The End of the Chinese Revolution

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 doing now is altogether the same stuff as what the rebels did during the Cultural Revolution. All they want is to create chaos under the heavens.

As the leading living victim of those ten years of terror Deng could not tolerate chaos or a revival of mob rule. What he did not and does not comprehend is that Tiananmen Square 1989 was virtually the mirror opposite of Tiananmen Square of 1966.

The million-strong Red Guard demonstrations at the outset of the Cultural Revolution re-created the hysteria of Nazi Nuremberg; this year’s protest was redolent of an urban Woodstock. The Red Guards were conjured up by the revolutionary incitement of Chairman Mao; this year’s demonstrations were a genuine grass-roots protest, if one skillfully organized by student activists. The Red Guards worshiped the living Mao; the prodemocracy protesters worshiped nobody, though they sprang into action out of affectionate respect for the dead “liberal,” Hu Yaobang. The Red Guards rallied to Mao’s drumbeat for proletarian egalitarianism; this year’s students called for universal freedom, symbolized by their styrofoam goddess of liberty. The cultural revolutionaries, fueled by hate, marched forth from Tiananmen Square to “drag out,” abuse, and frequently murder “capitalist roaders.” This year’s would-be democrats demanded the resignations of Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng, but showed pacifist solicitude even for troops sent to suppress them.

* * *

For all these stark contrasts, both protesters and repressers of 1989 acted within the dark penumbra of the Cultural Revolution. Deng and his accomplices were obsessed with the memory of the disorder and destruction unleashed by the Red Guards in the cities of China a quarter of a century ago. The upheaval exhilarated Mao who initiated it, but still unnerves his surviving colleagues of the Long March generation, most of whom were purged and disgraced, along with virtually the entire upper echelon of the Chinese Communist party (CCP).

Mao’s onetime heir apparent, head of state Liu Shaoqi, died in anonymity after a long period of medical neglect. Others were persecuted to death or committed suicide. Deng himself escaped relatively lightly, with public humiliation and exile to a menial job in south China. He was probably saved from a worse fate by three decades of loyalty to Mao as a member of his innermost circle. One of his sons, however, was thrown out of a window and crippled for life. Yang Shangkun, today China’s president and Deng’s hatchet man, the man who has been calling for harsh treatment of the students, was a key Central Committee official then, and one of the first to be dismissed, followed by Peng Zhen, then the mayor of Beijing, now, at eighty-seven, one of the hardest of the old warriors behind Deng.

Chinese chroniclers of the Cultural Revolution claim that 100 million people were affected by it, though that figure may have been inflated by including the entire populations of cities where the Red Guards were active. Rough estimates by foreign scholars point to a death toll of up to half a million. Whatever the numbers, for China’s elite, it was a deeply traumatic experience.

* * *

It was also an institutional trauma for the Chinese Communist party. The evident disarray of China’s top leaders during the weeks before the tanks rolled in and the popular disdain for the strictures of martial law were reminders that the Party has never regained the cohesion and authority of its reign before the Cultural Revolution started. Mao, in setting it off, may have wanted simply to rid himself of some senior colleagues and to transform the rest into born-again revolutionaries. But the humiliation of thousands of members of China’s “new class” inevitably sapped the respect for the Party itself in the eyes of its subjects. For much of the Cultural Revolution, the Party was an empty shell. In practice, the Party consisted of a set of warring factions: a military clique, headed by Defense Minister Lin Biao; a bureaucratic faction under Premier Zhou Enlai; the radical Gang of Four; and, later, the so-called “whatever faction” of younger Mao loyalists, led by his short-lived heir, Hua Guofeng. Thirty years of unity, forged at the Yenan revolutionary base, had been shattered beyond repair.

The erosion of Party authority had its corollary in an invigoration of people-power. At first, in 1966, students spoke out, as they had in the brief blooming of the Hundred Flowers in 1957, because Mao had licensed and encouraged them. But eventually they began to act autonomously, if mindlessly. Yesterday’s Red Guards are now a generation of thirty-five- to forty-five-year-olds who cannot have forgotten the heady experience of challenging authority, taking initiatives, and relying on their own resources. Mao’s admonitions to “dare to think, dare to speak, dare to act” because “to rebel is justified” resonated long after 1968 when the Red Guards’ internecine warfare led the Chairman to consign them to the countryside. It also produced a redefinition of the relations between subsequent generations of students and the state.

Toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, on April 5, 1976, there was truly spontaneous combustion in Tiananmen Square when students and citizens exploded in wrath over the removal of the wreaths they had brought there to mourn the recently deceased Premier Zhou Enlai. The demonstrators were severely beaten by police and militia for defying the Gang of Four. Mao was also an implicit target of their anger and Deng Xiaoping was their implicit hero, as the man who had just been deprived of the succession to Zhou and was most likely to have ruled in the same pragmatic style. When Deng returned to power after his second disgrace, he insisted that the Tiananmen incident of 1976 be redefined as a popular uprising rather than a counterrevolutionary event. Thus he added his imprimatur to Mao’s on the legitimacy of mass protest, even in the heart of the capital.

Deng benefited from spontaneous mass action again two years later with the emergence of the Democracy Wall movement. There were few determined dissidents among the activists of 1978. Most simply wanted a more relaxed political atmosphere, and they saw Deng’s return to power as the way to ensure that. They created a pro-Deng bandwagon that undoubtedly helped him triumph over the last Maoist holdouts at the decisive meeting of the third plenum of the eleventh Central Committee in December 1978. But three months later, the Democracy Wall was closed down, and a few outspoken activists like Wei Jingsheng were later sentenced to long periods in jail. To this day, it is unclear whether Deng had simply used the movement cynically for his own ends, or whether he was persuaded to suppress it by more conservative gerontocrats as part of the price for their support. What is certain is that every time Deng has had to choose between power and democracy he has chosen power.

* * *

Guns and tanks were not required to deal with the young people who put up posters in 1978. But military men were already entrenched in top Party councils at that time as a result of Mao’s earlier resort to PLA peacekeepers to subdue the Red Guards. The contradiction between army power and civilian control is an old theme in Chinese Communist history. The military establishment has always wielded more political clout in China, where it won the civil war, than in the Soviet Union, where the Red Army was created only after the Revolution. Mao struggled hard, not wholly successfully, to ensure that the Party commanded the gun. It was one of Deng’s greatest achievements over the past ten years that he managed to cut army politicians down to size. His biggest success came in 1985, when he persuaded large numbers of Long March veterans to retire, reducing the proportion of PLA officers on the Central Committee—50 percent at the height of the Cultural Revolution—to under 20 percent.

But like Mao before him, Deng failed to impose full civilian control on the Party’s Military Affairs Commission (MAC), which Mao chaired from 1935 until his death, and which is responsible for issuing orders to the army. The generals refused to allow the PLA to be run by a new body responsible to the National People’s Congress, and they also resisted Deng’s attempts to hand over his own chairmanship of the MAC to his chosen successors, Hu Yaobang and then Zhao Ziyang. When Deng retired from the Politburo at the Thirteenth Congress in 1987, the army’s obduracy forced a change in the Party constitution which entitled him to continue to chair the MAC. Zhao Ziyang was made first vice-chairman, an honor never conceded to his predecessor as Party boss, Hu Yaobang, but it was the old military man Yang Shangkun who was Deng’s real deputy as permanent vice-chairman.

In a revealing and hyperbolic passage in a secret speech last month, Deng underlined how the chairmanship of the MAC was more important even than the nominally top job of Party general secretary. “I have kept an eye on Zhao for quite a few years,” said Deng. “He has wild ambitions. Had he become the chairman of the Military Commission, all old comrades like us would have been beheaded.”

Deng’s inability to bring the military to heel was only the most obvious proof of his failure to revamp China’s political system. Yet the economic reform program which he masterminded beginning in 1979 demanded a more flexible political structure, one that could respond to new pressures from the outspoken groups within an increasingly autonomous, self-confident, and compartmentalized society. These included farm families liberated by decollectivization; private entrepreneurs and industrialists providing much-needed services and employment; international traders confronting their foreign opposite numbers with increasing sophistication; and students and intellectuals fired up by access to the new ideas that filtered in through China’s newly opened door. Instead of the radical restructuring of the polity which these new interest groups required, the old system was retained but put under unsustainable stresses.

* * *

Ideological certainty, already eroded by cultural revolutionary overkill, was further weakened by Deng Xiaoping’s marginal interest in ideology though Marxism–Leninism–Mao Zedong Thought was still enshrined as one of the four sacrosanct national principles. More importantly, Party cadres were told, in Deng’s famous motto, that practice was the sole criterion of truth and furthermore that technical competence was to be a condition of employment. For the 19 million Party members recruited during the Cultural Revolution, many for their skills as political agitators, this was a threat to their careers. For the Party as an institution it was delegitimizing. If its claim to power rested on getting the economy right, this was a very shaky foundation indeed.

With their traditional role as guardians of orthodoxy undermined, Party cadres were forced to work in a newly commercial social setting. The old Maoist ideal of “serve the people” had been replaced by the Dengist injunction “to get rich is glorious.” For officials sorely tempted by the opportunities of Deng’s brave new world, the thin line between indulging in personal corruption and taking shortcuts on behalf of a collective unit became blurred. The blatant misuse of political connections by the “princes’ party”—children of top brass and the Party elite—to gain wealth and power encouraged cynicism and emulation lower down. Gradually corruption became endemic, with baksheesh demanded for every official service. A few courageous journalists like Liu Binyan, now in the United States, became national heroes for their muckraking exposés. Contempt for the Party grew, but to no avail.

For all his talk of legality and democratization, Deng took no decisive institutional steps to alter the formal relationships between state and society. Lawyers were trained, but mainly to cut better deals with foreign firms, not to risk their careers fighting for the little man against the state. Democratization meant a few hopeful experiments in multiple-choice candidacies in local elections, and a few negative votes in the National People’s Congress, but nobody at the top had Gorbachev’s understanding of the potential value for rulers of electoral mandates, let alone a genuine commitment to pluralism.

The result was the worst of all worlds. Deng allowed some relaxation of political controls because he knew it was necessary for the economic reform program. This encouraged intellectuals and students to speak out with increasing boldness, but they felt frustrated because their voices went unheard. Deng was occasionally suborned by the conservatives into cracking the ideological whip, as in the campaign against spiritual pollution at the end of 1983. But when reformists like Zhao Ziyang argued that ideological campaigns were damaging the economy, Deng called a halt. Only when he believed that there was a serious threat to law and order, as in the student demonstrations of 1986 and 1987, did he take a drastic step and dismiss his first chosen heir, the Party general secretary, Hu Yaobang.

* * *

Economically too the reform program was running into trouble. Last summer, after price rises had set off a run on China’s shops, Li Peng and his conservative allies emerged victorious from a conflict with Zhao Ziyang’s reformers and proclaimed a two-year freeze on price reform and cuts in capital investment. By the beginning of this year three out of four million workers in the private construction industry were out of jobs and many of them turned to crime. Another 20 million workers in unprofitable rural industry were potential additions to the ranks of the unemployed. Inflation had hit 30 percent in the towns, perhaps 50 percent for food products. The government had insufficient cash to pay the peasants for their crops and palmed them off with IOUs; some government officials collecting state grain quotas asked to be accompanied by police.

Deng had watched Poland and Hungary struggle through their reforms and did not rule out similar urban unrest in China. He started taking precautions as early as 1983 when he reestablished a 400,000-man national armed police force which gradually took over the internal security functions performed by the PLA during the Cultural Revolution. This force is currently supervised by the least known member of the Politburo Standing Committee, Qiao Shi, who appears to have replaced Zhao Ziyang as Party general secretary. More recently, an antiriot force was created within the armed police, trained by Poles and Austrians, skilled also in martial arts, and equipped with American helicopters, Yugoslav tear gas, and German electronic gear. But Deng and Qiao Shi were looking in the wrong direction; they anticipated trouble on the streets from strikers and the lumpen unemployed, not from college campuses.

* * *

One dissident intellectual was predicting the imposition of martial law as far back as last February. He saw a gathering confrontation between rulers and ruled, with nobody in the leadership capable of defusing it. Well before the first protesters moved into Tiananmen Square, the credibility of China’s self-selected leaders was already in doubt. Even the most committed reformers had failed to create channels for legitimate protest or alternatives to repression. During his six-year tenure as Party boss, Hu Yaobang had pleased intellectuals with his tolerance of dissent, but he never articulated a broad-based program of democratization.

His successor, Zhao, endorsed democracy in order to facilitate economic reform, but did nothing to promote pluralism. Indeed, after his defeat in the reform debate last summer he tried an opposite tack. His braintrusters began to advocate a “new authoritarianism,” citing Taiwan and South Korea as proof that China would modernize better and faster with a strong, centralized government and a powerful hand at the tiller. Ironically, Zhao seemed to be hoping for army support, in the belief that martial law might be the only way of forcing through price reforms. Zhao could no longer rely on Deng to defend the reform program and was progressively losing ground to the economic conservatives, Li Peng and Yao Yilin. In recent months, instead of redoubling his efforts, Zhao seemed to lose heart and his young Turks began running for cover, seeking other jobs or going abroad.

When the demonstrations began in mid-April, there was no Chinese leader to whom the students could turn and no institutions through which they could channel their frustrations. In this vacuum Deng remained the ultimate arbiter. Both reformers and conservatives had long relied on him as a bulwark against the potential excesses of the other faction. Despite Deng’s genuine efforts to avoid playing a Mao-like role, it seemed that the Chinese polity still demanded the linchpin of the maximum leader. But he was showing signs of wear and tear. He had heart trouble and his eyesight and memory were failing. His speech was sometimes difficult to understand and he had taken to communicating with colleagues through an intermediary, alarmingly like Mao in his dying days.

* * *

As the critical seventieth anniversary of the patriotic movement of May 4, 1919, approached, the regime worriedly issued plans for commemorations, all of which omitted one of its two original slogans, “democracy,” and mentioned only the other, “science.” Students were planning their own celebrations. Then Hu Yaobang had his heart attack at a Politburo meeting, reportedly after losing his cool in an argument. His death on April 15 sparked the prairie fire of the student mass movement culminating in the now infamous Tiananmen massacre.

The indiscriminate slaughter of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fellow citizens by troops of the PLA in the heart of the capital was a tragic act of monumental folly. The subsequent arrest by Qiao Shi’s armed police of thousands of students, intellectuals, and others recalled 1950s campaigns against counterrevolutionaries which Deng had long since proclaimed a thing of the past. In the last analysis Deng and his aged supporters had learned the wrong lessons, both from the Cultural Revolution and from perestroika in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Divided at the top, the Chinese Communist party could no longer cope with the multiple pressures upon it and finally cracked. While Premier Li Peng acted as the hard-faced front man, it is clear that decisions were ultimately taken not by his State Council, or by the Politburo, nor even by its five-man Standing Committee, but by the duumvirate in charge of the Military Affairs Commission, Deng Xiaoping and President Yang Shangkun, cheered on by a fire-eating group of aged revolutionaries. No attempt appears to have been made to summon the Party’s supposedly supreme organ, the Central Committee, even though the crisis had lasted six weeks before its bloody denouement; perhaps Deng feared that the 285-member Central Committee included too many softies from Hu Yaobang’s stable. When Deng finally reappeared in public to commend the PLA on its repression, he was flanked almost exclusively by octogenarians against a backdrop of generals. As in Poland in 1981 after the crackdown against Solidarity, China had collapsed into military rule.

Since the massacre, vigorous attempts are being made to bring senior opponents into line. Party discipline and fear will probably ensure a large measure of success. Then Deng and Yang will be able to move publicly against Zhao and Hu Qili, the only other member of the Politburo Standing Committee who appears to have supported Zhao at least part of the time. They will claim that the opponents of a crackdown were only an anti-Party minority within an otherwise united leadership. Central bastions of support for the protesters will be cleaned out: the People’s Daily, the Academy of Social Sciences, which is already occupied by troops, and Zhao Ziyang’s Systems Reform Committee. The intellectual powerhouses of Deng’s reform will be emasculated.

However satisfying to the conservative victors, none of these measures will solve the problem of army power. The generals have once again saved the Party leadership. Once again they will demand their pound of flesh. They could legitimately argue that politics is too important to be left to politicians; if the civilian leadership is incapable of handling political problems except by the extensive use of military force against its own citizens, then the generals can surely demand the right to participate in the decision-making process that precedes the shooting.

* * *

The military problem will be posed in its most acute form when Deng dies or becomes incapacitated. The imperial political structure of China, so ably reclothed in Leninist-Maoist garb by the CCP, is crumbling, the bureaucracy is delegitimized, and the Communist ideology discredited. Its last remaining institutional bulwark is the imperial chairmanship. But to be effective, it requires a truly imperial chairman, and none is in sight after Deng. The People’s Republic of China has so far had two and a quarter leaders—Mao, Deng, and Hua Guofeng—but it has dispensed with six heirs apparent, including Hua, ample testimony to the difficulty of filling all the expectations placed on the role.

Like Mao before him, Deng has disposed of his hand-picked successors. Who can credibly pass muster in the time left before the eighty-four-year-old Deng departs? Li Peng has never been widely respected and he will clearly be a liability once the regime feels secure enough to seek reconciliation. Qiao Shi’s power base in the internal security system is not nearly as strong as that of the head of the Soviet KGB and, such as it is, may make him suspect in the eyes of the military. A gerontocrat, most likely President Yang, will probably have to hold the ring until a credible successor emerges.

But Yang’s only real power base is the PLA, in which his brother and several other relatives hold key posts. This would once again pose the threat of a Bonapartist takeover. China only narrowly averted that outcome during Lin Biao’s ascendancy because Mao and Zhou Enlai were there to fight him. This time the obstacles are far less formidable. The potential contenders for power are also less impressive; there are no nationally known revolutionary heroes among today’s generals. Moreover, the institutional power of the PLA is divided among the seven great military regions, so much will depend on regional commanders and their personal ties, which are scarcely known outside China. Perhaps this looming threat of military power will finally force the Party to institute Gorbachev-type institutional reforms in an attempt to achieve a new mandate.

But the crisis brought on by the events of June 3 and 4 is deeper even than the question of whether China will effectively become a military dictatorship. On that night Deng Xiaoping and Yang Shangkun destroyed the last shreds of legitimacy possessed by the Communist regime, proclaimed so proudly by Mao Zedong in that same Tiananmen Square four decades before. During the past forty years, the CCP has visited far greater disasters upon its long-suffering people: the campaigns of the early 1950s resulted in at least 800,000 executions; the Great Leap Forward caused up to 28 million deaths; the Cultural Revolution, perhaps another half million. By those standards, the Tiananmen massacre may seem a minor mishap. But it was the first time that the regime turned its guns on peacefully demonstrating people in Beijing with the world and the rest of China looking on. As one China scholar has put it, the attack represents the Tibetanization of the Han heartland.

Repression may bring cowed compliance for now, but that offense will never be forgiven; and one day a general may insist on a reassessment of the orders for the Tiananmen massacre so that the PLA, reportedly renamed the People’s Liquidation Army by frightened Beijing residents, can remove this stain from its honor.

* * *

How the Chinese people will respond and how long they will take to act cannot be known. But for the first time, it appears more likely than not that the Communist regime will not long outlive its first generation. In the long trajectory of Chinese history, the PRC is beginning to look like one of the great founding dynasties which have left indelible marks upon the polity, but imposed such terrible hardships upon the Chinese people that they were tolerated only for a few decades. The Qin dynasty (221–206 BC), to whose founder Mao was often compared by his colleagues, created the first unified Chinese state, and left behind the Great Wall, which kept out the barbarians but claimed the lives of thousands of workers. The Sui dynasty (AD 589–617) reunited the empire after long centuries of division, conferring upon China a cohesion lost in Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire. It built the Grand Canal, a vital project linking north and south China, but again one that claimed many lives.

The Communists under Mao and Deng transformed China from a backward-looking agrarian society into a nation imbued with the Promethean concept of change and the possibility of progress. They too have demanded excessive sacrifice: the Great Leap will be their greatest shame. But if the regime one day disappears, the Tiananmen massacre may prove to have been the last straw.

Roderick MacFarquhar is the Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Political Science and formerly Director of the John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University. His...

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This article was first published in the July 20, 1989 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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

China: “Capitulate or Things Will Get Worse”


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

Who’s Afraid of Chinese Money?


“China is what it is. We have to be here or nowhere.” Chancellor George Osborne, Britain’s second-highest official, was laying out the British government’s view last week, near the end of his trip aimed at selling Britain to Chinese companies. Western governments used to...

Old Dreams for a New China


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

China: When the Cats Rule


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

The Man Who Got It Right


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

Censoring the News Before It Happens


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

Faking It in China


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

Chen Guangcheng in New York


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

The ‘Breaking of an Honorable Career’


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

Who Killed Pamela in Peking?


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

Dancing in Empty Beijing


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

The New Chinese Gang of Seven


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

Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?


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

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined


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

Who Was Mao Zedong?


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

An Honest Writer Survives in China


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

China’s Lost Decade


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

News from the Dalai Lama


“I told President Obama the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are missing a part of the brain, the part that contains common sense,” the Dalai Lama said to me during our conversation in London in mid-June.But it can be put back in. I am hopeful about the new Chinese...

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions


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

The People’s Republic of Rumor


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

‘Pressure for Change is at the Grassroots


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

China: Politics as Warfare


Mao’s Invisible Hand is one of those books that make one feel good about scholarship. It describes inner workings of Chinese Communist society about which few nonexperts know anything—it may even surprise the experts—and it will interest anyone professionally interested in...

A Chinese Murder Mystery?


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

On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)


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

Debacle in Beijing


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

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi?


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

A Master in the Shadows


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

China’s Falling Star


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

The Chinese Are Coming!


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

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny


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

The New York Review of Books China Archive

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

China Gets Religion!


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

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds


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

The High Price of the New Beijing


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

The Past and the Future


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

Kissinger and China


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

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?


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

Quality of Life: India vs. China


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

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever


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

China: From Famine to Oslo


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

How Reds Smashed Reds


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

The Question of Pearl Buck


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

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful


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

The Message from the Glaciers


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

The Triumph of Madame Chiang


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

Specters of a Chinese Master


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

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai


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

The Passions of Joseph Needham


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

China: Humiliation & the Olympics


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

Casting a Lifeline


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

Sentimental Education in Shanghai


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

The Quiet Heroes of Tibet


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

Mission to Mao


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

China’s Great Terror


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

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


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

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)


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

On Leaving a Chinese Prison


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

A Little Leap Forward


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



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

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier


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

Found Horizon


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

East Is West


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

Divine Killer


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

China in Cyberspace


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

The Jiang Zemin Mystery


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

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan


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

Selling Out Hong Kong


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

Holding Out in Hong Kong


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

China: The Defining Moment


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

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 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...