The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan

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 and suppressing people’s rights.

iconDavid Levine. Copyright Matthew and Eve Levine.
Liu Binyan, 1989

In the 1950s Liu wrote stories intended, in the tradition of Confucian literati, to express the views of the inarticulate masses to the country’s leaders. In 1957 he was, as a result, expelled from the Party and sent from Beijing to the countryside to do hard physical labor and was prevented from publishing. After further persecution during the Cultural Revolution, he returned to Peking in the late 1970s to produce an extraordinary series of investigative reports, stories, and essays that were published in Chinese newspapers and periodicals. One of the most powerful and widely praised of these, “People and Monsters,” published in 1979, was a report on the behavior of corrupt Party officials in northeastern China that was seen as applying to corruption in the Party generally. Because of such writings, Liu became one of the main targets of the regime’s campaigns against intellectuals launched in 1981, 1983, and 1987. Along with the physicist Fang Lizhi and the Shanghai writer Wang Ruowang, he was expelled from the Party after Hu Yaobang, the reform-minded General Secretary of the Chinese Communist party, was demoted in 1987.

Liu’s views have gradually but radically changed since the 1950s. He has moved away from the traditional Chinese reliance on ideological persuasion to restrain people in power and now puts more emphasis on the need for legal and political institutions to protect liberties, particularly freedom of the press. While Liu remains a Marxist, he began to express such views publicly and repeatedly during the 1980s.

No writer in the Western countries seems comparable to Liu. His position in China resembles that of Eastern European intellectuals such as Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia who, while apparently powerless, can have a deep effect on their society. The great respect now accorded him throughout China derives from his courage in saying what many believe and talk about privately but are afraid to say openly. Now visiting Harvard as a Nieman Fellow, Liu was interviewed by Nathan Gardels, editor of New Perspectives Quarterly, which will publish a somewhat different version of the following interview later this winter.

Merle Goldman


NATHAN GARDELS: Fang Lizhi, the physicist, and yourself are the most prominent intellectuals expelled from the Communist party during the reform period. Fang Lizhi has concluded that socialism failed and Marxism is irrelevant at the end of the twentieth century. You, on the other hand, remain a committed Marxist. Why?

LIU BINYAN: The problem does not lie with socialism itself. The socialism imported from the Soviet Union and implemented in China was not true socialism. From Stalin to Mao Zedong, we have had false Marxism.

NG: The head of the Soviet Writers Union has said Stalin compromised socialism on a world scale by his crimes. Do you feel the same way about Mao Zedong?

LIU: Stalin was the first to ruin socialism. The second was Mao. Cambodia’s Pol Pot was the third. All of these men completely destroyed the meaning of communism.

These men were not really Marxists at all. They ignored Marx’s basic tenet that socialism presupposes a high level of material development. The conditions in each of the countries where these men came to power were not economically mature enough to build a socialist society.

If we construct a building where there’s no foundation, it’s not a surprise when the building collapses. A society that is supposed to emerge from a materialist theory of development cannot simply be willed into existence.

NG: Is that how you would summarize the experiences of Stalin and Mao—trying to force socialism into existence through political power?

LIU: Yes—utopia through the barrel of a gun.

In the beginning, Lenin himself believed socialism could not happen in an undeveloped place like Russia. He looked to revolution in advanced Germany and Austria to lead the way. When their revolutions aborted, the need to maintain state power persuaded Lenin to push aside the materialist science of Marxism and attempt to establish socialism in one backward country. The result was not true socialism.

Furthermore, there can’t be socialism without democracy. Gorbachev has now made this tenet of Marx into an influential slogan in the ussr—”More democracy means more socialism.” But over the last thirty years there has been less democracy and freedom in both China and the Soviet Union. This can’t be socialism.

NG: So, China has to develop, or redevelop, a market in order to build a more advanced economy before it can become truly socialist?

LIU: That was even Mao’s original theory. In fact, he named the postrevolutionary stage, during which market forces would develop the economy, “the new democratic phase.” In 1949, Mao said China’s “new democracy” would need fifteen to twenty years before it could change over into socialism. But in 1953, Mao wanted to be the leader of the world communist movement so he attempted to leap into socialism. He ignored the material reality and tried to rush into the “glorious future.”

NG: You sound very much like Abel Aganbegyan, an economic adviser to Gorbachev, who has remarked that everything since Lenin was a mistake!

LIU: Even though the Maoist course was premature and mistaken, there were achievements. We built heavy industry; culture and education advanced; the people’s standard of living was raised. But we paid a great price—twenty cents for something that should have cost only five cents.

Perhaps our enormous suffering has contributed to humanity. We have taught other countries not to take our disastrous path.

NG: The price China must now pay for this tragic past is the deep disillusionment of today’s youth. What can a young person believe about the future in China?

LIU: So many of our youth have seen nothing good since they were born. Now, everything depends on the reform and democratization process, including reform of the Communist party itself. I believe our youth will gradually see that there is hope for China.


NG: What is the difference in outlook between a Chinese intellectual in 1956, at the time of the Hundred Flowers Campaign, and an intellectual now during the reform period?

LIU: There is a profound difference. In 1956 Chinese intellectuals still believed in the Party. Now they don’t.

Chinese intellectuals awoke in 1956 from the slumber of Stalinist “socialist realism,” in large part as a result of Khrushchev’s thaw in the Soviet Union. They realized then that idealizing life in literature and the arts had been a mistake. Instead of writing that everyone lived well, they now sought to depict life realistically, with all the contradictions and conflicts of socialist society that “realism” had attempted to suppress.

Paradoxically, just as this “new wave” thinking began to take hold, China embarked on a new phase of “socialist construction” patterned after Stalin’s industrialization of the Soviet Union. This course transformed the Chinese Communist party into the very bureaucratic and oppressive apparatus that Khrushchev was criticizing. The Party soon clamped down brutally on critical thinking, which was not reactivated until after the Two Great Disasters—the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution—completely destroyed faith in Mao and the credibility of the Party.

When intellectual life awakened in 1979, twenty-three years after the 1956 Hundred Flowers Campaign, the faith of Chinese intellectuals in the Party was profoundly shaken.

In 1979, many intellectuals nevertheless took the new opportunity to begin developing a theoretical framework to support the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping. Essays and reports published in the People’s Daily negated the era of Mao as a total mistake. But no sooner did this begin than the Party leadership decided that they could not allow the complete delegitimation of Mao without endangering their own power.

Rather than a new ideological openness, Deng himself put forward the Four Cardinal Principles in 1979 which constrain intellectual freedom in China to this day. Those principles are keeping the socialist road; upholding the People’s Democratic Dictatorship; respecting the leadership of the Chinese Communist party; and adhering to Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought.

I was expelled from the Party in 1987 for breaching these principles.

NG: What on earth does Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought mean? I asked a twenty-one-year-old student in China this question, and all she could answer was “love the motherland.”

LIU: There are many slogans like “Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong Thought” in China which are not taken seriously either by those who shout them or by those who listen.

Over the last ten years, the more intellectuals have fought for the reforms launched by Deng, the more they have been attacked for breaching the Four Cardinal Principles, including the violation of Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought. Since the reforms are totally opposed to the economic ideas of Mao, the officials launching reforms have found it necessary to proclaim unanimously their loyalty to the Four Cardinal Principles. In fact, these principles, that have been put into a constitution that guarantees freedom of thought and expression, do not belong there. I suppose these weird juxtapositions can only happen in China.

NG: What accounts for the two-steps-forward, one-step-back nature of change in China?

LIU: Since 1979, liberalization has occurred in an on-and-off fashion, opening up and closing down. Virtually every year there has been a campaign against liberalization, but each campaign gets weaker and weaker.

In 1981 there was the long campaign against Bitter Love, the film by Bai Hua in which he exposed the people’s sufferings during the Cultural Revolution and laid the blame squarely on Mao. In 1983 there was the Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution which lasted only twenty-seven days. In 1987 there was the Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign that was stopped after three months.

These campaigns all belong to a single strand of counterreform which emanates from one faction of the leadership that is obviously getting weaker as time goes on.

NG: But didn’t former chairman of the CCP Hu Yaobang’s dismissal last year mean a weakening of liberalizing forces in the Party?

LIU: Even though Hu Yaobang has been removed, the forces that he represented inside the Party have actually become stronger. They’ve expanded even in the last year because the Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign provoked very strong negative reactions both inside and outside the Party. The dismissal of Hu Yaobang and the expulsion of Fang Lizhi and myself were viewed as illegal acts against the Party and the Constitution. For the first time, people publicly opposed a political campaign and defended its victims. They asserted that the Party’s actions were against the Constitution.

There is another reason why progressive forces in the Party have become stronger: the Party anticorruption, or “rectification,” program of 1983 and 1984 failed. Originally a lot of people had put their hopes in the rectification program, because it was going to eliminate the corrupt elements from the Party. Even some conservative-minded people in the Party wanted to see the Party improved, and they also opposed corruption.

So, when Hu Yaobang was deposed and I was expelled, there was sympathy for our position, even from many conservatives, because not only had the corruption problem not been solved, but those who opposed corruption had been thrown out of the Party! As a result, the corrupters became more brazen and attacked those who had exposed the corruption. Their brazenness, which has become more blatant, has upset even some conservatives who are moving closer to our side.

This realignment is key to understanding the current political situation in China. “Conservatives” realize that opposing the free expression which exposes corruption harms their own interests in reestablishing the credibility and leadership of the Party. That’s why the Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign ended so quickly.

The Party leadership also finally understood that every time it unleashed a new campaign the economy was severely damaged. Private businessmen and foreign investors, already nervous about Party stability, were worried; and these campaigns only proved that the fears of the private concerns were correct.


NG: Does the Party leadership now believe that political reform is necessary for economic reform? Or, in effect, is Deng Xiaoping for perestroika without the glasnost?

LIU: The economic reform is a very long leg in China, while the political reform is a very short one. One can’t proceed without being tripped up by the other. The student movement in 1986 exploded because political reform has hardly begun.

Actually, the first person to bring up the idea of political reform was Deng Xiaoping. In 1980 he said we must reform the political system, fight feudalism and bureaucracy, and expand democracy.

But it never came to pass. The resistance within the Party was too strong. Senior officials refused to give up their positions and privileges. They are not concerned about socialism; they are concerned only with their own interests and that of their children and grandchildren. I think real glasnost, or openness, will gradually come about, not because conservatives want it, but because the people will force them to accept it.

NG: Is there another conservative reaction on the horizon?

LIU: If there is it will have different rationalizations than past campaigns.

It’s possible high inflation will be the excuse. Inflation has caused a lot of dissatisfaction among the masses. Conservatives could use economic reasons to attack the reforms, saying, “Look! The majority of people are suffering from inflation while a minority who benefit from the market reforms lives well!”

That approach might be effective because people are upset about the new social inequality and what they perceive as a falling standard of living. Peasants are often richer than urban dwellers, and a cab driver, for instance, can make ten times as much as a bus driver and even an intellectual.

NG: How would you compare China’s progress under reform to the Soviet Union’s?

LIU: There are many areas where conditions in China are behind those in the Soviet Union, including political and cultural conditions, and the state of the legal system. The Soviet Union is also riddled with corruption, but Gorbachev has been more effective in exposing this corruption.

But we are better off than the Soviets in the sense that, after the Cultural Revolution, nobody in China believes anymore. As a result, if a drastic reform program is put forward in China that challenges all dogma, the people will not oppose it the way many are opposing reforms in the Soviet Union.

Another distinction. While the Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign got rid of Hu Yaobang, the reforms went forward. It was decreed in March 1987 that in the elections to the local people’s congresses there would be more candidates than positions to be filled and that the candidates can be nominated not only by the Party but by the people themselves. If the Soviet Union were to have an antiliberalization campaign that removed Gorbachev, their reforms would be in real difficulty.

NG: How important for the Chinese is the Soviet experience of perestroika and glasnost?

LIU: Very important. We are watching Gorbachev because he began his reforms with politics and the media. He is very good at glasnost, which is exactly what China lacks.

So we would be very concerned if Gorbachev should fail. If Gorbachev is successful, it will encourage Chinese intellectuals and the media to demand greater freedom. One of China’s biggest difficulties is that our problems are always covered over. For example, China has never fully revealed the Party’s role in the economic disaster of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s. We have to open up and face our problems if we are going to fix them.

If we don’t open up, then we won’t have democracy. Democracy means the power to choose, and choice is an illusion without information.


NG: As the substructure of the economy evolves under market reforms, the Chinese economy will develop different strata with conflicting interests. Some people will become richer than others; peasants will want more for their crops, urban workers will want cheaper produce.

Won’t these different interests seek expression in multiple political parties?

LIU: Before 1957, the question of multiple parties was actually raised in China, but for the near future I don’t think it’s possible to have multiple parties.

China is a very special country. There is no other country with such a long “feudal” history—two thousand years, ten times the length of European medieval times. Furthermore, in the forty years since the revolution the Party has not allowed opposition parties or tolerated people with different political ideas. It has not allowed nonpolitical ideologies to spread.

As a result, it is even more difficult for a political society or organization to appear in China than in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. Unless social chaos and popular pressure develop to the degree that they render the Party utterly powerless, a new opposition is not likely to appear. The more realistic possibility is the evolution of pluralism within the Party.

NG: What would pluralism within the Chinese Communist party look like? After all, there seems to be no room for critical Marxists like yourself. You were expelled.

LIU: But so many of my comrades are still in the Party; and, because they are in the Party, in three to five years the Party will change internally, even though the outer shell of the CCP may not change. In fact, the Four Cardinal Principles are themselves a statement that this outer shell cannot change. But the insides will change. The Communist party is right now in the midst of internal change. The Party leadership has lost control over the Party itself. The progressive forces at different levels disregard instructions from above when they feel they are not beneficial to their districts. So, there is room for pluralism in the Chinese Communist party.

NG: Does that internal pluralism satisfy your idea of socialist democracy, or are you simply admitting the upper historical limit of what is now possible in China?

LIU: I’m not at all satisfied. But China is a country with a lot of walls, symbolized by the Great Wall. Many changes occur behind the wall, but it is difficult to see these changes because the wall itself is the same as before.

It’s hard to say in what form future changes will take place. Perhaps one day the different factions within the Party will publicly acknowledge their differences, and there will be an organizational mechanism for Party pluralism. At present there is no organizational mechanism, but the factions nevertheless exist and struggle without a set of rules. In the secret elections at the Thirteenth Party Congress in the fall of 1987, in which it was possible to choose among several candidates, several conservative candidates lost out.

NG: What are the most important historically and politically possible reforms that could help curb corruption and the abuse of power?

LIU: There are two vital reforms. One is to expand freedom of the press. The other is to strengthen the legal system.

Freedom of the press means that existing newspapers, Party newspapers, have more freedom to expose, criticize, and express different opinions. This process has already begun. Papers such as the China Youth Daily are still Party newspapers, but in reality they aren’t the same newspapers they once were. For example, the president of China’s elite Beijing University, Ding Shixun, criticized the government for not giving enough attention and money to education. Even though the authorities were angered by this criticism, the China Youth Daily published his speech. The editors knew they would be censured for it, but they did it anyway. In addition, we also need to establish independent newspapers that are outside the reach of the Party.

Interestingly enough, Beijing People’s University recently polled two hundred high-level Party cadres. Seventy percent believed that Party newspapers were not managed well. More than 70 percent said they did not believe the newspapers. Thirty-four percent believed that there should be a large independent newspaper. As the inflation continues to accelerate, the Party’s power continues to weaken, and a relatively independent middle class emerges in the countryside and cities, a constituency is being formed that could support independent newspapers.

Reform of the legal system has only just begun. Previously, we had the pitiful situation where there were no private attorneys at all, only government attorneys. Now we at least have a small number of private attorneys who may be able to defend victims of official abuse.

NG: After all you’ve been through, all the ups and downs, the backward and forward patterns of reform and reaction, do you still have faith that China can build the type of socialism that inspires you?

LIU: Yes, because of my faith in the Chinese people. We are a very intelligent and industrious people. And we have paid such a high price—Americans can’t understand because they have never had to pay such a price. The deaths, the suffering, and the misfortune have forged a strength that will push society forward.

In 1957, before our great man-made disasters, the Chinese people were not strong enough to push forward. Now, they are.

Nathan Gardels has been editor of New Perspectives Quarterly since it began publishing in 1985. He has served as editor of Global Viewpoint and Nobel Laureates Plus (services of Los Angeles Times...

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This article was first published in the January 19, 1989 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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

Dancing in Empty Beijing


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

The New Chinese Gang of Seven


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

Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?


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

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined


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

Who Was Mao Zedong?


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

An Honest Writer Survives in China


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

China’s Lost Decade


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

News from the Dalai Lama


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

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions


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

The People’s Republic of Rumor


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

‘Pressure for Change is at the Grassroots


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

China: Politics as Warfare


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

A Chinese Murder Mystery?


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

On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)


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

Debacle in Beijing


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

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi?


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

A Master in the Shadows


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

China’s Falling Star


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

The Chinese Are Coming!


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

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny


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

The New York Review of Books China Archive

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

China Gets Religion!


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

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds


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

The High Price of the New Beijing


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

The Past and the Future


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

Kissinger and China


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

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?


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

Quality of Life: India vs. China


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

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever


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

China: From Famine to Oslo


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

How Reds Smashed Reds


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

The Question of Pearl Buck


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

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful


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

The Message from the Glaciers


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

The Triumph of Madame Chiang


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

Specters of a Chinese Master


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

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai


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

The Passions of Joseph Needham


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

China: Humiliation & the Olympics


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

Casting a Lifeline


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

Sentimental Education in Shanghai


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

The Quiet Heroes of Tibet


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

Mission to Mao


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

China’s Great Terror


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

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


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

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)


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

On Leaving a Chinese Prison


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

A Little Leap Forward


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



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

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier


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

Found Horizon


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

East Is West


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

Divine Killer


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

China in Cyberspace


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

The Jiang Zemin Mystery


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

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan


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

Selling Out Hong Kong


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

Holding Out in Hong Kong


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

China: The Defining Moment


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

The Beginning of the End


Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag


Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster


In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

History on the Wing


Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American relations during the golden...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping


When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study...

The Last Days of Hong Kong


1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.”—Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in...

Keeping the Faith


On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age


Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy


To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their students like enemies when in our...

The 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...

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...