The New Chinese Gang of Seven

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 end and secular life resumes.

I was reminded of this while watching the Communist Party’s eighteenth Congress unfold in mid-November in Beijing. The location was the auditorium at the Great Hall of the People, the gargantuan, 170,000-square-meter temple to Communist Party power off Tiananmen Square.

The hall was built with political-religious imagery in mind: the outward appearance is a fascist-totalitarian mixture of columns and severe lines, but the details are from traditional China’s religious-political state. The pillars are adorned with lotus petals, a Buddhist symbol, and their number purposefully equals the twelve columns of the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City. In a nod to traditional Chinese geomancy—the methods of divination based on ground markings and called feng shui—the entrance is slightly asymmetrical to the museum across the square to avoid having the main doors face a grave. Here the grave is the memorial to the martyrs of the revolution, an obelisk planted like a dagger in the middle of Tiananmen Square. As one of the main architects put it, he didn’t want “the living” (in the Great Hall) to “face the dead.”1

The Great Hall can be rented out for business or academic meetings but at certain times of the political calendar it is transformed into a center of state ritual power. In this case it was the Communist Party’s Congress, just the eighteenth in its ninety-year history.

Hu Jintao, the president of China and general secretary of the Communist Party, opened and closed the Congress with a series of incantations, reciting phrases—slogans, some might call them—meant to invoke the greats of Communist yore and to build up his own authority. Thus the 2,268 delegates heard much about Marx, Lenin, Mao, Deng, and “scientific development,” Hu’s favorite phrase, which he later had enshrined in the Party’s constitution—a move to make himself ideologically immortal.

Like a Daoist priest, Hu emulated an immortal, but instead of wearing the richly embroidered robes of a god, the sixty-nine-year-old went for more modern symbolism: dying his hair jet-black to make himself look ageless, and surrounding himself with banners like those found in a temple—these however conferring immortality (wansui) on the Communist Party.

Cynics might call this empty ritual, and yet it worked. As Hu spoke, he was watched by many of his aging predecessors. These elderly veterans have no formal role in the Party but their silent appearance conferred legitimacy on his actions, as did their attire, almost identical to his own down to the dyed hair. With their apparent blessing, Hu presented a “work report” that was really a list of his accomplishments, a eulogy to his decade in office that was now ending and a chance to rule from beyond the grave by determining his successors’ policies.

Compared to the political-religious cult of Communist China’s founder, Mao Zedong, this was all tastefully done. Hu did not bask in the adulation of hundreds of thousands of frenzied followers, or plaster his face on billboards around town. But it was an effort to invoke traditional China’s political-religious order. Even the hostesses who served tea to delegates, dressed up like airline stewardesses from the 1950s with pillbox hats and tight dress suits, had a sacramental role. Called “ritual girls,” they poured tea like synchronized acolytes, moving in lockstep up and down the rows of delegates, optically deflecting attention from the older men, most of them pudgy and sallow from the demands of their profession to eat, drink, and hold droning meetings like the eighteenth Party Congress, in which decisions are announced but never made.

Then it ended. A week later, with little explanation, China’s new leadership team appeared in the Great Hall as if conjured up by Mr. Hu’s actions. Yet Hu and most of the leadership were gone, replaced by the new Party boss, Xi Jinping, the future premier, Li Keqiang, and five other new faces who are to rule China for the next five years. The ritual was over, the master departed, and his successors had to face real-life problems that the ritual had not solved.

* * *

As controlled as the process seemed, this was just the second time in Communist China’s sixty-three-year history that leadership has changed hands without a coup or crisis. Mao took power at the head of an army and his successor, Deng Xiaoping, only won power after a coup d’état removed Mao’s allies. Deng had a series of proxies, settling on Jiang Zemin only after the Tiananmen Square uprising. After Deng died in 1997, Jiang soldiered on for another five years before grudgingly yielding to Hu, mostly according to plan, although not without elaborate backroom negotiations.2 That peaceful transfer was duplicated with Hu presiding over Xi’s ascension in November.

Xi is the son of a member of the founding generation of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Zhongxun, who served in a variety of posts before retiring in the late 1980s. That makes Xi a “princeling,” a new quasi-aristocratic class in China descended from that first generation of Communist leaders. It also helps clarify how he rose to the top, something that is otherwise hard to explain.

Xi had the foresight to leave a cushy job in Beijing in the early 1980s for a position as a county administrator—a grassroots posting is good for one’s résumé in any system. But he ran up against a wily local governor who disliked princelings and blocked his career. In 1985, Xi’s family got him transferred to Fujian, a province run by one of his father’s allies, but even there he didn’t distinguish himself, climbing steadily but staying seventeen years—hardly the career path of an up-and-comer. In 2002, he won another unremarkable promotion to take control of a bigger neighboring province, Zhejiang. But five years later Xi was improbably named to the Politburo Standing Committee. It was like an ordinary player on a sports team suddenly leading his side to the championship.

How did he do it? Like all choices of leadership in China, the decision to helicopter Xi to the very top was made in secret and can only be pieced together. Almost all political observers in Beijing believe he was aided by another princeling, Zeng Qinghong, the son of the minister of security and a close ally of Jiang Zemin, who was dissatisfied with Hu. Promoting Xi was a way for Jiang to sandbag Hu and move into power someone he felt closer to. In any case, when the Standing Committee was unveiled five years ago, Xi was not only on it but ranked higher than Hu’s man, the presumed favorite Li Keqiang, who was left with the post of premier. That will put him in charge of the bureaucracy and, if tradition matters, economic policy, but very much in second place to Xi.

Although a surprise, the decision fits a pattern of putting Party insiders in the most powerful positions and using experts only for government jobs that require technical expertise. That was the pattern for the outgoing administration, which had Hu as the insider and Wen Jiabao as the hired gun to run the economy. Previously, Jiang was the organization man anointed by Deng and he relied on Zhu Rongji to fix a series of economic problems and get China into the World Trade Organization.

The problem with this model is defining who is the insider. Hu Jintao built up his power through Party institutions, especially the Communist Youth League, but didn’t come from a Red aristocratic background. Under his reign China largely harvested the fruits of the reforms from the Jiang-Zhu years, implementing only easy reforms—those that require spending money—as it built up a rudimentary system of social services, while ignoring the predatory role of large state enterprises.3 Critics said that Hu lacked the personal network of obligations that Deng or even Jiang had accumulated, making it hard for him to force the country’s powerful vested interests—the state enterprises, military, planning bureaucracies, and coastal provinces—to stand down when necessary.

According to one way of thinking, Xi’s role as a princeling will give him this heft and bring in a new era of reform. In addition, Xi was able to assume chairmanship of the Central Military Commission from Hu, marking the first time in decades that a new leader has taken all the reins of power in one fell swoop. This could give him even more authority to pursue bolder objectives. While anything is possible, nothing from Xi’s background suggests that he is a risk-taker or is able to crack heads. When he was elevated in 2007 to the Standing Committee, a blog post cast aspersions on his intellect, saying he had gotten into Tsinghua University in 1975, before the start of competitive examinations, only on the strength of his princeling background. With no high school education, Xi took a course that resembled a community college remedial program. He later earned a doctorate but the thesis was on Marxist-Leninist thought and is under lock and key. All of this may be unfair. One of Germany’s most successful political leaders in modern times was Helmut Kohl, who was famously obtuse and likewise wrote a thin thesis that no one was allowed to read.

* * *

Xi’s perceived weaknesses were enough to encourage at least one challenger: Bo Xilai. He was another princeling—his father was a famous general and more of a kingmaker than Xi’s father, who had opposed the Tiananmen Square massacre and therefore was largely sidelined for the last dozen years of his life. By contrast, Bo’s father had stood by Deng and had enormous influence.

Bo was also charismatic and outgoing; at six-foot-one he is big by Chinese standards and ruggedly handsome (Xi, by contrast, is a bit roly-poly). He also had a more traditional upward career trajectory, moving from mayor of a city to governor of a province, provincial Party secretary, and then commerce minister. A nakedly ambitious man, he courted the media, and his press conferences at the annual sessions of parliament were colorful affairs. Little wonder then that in 2007 while the quiet Xi was being catapulted to the top, Bo was shunted off to run the city-state of Chongqing in southwestern China. In China’s system of collective leadership, showboaters like Bo are unwelcome, even if foreigners are impressed. (In fact there’s probably a negative correlation between how popular Westerners find Chinese politicians and their real power.)

Bo, however, didn’t give up and kept himself in the news nationally by tackling two of China’s biggest systemic problems. One is the country’s spiritual vacuum, which was brought on by the destruction of the traditional religious system during the late nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, and then the collapse of its ersatz replacement, the Mao cult.4 Bo decided to turn back to the Mao era, instituting a program of “singing Red songs.” Companies and government organizations were encouraged—in fact, essentially ordered—to stage glee-club-type meetings and competitions where old Communist songs were sung. Forward-looking Chinese were appalled at the romanticizing of the Maoist dictatorship, but when I went to Chongqing earlier this year, some spoke fondly of the exercises as something done collectively—in a country with few opportunities to meet in a public sphere, be it in politics or religion, these competitions forged a sense of community, at least for some.

Bo also beautified Chongqing by planting trees and banning many billboards, and he made police more accessible. Again liberals recoiled, but when a friend of mine traveled to the region during Bo’s heyday a couple of years ago, he found that many people supported Bo for having reasserted control over an anarchic city.

Most controversial was his attack on the city’s notorious mafia. He brought in a brutal law enforcement official, Wang Lijun, who had served Bo in previous stints, and let him run wild. Wang used gang-style methods—torture, blackmail, and kidnapping—against the mafia. He broke the big crime bosses, often in theatrical style, in one case dragging a mafia lawyer back to Chongqing and greeting him on the airport tarmac, backlit by the flashing lights of police cars. “Li Zhuang, we meet again!” he is reported to have said.

* * *

That anecdote is related in Australian reporter John Garnaut’s brief but illuminating e-book, The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo, which describes Bo’s career in about 28,000 words. Garnaut has made a name for himself by reporting on the princeling faction in Chinese politics with articles appearing in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and Foreign Policy. As in any instant book, the writing feels a bit rushed, and because it’s still unfolding, the story is not complete. But it’s by far the most carefully researched and sober analysis of a scandal that has fascinated the world as few other Chinese political stories have done.

One of Garnaut’s chief accomplishments is to put the death of the British businessman Neil Heywood in perspective. Until now, foreign media have been jousting to report the latest tidbits that they’ve squeezed from Heywood’s friends, colleagues, and the British diplomats who handled the case. As Garnaut’s book shows, this attention is misplaced.

Heywood had been a low-level British middleman in Beijing who had gotten to know the Bo family and tried to parlay that into a job as a door-opener. For reasons still unclear, Bo’s wife, the lawyer Gu Kailai, asked him to visit Chongqing last November and had him murdered in a grisly fashion—by most accounts getting the teetotaler drunk and then pouring a cyanide mixture down his throat after he’d vomited and asked for water.

No one has explained why she did this, except that she was becoming unhinged and, rightly or wrongly, felt that Heywood was a threat to her son. The two possibly had a dispute over a real estate transaction. Heywood had asked for money and she decided to do him in. This is the gist of the official story issued at her murder trial, which took place in August, and Garnaut is convincing when he says that we may never know more than this.

In any case, the details are largely irrelevant now because Heywood was essentially the cudgel used to kill Bo. While a murder weapon is important it’s usually more relevant to look at who acted and why.

At first, no one knew Heywood had been murdered. Wang, Bo’s loyal cop, hushed it up but kept a recording of Gu talking about the murder and allegedly a blood sample showing the cyanide. The reason he kept the evidence is that, according to Garnaut’s persuasive analysis, Wang knew that anticorruption investigators from Beijing were on his trail and he wanted to have something in case Bo tried to dump him. The investigators were headed by one of Bo’s predecessors in Chongqing who had had a close relationship with one of the crime bosses Bo had had tried and executed. The investigator wanted revenge and went after Bo through Wang, digging through his past dealings in a northeastern city where Wang had served. In essence, the flamboyant Bo had made one too many enemies and now they were circling.

When the investigators got close, Wang went to Bo earlier this year seeking help. Bo declined and, in February, Wang took the evidence to the US consulate in nearby Chengdu, knowing that it was the only way to make sure the evidence was not destroyed. If he’d stayed in Chongqing, Wang reasoned, Bo would have had him murdered. So he made sure he attracted national attention, hoping he would be arrested by national state security and taken to Beijing for interrogation—which is exactly what happened.

In this much more logical way of looking at things, Heywood was an unlucky person but not particularly relevant. He was an ideal case for Wang to make public because corruption—which Wang undoubtedly could have proven of Bo—is endemic among senior leaders and might not have ensured Bo’s fall. Plus, the fact that Heywood was a foreigner was a bonus, making it an international incident and harder to hush up. And indeed after the story was broken by a Shanghai intellectual, who put the information on his microblog, the Western media jumped on the story, with first Reuters and then The Wall Street Journal reporting the shocking news.

The problem with focusing on Heywood—what suits he wore, where he worked, what cars he drove, whether he’d met members of the British intelligence service MI6—is that none of it matters to the real story, which was the efforts to take down Bo. Heywood’s death didn’t cause the scandal; he was dead and cremated months before Wang decided to use his case to get at his boss. Of course, the corruption investigators couldn’t have known that Bo would fall in such a spectacular fashion, but the result was the same: Bo was out of the game. If Heywood hadn’t been around, it’s reasonable to assume that Wang would have found another way to take down his boss.

* * *

One has to ask oneself if any of this matters. Bo was a Politburo member but a long shot for the Standing Committee, the seven-member body that runs China. No one who behaved like Bo—courting the media, boasting of his accomplishments, initiating national projects like the Red songs and violent anticorruption campaign—can be seen as a serious contender for the very top. Instead, Bo’s were clearly last-ditch efforts to reverse his downward trajectory.

But the case does matter on several levels. For one, although China’s top leaders are probably not as dysfunctional, craven, and vile as the Bo family, the story of Bo opens a window into how politics are played out at China’s elite levels. As investigations by Bloomberg into Xi’s family and by The New York Times into outgoing premier Wen Jiabao’s family have shown, checks and balances are almost null for the families of senior leaders, allowing at least the family members to acquire vast fortunes.5 Murder doesn’t seem far-fetched in a system where leaders, especially in a remote province like Chongqing, control all the levers of power and can easily cover up crimes.

More directly, Bo’s implosion may have set the way for a more conservative group of leaders than previously expected. At this point it’s hard to know the dynamics of the past six months but it’s clear that Hu’s faction has been weakened by the pyrotechnics, possibly because one of his closest associates became enmeshed in efforts to deal with Wang after police had escorted him back to Beijing.

What is clear is that by the summer, Hu was fighting off his longtime nemesis and predecessor, Jiang, now eighty-six, who had been ill but suddenly had recovered. By the early autumn, it appeared that a consensus had formed to cut the Standing Committee to seven members from nine, a move that forced off two of Hu’s favorites. That decision held, and a seven-man Standing Committee was announced on November 15, exactly one year after Neil Heywood was reported dead in Chongqing.

The new leaders have many things in common. All are tried-and-true, low-key Party veterans who had pushed for fast economic growth, but exclusively inside the parameters of a dominant state with strong political control. None is particularly known for innovative ideas or thinking; for better or worse, there’s no Bo Xilai among them. That is arguably a result of the Bo scandal; the lesson is to pick even safer people for the top.

Another is age. Xi is fifty-nine and Li is fifty-seven but the rest are near retirees. Wang Qishan, an economics expert and the new head of anticorruption efforts, is sixty-four. Zhang Dejiang, a Jiang man and widely viewed as particularly concerned with control of the bureaucracy, is sixty-six. Shanghai boss Yu Zhengsheng, a princeling whose ancestors served the Qing court, the Republican government, and Mao, is sixty-seven. Propaganda chief Liu Yunshan (the only clear Hu protégé) is sixty-five. Finally, another Jiang man, Tianjin Party chief Zhang Gaoli, is sixty-five.

Left off of the Standing Committee was Wang Yang, the fifty-seven-year-old blunt-spoken Party secretary of Guangdong. Although his reformist credentials may be overplayed, he was one of the best hopes that reformers had.

* * *

One effect of leaving off younger leaders may be to damage longer-term stability. Part of the effort to institutionalize politics in post-strongman China is that leaders are, in theory, not supposed to take a post if they’re older than sixty-five. If this is true, then already at the nineteenth Party Congress, five of the seven members will retire, with only Xi and Li certain to remain. That could make it harder to build continuity and choose a successor, who is supposed to be anointed in five years.

As for what the new government will do, Li could be sympathetic to reforming state enterprises. Earlier this year, he signed off on a World Bank report that called for curbing their powers and freeing up private enterprise. This will be difficult given that many of the country’s largest state enterprises are powerful monopolies with tight ties to the Politburo and the security apparatus—the outgoing security czar, Zhou Yongkang, for example, had played an important part in the oil industry and in suppressing Uighur activists in western Xinjiang province. But Li is one of the country’s best-educated leaders in recent history and as a graduate student he even translated into Chinese The Due Process of Law by Lord Denning, one of the twentieth century’s most famous judges. When Li visited England a few years ago, he gave a speech at the Old Bailey courthouses, where Lord Denning had served.

Xi could also use his new corruption fighter, Wang Qishan, to launch a Party “rectification” campaign. Pitched as a big anticorruption drive, it would be popular and echo some of Bo’s efforts. It would also allow Xi to assert control over the Party. Xi hinted as much at his address to the nation on November 15, saying that some members of the Party were corrupt and misused power.

But this would have a ritualized feel to it as well. For decades, the Party has been fighting corruption through spectacles, sacrifices, and ceremonies: making arrests, exposing a Politburo member or two, and then announcing that all is well. The problem is that unlike the ceremony anointing Xi as the new leader, these policy-driven rituals truly are empty.

Another challenge facing the Party was the men on stage with Hu when he played his last role. Just as Hu had Jiang looking over his shoulder for his decade in office, Xi will have Hu, who at sixty-nine is seven years younger than Jiang when he stepped down. By some counts, Xi will have twenty current and former Standing Committee members to assuage, coddle, and battle. This combination may make it hard for Xi to do much of anything other than keep the flame burning.

  1. This and other details on the religious-political aspects of the hall are taken from Chang-tai Hung, Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the Early People’s Republic (Cornell University Press, 2011), which I reviewed in “The High Price of the New Beijing,” The New York Review, June 23, 2011.
  2. See Andrew J. Nathan and Bruce Gilley, China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files (New York Review Books, second, revised edition, 2003).
  3. See my “China’s Lost Decade,” The New York Review, September 27, 2012.
  4. See my “China Gets Religion!,” The New York Review, December 22, 2011.
  5. In the interests of disclosure, I also write for The New York Times but did not participate in the article on Wen.
Ian Johnson is a Beijing-based writer who specializes in civil society, culture, and religion. For thirteen years, Johnson worked at The Wall Street Journal, where he was a page-one feature writer...
Reviewed in This Article

The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo: How a Murder Exposed the Cracks in China’s Leadership
by John Garnaut

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This article was first published in the December 20, 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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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...

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 End of the Chinese Revolution


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

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan


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

Roots of Revolution


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

Passing the Baton in Beijing


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

Our Mission in China


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

China: How Much Dissent?


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

Sitting on Top of the World


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

Rules of the Game


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

Bringing Up the Red Guards


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

Peanuts and the Good Soldier


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

Still Mysterious


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

A Mao for All Seasons


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

The Great Wall


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

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution


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