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Friday, November 1, 1991

A Reviewers Notebook: China Misperceived

Steven W. Mosher begins his study of China Misperceived: American Illusions and Chinese Reality (New York: A New Republic Book, 260 pages, $19.95 doth) by plunging us into Nixon’s dilemma of 1972. President Nixon, after dispatching Henry Kissinger to mainland China to get the feel of things, faced up to a geopolitical fact that if Moscow and Beijing were ever to make active common cause against the West, America would have a two-front struggle on its hands. To avert this possibility almost any mendacity was justified. But what Mosher calls the “cruelty and violence of the Cultural Revolution” precluded easy acceptance by Americans that Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai were anything other than monsters. Nixon’s problem was, first, to convince scores’ of print and TV journalists that Mao and Zhou were not devils. He could then try to change the image of mainland China in the average American’s eyes.

This was no easy task, given the fact that some 30 million people, Red Guards included, had died in famines that might have been mitigated. Mao and Zhou were as culpable in trying to hide evidence of famine as Stalin had been in the case of the Ukraine.

It took two huge planes to carry White House and State Department personnel and 87 print and TV journalists to Beijing with Nixon in 1972. Included among the journalists were Bill Buckley and Theodore White. Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, and Barbara Walters were also aboard. It was Buckley who provided the inspiration for Mosher to take a close look at “the decidedly gentle treatment accorded Mao’s China by Nixon’s press corps.”

Buckley should have been well aware of Nixon’s long-term goal of separating Red China from Red Russia. But Nixon’s effusiveness in greeting Mao and Zhou was gagging. And the deference paid by Nixon to the “revolutionary opera . . . the brainchild of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who became China’s de facto cultural czar during the Cultural Revolution,” was strange. Nixon had called the radical leftist SDS, or Students for a Democratic Society, “campus bums.” But that was in America. Now, in his determination to ingratiate himself with Mao and Jiang Qing, he found himself “warbling” that the operatic play The Red Detachment of Women, which had been staged for Nixon’s benefit, was “great.” “It was a powerful message and intended for that . . . excellent theater and excellent dancing and music,” Nixon told a reporter. And what was the “message”? Only that poor peasant daughters should run off to join the Red Army.

Theodore White of Time and Bill Buckley sat next to each other on the way over to China. “As White’s ideological opposite,” says Mosher, “.,. Buckley brought a different set of presuppositions to bear on the People’s Republic of China. . . . unlike White, he believed that Nixon’s overture to China was not only not in the best interests of the United States, it was positively immoral given the enormity of the crimes of those with whom Nixon would be meeting.” So who was “misper-ceiving” what? If you believed in the fellow traveler’s picture of the world, you would be on Whitens side. But if Red China, despite Tiananmen Square, is destined to go capitalist with the rest of the world, the big long-term “misperception” will be with the Deng Communists.

Mosher goes back to beginnings. Throughout the Middle Ages Marco Polo’s tales of the “mysterious East” fascinated Europe. But it was not until Jesuit missionaries went to China at the turn of the 17th century that the West learned anything about China. The Jesuits hoped to convert the Chinese to Christianity. But the conversions seemed to work in reverse.

The prestige of missionaries was revived after 1928, when Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek married Wellesley graduate Soong Mei-ling and announced his conversion to Methodism. With a Christian couple running China, Protestant missionaries seemed to have succeeded where the Jesuits had failed.

Pearl Buck, the daughter of missionaries, did more than anyone else to provide a picture of China acceptable to Americans. Her best-selling novel The Good Earth, and the movie that was made of it, reached tens of millions. Buck, says Mosher, created “a new stereotype of rural Chinese as a strong and attractive people of the soft, kind and generous toward the young, respectful toward the elderly, and dignified, even cheerful, in misfortune.”

This image of the Chinese was consonant with what became known as the Yenan picture. Mao had led his long march to Yenan in northern China, a place that was duly mythologized as the capital of an agrarian people who were about to rescue China from Chiang, who had to flee the Maoists to Taiwan. It was in Yenan that the Communist Party of China perfected “the array of techniques to handle short-term visitors—parachute journalists—which they later used to such effect during Nixon’s visit.”

Guenther Stein of the Christian Science Monitor described “the men and women pioneers of Yenan” as “new humans . . . .” They constituted “a brand new well integrated society, that has never been seen before anywhere.” Harrison Forman of the New York Herald Tribune and London Times was so impressed by small-scale private enterprise in Yenan that he said the Chinese Communists did not practice Communism at all. Theodore White spoke of “agrarian liberals” in his dispatches, only to have the malapropism edited out by the perceptive Whittaker Chambers, then the foreign editor of Time.

The Nixon trip, even with all its nonsense, was justified, but things have changed with the collapse of Communism in most of the world. There is nocall for the U.S. to worry about a war on two fronts as long as the Soviets are distracted by trouble in the Baltic states and in the Ukraine and Great Russia itself. George Bush is playing it cagey—he does not make excuses for Deng and Tiananmen Square. But he does not assume the right to condemn Deng as long as there is a chance for significant change in China under Deng’s successor, whoever he may be.

All things considered, Mosher has written a fascinating book.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.