The following commentaries have been published in Inside Canberra, which is a weekly news service with a history of over forty years, distributed to all members of the Australian Parliament. The following items have all appeared under the name John Byron.

The following items have all appeared under the name John Byron elsewhere:

長期居住在亞洲的西方人, 漢學家拜倫, 帶您瞭解中國社會的發展.

The North Korean Enigma

North Korea’s most recent missile launch, which involved a missile flying over north Japan and landing in the Pacific Ocean, raises further questions about the long-term strategy of Kim Jong-un.  While the launch of the missile was almost certainly a response to the large military exercise that is currently being conducted in South Korea by essentially South Korean and US forces, the fact that it flew across Japanese territory made it much more provocative than if it had not crossed any foreign country.  While North Korea has not fired any missiles near Guam, and this missile was in a very different direction, it raises the question of Kim’s real motives and objectives.

The main difficulty in assessing this issue is that North Korea is a very closed society and there is little information available about the inner calculations of Kim and his immediate allies and the North Korean elite at large.  The Chinese presumably have some insights into these issues, but nothing has been revealed in the Chinese media or in the public comments Chinese officials have made.  The publicity that the North Korean media gives to the missile launches and Kim Jong-un’s constant presence at the launch sites suggests that a major purpose is for Kim to be able to present himself to the DPRK elite and population at large as an active propagator of North Korea’s sovereignty and security.

The US response to this latest missile launch is mixed, almost contradictory.  President Trump has said that “talking is not the answer”, suggesting that diplomatic exchanges could be cut off completely and the US would only contemplate a military response.  But Defense Secretary Mattis has stated that the US still has diplomatic options, and in effect promoted a quite different approach from that implied by Trump’s remarks.  Secretary of State Tillerson has also expressed a similar view to Mattis’ approach.  While the US would have the capability to defeat North Korea in an all-out war, the cost in terms of lives lost in South Korea and Japan would be enormous, and run into tens of millions. 

While Kim’s motives and long-term strategic objectives remain unclear, at this stage it seems likely that his key objectives are to present himself to the North Korean population as a fearless nationalistic leader, and demonstrate a level of military might that would deter an offensive being launched by the US or South Korea.  Once the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council begin to take effect Kim will face some serious challenges in terms of the domestic economy and the availability of food and acceptable living standards for the population at large, but how he would respond to those challenges remains unclear at this stage.  But he may feel that he has presented a sufficiently strong profile that in due course he could turn his attention away from promoting rocket tests to master-minding economic reforms and developments.  At this stage there is too little information about Kim’s world view and strategic calculations to be able to assess whether this will be his approach, but at this stage the outside world can do little but wait and watch how his policy approach evolves.

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Hong Kong’s Legal Autonomy

While there has been considerable debate about the extent to which China respects Hong Kong’s autonomy under the one-country two- systems arrangement, there have been several cases recently that suggest that Beijing essentially abides by Hong Kong’s right to govern its own territory.  The concern about China’s respect for Hong Kong’s autonomy became a serious issue two years ago when a number of publishers were taken to the mainland, or arrested while on the mainland, because they were distributing to mainland customers books that highlighted the alleged decadence and scandalous life-styles of senior Chinese officials.  As this case evolved it became apparent that these book publishers had been victims of a special police unit that was seeking to promote its image in the eyes of the Beijing elite, and not a central government initiative.

A recent case of a Chinese billionaire who went to the mainland under circumstances that were unclear has revived the attention that Hong Kong people pay to the issue of the autonomy of the territory.  This individual, Xiao Jianhua, in late January left his apartment in the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel and was escorted to the mainland by some Chinese officials and, allegedly, his own female bodyguards.  This event prompted much press speculation, but according to the chief of the Hong Kong police there was no evidence that Xiao had been kidnapped by mainland agents.  The Hong Kong authorities have also said that Xiao’s border-crossing exit records were all in order, which indicates that he was not taken out of Hong Kong by some covert means.  According to a range of sources he is assisting mainland investigations in relation to a number of cases involving bribery and stock market manipulation.  Xiao in fact is a Canadian citizen, but so far the Canadian Consulate-General in Hong Kong has not made any statements suggesting that his traveling to the mainland involved problems that the Canadian government should be concerned about.   While it remains to be seen whether Xiao himself will face any charges on the mainland, so far the Chinese actions do not imply any neglect of Hong Kong laws and border regulations.

Another case that occurred recently involved Donald Tsang, the former Chief Executive of Hong Kong, who was arrested and convicted in Hong Kong of several charges relating to accepting benefits in the form of access to a luxury penthouse in Shenzhen from a businessman for whom he had approved a broadcasting license.  Tsang was chief executive for nine years, and never had any conflict with Beijing, but the Chinese authorities made no attempt to protect him from the criminal prosecution and he was sentenced to twenty months in prison. 

In another recent criminal case, seven Hong Kong policemen were charged with having physically assaulted Ken Tseng, one of the protesters during the Occupy Central movement three years ago, which saw many thousands of Hong Kong people protest against mainland influence in Hong Kong.  The seven police officers were sentenced to two years in jail, and while several of them have launched appeals, they have clearly come under a lot of pressure.  But their conviction and sentencing reflects the high level of Hong Kong’s autonomy, because their action in beating up one of the demonstrators was very much in line with Beijing’s interests.  The Chinese government strongly opposed the demonstrations, but they made no attempt to protect these seven policemen from the legal action taken against them. 

These cases underscore that in general Beijing respects Hong Kong’s autonomy, and allows the Hong Kong system to operate in accordance with its own regulations.  Of course, Beijing has a strong influence over the process of selecting chief executives, and it will ensure that whoever is the next chief executive is not an anti-China figure.  But that is consistent with the agreement that led to Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, and should not be read as a sign of unjustified interference by the Chinese.  From the Australian perspective the approach Beijing takes is very beneficial because it respects the independence of the Hong Kong legal system which means that the many Australian businesses in Hong Kong operate in a rule of law environment.  Australian political figures would advance Australian interests if, when opportunities arise, they expressed appreciation of China’s respect for the one-country two-systems regime. 

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Tensions In China’s Political Elite

The sixth plenum of the current Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, which was held early this week, suggests that Chinese elite politics could become quite tension-driven over the next twelve months.  This meeting signals the start of Beijing’s five-yearly political reshuffle, which will last until the Party Congress towards the end of next year.  Five of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee will be replaced at the 2017 Congress if the informal retirement age of 68 remains in effect.   If they do retire in line with current procedures, a number of Central Committee members will compete for the privilege of replacing them on the Politburo. 

There is also considerable speculation that President Xi Jinping will defy the Party’s unofficial retirement rules, and seek to remain in office for a further five years after his ten year period finishes in 2022.  In order to open the door to this approach Xi might well support the notion that Wang Qishan, the head of the anti-corruption department, should remain in office for a further five years, despite the fact that he will be 69 by the time of next year’s Party Congress.  Wang Qishan has worked closely with Xi, and cracked down on corruption in a totally unprecedented way.  He has successfully caught a number of Xi’s political rivals, including Bo Xilai, the former Party chief in Chongqing, but he has also greatly reduced the amount of corruption that was introducing considerable irrationality in the way economic decisions were being made. 

A hard-line Party newspaper, People’s Tribune, has also published articles stating that Xi needs to be given “core” leadership status, arguing that China needed a strongman as political leader so the nation could rise to greatness amid a time of strategic challenges and risks.  This implies that Xi should be able to remain for an extra five years after his current ten-year term expires. 

According to China’s state media the Party Plenum would consider two sets of new regulations, one setting out guiding principles for life within the Party “under new circumstances” and the other revising a trial regulation on the party’s internal supervision.  These new regulations would essentially be aimed at senior Party officials, and in particular members of the Central Committee, the Politburo, and the Politburo Standing Committee.  While the previous code, which was drafted in the early 1980s, emphasized internal democracy within the Party and barred members from showing loyalty to any single individual, the new code seems to focus on tightening control of power and centralizing authority.  This would make it easier for Xi to secure the support of the Central Committee and the Party Congress next year to extend his rule for a further five years. 

But while the introduction of new internal Party rules seems to increase Xi’s influence, he nonetheless faces some potentially serious challenges.  There is considerable popular discontent with Xi because at a time when the economy is slowing down and poverty is becoming more widespread, Xi is spending a lot of time on the world stage, traveling to a wide range of countries, accompanied by his glamorous wife who is a former opera singer, and being photographed with foreign leaders.   China’s Premier, Li Keqiang, by contrast, is clearly focused on economic issues, although so far he has been unable to have a very positive impact on China’s economic performance.  This difference in focus appears to have generated considerable tension between President Xi and Premier Li, but how this will play out remains to be seen.  While the new Party rules that are being considered would reinforce Xi’s status, a number of other Party activists would see themselves as potential successors in 2022.  

There is still about twelve months before the next Party Congress, at which the question of Xi’s future role and possible successor will be addressed, but the tensions within the elite that have become apparent in recent months could become a source of confusion within the Chinese elite over the coming year.  While nationalist rhetoric has become a little more obvious over the past year, this has tended to be expressed by outspoken individuals who are on the margins of the Party or the PLA, and does not reflect nation-wide views.  From the perspective of Australia and other countries in the region, it is important to distinguish between the politically-driven rhetoric generated by the competition for top positions and the nationalist outbursts by some commentators and military officials who have no real power or capacity to influence foreign policy decisions and essentially are seeking to promote themselves.  

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China's Increasing Internet Censorship

Starting in the 1990s China developed a relatively open literary and cultural environment, with a number of liberal magazines appearing on the market and a large number of internet sites and SMS messages being sent expressing political views that often differed from government policy.  While most of these forms of expression were not openly opposing the authority of the Communist Party, they were providing a lot of information and views about Party officials and policies that were previously not available in mainland China.  Over the last several years, however, government agencies have been gradually targeting these platforms of free expression and working to ensure that the views that are expressed are not critical of the Party or the Party’s view of China’s post-1949 history. 

In June the Chinese government enacted sweeping cyber-security legislation which will be enforced by the newly created Cyberspace Administration of China.  One of the main requirements of this new set of regulations is that from October internet users will have to register their real names before they can post comments online.  This regulation requires all internet and tech companies to verify the identities of all registered users before they can post anything on their platforms.  This regulation applies to all websites, smartphone applications, interactive communication platforms and “any other communication platform that features news or with the function to mobilize society.”  This of course would enable government agencies to identify any internet users who made critical comments about the Party and, if their views were considered too extreme, take legal action against them.

The Chinese state-owned media, such as CCTV (China Central Television), China National Radio, and the numerous provincial TV and radio services have consistently followed Propaganda Department regulations that prohibit the broadcasting of news or commentaries that could damage the image of the Party and the Party’s leaders.  This has always been the way the system has operated and in effect provides the philosophical basis for the controls that are now being applied to internet and social media platforms.  While foreign-based television broadcasters such as CNN, the BBC and Phoenix Satellite Television do not come under such controls, the distribution of their programming is restricted to hotels, apartment blocks with foreign residents, and government agencies that deal with international issues.  In effect, this means that while the elite level of Chinese society can access free foreign news sources, the population at large is unable to view uncensored foreign news on television or the internet, or read about it in newspapers and magazines.

The fact that the forthcoming Party Congress, which will have a major influence on the composition of the Party’s ruling elite, is taking place in mid October is almost certainly a major factor behind this crack down on media and internet freedoms.  The Party leaders have consistently opposed the notion that the public can criticize the Party and its elite leaders.  The anti-corruption campaign that President Xi Jinping has implemented over the last five years has inspired a considerable amount of hostility towards the regime, and the current Party leaders clearly do not want to see that reflected in critical commentaries that could generate strong opposition to the current Party leadership.  The numerous statements made by Guo Wengui, a Chinese billionaire now living in exile in New York, who alleges that some of Xi’s close allies are involved in corrupt and illegal activities, have probably made Party officials more focused on the need for tighter media controls. 

There is a question, however, as to whether this crackdown on media and internet services will continue in the long term.  One factor is that an enormous number of Chinese use smartphones and the question arises as to whether the Cyberspace Administration would have the capacity to monitor such a large number of users over the long-term.  Another factor is that many Chinese now study overseas or travel abroad for vacations or business and get a direct sense of what is happening in the outside world and its potential significance for China.  The Chinese economy clearly requires strong international connections, and knowledge of foreign countries and developments overseas is essential to maintaining China’s economic growth, not to mention its rising status as a major player on the world stage. 

These factors could conceivably produce two scenarios.  One would be that the controls that are currently being imposed could be relaxed in due course, and perhaps only applied when major domestic events such as this forthcoming Party Congress take place.  Another scenario is that Chinese society could become increasingly diverse, with a growing community of Chinese who have had extensive international experience, and another group whose knowledge of the outside world is restricted to the information that is available on censored websites and media sources.  How this dynamic will evolve remains to be seen, but it is clearly in the interests of both China and the global community for the Chinese population to have a comprehensive and well balanced view of the international environment.

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Results Of The Chinese Party Congress

The Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress ended on Tuesday and the new senior Party leadership team was announced on Wednesday.  President Xi Jinping’s political philosophy on “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” is to be written into the party’s constitution, making him the third leader since Mao Zedong to have his name attached to a policy objective in the Party’s charter.  This clearly elevates Xi’s status, but his policy objectives do not necessarily signify any radical change in the direction of Chinese policy.  He has spoken about the need to reduce income inequality in the Chinese population, and one of the motives for this approach is to reduce the danger posed by the existence of a large number of poverty-stricken areas where the impoverished residents become extremely antagonistic towards government policies which generate millionaires at the expense of the local peasantry and the factory workers.  China has a very long history of such economic disparities becoming the force behind anti-government cults which represent direct challenges to the governing regime.  Xi has also spoken about the importance of international peace, and China’s economic connections with the outside world, which suggest that his policy approach will not be dramatically different from the previous five years.  His references to China expanding its military power refer to a timeframe ending in 2050, which indicates that in the next five years China will not be making any massive military changes, and will be seeking to maintain an essentially peaceful, conflict-free environment.

On Wednesday the new Party leadership was announced, with the focus being on the new seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo, which is the leading element in the Party system.  Only two members of the previous Standing Committee remain, namely Xi Jinping nd Premier Li Keqiang.  The five new members of the Standing Committee come from different Party backgrounds.  Xi’s former chief of staff, Li Zhanshu, and Zhao Leji are both close associates on Xi.  Several of the other appointees are not part of Xi’s personal team, and Han Zheng, for example is a former Party Chief in Shanghai and thus part of former President Jiang Zemin’s coterie, while Wang Huning, who will be in charge of ideology, propaganda and Party organization, is a former university professor of philosophy.  The other new member of the Standing Committee, Wang Yang, is an experienced provincial leader with a strong record on economic development, and previously managed the exceedingly prosperous Guangdong Province.  While the new Standing Committee represents several different elements of the Party, they are likely to work closely with Xi, who has emerged from the Congress with high status, and who is clearly concerned to increase coordination within the Chinese system.  China is an extremely large and complex country, with many provincial and central government institutions that tend to view themselves as largely independent of the Beijing-based leadership.  Xi seems to want a more coordinated approach to government.

Xi has placed a strong emphasis on the Chinese media following the Party line and not broadcasting or publishing information that is critical of or negative about the Party.   This approach will certainly introduce a higher level of censorship, including of the internet, but in the long term could become less strongly enforced, partly because limiting the free flow of information can limit the capacity to make sensible economic decisions and reduce the capacity to perceive commercial and other opportunities, and also because controlling the media and the internet in a country as large as China can be extremely demanding and difficult.  But in the first phase of the next five year period censorship will probably be stricter than in the past.

China’s economic policies will be adjusted in some respects, with an emphasis on addressing the debt-problem that now threatens many State-Owned Enterprises, which could well lead to a new emphasis on privately owned businesses that do not rely on bank-provided funds to operate.  There is also likely to be a more open approach to foreign companies becoming active in the Chinese economy because this will also reduce the problem of debt.  China’s foreign policy is also unlikely to undergo any major changes.  One significant indicator of a continuation of current foreign policy was the appointment to the Politburo of Yang Jiechi, who has been the State Councilor responsible for foreign policy, and who was previously Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the United States.  Beijing’s attitude towards Taiwan, namely accepting Taiwan’s current status as long as it does not declare independence, and the South China Sea are likely to stay the same.  China will remain strongly opposed to North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, but there will always be a question as to how close China will be able to work with the US on addressing this issue.  But perhaps the key factor will be President Trump’s at times unpredictable rhetoric rather than any Chinese support for Kim Jong-un or his current policies.

The Congress did not name a successor to Xi Jinping after the next five year period.  This is unusual in the current Party system, and leaves the way open for Xi to remain in office for a further five year term starting in 2022.  But he will have passed the informal retirement age of 68 by then, and might also face other challenges over the coming years.  The approach he has taken, however, seems to be politically astute, in as much as it leaves that opportunity open, while at the same time not making himself a target for critics within the Party or potential rivals.  We will have to wait and see what happens.

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A Comprehensive Solution to the Asylum Seeker Problem

Unless the Australian Government, regardless of which Party forms it, applies a comprehensive solution to the people smuggling trade, it will be impossible to stop it. Deterrence will not work, because the people smugglers will assure potential refugees that, regardless of what they are told, they will be delivered to Australia and be processed as usual, and that even if they are sent offshore they will eventually get to Australia.

Placing one-page advertisements in Australian newspapers is a complete waste of money in terms of policy, although it may encourage Australians to vote for the ALP by convincing them the Government is taking action. None of the potential refugees will be reading Australian newspapers so these ads have no direct impact on them. It is possible that relatives in Australia will see the ads but any message they send will be mediated by them and their knowledge of what is happening in PNG with regard to implementation of the policy.

The key to the solution is to use the police and other intelligence and diplomatic means to tackle head on the smugglers and their networks who arrange for the boats and recruit the potential passengers. This will involve an agreement with the Indonesian Government, in particular, that if the AFP and other agencies adduce evidence against the people smugglers they will arrest, prosecute and jail them. The Labor Government seems to have done very little in that regard, which shows how out of touch it is with reality.

The Australian Government should set up centres for processing refugee applications in Middle Eastern countries as well as in South East Asia. In that way immigration authorities would have an opportunity to defuse the problem by handling applications in either applicants' home country or near-by, long before they think of getting on boats.

Finally, the Government should bear in mind the problem of illegal Chinese migrants coming on boats in the 1990's. Once Australia and China reached agreement that such arrivals could be sent back to China and that China would accept them, the trade immediately came to a halt. Australia should negotiate with at least some, if not all the countries from which asylum seekers come, to reach bilateral agreements to the effect that asylum seekers would be returned to their home country and accepted without punishment for having sought to leave for Australia. Such agreements would end the problem forever.

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The Hwa Wei Dilemma

The recent, poorly coordinated Ministerial statements about the potential for the Chinese company Hwa Wei's participation in the NBN tender process could have a damaging impact on Australia's economic prospects. While comments from Malcolm Turnbull and Andrew Robb suggested that a reversal of the previous Government's ban on Hwa Wei would have a positive effect on Australia's image among senior Chinese officials, Attorney-General George Brandis' sudden rebuttal of this more pragmatic approach is likely to have a severely negative impact. The fact that the Attorney-General's statement more or less coincided with Edward Snowden's revelation that Australian embassies in Asia, including Beijing, were spying on local communication systems would have caused senior Chinese to ask how Australia could object to a Chinese company doing something that its own Government agencies are themselves doing.

The Government needs a clearer understanding of how to communicate with Asian countries, including China, and a more detailed knowledge of Asian dynamics and the issues it is discussing. The Government should recognize that Hwa Wei is a private company, wholly owned by private shareholders. The fact that it is not a state-owned enterprise does not mean that it would never provide services for Chinese Ministries but, if this were to happen, it would be on a case-by-case basis and hardly sufficient reason to exclude Hwa Wei from the tendering process. Excluding Hwa Wei would make the NBN more expensive because other companies would not need to match the competitive price of a Chinese company, but the real damage to Australian interests is that excluding Hwa Wei from the tender process would make a Free Trade Agreement unlikely and incline many Chinese companies to do business in countries other than Australia.

The Government needs to develop a more subtle form of communication on China-related matters. On the Hwa Wei issue it would make sense for the Government to announce a review of the ban on Hwa Wei and then, in due course, announce that Hwa Wei would be permitted to participate in certain parts of the process. The Chinese would then be aware that the Government did not have a visceral distrust of Chinese companies and, at the same time, the move would encourage the Chinese Government to make reforms that enabled the development of more private companies and thus reduce the dominant role of state-owned enterprises. That is the direction that Australia and other Western Governments want China to take but, by denouncing Hwa Wei, the Government is, in effect, backing the state-owned enterprises and those conservative ideologues who want to delay economic and political reform.

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The Australian Government Needs a More Nuanced Foreign Policy

Several recent events show that the Abbot Government still has some way to go before it has a foreign policy that advances Australia's interests. The most recent example of the Government's ineptitude was the infringement of Indonesia's maritime sovereignty by Australian naval vessels. Australia clearly needs Indonesia's cooperation if it's to stop people smugglers bringing asylum seekers into Australian territory. Infringing Indonesian sovereignty provides the people smugglers with a strong case to persuade the authorities to curtail cooperation with Australia. Foreign Minister Bishop has publicly apologized to her Indonesian counterpart, which is a good start to repairing the damage caused by this event, but Australia needs deeper diplomatic insights if it's to get the Indonesian Government back on side.

Before this incident, there were serious tensions in the relationship created by the Snowden revelations about Australia's interception of the mobile phone conversations of both President Yudhoyono and his wife. While the Prime Minister wrote a private letter to his Indonesian counterpart, in the context of Indonesian politics, much more public remorse is required. The Prime Minister obviously cannot discuss the classified matters publicly but he could articulate his personal regret for the embarrassment that this issue caused to the Indonesian leader and his family. A display of personal contrition would have gone over well with the Indonesian elite and, while a private letter is a good first step, it's nowhere near enough.

A further recent issue was the verbal confrontation in which Foreign Minister Bishop engaged with senior Chinese diplomats on her recent visit to Beijing. While the Chinese Air Defence Identification Zone is certainly not something that Australia should support, the Government should understand the historical factors that have led to the current tension between China and Japan. During the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese military massacred millions of Chinese civilians and, so far, has never apologized to the Chinese for the outrageous behaviour of their armed forces. The emotions that fuel the dispute over the Senkaku/Diayu islands flow directly from this dynamic. While Foreign Minister Bishop should voice concern that the Air Defence Identification Zone could lead to unintended military conflict which would jeopardize regional security, she should also express understanding of the cultural and historical issues that have led to China's actions. While Prime Minister Abbot talks about the 'Anglosphere', he needs to recognize that Australia is situated in a region where social and political values differ greatly from those of the English-speaking western world. When dealing with complex and long-established Asian political cultures, Australia has to develop an understanding of the region and not simply think in terms of falling back on Western protocols. The Government needs to tailor its diplomacy to handle the broad spectrum of political cultures that determine the public positions and policies of Australia's neighbours.

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Australia and China's Border Issues

Prime Minister Abbott, who will visit China next month, told Fairfax journalists recently that Australia did not take a position on the territorial dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands but looked to them to resolve their disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law. This is a sensible approach because Australia clearly has a strong interest in maintaining good relations with both China and Japan and avoiding any conflict in the East China Sea which could cause serious problems for the region.

While the potential benefits from possible marine and energy resources in the disputed area is one factor behind China's claim, we should recognise that, historically, China has been concerned with frontier security. It's only when China was ruled by ethnic minorities like the Mongols that it sought to conquer other empires and kingdoms. The current frictions between China and its neighbours are consistent with that historical pattern. China's claims in the South China Sea derive from its perception that it lost territory as a consequence of Western imperialism in the 19th century. The French conquered Vietnam and its surrounding islands, defeating the Chinese in a war in 1884-5, and the Americans took over a large number of islands in the Philippines after the American-Spanish War.

Thus, although the claims made by China and other regional countries are difficult to establish under international law because of the insufficiency of historical data, China's interest in regaining regions it believes were historically part of China does not reflect territorial expansionism. The Air Defence Identification Zone that China has declared in the East China Sea is intended to symbolise China's border claim and not to threaten military action. The main danger is that some accidental incident could lead to tensions getting out of hand.

The government should realise that Japan's Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is regarded as a controversial figure in China. Abe and his political allies have argued that the war criminals in the Yasukuni Shrine are not criminals under Japanese law and that comfort women were not forced to serve Japanese soldiers. Abe is also keen to vindicate his grandfather who was a senior official in the Manchukuo state, established by the Japanese in North-east China in the 1930s, and later served in the Japanese Cabinet during World War II. This underscores China's belief that some Japanese politicians are taking a nationalist position which is provoking policy-makers in Beijing and hindering the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands issue.

Australia should also be mindful of the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s and '40s when millions of Chinese civilians were massacred. Some expression of sympathy for those tragic war-time events, particularly given the fact that many Australians also suffered at the hands of Japanese soldiers, would impress the Chinese and incline them to feel that their history was already recognised by foreign players like Australia and that they need not push any harder.

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AN ORDINARY SPY By Joseph Weisberg
Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books

Joseph Weisberg's novel An Ordinary Spy is absolutely true to its name. The main character, Martin Ruttenberg, is a serious, hard-working young CIA officer with an active curiosity about the environment he finds himself it --- the CIA headquarters in north Virginia, the rural training school for intelligence collectors known as "the farm", and the third world country to which he is posted under the cover of being an embassy visa officer. But Ruttenberg is not an expert in espionage in the tradition of John Le Carre's George Smiley, Len Deighton's Harry Palmer, or Charles McCarry's Paul Christopher. Ruttenberg is just an ordinary spy who is finally removed from the Agency because the sexual appeal of a woman he is seeking to "develop" as an agent gets the better of his self-control, and not because he betrays any secret or classified information.

But while he is just an ordinary spy, Ruttenberg's story provides a detailed and compelling account of how the modern CIA operates. Indeed, Weisberg himself worked for a number of years in the CIA's Directorate of Operations, and his narrative provides an authoritative account of the rules under which its case officers and chiefs of station have to operate, and how the Agency's bureaucracy places all sorts of impediments in the way of collecting secret information about the country to which he is posted.

Ruttenberg is sent to work in the visa section of an embassy in a developing country, which is never identified, although it has a humid climate, a nuclear program, and an internal security service that seeks to keep close tabs on all foreign diplomats. His daytime duties are just a cover for his real mission, which is to recruit agents who can provide intelligence on local politics and military programs. So once his office work is finished he attends countless parties, receptions, and dinners in the hope of meeting potential recruits, people who for one reason or another would be prepared to provide confidential information to US agents in return for money.

But he finds that it is not easy to identify people who have the potential to be turned into "developments", or contacts who could be recruited. He does meet, however, a rather attractive woman who works as a secretary at another embassy and who expresses a high level of dissatisfaction with her situation, suggesting that she might be prepared to cooperate with a US agent. When this case does not develop, however, Ruttenberg begins a sexual relationship with her.

He also meets one of the local military chiefs, a general who has extensive political contacts and who seems to act as one of the key actors in the local political situation. The General asks Ruttenberg whether he has ever met another US diplomat named Barry Goldstein, and when Ruttenberg says he has never heard of this person the General just laughs. From then on each time Ruttenberg meets the General the latter also greets him as "the man who doesn’t know Barry Goldstein".

The Chief of Station somehow learns that Ruttenberg is sleeping with Daisy and he is recalled to the US and dismissed. Some time after he has settled back into the US, however, he receives a cryptic message from an unknown source, and shortly later is telephoned by a stranger who has received a similar cryptic message. The telephone call turns out to be from Barry Goldstein, and when they meet Ruttenberg hears Goldstein's account of his own posting in the unnamed country, his recruitment of an agent whom he calls "Ralph", and his botched attempt to have his houseboy, a young orphan who also works for the General, exfiltrated and sent to America.

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WILL CHINA FAIL? By John Lee, The Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney

WORRYING ABOUT CHINA By Gloria Davies, Harvard University Press

CHINESE LESSONS By John Pomfret, Scribe, Melbourne

This trio of books offers the opportunity to investigate and think about China from three extremely different perspectives. Since Deng Xiaoping initiated his reform program in the late 1970s China has undergone profound and ever accelerating changes. China has evolved from a uniformly poor, tightly controlled society into a world economy and a scene of dynamic social and cultural activity. But because China's transformation has been so rapid and multi-faceted, with different aspects of China changing at different speeds, it can be difficult to assess the changes and calibrate their long-term impact.

John Lee's Will China Fail? looks critically at China's economic reforms and its transformation into a major world economy. Lee argues that "the economics and politics behind the Chinese model are flawed, unsustainable, dangerously unstable, and unlikely if not incapable of providing a foundation for the continuation of China's 'peaceful rise' or 'peaceful development'.” Lee is also skeptical about some of the concepts that have been advanced to explain the changes, such as the 'Beijing consensus' and 'market socialism', and points out that these concepts are beset by significant inconsistencies.

China faces serious systemic challenges as economic behaviour changes much faster than the political process, and as a large disparity in wealth emerges between the prosperous urban centres and the poverty-stricken rural areas where most of the population resides. The outside world needs to be aware of China's vulnerabilities and not take unending success for granted.

But while Lee provides a useful guide to the factors that need to be examined and identifies potentially serious flaws in today's rapidly changing China, his pessimistic conclusions are undercut by serious factual errors and the outdated character of much of his data.

One of the key components of his argument is that the non-performing loans that burdened Chinese banks in the 1990s, when policy makers required banks to lend to under-performing state-owned enterprises, could cripple the Chinese banking system. In the late '90s this was a serious problem, but today the major banks have siphoned off their non-performing loans, and no longer face risks from a sudden downturn leading to a mass of withdrawals from the banks. Today the challenge to the banks comes from the booming Chinese stock market, which is absorbing much of the money that used to be deposited in savings accounts and never touched by depositors.

Lee also regards "the regime” as if it was a unitary, unchanging entity. In fact the Chinese Communist Party and government apparatus has undergone significant changes since Deng Xiaoping took control following Mao's death. While China at large has no democratic elections, the selection of the senior members of the Communist Party is by a process of democratic election that is comparable in terms of fairness with the intra-party processes in many Western countries. Moreover the protests against local officials involved in land grabs or corruption are designed to attract the attention of the senior leaders in Beijing, and not protest against them. Unlike Lee, most Chinese realize that the senior leaders in Beijing regard a fair, uncorrupt system as essential for China's long-term stability.

Lee's selection of sources is also questionable. He quotes extensively from submissions to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which is dominated by anti-China ideologues and which rarely looks for a balanced picture of developments in China.

This problem is compounded by the lack of evidence that Lee himself has spent enough time in China to comprehend the impact on the Chinese population, both rich and poor, of the enormous expansion in personal liberty that has occurred since the early 1980s.

Gloria Davies' Worrying About China is not premised on any fears that China might fail, but looks at a very different dimension of modern China and delivers a fascinating account of the arcane intellectual debates that have occupied China's philosophers since the early part of the twentieth century. Davies explores the development of Chinese philosophy, which she calls 'critical enquiry', from the 1920s through to the first decade of the twenty-first century.

While Davies traces these debates back to Lu Xun, perhaps the most independently minded Chinese thinker of the first half of the last century, she devotes most of her time to examining how Chinese philosophers have responded to the influences of the post-modernist philosophers such as Jacques Derrida.

Davies' argument is that Chinese philosophers have inherited much from the Confucian tradition, and that in seeking to come to terms with post-modernist theory they are constantly 'worrying about China' and seeking to relate post-modernist theory to the dilemmas facing contemporary China. She concedes that at times Chinese philosophical writers temper their language to sidestep the concerns of the censors, but that basically they are engaged in an attempt to make a universal debate relevant to China.

Davies' book is written in an at times recondite language, but while her terminology is often abstruse, she leaves no doubt that the Chinese intelligentsia is deeply involved in coming to terms with foreign debates about the nature of human society, and that there is no attempt to suppress their personal beliefs for the sake of political correctness.

On the contrary, Davies convincingly shows that modern Chinese philosophical discourse has two distinct dimensions, and that while it is conditioned by the traditional Chinese impulse to relate philosophical discourse to the problems that confront China, Chinese thinkers also place great emphasis on international intellectual trends when they come to think about China's situation.

As Davies concludes, "There is no 'clash of civilizations' at work here but rather an agon between radically different styles of enquiry…. Such an agon does not preclude the prospect of productive conversations that are mutually sympathetic to an expanded sense of community, as long as hospitality remains a universal praxis.”

John Pomfret's book, Chinese Lessons, avoids both economic theory and China's philosophical disquisitions. The focus of this detailed, colourful and often moving account is the author's experience in China, first as a student in China, at Nanjing University, during the early 1980s, and later as the Washington Post correspondent in Beijing. Pomfret arrived in China in 1980 when Deng's reform program was little more than a tapestry of slogans, and he consequently is able to describe the enormous transformation China's society and politics has been through over the last thirty years. He recounts in gripping detail the problems young Chinese university students confronted as they tried to rebuild their own and their families' lives that had often been shattered by Mao's Cultural Revolution and the pervasive restrictions on the personal lives of Chinese and foreigners alike in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Pomfret writes extremely frankly about the romantic relationships he has with three Chinese women. The first of these relationships occurs in the early 1980s when the authorities sought to prevent any sexual contact between Chinese and foreigners, and the couple have to engage in all sorts of subterfuges in order to meet in private. The third Chinese woman he dates has just returned from studying in the United States when he meets her in the 1990s and they are able to conduct an open relationship that concludes with a successful marriage.

Chinese Lessons details many other aspects of the profound changes that have swept China over the past 30 years. One of the most telling aspects of his description of his fellow students is how several of them rejected any association with the Communist Party because of their sufferings during the early decades, while others sought Party membership, not because of any belief in Communist ideology, but because they calculated that party membership would assist them in getting jobs or starting up businesses.

While Lee provides general guidance of where to look for possible weaknesses in the Chinese system, Pomfret underscores the enormous changes that have transformed China and which give most Chinese the sense that no matter what problems they might face tomorrow, things are much better than they were in Mao's day. Pomfret does not overlook the shortcomings in the government's performance, but his account reminds the reader that if a crisis did occur then the widespread sense of improvement in China's circumstances would be a stabilizing factor and help to prevent a nation-wide breakdown.

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WOLF TOTEM By Jiang Rong
Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books

Jiang Rong's novel Wolf Totem is a perfect example of how a work of fiction can convey profound insights into human existence and experience. Written by a Chinese who had been sent to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution, Wolf Totem paints a vivid picture of the lives of the Mongolian nomads, their relationship with the natural environment, and in doing so also exposes some of the failings of normal Chinese society and culture, ranging from the regular defeat of large Chinese armies at the hands of small Mongol forces to the destructive impact of Chinese Communist bureaucrats as they sought to extend their agricultural policy across the Mongolian grasslands.

At a deeper level the novel also contains a powerful message about environmental protection, and the need for development policy to take into account the specific conditions of different places, and not apply a one-size-fits–all policy.

Wolf Totem is told from the perspective of Chen Zhen, a student exiled to the grasslands who becomes fascinated by the Mongolian nomads' approach to life, and particularly their skill at countering the brutality and cunning of the wolves while cultivating their sheep and horses. But while the wolves are the enemies of the Mongolians, who become extremely annoyed when Chen Zhen finds a young wolf cub and tries to raise it as a pet, they regard them as almost sacred animals worthy of respect. The Mongolians instinctively understand that "the key to protecting the grassland is limiting the number of wolves we kill" because only the wolves protect the grasslands from the destructive impact of "ground squirrels, rabbits, marmots and gazelles".

The novel is making a universal point and at one stage the dialogue even cites Australian experience. In talking with the head of the Mongolian family in whose yurt he is living, the well-read young Chen Zhen quotes the Australian experience with the rabbit, which he explains devastated large tracts of agricultural land after its introduction to the continent by English settlers. "Australia, Australia, Australia. Bring a map with you tomorrow," says Chen Zhen's Mongolian host. "I want to see this place for myself. Then the next time someone says they want to wipe out our wolf population, I'll tell them about Australia."

While the text contains occasional references to the sexual appetites of Mongolian women, Wolf Totem is free from romance and sexual passages that provide the driving force of much fiction, both Western and Chinese. The narrative is carried forward by the complex and often confrontational relationships between Han Chinese and the Mongolians, and those Chinese like Chen Zhen who have developed a genuine sympathy with Mongolian approach to life and who become increasingly critical of trends in China proper, from the craziness of the Cultural Revolution through to the lack of democracy.

Despite being a well-educated graduate from the Chinese school system, Chen Zhen becomes strongly attached to the nomadic tradition, and frequently highlights the advantages of those civilizations derived from nomadic societies over the Han Chinese, peasant-based culture. "The most advanced people today are descendents of nomadic races. They drink milk, eat cheese and steak, weave clothes from wool... and compete in athletics. They cherish freedom and popular elections, and they have respect for their women..." The tensions generated by Chen Zhen's conflicts with those Chinese who are Party apparatchiks sent to the grasslands to introduce Chinese-style farming practices that are potentially fatal to the grasslands, give the narrative a compelling character, and form a natural context for the author's political message.

Despite --- or perhaps because of --- the highly skeptical approach it takes to Chinese cultural, social and political values Wolf Totem has become a best seller in China. It is now the second most widely read book in China since 1949. The only book that has surpassed it in circulation is The Selected Works of Mao Zedong!

The rich texture of the novel, with numerous references to Chinese and world history, and detailed accounts of life on the grasslands, reflects an enormous amount of research by the author, Jiang Rong. Indeed, he began to write the novel in 1971, and only in 1997 submitted his final draft to the publishers, who then required further editorial work before the book was published in 2004. Jiang Rong is a pseudonym, and despite enormous literary success, he has kept an extremely low profile. Indeed, for the first three years after Wolf Totem appeared only five people knew his real name --- Lu Jiamin --- and that he was a political economist at a major research institution. It is only in recent months, after winning the Man Asia Literary Prize in November last year, that he has become more open about his identity.

The English version of the novel, which was translated by the veteran American translator Howard Goldblatt, reads extremely smoothly. While he translates some of Jiang Rong's terms into reader-friendly English that differs from the original Chinese --- "wolf kings", for example, become "alpha males" --- the English narrative is both fluid and yet faithful to the original Chinese. Despite its length --- over 500 pages --- Wolf Totem is highly readable, and delivers important messages about a range of issues, from the problems of governance in modern China, through environmental degradation to the bonds that can develop between humans and animals.

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BODY OF LIES  By David Ignatius

David Ignatius's novel, Body of Lies, tells a fascinating tale of political and personal intrigue, but it also provides a compelling vision of the problems that the United States in particular and the West in general face in the Middle East.  Indeed, Body of Lies is an excellent example of how a genre novel, in this case a spy-come-love story, can illuminate the dynamics of international politics. 

Body of Lies tells the story of a CIA officer, Roger Ferris, who is posted to Iraq and then, after being injured by a terrorist RPG attack, transferred to the safer environment of Jordan, where he becomes the official link between the CIA and the Jordanian intelligence service.  The story centres on Ferris's elaborate plan to sow dissension within Al Qaeda by running a disinformation operation inspired by reading about a subterfuge that the British used before the allied invasion of Sicily to deceive the Germans into thinking they planned to invade Greece.  Ferris's plan involves planting a dead American, equipped with mobile phone cards and documents that make him look like a CIA operative, on the Afghan border as a way of feeding provocative disinformation to Al Qaeda about the mastermind behind a series of  its bombings in Europe.  But the operation is highjacked by the Jordanian secret service, which converts the CIA plot into a ruthless and bloody game.

David Ignatius is an Op-Ed writer for the Washington Post and an authority on Middle Eastern issues, and in Body of Lies he shows how the virulent anti-Western sentiment that seethes in Islamic communities is a product of the hatred and frustration caused by decades of violent oppression, often by Israel but also by various Arab regimes.  He persuasively depicts the way random violence destroys individual lives and disrupts  communities, and how this breeds a mindset that has few outlets except anti-Western violence.

Ignatius is less authoritative when describing the CIA and its covert procedures.  He knows the first three digits, 482, of the CIA telephone exchange and the general layout of its headquarters in Langley, Virginia.  He also understands the role of mobile phones and the internet in the hands of terrorists, how vulnerable the internet is to manipulation, and how mobile phones are targets for electronic surveillance by organizations like NSA.  But he displays a naïve sense of how the Agency staffs  embassies and who does what.  Ferris heads the CIA station in Jordan and liaises with the Jordanian intelligence service, but Ignatius also has him undertaking covert operations although he has already been declared as an intelligence officer to the local security service.  In reality that would never happen.  Undeclared CIA officers would do the dirty work. 

Ignatius's most amusing blunder is to make the station's operations chief, who would be undeclared to the host government, responsible for briefing CODELS, as Congressional Delegations are known in US foreign service lingo, on intelligence issues.  In fact few actions would be more likely to blow a CIA operative's cover than talking with Congressmen.  But such blemishes are far from fatal.  Ignatius knows much more about the modern Middle Eastern world than about the CIA, and this is where the strength of his novel lies.

Body of Lies is also a love story, and although this drives the novel's exciting denouement, it sometimes comes across as a trifle artificial, and raises one serious problem.  The romance involves Ferris and an American woman working for an NGO in Jordan.  As a declared CIA officer Ferris would know that his emotional intimacy with a woman could endanger her, a realization that should lead to some protective measures.  Ferris acts courageously, but only when it is too late.  I leave it for the reader to discover the consequences of Ferris's tardiness.

Many scenes in this book trigger intriguing questions about today's world.  For example, Ferris's scheme to deceive Al Qaeda involves a conservative Muslim architect meeting with a CIA-controlled former Afghan guerilla fighter in order to create the misleading impression that the two were in a conspiracy.  Such a ploy makes sense, and underscores the need to distinguish between the external appearance of a situation and the inner reality.  According to press reports at the time, before the 9/11 terrorist attacks an Al Qaeda representative met an Iraqi intelligence officer in Vienna.  Body of Lies leads the reader to wonder whether this meeting was designed by Usama bin Laden to direct American suspicions towards Iraq, the main secular state in the Arab world.  If so, bin Laden's plan worked perfectly, and he would be laughing wherever he is hiding today.

The value of Ignatius's novel is that it inspires this sort of question.

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CHINA ROAD:  A JOURNEY INTO THE FUTURE OF A RISING POWER By Rob Gifford, Bloomsbury, London, New York, and Berlin


These two books contain valuable insights into today's China, the way it operates, its interaction with the outside world, and the dilemmas it faces.  Both authors are journalists by profession, but their experiences are different and that is reflected in their approach.  Joshua Kurlantzick is a Washington-based journalist with close contacts to the US think-tank world, and experience as a Thai-speaking reporter based in Thailand.  Rob Gifford worked for six years as a reporter in China, after beginning to study Chinese in Beijing in 1987.  As a consequence, while both writers see China as a rising power, they view the dynamics that determine the directions China will take from different perspectives.   

Joshua Kurlantzick's Charm Offensive provides a well-researched account of China's evolving engagement with the international community since the mid 1990s.   He provides extensive data about how China is now involved in the world community, providing aid and investment, participating in multilateral diplomacy, promoting cultural activities, engaging in international business, and generating tourist flows.

Kurlantzick argues that China's international influence is growing as a consequence of its economic rise and astute use of "soft power", by which he means China's diplomatic emphasis on multilateral forums, aid to African countries and public relations.  He is concerned about the implications of this increase in Chinese influence for the United States' global role, but acknowledges that China's growing influence is also a function of Washington's policy blunders, including the invasion of Iraq and the downgrading of US public diplomacy.  He does not overplay the Chinese challenge to the US, and concludes that American military and diplomatic influence will remain unparalleled for many years yet. 

But Kurlantzick's thesis misinterprets much of what China is doing today.  He assumes that China took a decision to launch a "charm offensive" in order to increase its international influence.  In fact much of the diplomatic behaviour Kurlantzick describes is a direct result of the economic reforms that Deng Xiaoping introduced in the 1980s. 

The increasing number of Chinese tourists going overseas is a case in point.  Until 1985 Chinese were unable to get a passport unless they had some government recognized need for one.  Today any Chinese can apply for a passport and, if he or she has sufficient funds, travel overseas as a tourist.  This is not a consequence of a Chinese plan to make the outside world dependent on Chinese tourism, but of the desire of many Chinese to see the world and be photographed below the Eiffel Tower or in front of the Sydney Opera House.  Foreign governments encourage Chinese tourism and the Australian Tourist Commission puts in a big effort to attract Chinese tourists, with no negative consequences for Australia.

China's multilateral diplomacy is another example.  Kurlantzick implies that many of the regional multilateral forums that have emerged in East and South-East Asia, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asian Summit, and APEC, were somehow the product of a Chinese drive to create platforms on which it could exercise international influence.  In fact, regional countries, including Australia, created these forums in part to provide a multilateral context within which China could be engaged, and encouraged to come out of its Maoist cocoon

One of the main shortcomings of Charm Offensive is that the author evaluates Chinese foreign policy from an external perspective.  Kurlantzick is not a China scholar, and makes up for this by drawing on Washington think tank analysts, who are experts in their own fields but who usually have a limited sense of the big picture.  Consequently Charm Offensive does not display a strong sense of the enormous changes that have swept China since the 1980s and which shape China's involvement in the outside world and openness to external influence. 

While Kurlantzick analyses China's international profile, in China Road Rob Gifford uses the format of a travel journal recording a road trip across China from Shanghai to China's frontier with Kazakhstan to portray life in China today for the middle and upper classes as well as for the struggling peasants, who form the bulk of the population. Gifford paints a lively portrait of modern Chinese, and their sense that in general life is much better and promises much more than it did during the Maoist era.  He plays up the ubiquity of mobile phones --- over 400 million --- and nationwide broadband access and rightly points out that these are major drivers of change and integration with the global community.  He also records numerous conversations with Chinese he meets on his journey.  These conversations reflect the complex character of China today---some of his traveling companions are construction workers looking for work out west, others are students on their way to high school, one is a mobile phone salesman and some are Amway representatives selling cosmetics in China's western regions. 

Gifford also highlights the problems facing China, including corruption, the greed and high-handedness of local governments and the way their land grabs and illegal taxes on the peasantry cause serious tensions.  He describes the contradictions bedeviling China, from the conflict between nationalistic impulses and the desire to be accepted as part of the global community, the high level of personal freedom contrasted with minimal movement towards democratic political processes, and the enormous economic divide between the wealthy coastal provinces and China's much poorer inland provinces.  But for all the problems he identifies, he acknowledges that on many fronts China is doing much better than India, which despite a democratic political system has a per capita income half that of China's, and a literacy rate of 60% compared with China's 93%.

Gifford offers numerous insights into China, and has an enthusiasm for books written about China by other foreigners, but his grasp of Chinese history and culture is at times shaky.  This is apparent in his generalizations about traditional Chinese art, but is most obvious in his repeated reference to the revolution of 1911, which overthrew the last emperor, as the "1912 Revolution", despite the fact that the uprising began on 10 October 1911, and destroyed the imperial regime before the end of the year.  He also confuses some other factual issues, including describing as "rice wine" the highly alcoholic Chinese spirits like Mautai, which are distilled from either sorghum or corn, not rice.  But if Gifford wrote this passage the morning after a night drinking Mautai he should be excused!

These two books work well together, but given that Gifford delivers a direct picture of China today, I would read China Road first.  Charm Offensive is easier to assess once one has a feeling for the internal dynamics driving China.  

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SPY WARS:  MOLES, MYSTERIES, AND DEADLY GAMES  By Tennent H. Bagley,  Yale University Press, New Haven & London

Spy Wars tells the intricate and disturbing story of a KGB operative, Yuri Nosenko, who defected to the US in 1964, claiming that he had had access to Lee Harvey Oswald's KGB file and assuring the Americans that the Soviet regime was not behind the Kennedy assassination.  The author, Tennent 'Pete' Bagley, was the first CIA officer  meet Nosenko when the latter sought contact with the CIA during a short-term mission to Geneva in 1962.  Two years later in Washington Bagley became the case officer responsible for unravelling the truth and lies in Nosenko's claims about his work for the KGB, the circumstances of other defectors and agents, as well as Oswald's time in the USSR.  Bagley vividly portrays the challenging uncertainties of counter-intelligence work --- the task of penetrating foreign intelligence agencies and assessing their operations --- and provides an insider's perspective on the debates that raged within the CIA in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Bagley does not suggest that the Soviets were behind Kennedy's death, but focuses on the numerous inconsistencies in Nosenko's story and concludes that he must have been a plant intended to conceal KGB penetration of the CIA and the FBI.  Bagley does not seem to consider, however, the possibility that Nosenko might have simply been an alcoholic womanizer keen to escape to a much freer society.   Bagley and his CIA team held Nosenko a prisoner for three years, first in a safe house in suburban Maryland and then on a CIA base near Williamsburg in Virginia, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Bagley is now making a sincere effort to justify his handling of Nosenko.   

While the Nosenko case has little direct relevance to events today, Bagley's analysis of the KGB and its tactics of deception and violence provides a timely account of the Russian approach to the role of clandestine operations in domestic and international politics.  The assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London last November makes Bagley's treatment of the KGB's history especially relevant to understanding the Russia of Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB officer.

Bagley writes from a personal perspective, interspersing his recollection of Nosenko's comments and drinking habits with long passages on the history of Russian intelligence organisations.  In doing so he produces a highly readable history of the Soviet approach to intelligence, security and disinformation, and uncovers how a number of key Western agents within the Soviet system, including Pyotr Popov and Oleg Penkovsky, were caught.  But he tends to gloss over some of the key steps in the evolution of the Soviet intelligence system from the Cheka, through the NKVD, to the KGB, using frustrating phrases like "KGB (then called NKVD)" instead of exploring the politics behind each new phase.  Bagley also overlooks the enormous differences between the tightly controlled Soviet bloc, where politics permeated everything, and the liberal West, and the appeal of a Western life-style to potential Russian defectors.

But although Bagley's account of KGB methods is fascinating, he is less persuasive when tracking developments within the CIA.  His analysis of the internal history of the CIA reflects his own role as the advocate for the guilt of the most controversial KGB defector the Agency ever received, and this undermines the sense of detached analysis.  He is dismissive of William Colby, who took over the Agency in 1973 and introduced a new approach to counter-intelligence work and sacked James J. Angleton, the CIA's long-time counter-intelligence chief, who had supported Bagley's handling of the Nosenko case.

Bagley avoids discussing at length the controversies surrounding Angleton, who was known for his eccentric life-style and arcane theories about Soviet deception and manipulation of Western governments.  He perhaps calculates that any attempt to rehabilitate Angleton, whose problems included a close friendship with Kim Philby, the most famous KGB mole in British intelligence, would jeopardize his own case.

Bagley does not attempt to disguise his personal stake in the judgment history makes of the Nosenko case.  As a consequence allowances can be made for Bagley's underlying assumptions and Spy Wars can be read as a fascinating account of Soviet espionage with a rich supply of footnoted authorities and revealing  appendices.  The CIA ultimately exonerated Nosenko, but Bagley still believes that he was a plant intended to mislead the US in the secret war with Russia.  Readers must decide who is right, but Spy Wars is both an informative and challenging study of an extraordinarily obscure battlefield.

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THE TIANANMEN PAPERS  Compiled by Zhang Liang and edited by Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link with an Afterword by Orville Schell, Public Affairs, New York

The Tiananmen Papers is a tantalizing and yet difficult book to review.  It deals with a momentous theme, namely the massive demonstrations in Beijing and across China during May 1989, which showed that the old-style Communist regime no longer constituted a viable form of government in China.  And yet despite containing many hitherto unseen documents, the book reveals little that is new about the spectacle of courage and idealism that captured the attention of a global audience.  In fact, the most interesting aspects of this volume relate to issues that readers, like reviewers, can only speculate about: the origins of the documents, and the way they reached the West; and the political objectives of the Chinese who exported them to the United States.  Indeed, the answers to these questions could well be more illuminating than the documents themselves, which, despite extensive publicity and press hype, retell in the bland language of the Chinese bureaucracy an already well-known story.

The Tiananmen Papers comprise hundreds of documents, many of them published in edited or summary form, that relate to the Chinese government's decision to declare martial law and if necessary use force to end the student protests in Beijing during May 1989.  The documents are prefaced by a statement from "Zhang Liang", the pseudonym of a Chinese who represents himself as their compiler, set in context by one of the main editors, Professor Andrew J. Nathan of Columbia University, and followed by the comments of Orville Schell, dean of the School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, on the problems of authenticating Chinese documents.  There is also a comprehensive array of annotations that explicate details likely to be unfamiliar to non-specialist readers.

The documents vary considerably in character and sensitivity: some are foreign press reports that were presented to China's senior leaders; some are Chinese intelligence reports about the student demonstrations; some are accounts of informal discussions among China's senior policy makers; and others are records of formal politburo meetings.  Taken collectively these documents give a detailed picture of the information that was available to China's senior leaders and the debates they conducted as they grappled with the almost unprecedented challenge of a mass urban protest movement.

The student protests began with the death on 15 April 1989 of Hu Yaobang, a former Chinese Communist Party general secretary.  The documents record the government's attempts to manage popular expressions of sympathy with Hu, who had been dismissed from office for allegedly having been soft in responding to student demonstrations in 1987.  The papers then track the leaders' reactions as the crisis escalated when many students began a hunger strike and attracted an upsurge of support from the public at large.  

The level of alarm among the leaders increased towards mid May, when the demonstrations disrupted arrangements for the visit of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.  During this period Deng Xiaoping and a coterie of Party veterans who no longer held formal office combined with conservative members of the politburo to decide to declare martial law.  The then Party general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, opposed this course of action and, according to the papers, offered to resign and then went on sick leave.

The documents climax with accounts of the events surrounding the crackdown on 4 June, when PLA troops shot their way through barriers on the outskirts of Beijing, cleared Tiananmen Square, and created an atmosphere of terror that had not been known in China since the mid 1970s.  The papers conclude with the Central Committee meeting on 24 June that saw the formal removal of Zhao Ziyang and his replacement by Jiang Zemin, who until then had been the Party boss in Shanghai, where the demonstrations had been handled without violence.

The story that these papers relate is already widely known.  James Lilley, who as the US ambassador in Beijing during the Tiananmen period would be conversant with how much the US government knew of the crisis, commented to the press after their release that they seem to contain little new.  Moreover, the category of documents of most interest, namely those relating the discussions among the top Party leaders, were written by officials note-takers who have produced bland, bureaucratic accounts of the conversations being recorded.  Deng Xiaoping's personal office prepared the records of the politburo meeting at which Zhao Ziyang failed to prevent the decision to impose martial law and the gathering of elders that selected Jiang Zemin as Zhao's successor.  Both documents leave much that has to be read between the lines.

Even when read together with the supplementary editorial passages, the documents only illuminate one dimension of those events.  They include few insights into the state of mind of the student leaders and the calculations that were behind their actions.  At least part of the responsibility for the ultimate tragedy lies with a small group of students.  Instead of accepting a compromise that would have opened the way to greater liberalization, some of the protest leaders became so intoxicated with their sense of power that they pushed the campaign to the point where a violent end game became a likely outcome.

A more disturbing omission is the lack of information about the contacts between some of Zhao Ziyang's advisers and the student leaders.  Zhao's closest confidant, Bao Tong, developed a covert relationship with the student leaders, providing them with guidance and participating in some of their tactical deliberations.  The "Papers" include several pro-forma Party documents setting out the charges that led to Bao Tong's arrest on 27 May, but this aspect of the story is dealt with in sketchy terms, conveying the misleading impression that the accusations against Bao Tong were the groundless product of conspiracy theorists.

These omissions raise a broader issue.  The assumption that underpins The Tiananmen Papers is that the Tiananmen crisis was a consequence of a contest between a student democracy movement and an inflexible Communist gerontocracy.  In fact, some senior Party officials were seeking to exploit the movement to undermine if not destroy Deng Xiaoping's power.  Bao Tong was part of this group.  How far Zhao was implicated in the attack on Deng is unclear, but his statement in a public address during Gorbachev's visit to the effect that the Party central committee had passed a secret resolution giving Deng the final say on sensitive policy issues raises serious questions about his motives.  In The Tiananmen Papers Zhao justifies this revelation by arguing that he wanted to explain to all Chinese that Deng's continuing authority derived from a legitimate Party decision.  But by pointing the finger at Deng, Zhao seemed to be distancing himself from Deng, and hinting that the ugly phenomena the students were demonstrating against were somehow largely Deng's responsibility.   In many respects the Tiananmen crisis reflected a struggle for power between two groups with different approaches to reform: Deng and his allies wanted a measured reform program with economic change at the forefront, while those around Zhao wanted to accelerate the process irrespective of the impact on national stability.  Unfortunately these materials do not clarify Zhao's position, but that may simply reflect the confusion about policy issues that obtained among China's ruling elite at the time.

The Tiananmen Papers tell us little about China today.  The Chinese individual who provided these documents to the editors says that the Communist Party has strengthened its grip on society since Tiananmen.  In fact since the Tiananmen incident China has evolved into a substantially more liberal and open society.   The central government remains authoritarian, but Party control is much weaker and village elections are slowly encouraging a new and more democratic culture across China.  The concept of the rule of law, which is essential to any functioning democracy, has also become more deeply entrenched since 1989, and will be further reinforced by China's admission to the World Trade Organization later this year.  The personal lives of individual Chinese have also undergone a fundamental liberation, with Chinese now able to manage their own affairs with no more government interference than is the case in many Western states.   While China's rulers do not tolerate organized political opposition, the social controls that operated with great effect up to 1989 are now useless.  Despite its tragic outcome, the Tiananmen democracy movement ushered in a new and much more open period in Chinese history.

The compiler of the "Papers" insists on their authenticity and the editors have gone to considerable lengths to establish that they are genuine.  Given that the documents accord with what is already known about the events of 1989 there is no reason to regard them at large as fakes.  But questions remain about whether they have been modified with a view to projecting a specific view of events.  The fact that the documents came in the form of computer print out means that it would have been a technically simple task for whoever transcribed them onto a computer disc to change passages or to insert new material.  Orville Schell's Afterword on the issue of authenticity, which passes favorable judgment on one of my own books, sets out the difficulties of validation in clear and honest terms.  

Important questions also arise about the motivations of the compiler and those who helped him put this collection of papers together.  The sheer volume of the material involved suggests that the process of generating the papers had official connivance, but to what purpose remains a matter of speculation.  Some press commentary has interpreted the papers as aimed at Li Peng, who strongly advocated martial law.  This seems unlikely, however, given that Li Peng has never sought to disown his role in Tiananmen and in any case will retire in early 2003.  Other commentators have theorized that the papers are aimed at President Jiang Zemin, with a view to undermining his prospects of remaining in office after the Party Congress next year by highlighting that his initial selection as general secretary in the wake of the Tiananmen crisis did not follow Party procedures.  But since then Jiang's appointment has been endorsed by two Party Congresses, and in any case his legitimacy rests largely on his leadership record over the last decade, during which China has continued a program of rapid reform, maintained a high rate of economic growth, and consolidated its place in the international community.  The suggestion that Jiang could be vulnerable because he was tapped eleven years ago by some retired Party elders reflects a somewhat naïve view of the place of constitutional procedures in Chinese politics.

A further possibility is that the documents were put into the public domain with the blessing of those at the top in order to prepare the ground for a carefully controlled reassessment of the Tiananmen episode.  The documents paint a more positive picture of Deng Xiaoping's role than is generally assumed, underscore his profound commitment to reform, and show all the senior leaders to have been sincerely concerned about the welfare of the students, keen to avoid violence, and sympathetic with many of the students demands, such as their criticism of corruption.   But while this is a plausible interpretation, it still remains speculative.  In short, The Tiananmen Papers should be read as valuable historical documents with an as yet obscure relevance to the China of the Twenty-first Century.

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RIVER TOWN by Peter Hessler.  Harper Collins, New York

Since the nineteenth century, when Westerners began to visit China and in many cases live there for years at a time, there has been steady flow of books by non-China experts that provide significant insights into different aspects of China and its way of life.  In recent years this literary sub-category has exploded, with numerous China-based foreigners writing books about their experiences there.  Peter Hessler's River Town is part of this tradition, but it stands out from many recent exercises in Sino-memoirs by virtue of the fact that it provides a first-hand, detailed account of life in a small town that few foreigners ever visit and which has little contact with the outside world.  

Peter Hessler worked as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English and American literature in Fuling from August 1996 until June 1998.  Located on the Yangtse River near the eastern border of Sichuan Province, Fuling suffers from debilitating industrial pollution --- which seriously harmed the author's health --- , has a population of only 200,000, and is a far cry from the boomtowns that flourish in China's coastal provinces.  Hessler describes in language that is in turns lyrical, reflective and dramatic a segment of Chinese society that is marginal to the history of contemporary China and yet typical of much of the country.   

Despite the marginal character of Fuling, and Hessler's lack of any formal training as a Sinologist, River Town is a fascinating, in-depth picture of the way Deng Xiaoping's policies of economic reform and opening to the outside world are transforming every corner of Chinese life.  Hessler was well prepared for his work in Fuling by having studied English literature at Princeton and Oxford, and having developed a strong dislike of the superstructure of theoretical concepts that Western university critics insist are necessary to understand literature.  He was thus deeply impressed by the direct and personal manner in which his Chinese students respond to the diverse array of foreign literature, ranging from Beowulf through Shakespearean sonnets to Robert Frost's poetry, that Hessler and another young American teacher introduced to them.

This preference for responding directly to art and to life imparts an honesty and immediacy to his writing, and as a consequence River Town provides a vivid picture of the China Hessler came to know.  Although at times this approach produces long narrative passages, and at almost 400 pages River Town is a sizeable book, the reader is richly rewarded by sharing a view of China that is pragmatic and empirical.  Hessler seeks to explain those aspects of Chinese behavior that surprise or even shock him, but unlike so much political science writing about China, he never tries to substantiate predetermined theoretical judgments.

River Town deals with many issues.  It depicts the explosion of personal freedoms that has been triggered by the reform process and the impact of this phenomenon on small towns like Fuling.  This process has many manifestations: the thriving private restaurants and noodle shops where Hessler often eats; the beauty parlors and karaoke bars where "moneyed young males" look for prostitutes; local real estate tycoons; young Chinese making their own career choices; intellectuals debating how "democratic" China is; and people in general shaping their own lives in a way that they considered impossible before Deng's reform program.  Hessler's Fuling is consequently a lively, boisterous place in which he develops friendships with his students, shop assistants, restaurant owners, the local Catholic priest, and even a peasant family in the nearby countryside.

At the same time Hessler highlights the problems that have been generated by Deng's reforms.  These include the difficult choices women now face, offered many new opportunities while still expected to abide by a traditional set of Confucian principles.   Another major problem is the continuing intrusion of obsolescent political notions into non-political activity.  Indeed, one of the most frustrating aspects of life in Fuling is what Hessler calls a tendency "to politicize every thing, turning every piece of literature and every scrap of history" to the Party's purposes, producing "twisted history" and "propaganda-laced textbooks."  River Town offers numerous examples of how the Communist legacy continues to obstruct and pervert China's forward momentum.

River Town also illuminates a more enduring problem, namely the difficulty that China has in dealing with the outside world.  As his Chinese language skills improve, Hessler acquires a variety of Chinese friends, but he some times has trouble dealing with Chinese when they are part of collective entities.  The core of these difficulties is the Chinese aversion to being embarrassed or exposed as inferior or wrong, and when this leads to "anti-foreign harassment" it is almost always the manifested by young males. River Town suggests a parallel between this anti-foreign behavior and the macho drinking competitions that occur among Chinese men at banquets, when they drink almost "each other into the hospital."

This dimension of Hessler's experience is disconcerting, but ultimately manifestations of xenophobia flow from anger and frustration at losing face or being forced to feel ashamed, not from intrinsic hostility to foreigners as such.  These nasty encounters are not the consequence of China's adventure with Communism, but reflect a problem with deeper historical roots, stemming from China's sense of itself as a unique civilization that can ignore international customs and standards.  Even so, these negative emotions are essentially passive: they reflect frustration, not an appetite for territorial expansion or a desire to impose a Chinese dispensation on others.

During his college vacations Hessler travels to other remote corners of China, including Xinjiang and Shaanxi and he weaves these journeys into his book.  These experiences blend naturally with his vision of Fuling, underscoring that the spectacle he sees in Fuling is typical of many other distant corners of the country.  And it is this dimension of River Town, and the way it provides such a penetrating picture of daily life in such large tracts of China, that makes it a valuable book for anyone interested in assessing where the Chinese people are headed and what stands in their way.

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CHINA AND THE AMERICAN DREAM by Richard Madsen, University of California Press

Relations between Washington and Beijing look set to remain a zone of conflict for the foreseeable future, as one irritant succeeds another.  This disturbing prospect gives special point to Richard Madsen's China and the American Dream, a provocative study of the forces that over recent decades have distorted American perceptions of China.  

Much of the tension in Sino-American relations derives, of course, from the vast differences between the two countries.  But the troubles that plague the relationship also stem from deeply-entrenched biases.  While most Westerners assume that prejudices inevitably arise in authoritarian states like China, they often reject suggestions that vested interests blur their own vision as well.  Coming to terms with this realization requires a mix of honesty and humility, which presumably is why Madsen has sub-titled his book "a moral enquiry".

Madsen's rhetorical starting point is the Tiananmen massacre.  He asks why so many Americans got it wrong.  In looking for answers he traces the evolution of American interpretations of China back to the 1960s.  His conclusion is that American institutions --- academic, political and religious --- have repeatedly misread the Chinese because of a desire to find in China proof of the "American dream" --- the liberal myth that freedom of choice was a universal remedy for the problems inherent in the human condition.  

Madsen examines how some of America's main institutions have interacted with China.  None of them come through unscathed.  Politicians offer the easiest targets.   He shows how Richard Nixon, despite his talk of the opening to China being "geopolitical", portrayed it as establishing a link with people who embraced the same universal principles as Americans.  Instead of admitting that China was ruled by a brutal dictator, Nixon fell under the spell of Mao Zedong at the very moment when Chinese were beginning to see through Mao's ruthless despotism.  

Madsen also takes a hard look at America's China experts.  He documents how influential sinologists, such as John King Fairbank, remained silent about China's dark side lest they provoked Chinese reactions that damaged the prospects for academic contact with China.

Madsen's most revealing vignette involves the Ford Foundation.  While spending millions to train Chinese in law, economics, and other subjects that propagate the "American dream", the Ford Foundation's China office marked its envelopes "open here for postal inspection" --- in effect telling those Chinese whom it was seeking to indoctrinate in the ways of the West to accept the intrusive practices of China's security apparatus.   

But Madsen's focus on the "American dream" as the root cause of misunderstanding leads him to ignore the effect on American perceptions of China's tradition of political manipulation.  China's classical text on strategy, Sunzi's Principles of War, decrees that all warfare is based on deception.  The same could be said of Chinese diplomacy --- a point that Sunzi contemplated when he said that the aim of war was to win without having to fight.

Nor does Madsen examine the flaws in the glass through which American scholars have looked at China.  One of the intellectual weaknesses in U.S. China-watching stems from the limited perspective of the Americans who dominated China studies during the 1930s and 40s.  The sinologists of those days drew on their work in China with native scholars, many of whom were steeped in Confucianism.  This cooperation popularized a notion of China as a society ruled by a high-minded literati --- in effect customizing Voltaire's vision of an oriental paradise governed by a sage-king for Harvard and Yale.

But this concept of China was only partly valid.  It played down the entrepreneur, the gangster and the gambler; more importantly, it ignored the magical underpinnings of Chinese culture.  As a consequence Richard Wilhelm's translation of the I Ching or Book of Changes was not published in the United States until 1950, and even today is regarded as a tool for fortune tellers rather than a key to understanding how Chinese perceive the universe.

Despite these omissions, Madsen provides a fresh look at the forces that have shaped American thinking about China.  He is less persuasive, however, when he tries to explain events in China in terms of a Chinese infatuation with the "American dream".   This is not surprising.  China is a complex society with little in common with America.   Madsen frequently has to indulge in special pleading --- claiming wrongly that Chinese only became ill-mannered on public transport after American influence began to grow or that a common Chinese transliteration for AIDS reads "Love Capitalism Disease" ---in order to adapt his thesis to Chinese reality.

Madsen should have saved himself the trouble of considering the Chinese end of the equation.  He had already performed a valuable service, helping Americans gain a less distorted vision of China.

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A GREAT WALL by Patrick Tyler, Public Affairs, New York.

Patrick Tyler's A Great Wall would be a significant book at any time.  His subject is one of the most important processes of the last third of the twentieth century, namely the reestablishment of contact between China and the United States.  But the controversies that have recently enveloped US-China relations, from the furor over Chinese espionage through to the after-effects of Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's well-rehearsed throw-away remark that Taiwan had a sort of "state-to-state" relationship with the mainland, have made it especially relevant.  By providing the historical background to today's China issues, Tyler underscores the need to recognize where Beijing and Washington were in 1969 and how their relations have developed since then.

Tyler, a former New York Times correspondent in Beijing, begins his account in the late 1960s, when armed clashes on the Sino-Soviet border made President Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger realize that China could both partner Washington in the struggle to contain Moscow's global ambitions, and help extricate the United States from the Vietnam War.

Tyler devotes one third of his book to the Nixon era.  This allocation of space reflects Tyler's assessment that Nixon cut through one of the great knots of twentieth century politics.  While Nixon's motivations were mixed, his diplomacy "ended the isolation of the People's Republic and ended America's isolation from China" and represented a profound historical turning point.

Tyler, who justifiably calls his book an "investigative history", digs deep into the evolution of Nixon's China policy.  He details Kissinger's journeys to Beijing, Nixon's concerns over Taiwan and the conservative Americans who backed Chiang Kai-shek, and the complications that flowed from the rivalry between Kissinger and Secretary of State William P. Rogers.

Rivalries within Administrations is a recurring theme.  The turf battles of the Carter period, when National Security Adviser Brzezinski duelled with Secretary of State Vance, continued under Reagan, when National Security Adviser Richard Allen and Secretary of State Al Haig fought over China policy.

Tyler tracks the evolution of Sino-US relations.  The cooling of the Ford years; the establishment of diplomatic relations by Carter and the introduction of some new apparatus, the Taiwan Relations Act.  While this legislation helped insure Taiwan's security, it did not prevent Reagan, the most conservative of all presidents, from signing the 1982 communiqué which limited the quality and quantity of US defense exports to Taiwan.  

The Reagan period was the high point of US-China relations.  The Tiananmen crisis and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union transformed the situation: strategic competition with Moscow was replaced by human rights and proliferation as the key factors shaping the relationship.  And under Clinton Taiwan has reemerged as the determining issue, with Lee Teng-hui's manipulation of American sentiment made all the more effective by the fact that the president has "little time for foreign policy".

Tyler paints fascinating portraits of the personalities who shaped US-China relations.   Dr Kissinger is the dominant player: he was central to the high level diplomacy that led to the opening, but emerges from Tyler's account as a brilliant yet flawed figure.  He saw the US-Soviet-China triangle with a hard-nosed clarity, and yet developed a fascination with China's charming premier, Zhou Enlai, that was only matched by distaste for "that nasty little man", as he called Deng Xiaoping, who had an even cooler grasp of power than did Kissinger himself.

Tyler's portrait of James Lilley captures the continuity in personalities that runs through the story, just as China was a recurring theme in the lives of many of those involved in the relationship.  Born in China, Lilley was successively an officer in the CIA's operations directorate, the Agency's first station chief in Beijing, the US unofficial representative in Taiwan, and then ambassador in Beijing, where he kept the relationship afloat after the Tiananmen massacre.  And Lilley was just one of many, including Arthur Hummel and Stapleton Roy, for whom China represented a central element of their lives.

Tyler illuminates the lives of the Americans involved in his story, but he throws little light on the Chinese side.  His subtitle --- six presidents and China --- explains a US focus, but the forces that drove the Chinese are perhaps even more important for Americans to understand.  Tyler ignores the extensive Chinese literature, and instead draws on the highly suspect memoirs of Mao's one-time physician, Li Zhisui.  

For Tyler the "great wall" is a metaphor for the cultural and political barriers that separate US politicians from their Chinese counterparts.  But less formidable barriers seem to separate Chinese reality from Western journalists who report on China, and Tyler makes some mistakes of detail about the Chinese side.  Nonetheless he sends a clear message that China is committed to a nation-wide pursuit of modernization, and that China is far too complex an entity to be handled with one-dimensional policies that fixate on human rights, trade, Taiwan, proliferation, or one-upmanship among US officials.  And this is an important message, and a book worth reading.

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SEASON OF HIGH ADVENTURE by Bernard S. Thomas, University of California Press

Edgar Snow was one of the most important Western journalists to write on China this century.  His impact on American perceptions of China during the 1930s and early 1940s was profound.  In later years he encountered insurmountable difficulties in making Chinese reality accord with his idealistic vision, and had compromised many of his liberal values by the time he died.  Bernard Thomas' Season of High Adventure tells both sides of Snow's story, portraying a man who provided brilliant insights into Chinese Communism and yet who was ultimately mesmerized by a country that he reported on, and by its charismatic leader, Mao Zedong.

Snow was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1905 and spent his early life there, moving to New York to work in advertising after a brief stint at the famed Missouri School of Journalism.  A taste for adventure inspired him to begin what he expected to be a journey round the world.  But when he arrived in Shanghai he was fascinated by the vibrancy of the city and took a job on a local magazine.

China was in the throes of a chaotic transformation and Snow became engrossed by its struggle for modernization.  Daily events made him a critic of the corrupt Kuomintang regime and its despotic leader, Chiang Kai-shek.  Snow reported what he saw of China's problems as honestly as he could.  A rich travelogue style and the energetic charm that gets scoops earned him journalistic success and an international reputation.

Like other foreign journalists before him, however, Snow also sought a role on the vast stage of Chinese politics.  He formed supportive relationships with prominent dissidents; he encouraged student radicals to demonstrate in Beijing in December 1935; and sponsored the Indusco or Gungho movement, which sought to energize China's war effort by covering China with industrial cooperatives.  Snow's compulsion to shape events and act as a bridge builder between China and the United States later led him to write to President Truman to offer to serve as an emissary.

But Snow's lasting fame derived from writing Red Star Over China, a gripping report of a journey to the territory in north-western China where the Communists established their headquarters at the end of the Long March.  Snow's book was the first eye-witness portrait by any Westerner of the newly-installed Communist leader, Mao Zedong, and helped disperse the fog of propaganda surrounding the Communists that had been generated by the Kuomintang and Western colonial powers in China.

Snow's political activism never had the impact he hoped for and even his reporting on Mao and the early Communist movement had shortcomings.  He never portrayed the rather boy scout-like atmosphere of the Communist community and saw the ferocity of its later passions.  The Communists had even then displayed a penchant for bloody feuds and purges --- both in Shanghai and in areas under Mao's control.  Snow saw no value in investigating crimes committed by the progressive forces.  In later years his greatest weakness was his inability to write about Communist brutality, which mounted in intensity after Mao gained control of the entire mainland, climaxing in the hell on earth of the Cultural Revolution.

Snow left China in 1941 and when he returned as Mao's guest in 1960 he found a very different society from that he had known during the 1930s.  Only permitted by his hosts to have contact with select officials, on this and his two subsequent visits he saw little apart from those aspects on China that the regime wanted to show him.

This contrasted with his dealings with the Communists in the 1930s.  The casual conversations he had with Mao's colleagues, recorded in Random Notes on Red China, even today offer valuable information.  He was frustrated by the limitations imposed by the 1960s, , but his hopes for China and his person al feelings for Mao led him to try to force irritating pieces of information to fit into his broader vision of a China creating a new socialist man.  When he died in 1972 Snow had long ceased to produce the bold perceptions of Chinese reality that had been his hallmark in the 1930s.

Thomas focuses on the events in Snow's professional and personal life and does not explore in depth why Snow was silent about the dark side of Chinese Communism.   But Thomas's account is far from an apologia, and he identifies the inconsistencies in Snow's outlook and his difficulty in trying to adjust to the rapid flow of international events.  Indeed, Thomas's factual narrative of Snow's career will be of value to anyone seeking to comprehend the deeper problems of US/China relations and why Westerners have had difficulty understanding China and its Communist rulers.

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An article written for the Washington Post on the anniversary of the failed 1898 reform movement in Beijing.

Literature and politics have usually been closely intertwined in China.  Indeed, so strong was the connection between literature and government that the Chinese selected bureaucrats on the basis of their mastery of classical literature.  Consequently many of China's most renowned poets and essayists were also officials, combining the career of creative writer with that of administrator or magistrate in a way rarely emulated in the West.  

But just as officials have often been men of letters, so writing has at times been politicized.  In the third century BC the man who created the first united Chinese state, Qin Shihuang, sought to burn all books because he saw literature as potentially subversive to his rule.  And this is not just a characteristic of ancient history.   Throughout the last hundred years the linkage between literature and China's process of adjusting to the pressures of modernization has been an important factor shaping Chinese experience.  Indeed, the interplay between writers and politicians that would help shape modern China was foreshadowed a century ago next Thursday, June 11,   which is the hundredth anniversary of the Hundred Days Reform Movement, the first attempt by a Chinese ruler to modernize China to counter the threat presented by the Western powers and their Asian acolyte, Japan.

Some of China's more innovative provincial governors had made piece-meal changes to the Chinese system during the previous sixty years, but the 1898 reforms represented a new root-and-branch approach to dealing with China's weaknesses.  The twenty-seven year old Guangxu Emperor took power into his own hands, ignored the courtiers who had previously managed policy, and issued edicts that sought to abolish the moribund yet sacrosanct institutions that impeded China's progress.

But the Emperor's task was Gargantuan.  As implied by the name it is now known by --- the Hundred Days Reform---his attack on tradition did not last long.  On September 21 a Manchu general --- China was still governed by a Manchurian elite that had conquered the country in 1644 --- staged a coup d'etat, detained the Emperor and installed the Emperor's aunt, who had been a concubine to an earlier emperor, as regent with the title of Empress Dowager.  The deposed Emperor continued to study international affairs and learn English, but he was never able to revive his dream of reform: the day after the Empress Dowager died in 1908 court officials announced that the Emperor had died the day before.  The cause of his death remains a mystery, but the timing was suspiciously convenient for the Manchu conservatives.

Although the Emperor's radical plans failed, his call for change was not without effect.   The events of that summer a century ago still stand out as one of the boldest attempts by a Chinese ruler to overcome the weaknesses that rendered China vulnerable to the industrialized West.  The Emperor's brief campaign was the first step on the path that lead to the modernization program that a Chinese ruler of our own times, Deng Xiaoping, launched in 1978.

The tense political drama of the Hundred Days Reform has tended to obscure the fact that it was largely inspired and shaped by some brilliant young writers and scholars.   Toward the end of the nineteenth century Chinese intellectuals began to denounce traditional beliefs as the source of China's inability to defend itself.   These men experimented with new literary forms, advanced fresh ideas, and fostered an atmosphere that made a reevaluation of China's culture thinkable.

But some of them did more than that.  Kang Youwei, a philosopher who developed an iconoclastic interpretation of the Confucian classics, and Liang Qichao, an erudite writer, became participants in the politics of the day.  Their writings paved the way for the Emperor's revolutionary program.  They were so closely associated with the Emperor that when he was arrested they had to flee for their lives.  Kang escaped to Hong Kong; Liang was smuggled out of China by Japanese diplomats.  Other young intellectuals associated with them, including Kang's younger brother, were executed.   This marked the beginning of a century during which literature and politics became intertwined, and during which writing about China's problems was a dangerous occupation.

Disillusioned by the collapse of the Hundred Days Reform movement and at odds with some of the revolutionaries who followed them, Kang and Liang gradually withdrew from radical politics: Kang eventually devoted himself to cosmology while Liang retreated into the labyrinth of Chinese historical studies.

But new writers emerged.  The next outstanding figure to rail brilliantly against China's backwardness was Lu Xun, a short story writer and essayist whose satire stripped away the facade of moral superiority that disguised China's failures.  His 1921 novella, The True Story of Ah Q, remains one of the most devastating exposes of the flaws in China's traditional mentality.  During the 1920s Lu Xun wrote brilliant fiction and won enormous prestige among China's youth.  But as the difficulty of changing China's system became more apparent he increasingly turned to politics.  By the time he died in 1936 Lu Xun had in effect allied himself with the communists who, recognizing his propaganda value, courted him assiduously.  But as he flirted with the Party he fell silent as a writer, perhaps sensing that ideological consistency prevented good writing.  Lu Xun's experience did not deter other writers, many of whom adopted left-wing positions, although by no means all were communists.

The forces that compelled so many literary figures to turn political did not just influence Chinese.  Many Western writers who lived in China were also drawn into the intense world of Chinese politics.  Some of these men and women simply reported events around them, but many supported one faction or another.  Americans were at the forefront of this trend.  Harold Isaacs backed the Trotskyites, Agnes Smedley the communists, and Edgar Snow the left-leaning liberals who opposed the conservative Kuomintang but rejected the authoritarianism of the communists.  And as their involvement with politics deepened, these writers tended to devote more energy to denouncing their Chinese opponents, and each other, than to explaining China.   Harold Isaacs, for example, sarcastically dismissed Edgar Snow in a 1933 review article as "the typical American liberal, with all the flaccidity that term implies", invective that underscores how bitter these feuds could become.

Not all foreign writers in China espoused left-wing causes and several served as aides to conservative politicians.  Two Australians worked their way into China's ruling establishment: George Ernest Morrison, known as "Morrison of Peking" because of his reporting for the London Times from the Chinese capital during the siege of the legation quarters by the Boxer rebels, served as adviser to Yuan Shikai, a warlord who helped overthrow the Manchus and then sought to install himself as emperor.  W.H. Donald, a journalist from Melbourne, had a long career as a foreign adviser to Chinese politicians and warlords, finally becoming one of Chiang Kai-shek's counsellors.  And as the communist threat to the United States-backed Chiang Kai-shek increased numerous American writers sought to advertise his virtues to the readers at home.   And after the communist victory in 1949 there was a stream of books denouncing Mao Zedong and his regime.

The Cultural Revolution spawned another outpouring of Western literature about China.  Some writers portrayed the Cultural Revolution as a period of totalitarian madness, but other Westerners fell under the spell of Chairman Mao's "thoughts" and returned from trips to China with starry-eyed stories about liberating the human spirit. Those who visited China at the time included some celebrated writers like Alberto Moravio, who produced books that revealed more about the authors and their literary tricks than about China.

The danger of being sucked into the whirlpool of debate over China still exists today.   Some Western writing about China continues to be distorted by the author's sense of participating in a struggle over China's fate, often conditioned by fashionable political perceptions.  A recent example was The Coming Conflict With China, in which the authors, Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro, presented a polemical view of China's future behavior toward the United States.  Published at the height of the "China threat" hysteria, their book showed little understanding of the constraints imposed on China by its economic difficulties, its dependence on the West for technology, and its need for a stable environment.

Of course, much Western writing on China has been free from the imprint of politics.   Foreign writers have produced some wonderful and informative books about China that have not been filtered through ideological prisms.  Harold Acton's Peonies and Ponies, a comedy of manners set in 1930s Beijing, recorded the subtle artifice that pervaded relations between Westerners and Chinese at the time.  That Acton's picture was still recognizable during the 1980s, after China had experienced five decades of war and revolution, underscored how perceptively he had delineated the society around him.

This Western literature also includes some spectacular works of scholarship, such as Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China and Robert van Gulik's Sexual Life in Ancient China.  China has also inspired an enormous volume of autobiographical material written by missionaries, merchants and sundry officials and diplomats who usually lived in China's foreign settlements.  Most of these authors had no more insight into China than literary skill.  But some of these books are brilliant exceptions: Ralph Shaw's Sin City , a lubricous account of life in pre-war Shanghai, and the first part of J.G.Ballard's The Kindness of Women, which sees China through the eyes of a foreign adolescent, convey the essence of life in specific parts of China.

Taken as a whole, however, Western books about China tend to be disappointing as aids to understanding China.  In the case of those writers who were simply recording their personal experiences this is not surprising: no matter how perceptive, no individual's story is likely to explain an enormous and complex society such as China.   And too many of the talented writers who took an interest in China were seduced by the idea that they could somehow change China's fate.  They championed political creeds, which presumed stereotypes about how China behaved, rather than looking beyond the slogans of the day in order to convey how Chinese see life, and how they view dealings with the outside world.  

It is the impact of literature on relations between China and the West that most causes one to lament the politicized and consequently superficial character of much Western writing on China.  That D.H. Lawrence painted a misleadingly idealized portrait of Etruscan society was inconsequential; the Etruscans had vanished long before Lawrence wrote.  But China has not vanished.  In strategic, economic and political terms China is a society that the West cannot afford to get wrong.

Understanding China is not easy for Westerners.  In some respects it is still a self-contained civilization --- indeed, China is now the only extant classical civilization --- which is selectively integrating Western ideas with its own distinct view of the way the world functions.  But the literature that has been produced since the Hundred Days Reform suggests that Western writers too rarely realize this.  

The impact of globalization makes China --- and relations with it --- even more important to the West, but it also perpetuates the illusion that outsiders can change China.   Whether writers in the West will lay the foundations for a more balanced approach remains to be seen.  But the literature of the past century suggests that overcoming the gulf in understanding between China and the West will take some time yet.

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© John Byron - 2019