The Elusive Dragon

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

Among the growing number of foreigners visiting Beijing in the mid-1970s were many Americans whose politics back home would have been labeled mainstream or even conservative. Yet almost invariably these Americans were enthralled by what they saw during their carefully packaged tours of the People's Republic of China. By contrast, European social democrats who had seen the very same factories, communes, and schools regularly voiced deep skepticism about the new China.

Nearly all Americans then seemed captives of the prevailing myth: that the Chinese Communists had created an orderly society that equitably provided sufficient food, shelter, and clothing at a price that, while too high by Western standards, was one the Chinese people were happy to pay after decades of disorder and deprivation. That myth had in turn replaced the prevailing U.S. myth of the 1950s: that China was a totalitarian nation where the mindless masses were collectively building a mighty industrial state and a superpower that would soon threaten the United States.

Although others are not immune, Americans have long been particularly prone to adopting popular perceptions of an alternately good and bad China. Steven Mosher describes how successive paradigms created by U.S. sinologists and China-hand journalists have for many decades given Americans a profoundly distorted picture of what is happening in the world's largest nation.

Mosher's survey takes us from the caves of Yenan in the 1930s and 1940s—when American journalists pampered by Zhou Enlai and charmed by Mao Zedong sent back dispatches portraying the communist guerrillas as agrarian reformers—to the aftermath of the Tiananmen killings in 1989. Mosher is at his best in documenting—in what must be embarrassing detail for many U.S. sinologists and journalists—the height of the China craze in the years before and after President Nixon journeyed to China in 1972 to establish formal ties with the People's Republic.

It was during that period that I eagerly canvassed several leading U.S. sinologists for their advice, insight, and reading lists as I prepared for my new posting as a newspaper correspondent in Beijing. Do not judge China by Western values, I was repeatedly advised. Start with the premise that, given China's history and the problems it faces, communism is quite acceptable to the Chinese people.

Much of this anti-ethnocentrism run amok reflected the views of John King Fairbank, the dean of U.S. sinologists, whose impact on how Americans viewed China was at its peak. Mosher quotes Fairbank writing in 1972, several years after we began learning of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, that the "Maoist revolution is on the whole the best thing that happened to the Chinese people in centuries." The people themselves seemed "healthy, well fed and articulate about their role as citizens of Chairman Mao's New China." This was the accepted, mainstream U.S. view of China in the early 1970s; it emanated from Fairbank at Harvard and was promulgated by academics and journalists, many of them his former students.

Unsurprisingly, the book lists I was given then were heavily weighted in favor of authors who were either sympathetic toward, or outright propagandists for, the revolution. U.S. sinologists had little good to say about the more sober and enlightening accounts of the Chinese revolution by their French counterparts. And they dismissed as right-wing pamphleteers Miriam and Ivan London, whose refugee-based accounts of the dark drama unfolding in China in the 1960s and 1970s are given appropriate credit by Mosher as among the most accurate and informative of that era.

Mosher shows how facts that don't fit into America's China paradigm of the moment are usually discarded, a phenomenon I learned about firsthand in China. My Canadian newspaper syndicated my dispatches to several U.S. newspapers, which had to wait until formal U.S.-Chinese diplomatic ties were established in 1978 before setting up permanent bureaus in Beijing. The New York Times used a lot of my material during my first year there but somehow avoided running any feature story that reflected badly on China. (On a couple of occasions, the Times ran a story after editing out the one or two negative paragraphs.)

Then, after the first Tiananmen incident—in April 1976, when security forces violently suppressed an antileftist demonstration that had won widespread popular support—the paradigm flipped, and the Times began running stories indicating all was not well in the People's Republic. (Incidentally, if Mosher had asked journalists about this phenomenon, they would have informed him that it is not confined to China reportage. All journalists are captive, to a lesser or greater extent, to the shifting paradigms and conventional wisdom of the moment.)

Mosher approached his subject with the advantage of having looked at the People's Republic for more than a year from the ground up in a rural southern village. He has had little firsthand experience with the foreign community of diplomats and journalists in Beijing, a deficiency that is on balance an advantage. But it also explains a small but important omission in his book. He has ignored the crucial role played by a handful of senior Western diplomats in refining and promoting the China paradigm of the moment.

Since the early 1970s, the foreign community has usually been under the intellectual sway of one or two Western diplomats, often ambassadors, whose backgrounds gave them at least one foot in the sinologists' club. Their analyses of what was happening in China have almost invariably been articulate, knowledgeable, and wrong. Sought out by, and trading information with, both visiting and resident journalists as well as academics, these diplomats and their camp followers have had a key role in fashioning and refining the consensus upon which the faulty paradigms were founded.

Mosher concludes on an optimistic note, taking heart that Americans are finally able to get a clearer picture of Chinese realities because, since the Tiananmen incident, "the Chinese people…have begun speaking to us directly about their aspirations for democracy, economic freedom, and human rights." But this is not enough. Ordinary Americans must still depend on a community of scholars, journalists, and political figures to interpret what is happening in the world's largest country. And here the outlook is mixed.

On the one hand, the quality of much of the current writing about contemporary China since Tiananmen has been more balanced and insightful than often in the past. Exemplifying this trend is the excellent reportage of the husband-and-wife team of Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn in the New York Times. On the negative side, one can already detect a new and potentially misleading paradigm taking shape. With Marxism-Leninism completely discredited as both an ideology and a working system, the new conventional wisdom goes, communism in China will soon be swept aside as the octogenarians currently clinging to power die. Their deaths will inevitably lead in a few years to a new era of political reform and economic pragmatism.

In a sense, the new reasoning goes, the current oppressive regime isn't even very important because it's not going to be around long. Few hope otherwise, but as Mosher himself would point out, it would be foolhardy to make the sweeping assumption that communism in China cannot survive until the end of the century. Members of the Marxist-Leninist New Class in China are hunkering down now that events in the Soviet Bloc have demonstrated to them that a few reforms can lead to the crumbling of an entire communist edifice.

Ross H. Munro, head of the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, was Beijing correspondent for the Globe and Mail from 1975 to 1977.

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