separate random from deliberate use of lethal power.

* * *

So was Deng Xiaoping a tyrant or a reformer, or an intricate mixture of the two? Some of the most absorbing pages of Kissinger’s book deal with the uses of diplomacy shortly after the Tiananmen crackdown, and the differences in response that were in play. He discusses how President George H.W. Bush sent a personal letter to Deng on June 21, 1989, in which he spelled out the issues concerning sanctions and other steps as he saw them, while at the same time he referred to Deng as a “friend,” despite what had so recently occurred. In the same letter, Bush talked of the United States as a “young country,” especially when contrasted to the “history, culture and tradition” of China.

To reinforce some of the themes in the letter concerning the best methods for damage control in the circumstances, on July 1 the President sent Brent Scowcroft (his national security adviser), together with Lawrence Eagleburger (deputy secretary of state), in a military transport plane to meet with Deng and the Chinese premier, Li Peng. In the ensuing discussion seeking some balance between violent suppression and the threat to order, Kissinger observes, “the difficulty was that both sides were right.” The letter and the talks do seem, however, to have led to a reopened dialogue, and in November 1989 Kissinger was invited to Beijing in a private capacity to continue the Bush/Scowcroft overtures.

The most intriguing materials in Kissinger’s depiction of his own personal meetings with Deng Xiaoping concern the various alternatives for solving the impasse over the treatment of the celebrated Chinese astrophysicist and writer on democracy Fang Lizhi. Witty and acerbic, sharp and funny in debate, Fang, the ousted vice-president of the prestigious Chinese University of Science and Technology, had for several years been openly advocating free speech and assembly.2 During the crackdown (and manhunt) that followed Tiananmen he had been sheltered in the American embassy, and faced severe punishment if the Chinese authorities got hold of him. Kissinger reports that after he told Deng that “your best friends in America would be relieved if some way could be found to get him [Fang] out of the Embassy and let him leave the country,” Deng then personally unscrewed the microphones between his and Kissinger’s chairs, to ensure that confidentiality was maintained. Asked by Deng what solution he could see to the problem of Fang, Kissinger tells us that he told the Chinese leader:

My suggestion would be that you expel him from China and we agree that as a government we will make no political use of him whatsoever. Perhaps we would encourage him to go to some country like Sweden where he would be far away from the US Congress and our press. An arrangement like this could make a deep impression on the American public….

True to his training in politics during the Mao years, Deng “wanted more specific assurances” and asked Kissinger: “What would you think if we were to expel him after he has written a paper confessing to his crimes?” Kissinger doubted that Fang would agree to write such a confession, and told Deng:

If he says that the American government forced him to confess, it will be worse for everyone than if he did not confess. The importance of releasing him is as a symbol of the self-confidence of China.

It was a delicate line to tread, and one that certainly suggested curbing some of Fang’s rights to freedom of expression, as long as it could be done tactfully.

In fact, while staying in the embassy, Fang wrote an essay, “The Chinese Amnesia,” published in these pages after his release, deploring the ways that “the Communists’ nefarious record of human rights violations” had been “largely overlooked by the rest of the world.”3 Fang and his wife were finally flown to the UK in an American military plane, and after a spell in Cambridge and Princeton he was subsequently appointed a professor of physics at the University of Arizona. Among other writings, in 1996 he published in these pages an essay (with Perry Link) commenting on the need for “freedom to criticize and dissent” in China,4 and he served for years as both a board member and cochair of the organization Human Rights in China; otherwise he seems to have concentrated mainly on his scholarly work.

* * *

The remaining chronological chapters of On China bring Kissinger’s own dealings with China close to the present, by looking at the later Deng reforms and the transition to the next generations of leaders, from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, with his reiterated calls for China’s “peaceful rise.” In this post-Deng period, after the negotiated agreements on the future of Hong Kong, Kissinger feels that China’s leaders

no longer made any claim to represent a unique revolutionary truth available for export. Instead, they espoused the essentially defensive aim of working toward a world not overtly hostile to their system of governance or territorial integrity and buying time to develop their economy and work out their domestic problems at their own pace.

Kissinger calls this a “foreign policy arguably closer to Bismarck’s than Mao’s: incremental, defensive, and based on building dams against unfavorable historical tides.” One consequence was the Chinese determination “to prove their imperviousness to outside pressure.” As the former premier Li Peng put it in a talk with Secretary of State Warren Christopher in 1994, “China’s human rights policy was none of [the US’s] business.”

The direct reference to Bismarck’s policies lays a foundation for Kissinger’s sixth and last variation, designed to draw his arguments together, especially those on “balance of power” and the possibilities of meaningful diplomacy. To effect this transition, Kissinger has chosen a classic of pre–World War I diplomacy, known most commonly by its author’s name as the “Crowe Memorandum.” Eyre Crowe was a career official in the British Foreign Office, an omnicompetent tabulator of the European balance of power and the burgeoning arms race, a mine of information on the so-called Western section of the Foreign Office (which he supervised), a master of the statistical skills needed to assemble the relevant information in the vast Foreign Office files, and with a special knowledge of Germany—he was born to a German mother, lived in Germany until he was seventeen, and had married a German woman.

Crowe’s celebrated twenty-three-page memorandum, handed in to British Foreign Secretary Earl Grey on New Year’s Day of 1907, took a hard-eyed realist’s view of the march of European international politics, with special focus on the naval arms race in which England and the recently unified Germany appeared to be locked. Crowe’s conclusion was sharp and devastating. Whether Germany chose to spread its influence by the force and richness of its cultural inheritance, or chose to project its strength by constant pressures on the British Empire and its many colonial dependencies, it essentially had no choice in the matter of survival: “In either case Germany would clearly be wise to build as powerful a navy as she can afford.” England’s choice of options was also limited. Given Germany’s urgent race for expansion, England was faced with a similarly stark choice:

England must expect that Germany will surely seek to diminish the power of any rivals, to enhance her own by extending her dominion, to hinder the co-operation of other States, and ultimately to break up and supplant the British Empire.

* * *

The Crowe Memorandum is a document projecting a kind of ruthless common sense rather than profound complexity. Perhaps for that reason, as Kissinger explains, there are senior military officers and policymakers in both China and the United States today who, more than a century after Crowe, wonder whether his formulations could be adapted to the present time so as to replace early-twentieth-century Germany and England with the choices facing China and the United States today. In its most direct form, this might point to a possible struggle between the two major powers in the Pacific, in a situation with room for only two major protagonists, only one of whom can win. The main riposte to this argument is to seek a richer pattern of alliances in the current century, and to diversify trade in resources, minerals, and cultural relics in a nonthreatening way that can promise wide-scale access to valued resources without major greed and disagreements.

Some of these answers can be found in the early texts with which Kissinger began his book; some can be seen in the patterns of political and commercial assertiveness that we are now witnessing in both China and the United States. But we need to remember one fact, small but relevant, that Kissinger does not pursue: namely, Crowe’s memorandum did not go unchallenged. The most important critique came from another senior career officer in the Foreign Office, Thomas Henry Sanderson (1841–1923), who on February 21, 1907, handed to Grey his own careful assessment and criticism of Crowe’s logic. After reading Sanderson’s countermemo, Grey exclaimed that “somewhat to my surprise he [Sanderson] has taken up the cudgels for Germany.”

What Sanderson wrote in his own notations to Crowe’s memorandum was that

Germany is a helpful, though somewhat exacting friend, that she is a tight and tenacious bargainer, and a most disagreeable antagonist. She is oversensitive about being consulted on all questions on which she can claim a voice….Her motto has always been “Nothing for nothing in this world, and very little for sixpence.”

With China substituted for Germany this is perhaps not a bad description of how things stand at the moment. As for Sanderson’s depiction of the old British Empire in 1907, that too was trenchantly written, and one can only hope that it does not apply to the United States today. “It has sometimes seemed to me,” wrote Sanderson,

that to a foreigner reading our press the British Empire must appear in the light of some huge giant sprawling over the globe, with gouty fingers and toes stretching in every direction, which cannot be approached without eliciting a scream.

Both of the memos, Sanderson’s and Crowe’s, were marked “secret.” But they could not both be right. Either Germany had to be stopped in her tracks or England had to lose her paramount global position. No clear decision had been taken when—seven and a half years later—World War I broke out in Europe.


  1. See Roderick MacFarquhar’s review of Frank Dikötter’s book Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962 (Walker, 2010), The New York Review, February 10, 2011.
  2. For example, his essay “China’s Despair and China’s Hope” was published in The New York Review in February 1989, and was circulated in China in the months before Tiananmen.
  3. The New York ReviewSeptember 27, 1990.
  4. The Hope for China,” The New York Review, October 17, 1996.
Jonathan D. Spence holds the position of Sterling Professor of History, Emeritus, at Yale University, and is well-known throughout the world for his insightful views on modern China. His books...
Reviewed in This Article

On China
by Henry Kissinger
Penguin, 586 pp.

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This article was first published in the June 9, 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books.

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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

JEROME A. COHEN & IRA BELKIN

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’

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

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?

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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

IAN JOHNSON

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

IAN JOHNSON

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?

PERRY LINK

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

IAN JOHNSON

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?

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

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

IAN JOHNSON

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

IAN JOHNSON

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

JONATHAN MIRSKY

“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

PERRY LINK

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

RICHARD BERNSTEIN

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...

China: Politics as Warfare

JONATHAN MIRSKY

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?

IAN JOHNSON

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)

PERRY LINK

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

IAN JOHNSON

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...

PERRY LINK

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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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

IAN JOHNSON

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!

RICHARD BERNSTEIN

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

SIMON LEYS

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...

China Gets Religion!

IAN JOHNSON

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

IAN BURUMA

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

IAN JOHNSON

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

FANG LIZHI

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...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?

JONATHAN MIRSKY

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

AMARTYA SEN

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

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

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

PERRY LINK

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

JONATHAN MIRSKY

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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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

IAN JOHNSON

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

ORVILLE SCHELL

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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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

ORVILLE SCHELL

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

FRANCINE PROSE

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...

Mission to Mao

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

“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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)

PERRY LINK

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...

A Little Leap Forward

NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

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...

AsiaWorld

IAN BURUMA

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—...

Found Horizon

IAN BURUMA

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

IAN BURUMA

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

IAN BURUMA

“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

IAN BURUMA

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

ORVILLE SCHELL

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

IAN BURUMA

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

IAN BURUMA

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

IAN BURUMA

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

JONATHAN MIRSKY

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

IAN BURUMA

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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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

JONATHAN MIRSKY

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...

The Last Days of Hong Kong

IAN BURUMA

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...

Keeping the Faith

FANG LIZHI

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

JONATHAN MIRSKY

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...

The End of the Chinese Revolution

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

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

NATHAN GARDELS

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...

Passing the Baton in Beijing

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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?

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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...

Rules of the Game

JOHN GITTINGS

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

JOHN GITTINGS

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

JOHN GITTINGS

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...

A Mao for All Seasons

MARTIN BERNAL

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 “...

DISCUSSION

The Popularity of Chinese Patriotism

MARTIN BERNAL

Fundamentally China is a sellers’ market. The first half of this century, when there was a glut of books, seems to have been the exception. Since 1949 a veil has once more been drawn over the center of the mysterious east, and the situation has reverted to that of the...

Mao’s China

MARTIN BERNAL

To most Westerners China is not a part of the known world and Mao is not a figure of our time. The ignorant believe he is the leader of a host of martians whose sole occupation is plotting the destruction of civilization and the enslavement of mankind. The more sophisticated say...

Down There on a Visit

MARTIN BERNAL

In many ways this is the book that everybody interested in China has been waiting for, a book describing what it feels like to be a peasant living through the Chinese Revolution. In the summer of 1962 Jan Myrdal, the thirty-year-old son of the famous Swedish sociologist Gunnar...