China Misperceived: American Illusions and Chinese Reality
by Steven W. Mosher
Basic Books, 260 pages, $19.95

Driven by the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989, foreign perceptions of China are now being reexamined in a manner reminiscent of earlier foreign perceptions of the Soviet Union. In the early 1930s, millions of people died of famine in the Ukraine and North Caucasus. Walter Duranty, the New York Times correspondent who traveled widely through that area at the height of the famine, received prizes and high honor for filing stories that deliberately denied that reality. He had observed not starvation but well-fed peasants, he reported. Scattered evidence for that planned famine was available to Western observers”indeed, Malcolm Muggeridge reported his eye-witness account at the time”but a Gresham’s law of journalism operated, false coinage driving out the good. It took decades before the truth was widely reported and assimilated in the West, and then only after it was certified by Soviet authorities. This and related misconceptions of the Soviet Union”the discovery of the New Man, the closing of the gap between rich and poor, the enthusiastic, voluntary submission of the individual to the collective effort, the eradication of greed and crime”should have provided a cautionary tale for those who reported on China after the Communist triumph in 1949, and especially for Americans who were finally admitted to China after the Nixon breakthrough in 1972. Alas, instead of being cautioned, a vast array of visitors provided another cautionary tale, with Chinese rather than Soviet features. China Misperceived is Steven W. Mosher’s account and analysis of the perceptions and misperceptions people have had about China, particularly in recent times. American attitudes, while not exactly pendulum swings, did oscillate between attraction and repulsion during different periods of U.S.-China relations. President Nixon’s trip to China came after the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s and Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. Both of these movements inflicted grievous harm on China and its citizens. These were years of starvation and abuse for millions of Chinese, and the prisons were full of victims, many of them tortured, during the time of the presidential visit and for years after. They were part of the New China, but not a part displayed to visitors. Some of the most dramatic, sometimes amusing accounts of the New China that the visitors did see began with the president and the contingent of journalists that accompanied him on his week-long visit. The imaginative reports continued with an influx of visitors that included additional journalists, church people, businessmen, political figures, entertainers, and academics. Although distinctions between the individual commentators are in order, Mosher provides enough examples of their reactions to show that many of them discovered what they had expected to find in the New China. Some samples suggest the tenor of their comments. “Everything in China has changed except the endlessly resilient, hard-working, and clever Chinese people. The quality of life has changed, vastly for the worse for the ancient ruling class but for the better for everyone else.” Joseph Alsop “By assuming the role of China’s Dr. Spock, its John Dewey, and, indeed, its Gloria Steinem, the Chairman [Mao] has radically altered the Chinese way of life.” Newsweek “Dissidents are brought firmly into line in China but, one suspects, with great politeness. It is a firmly authoritarian society in which those in charge smile and say please.” John Kenneth Galbraith “The elimination of those conditions [graft] in China is so striking that negative aspects of the new rule fade in relative importance.” Barbara Tuchman “Whatever the price of the Chinese Revolution, it has obviously succeeded not only in producing more efficient and dedicated administration, but also in fostering high morale and community of purpose . . . . The social experiment in China under Chairman Mao’s leadership is one of the most important and successful in human history.” David Rockefeller The new Maoist man is “a new being born out of chaos, and endowed with moral qualities such as [have] never been seen before.” Harrison Salisbury The well-seasoned journalist Salisbury also allowed that he was deeply moved by the students who sang and danced to such stirring favorites as “Chairman Mao Has Sent Us Revolutionary Seed,” “The Song of the Pig Breeders,” and “Happy Is He Who Drives the Night Soil Cart.” The point of noting these and other perceptions, now seen to be obviously wrongheaded and misguided, is not to ridicule those who made them, but to inquire into their cause. Why did so many talented, intelligent, and worldly people go so far astray? A complete answer would go beyond the confines of even Mosher’s valuable book, but it would include the following considerations, in different proportions for different people and different professions. There was a manifest desire to see “idealistic,” even Utopian, plans brought to fruition. China’s leaders exploited this desire by concealing much and graciously offering to guide their “guests” through a packed, carefully prepared schedule. The visitors innocently colluded with those leaders to accept the selected aspects of the society exposed to them as the whole, to ignore evidence contrary to their expectations, and to exaggerate the significance of minor happy incidents. (A driver refuses a tip and, behold, we see the new Maoist man, devoid of greed.) There was also a degree of alienation from one’s own country”capitalist, bourgeois, class-riven, vice-ridden, and individualist to a fault”to which the New China provided an uplifting alternative. More mundane considerations also operated: the natural urge to bring back exciting new stories, the reluctance to insult or embarrass the gracious host who lavished such attention on his visitors, the fear of doing or saying anything that would damage the possibility of being invited back in. (The academic who had been permitted into China, for example, had a decided leg-up on his colleagues who could not yet speak and write from such personal experience.) There was also involved, finally, a faulty view of human nature and its potential for being perfected, the ancient dream of replacing the Old Adam with the New Man. These formed the preconditions for the self-deception practiced by so many visitors. Evidence of famine, starvation, and mass violation of human rights was available before and during the 1970s influx of visitors. Such evidence was ignored or slighted because it came from refugees (unrepresentative, prejudiced), scholars (inadequate evidence, not first-hand observations), and journalists (politically biased). During the period of infatuation with the New China, messengers who arrived with unpalatable views were not welcome at the table of “enlightened” discussion. A small personal note here. During the 1970s, when I was editor of Worldview and the sainted editor-in-chief of this journal was senior editor, we tried to get estimates from China-watchers of the approximate number of Chinese who had lost their lives under Mao’s regime. We finally gave up. Few scholars wanted to give public estimates, many acknowledging that they did not want to endanger their chances of obtaining a Chinese visa. We then published a three-part series, “The Other China,” by Miriam and Ivan D. London. Their sober and scholarly study revealed the dark side of China”hunger, famine, begging, financial speculation, robbery, prostitution, murder”as contrasted with the bright surface displayed in most contemporary presentations. Many readers were impressed with their findings, but a number of China-watchers condescendingly rejected their work and continued on their oblivious way. Only later, when the Londons’ findings were confirmed by China’s leaders, did these China-watchers alter their public views. Some executed smooth U-turns without acknowledging that they had changed course. Others, such as Theodore White, Ross Terrill, Orville Schell, and Michel Oksenberg, admitted the error of their earlier observations. A few neither changed nor acknowledged the need to do so. Foremost among the latter group is John K. Fairbank, for many years regarded as “dean of Sinologists.” A prolific author and an influential teacher, he has maintained his exalted reputation in spite of a long record of misjudgments and misleading statements. Fairbank himself has offered a partial explanation for his record. Mosher quotes him: “I was committed to viewing ‘communism’ as bad in America but good in China . . . . The question was whether we could import it [special knowledge of Chinese society] to our fellow specialists (in the sense of understanding the cultural-social differences). It was a tall order but the only way to keep American policy on the right track.” One might question whether keeping American policy on any particular track is the responsibility of a scholar. But Fairbank took on his self-imposed assignment with alacrity, in the process offering his fellow citizens a remarkable series of judgments. Two weeks after the arrest in 1976 of the Gang of Four, who fought to don Mao’s mantle, Fairbank asserted that “Ford vs. Carter is a more naked power struggle than anything going on in Beijing . . . . By calling the conflict between Beijing policy makers a ‘power struggle’ we . . . cut down dedicated revolutionaries . . . to the size of ambitious individualists we know well.” In the early seventies Fairbank suggested that “Americans may find in China’s collective life today an ingredient of personal moral concern for one’s neighbor that has a lesson for us all.” While China’s leaders have themselves described the Cultural Revolution as a “catastrophe,” a decade of tyranny and bloodshed, Fairbank, in a book published in 1987, asserted that the Revolution “had a bad press outside China,” and found its rationale in the traditional mistrust of the Chinese peasant for the educated elite. When the element of hooliganism is strained out of the Revolution, he concluded, we are left with “violence in the name of virtue, which others report as typical of the Cultural Revolution.” Typical, too, of the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France. Fairbank further reported that “individualism is still a dirty word in the people’s republic,” and seemed content that it should remain so, explicitly denying that human rights is a concept appropriate to China’s society. Writing in the New York Review of Books in September 1990, Fang Lizhi, the well-known dissident, noted that the early sixties, in the years immediately following the Great Leap Forward, China experienced one of the greatest famines in over two thousand years, one that took the lives of approximately 25 million people. In The United States and China, Fairbank’s survey history of modern China, his entire comment on famine during the period reads thus: “Malnutrition was widespread and some starvation occurred.” Such marvels of scholarship, truth-telling, and judgment would long ago have dimmed a name less lustrous than John K. Fairbank’s, but when a Chinese group named Human Rights in China produced Children of the Dragon, a photographic story of the Tiananmen Square massacre, it was he who was invited to write the preface. Nothing in that preface could be read as a retraction or corrective of his past comments on human rights and China, except perhaps for his enlightening statement that “Eastern Europe has now shown us [that] modern government requires popular participation in policy making.” Not incidentally, Children of the Dragon carries Fang Lizhi’s vigorous repudiation of the idea that human rights is an alien concept for China. The idea that China has its own standards of human rights”which is what Fairbank argued”reminds Lizhi of the eighteenth-century ruler who declared that “China has its own astronomy.” Lizhi insists that the Chinese people “must enjoy the same inalienable rights, dignity, and liberty as other human beings.” China Misperceived is an informative, highly readable book that does not demand specialized knowledge on the part of the reader. It underlines the importance of the work of people such as the Londons, people willing to press against the tide of popular and critical opinion. It does not offer a full analysis of how and why John K. Fairbank, now understood as a symbol for those whose misconceptions formed part of that tide, operated as he did, or why he continues to enjoy great prestige”nor has any other book. Such a book too would be well worth reading.


James Finn is Editorial Director of Freedom House and editor of Freedom Review, its bimonthly magazine.

Articles by James Finn

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