The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful

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 eventually learn that the meeting is taking place and scramble to figure out what is going on, but all the outside world will receive is a terse acknowledgment that it took place and a few gnomic sentences on its outcome. In the weeks that follow, learned scholars will plumb this statement for its deeper meaning, subjecting it to textual analysis and proposing a series of hypotheses that may never be proven.

The gathering will be the Chinese Communist Party’s annual plenum, a session of senior officials who meet every autumn to set the agenda for the coming year. This year, it will focus on economics, especially how to cool down China’s economy without crashing it. But hanging over the plenum will be the giant question of who will run the country into the coming decade. The key question will be if the man tapped to be China’s next leader, Xi Jinping, will get a seat on the Party’s Central Military Commission. Joining this body, which has responsibility for all of China’s armed forces, is one of a series of steps that is supposed to culminate in Xi replacing the current top leader, Hu Jintao, when his second five-year term as president ends in two years.

Some thought that Xi was to join the military commission last year, but he didn’t, and now observers are divided on what that meant—is Xi no longer rising in the Party hierarchy or was that snub unimportant?:And what if he doesn’t join the commission at this plenum—is his star falling further, or has the Party changed the rules of succession, with a seat on the commission not as important as had been assumed?

If all of this seems slightly Byzantine, it is. If it also seems incongruous and, well, rather Communist, for a modern, market-oriented country, that is also true. But if it leads you to conclude that this system is in the process of being swept into the dustbin of history, then you would be in good company but very possibly wrong. For much of its history, China’s Communist Party has been written off for dead after its spectacular failures: purges, extermination campaigns, massacres, and famines, to name a few. But each time it has bounced back, often after having changed course in spectacular fashion.

Today, the Party is arguably stronger than ever but few outsiders are aware of its enduring reach. For much of the 1990s and 2000s, the dominant emphasis in stories about China was how un-Communist it was becoming. Western media coverage shifted away from political reporting and toward emphasis on the country’s economic growth or stories about how it was just like us (increasing premarital sex, the development of modern art, combating natural disasters). Everyone acknowledged that China was Communist, but this was said with a wink and a nudge: we all know better.

* * *

Emphasizing the changes in China isn’t wrong, of course—the country has changed remarkably, thanks in large part to its jettisoning of many Communist policies and practices. But as Richard McGregor shows in his book The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, the Party is not increasingly irrelevant; rather, it is at the center of events as varied as shifts in global currency markets, New York stock market listings, and clashes over North Korea. And far from being decrepit, the Party is surprisingly vital, as McGregor convincingly demonstrates in chapters on how it influences China’s economy, military, minority policy, and understanding of history. Although many of its policies are not Communist, the Party is still Leninist in structure and organization, resulting in institutions and behavior patterns that would be recognizable to the leaders of the Russian Revolution. McGregor’s book is also proof that for all of its secretive tendencies, the Party and its power can be usefully analyzed.

Our failure to do so has led to spectacular misperceptions about China, a key one being that the government has been privatizing the economy. Back in the 1990s, for example, the government announced that it would “grasp the large and release the small,” which was taken in Western capitals to mean privatization. In fact, the plan was simply to turn state-owned enterprises into shareholder-owned companies—with the government holding a controlling or majority stake. Many shares were sold overseas to investors eager for a piece of China’s economic growth, but even today almost all Chinese companies of any size and importance remain in government hands.

As McGregor explains in a masterful chapter, foreign investors were often told otherwise by ignorant or unethical Western investment banks and lawyers. Throughout the 1990s and into this decade, prospectuses written by Western lawyers for initial public offerings of China-owned companies consistently fudged the fact that the Party’s Organization Department, not the company’s board of directors, would remain in control of all personnel decisions. One prospectus for a particularly large IPO went so far as to misrepresent China’s political system, stating that the National People’s Congress—a largely rubber-stamp parliament—was the ultimate authority in political issues. It is hard to prove willful intent to deceive, but at the very least Western investment banks were badly misinformed.

Such misstatements might seem trivial or even amusing, but they led to fundamental misperceptions of how Chinese companies are run. All have Party secretaries who manage them in conjunction with the CEO. In big questions, such as leadership or overseas acquisitions, Party meetings precede board meetings, which largely give routine approval to Party decisions. The Party’s overarching control was driven home a few years ago when China’s large telecom companies had their CEOs shuffled like a pack of cards because of a decision by the Party’s Organization Department. It would have been like the US Department of Commerce ordering the heads of AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile to play musical chairs. For the Organization Department, which acts as the Party’s personnel department, it was normal; it often shifts senior Party officials every few years to prevent empire building and corruption.

As for the smaller companies that were “released” by the Party, government control still remains pervasive, if less heavy-handed. Few Chinese companies call themselves private—siying in Chinese—preferring instead the more nebulous term minying, or “run by the people.” What this means is that these companies are run as the manager sees fit, but the manager is often a former official or close to Party circles. Market forces hold sway, but in a form of crony capitalism that leads to local protectionism and corruption. Companies also feel obliged to line up behind government policies, such as its plan to develop China’s impoverished western regions.

* * *

Likewise, in the political sphere, the Party runs the government through a parallel structure of behind-the-scenes control. At the very top, senior leaders are members of “leading small groups,” which bring together ministers, experts, and officials in key policy areas. In the case of economics, for example, the body is known as the Communist Party Leading Group on Economics and Finance, which is headed by Premier Wen Jiabao. Hu heads leading groups on foreign policy, domestic stability, and Taiwan.

The leading groups then instruct the relevant ministry what to do—for example, the leading group on economics and finance tells the People’s Bank of China to raise or lower interest rates. The governor of the bank is only a member of the leading group, not independent like Ben Bernanke. These leading groups are the true sources of power in the central government, but like other Party bodies, who serves on them is secret and they are never mentioned in the local media. It is only through the painstaking work of modern-day China watchers that these groups’ membership lists can be discovered.1

Such committees exist down to the grassroots and have power in many other fields, such as academia—meeting a high school principal is fine but the school’s Party secretary almost always has more say. So too the judiciary, in which judges translate court decisions made by Communist Party legal affairs committees into rulings. Since judges are not allowed to rule independently, Western efforts to foster rule of law by training them are thus largely pointless.

Ignoring this system leads to misunderstandings of major news events. When China was hit in 2002 by the outbreak of the SARS virus, the government tried to cover up the epidemic but eventually fired the health minister, an act that was intended to demonstrate a serious change in China—for once, an official was being held accountable and sacked after a public outcry. In fact, as McGregor notes, the minister was just a scapegoat. The real decision to cover up the outbreak had been made by a leading Party group, of which the minister was just a member. None of the other Party officials were held accountable—indeed, the existence of the leading group was never mentioned. The entire blame was laid on the government minister.

A parallel system on this scale requires a vast army of cadres, and the Party has 78 million members—almost as many as the entire population of Germany. In theory, members vote to select their representatives in the system, culminating in the nine-man Standing Committee of the Party’s Political Bureau, or Politburo. In fact, bodies higher up in the system usually present lower-ranking members with preapproved slates of candidates. That means the system is self-selecting, with leaders trying to promote people loyal to them so they can advance their own agendas. The result is that the Party consists of factions grouped around leaders, and divisions in the Party have often been deep and venomous.2

* * *

McGregor’s book has a number of strengths, including clear prose and careful analysis. His bold and direct writing leads to striking comparisons, as when he says that the reach of the Party’s Organization Department is so expansive that it would be like one group in Washington naming the members of the Supreme Court, all the members of the Cabinet, the editors of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, the heads of all major think tanks, and the CEOs of major companies like General Electric, Exxon-Mobil, and Wal-Mart. These analogies, while imperfect, help make this an accessible introduction to the Party’s power in today’s China.

While McGregor’s writing is vigorous, the Party’s secretiveness robs the book of characters and scenes. He notes in an afterword that he is envious of reporters of US politics, who can ride on the same plane with the president and get fly-on-the-wall details—virtually impossible in reporting on the Chinese Communist Party, even for a talented reporter like McGregor. As enterprising as he may be, the result is still a book with almost no deeply interesting characters or vignettes of how they exercise power. In the end, we don’t really learn what the needlessly breathless subtitle promises—to tell us about the “secret world” of the country’s rulers.

At times, McGregor also overcompensates for the lack of colorful detail by blowing up small anecdotes. One is the somewhat implausible and unsourced claim that every single top boss in China’s big companies has a “red machine”—a sort of Batman-like hotline to the Party. Unclear from the passage is who the executives talk to on the other end or why the Party would need such a crude leash for some of its most trusted lieutenants (who are the only people allowed to run such companies).

This highlights how even today the Party is still only understood through small slivers of access or insight. The sometimes vicarious ways that insights can be gleaned is wonderfully captured in Richard Baum’s China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom. A professor at the University of California–Los Angeles, Baum has written a funny and insightful memoir that looks back at more than forty years of China watching. Unlike McGregor, Baum began his work when China was closed to outsiders. His big break was pilfering secret Communist Party documents that a Taiwanese intelligence agency had stolen from the mainland. By analyzing the documents, Baum helped explain the origins of the Cultural Revolution by showing the split that had developed between Mao Zedong and his lieutenants. Like McGregor’s efforts, Baum’s have succeeded—his initial analysis of the split in leadership is still accurate decades later. But the story also shows how random our access to the Party’s inner workings is; huge aspects of its current operation and even its key historical moments are unknown, despite the existence of leaked documents.3

Interestingly, both Baum and McGregor end their books with ruminations on the Party’s abuse of history. McGregor talks to a courageous historian who helped piece together a history of the Great Leap famine of the early 1960s. Like many journalists, McGregor sees such catastrophes as the Party’s weak point and implies that it faces a reckoning with history. Baum agrees and refers to a leitmotif of Chinese philosophy and history: Confucius’s call to “rectify the names,” in other words, to call things as they really are. That would involve, for example, revisiting the Tiananmen massacre and admitting that the Party, not the protesters, was largely responsible for the violence.

Focusing on these abuses, however, can lead to a sentimentality that clouds judgment, as David Shambaugh notes in China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation. In a sobering but illuminating section, Shambaugh surveys the prognostications that leading Western China experts have made about the Party over the past two decades. Almost all were pessimistic and almost all were wrong. Most argued that the Party was hopelessly out of touch with China’s dynamic society and was doomed to failure. One even predicted its demise to the year (this year, in fact).4 Like McGregor and Baum, many were outraged at the Party’s recent actions—especially the Tiananmen Square massacre. They may be forgiven for a bit of wishful thinking, but Shambaugh convincingly points out that the West has consistently underestimated the Party’s ability to adapt and thus might be excessively negative about its future.

* * *

Shambaugh’s book is essentially the missing historical background to McGregor’s, and in some ways it is no less exciting to read. He argues that for the Party, the turning point was indeed 1989, not only because of the Tiananmen uprising but also the collapse of communism elsewhere. This forced the Party to undertake genuine political reform efforts—not reform in the sense of democracy, which is how Westerners usually see it, but in its apparatus and how it interacts with society. In the two decades since then, the Party has trained hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of low- to mid-level officials to make them familiar with the workings of the market economy, abolished many taxes on farmers, reduced restrictions on religious organizations, and enormously increased the standard of living of scholars, students, and others who protested in 1989.5 It also has largely withdrawn from the personal lives of Chinese citizens, allowing them to pursue their own ambitions and goals as long as they avoid the high crime of directly challenging the Party. This emasculates political life but leaves much else wide open. Thus debates inside and outside the Party are permitted on topics such as the growing rift between rich and poor.

From the Party’s perspective it pulled off a surprising feat in 2002 by organizing an orderly transfer of power that wasn’t driven by a crisis like Tiananmen or the Cultural Revolution. Unless a completely unforeseen series of events takes place in the next two years, it is likely to do the same in 2012, with the odds favoring Xi Jinping becoming China’s next leader. This shows that the Party has figured out the sort of institutional stability that largely eluded its counterparts in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.

This is essentially the view of the Party from its think tanks and training establishments. Shambaugh has culled a great deal of background on how these institutions fed information to the Party and how it responded, mainly by bulking up and curbing the worst of its excesses. Curiously, after describing all these reforms, Shambaugh concludes with a pessimistic prognosis for the Party’s prospects. The main problem, he believes, is that it can’t escape Samuel Huntington’s classic model of rising expectations and the accompanying demands for political channels by which members of the public can make their wishes known. Accepting such levels of popular participation would require a huge change in mentality for a party that for six decades has acted mainly as a development dictatorship, cajoling the nation forward. As it has ditched the utopianism of its first thirty years of rule in favor of the conventional mercantilist policies of its past thirty, the Party has also developed an ability to listen to complaints and make adjustments, while not seriously countenancing public participation.

Shambaugh also identifies a vacuity in the national ideology. Although the country’s leaders have offered up ideas, he says no unifying vision really inspires the vast nation of 1.3 billion. Traditional Chinese culture might suffice for the majority-Chinese population, but what of the fifty-five other ethnic groups, such as Tibetans, Uighurs, Dai, and Mongolians? Although these groups make up less than 10 percent of the population, they are concentrated in key border regions that have seen major protests in recent years. Some sort of national reevaluation is needed to make the country’s aims more inclusive and idealistic.

Instead, today’s leaders still follow the same basic bottom line that was first enunciated in the “self-strengthening” movement of the 1870s: attaining wealth and power, enhancing nationalism and international dignity, preserving unity and preventing chaos. As Shambaugh notes, this puts today’s Communist Party rulers in a long line going back not just to Deng and Mao but also to the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, the early-twentieth-century strongman Yuan Shikai, and the nineteenth-century self-strengthener Li Hongzhang. That in itself is a kind of legitimization but the goals are ultimately those of national survival. Once that has been assured, the vision becomes purely materialistic—economic growth.

* * *

For thirty years this has worked, but the next stage of economic development requires a more open economic and social system that can foster innovation and creativity. One badly needed reform would be to loosen the Party’s system of controlling business—the very structures that it has labored to build up over the past two decades. These tight ties between politics and economics have created giant state-owned companies that have had spectacular success on foreign stock markets. In early July, for example, China boasted the largest stock offering in history, the $22 billion listing of the Party-run Agricultural Bank of China. But these behemoths have sucked up much of the wealth created over the past decade, leaving the public with less of a share of the national output than in the past.

More tragically, this national sacrifice hasn’t really created truly outstanding and innovative international companies. The big companies that are listed abroad are indeed giants but mainly because of their sheer size; they are essentially little more than partially privatized quasi monopolies—big telecoms, banks, and insurance and oil companies. That makes them large but not particularly nimble, inventive, or influential in international markets, except when trying to buy natural resources.

Nor have the other companies routinely touted as international players—for example, the appliance maker Haier or the computer giant Lenovo—truly become global forces. Early on in its reign, the Party pushed get-rich-quick schemes like the Great Leap Forward that resulted in national catastrophe. These utopian plans are gone but more than a faint echo remains in the desire of Chinese companies to shortcut the painstaking process of creating international brands by buying faltering names.

The failure of Lenovo to leverage IBM’s brand after purchasing its personal computer business in 2005 casts doubt on the wisdom of such corner-cutting maneuvers. One can only assume that they appealed to officials looking for quick solutions to the Party’s call to create international Chinese brands. Independent boards of directors might have thought differently and pursued the more patient strategy followed by other East Asian companies.

Even then, companies would run up against another problem: the lack of creative and intellectually ambitious students. After Tiananmen, the government channeled huge sums into better dorms for students, housing for teachers, labs for scientists, and junkets for administrators. This satiated material demands and attracted foreign universities hoping to set up programs in China. But it can hardly be a coincidence that this system has never produced a Nobel Prize winner; even among China’s elite universities, the academic level resembles that of an average US land-grant university, with most no better than a mediocre community college.

Blaming the Party for all these problems would be unfair, but it is legitimate to ask if any one party in the world could solve them. Back in the 1990s, a charismatic premier, Zhu Rongji, ran China. When he was in charge, it was possible to believe that the system was perfectible, that with just the right brilliant person at the center, nothing was impossible. And this was indeed the time of a great many reforms: the state sector shrank, the country made ambitious pledges of economic changes to gain entrance into the World Trade Organization, and sprouts of civil society—including class action lawsuits and rural elections—were to be seen across the country.

Since then, the technocratic state that Zhu personified has grown stronger but in some ways more brittle. Economic reforms haven’t quite ground to a halt but the state sector is regaining lost ground, in part owing to the current administration’s policy of recentralizing control. Foreign policy, for all the international efforts to engage China on global issues, remains focused on two narrow concerns: territorial issues like Taiwan and Tibet, and resource extraction in Africa or Central Asia. And the state has become so adept at political control that no one seriously argues that civil society is becoming more robust; on the contrary, the Party’s new-found confidence has allowed it to roll back gains of previous years.

None of that threatens the Party in the near term, but this means it also lacks the impetus to reform. With China on top of the world, the Party’s perch atop the country seems impregnable and yet more vulnerable than ever.

  1. Unfortunately, McGregor does not explain much about these groups, or indeed much of the Party’s history. They have been better described in the works of Victor Shih at Northwestern University, including his Factions and Finance in China: Elite Conflict and Inflation (Cambridge University Press, 2008). Their membership is also discussed in the China Leadership Monitor, run by one of the preeminent China watchers, Alice Miller. Its quarterly issues are available at
  2. See, for example, China’s New Rulers by Andrew J. Nathan and Bruce Gilley for a look at the maneuvering surrounding the 2002–2004 change of power from Jiang to Hu, or the recent autobiography by former Party leader Zhao Ziyang, Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang (Simon and Schuster, 2010). The new heir apparent, Xi, may be the victim of such a split: he is not Hu’s chosen successor as president but the choice of Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Some Pekingologists speculate that Hu is purposefully weakening Xi by denying him a place on the military commission; this way, Hu could maintain his influence when he retires.
  3. Some of the key points in history that still need to be addressed include how many people died in the Great Leap famine, reckoned to be the worst in history, or the circumstances surrounding the death of Mao. See Perry Link’s “Waiting for WikiLeaks: Beijing’s Seven Secrets,” NYR Blog, August 19, 2010.
  4. See Gordon G. Chang, The Coming Collapse of China (Random House, 2001).
  5. Jeffrey Wasserstrom also concisely lays out these points in a lively and vigorous primer on modern China, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. He argues that the Party avoided “Leninist extinction” because—paradoxically—it now allows so many protests. Estimated to number 230,000 during 2009, they act as safety valves and almost all are resolved peacefully by addressing protesters’ concerns and—now only as a last resort—through coercion.
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 Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers
by Richard McGregor
Harper, 302 pp.

China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation
by David Shambaugh
Woodrow Wilson Center Press/University of California Press, 234 pp.

China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom
by Richard Baum
University of Washington Press, 328 pp.

China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know
by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom
Oxford University Press, 192 pp.

China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files
by Andrew J. Nathan and Bruce Gilley
New York Review Books, 280 pp.

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This article was first published in the September 30, 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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A casual visitor to China today does not get the impression of a police state. Life bustles along as people pursue work, fashion, sports, romance, amusement, and so on, without any sign of being under coercion. But the government spends tens of billions of dollars annually (more...

Unhinged in China


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 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...